- Analects for Schoolgirls and Underemployed Warriors: Testing a Cultural History of Confucianism in Japan
In a scene from Yamada Yōji’s 山田洋次 acclaimed and rather carefully researched historical film Tasogare Seibei たそがれ清兵衛 (Twilight Samurai, 2002), the main character, Seibei, sits by the fireplace of his humble home making small bamboo ware to supplement his meager stipend as a low-ranking retainer, when his young daughter joins him to do a review of her classes. She starts reciting a passage, in the monotonous incantatory fashion that we would associate with a Buddhist priest delivering his sutras. But the schoolgirl’s primer is Lunyu 論語— or Rongo in the Japanese reading—known in Western translations as the Analects of Confucius, one of the Four Books of the canon that we call “Confucian.” Seibei recognizes the text instantly and promptly falls into the same rhythm humming along: Sōji-notamawaku-ware-hibini-mitabi-waga-mi-wo-kaerimiru . . . 曾子曰く吾れ日々に三たび吾が身を省る.1
The vignette is of course fictitious but to the best of our knowledge reflects fairly well something from actual history. Professor Rai Tsutomu 頼惟勤 (1922–1999), an important historian of Japanese [End Page 181] Confucianism in his own right and a descendant of such Edo-period literati luminaries as Rai Shunsui 頼春水 and Rai San’yō 頼山陽, has left an intriguing audio recording of the practice of sodoku 素読 (lit. bare reading), or reading whose purpose is not comprehension but automatization of the rhythm and phrasing of the text. We hear him deliver a chapter from Mencius, another of the Four Books, in the diction that he once drilled at home as a boy about the age of the fictitious Seibei’s daughter.2 Apart from the voice slightly shaky with age, he sounds quite like her.
The Rongo scene does not move the film’s plot, but sodoku probably did move real history. As of the early nineteenth century, given the structure of school curricula and reading exercises for transposing classical Chinese into formal Japanese, the texts that the most people around the Japanese archipelago and across generations could be expected to know, often by heart, were some of the classics that we now designate “Confucian.” Come the crises of the mid-nineteenth century, in the united states of the Tokugawa, thousands of real, poor, low-ranking samurai retainers like Seibei, as well as sons and even a number of daughters of parents of any class who could afford the basic tuition, shared certain vocabularies and implicit protocols for making moral sense of their situation and that of their polity. The shogunate’s officials as well as the rebels who plotted its overthrow, the first students heading abroad to study Western ways as well as the barbarian-repelling terrorists who set fire to foreign legations, the first industrial entrepreneurs as well as the first economic emigrants fleeing the areas of the archipelago marginalized by the new dispensation— they all were more likely to share the language of the Confucian Classics than any other educational and intellectual background.
Sodoku was the elementary, early step in learning to read, where reading meant unlocking the archive of knowledge recorded in texts consisting of columns of Chinese characters.3 Whether one sought qualification as a physician, botanist, historian, cartographer, dramatist, [End Page 182] military strategist, or government administrator, this ambition meant in the first place accessing an archive of texts in the register of classical Chinese (or Sino-Japanese), as written or printed either on the continent or in Japan. Prior to the late nineteenth century, every respectable library in the archipelago would normally store more such “Chinese” books, kanseki 漢籍, than vernacular “Japanese” texts.4 The default gateway to this universal learning was the Four Books, just as educated men (and some women) in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Europe were expected to know—often by heart—their Cicero or Virgil. And just as, in the eyes of British, French, or Spanish students, Cicero and Virgil stood not for “Italian” authors but for universal classics, to most readers in Japan, the texts that tradition ascribed to the Duke of Zhou, Master...