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Sunday, Sept. 15, 2002

Did Plato's Republic find a spiritual home in Japan?


Special to The Japan Times

Four hundred and two years ago this week, a battle was fought near the village of Sekigahara, 40 km northwest of Nagoya. Though short -- it was over soon after lunchtime -- the battle was decisive, ushering in . . . Plato's Republic?

What would the ancient Greek philosopher have thought of a comparison between his ideal imaginary Republic under all-wise philosopher-kings, and the Tokugawa bakufu, the military government of Edo Japan (1603-1867) whose dour dictators ruled by decree and terror a society they scarcely understood?

The differences are obvious enough, but two core similarities are more interesting: the dread of change evident in Plato's book, "The Republic," and the Tokugawa state, and the link between government and philosophy.

Tokugawa Japan gave philosopher-kings their chance, snatching them from Plato's imaginary realm and planting them on a real throne. By some measures, they it proud. Pax Tokugawa was Japan's first sustained peace in three centuries, and it held almost unbroken for 267 years.

The German physician Engelbert Kaempfer, in Japan with the Dutch East India Company from 1690-92, chafed under oppressive Tokugawa restrictions. But having grown up in the chaotic aftermath of Europe's 30 Years' War (1618-48), he knew disorder well enough to value order, even if it came at a price.

Tsunayoshi, the fifth Tokugawa shogun and the first to be raised as a scholar rather than a warrior (his superstitious reverence for dogs earned him the nickname "Dog Shogun"), was Kaempfer's "sage ruler." And why not?

"Japan," remarks Beatrice Bodart-Bailey in her new translation of Kaempfer's journals, "had emerged from its Warring States Period; Europe had so far failed to do so."

Tsunayoshi's rule (1688-1703) corresponds, somewhat ironically, to the famous Genroku Era, an unprecedented flowering of popular art and entertainment underpinned by a commercial prosperity not seen again until the postwar period of our own day. Philosophy? The masses were having none of it. Genroku culture was a revolt against philosophy -- a revolt against all restraint, deprivation and gravity. At its most exuberant it was the brash sensuality we see in some ukiyo-e.

Genroku culture was everything the understated, ultra-refined arts of the aristocracy had never been; everything the philosopher-shoguns disdained and abhorred. In vain they tried to suppress it. They could imprison, torture and execute their perceived enemies, confiscate the wealth of merchants whose lavish displays annoyed them, and squeeze the wretched peasantry for every last grain of rice to feed their unproductive military class.

Yet within the urban pleasure quarters, the "nightless cities" of Edo, Osaka, Kyoto and elsewhere, their writ scarcely ran, and life -- of a most unrestrained and unphilosophical kind -- spilled into a new and, for Japan, revolutionary channel. The channel had no native name. We call it today, under the influence of another republic starting to take shape around that time, "the pursuit of happiness."

A state of misery

Plato's Republic is not for everyone. Aristotle, his pupil, scorned it as an attempt to create a happy state full of miserable people. Plato would have replied -- with Stalin's hearty approval, no doubt -- that its aim was not individual happiness, but justice -- the happiness of the whole. The Tokugawa aim was neither happiness nor justice; it was order. Whatever conduced to order was good; whatever upset it -- even justice, at times -- was evil.

The bakufu, writes Harvard historian Howard Hibbett, "prohibited everything it did not require."

A rebellion by starving peasants, one of many, shows how committed the bakufu was, at the expense of every other consideration, to its supreme virtue. In 1651, a poor Chiba farmer named Sakura Sogoro presented a petition to the shogun on behalf of 300 followers suffering under a local lord's misrule. The lord was found guilty and punished -- but for having dared to challenge authority, Sakura was crucified. So was his wife. Their children were beheaded. It is an early instance of collective responsibility, a key Tokugawa tenet aimed at keeping the people terrified to the point of paralyzed, grovelling orderliness.

"The Republic" arises out of a conversation in 5th-century B.C. Athens between the philosopher Socrates, Plato's older contemporary, and some young aristocrats frustrated that democracy had condemned them to irrelevance. Asked to define justice, Socrates said: Let's invent a state and see.

The result has few attractions for lovers of freedom. The citizenry is divided into three classes -- gold (ruler-guardians), silver (auxiliary guardians) and bronze (the mass of commoners). The classes are not strictly hereditary -- individuals could be moved up, or down, according to rigidly standardized criteria. Justice emerges through everyone accepting their assigned station in life -- rulers ruling, fighters fighting, shoemakers making shoes, and so on -- with their combined expertise contributing maximum benefit to the state.

Commoners, being neither martial nor philosophical, soon pass out of the dialogue, which focuses almost exclusively on the ruling class. The rulers and their auxiliaries own no private property and in fact have no private desires of any kind, their lives being totally integrated into the life of the state. They do not deem this a deprivation. On the contrary, their rigorous education has impressed on them how privileged they are.

Splendid, Socrates' young interlocutors agree -- but, they ask, is it realistic? Is it possible? It is, says Socrates, on one condition: the philosopher, hitherto a marginal figure in society, assumes full power.

The philosopher is ideally suited to rule because he alone perceives reality. Non-philosophers, imprisoned within their five senses, discern only reality's ever-changing shadow, but the philosopher, seeing by the light of reason, gazes upon the unchanging absolutes -- absolute beauty, absolute goodness, absolute proportion and so on. What better helmsman could a ship of state ask for?

Incurable mass blindness

Tokugawa Japan was a philosophical state. Its ruling class was steeped in philosophy, its laws were founded on philosophically defined virtues, essences and universal absolutes that only philosophers could see -- hence their claim to the obedience of the masses, who were expected to recognize, if nothing else, their own incurable blindness. Tokugawa philosophers, like Plato's, were, ideally, military men trained to soar so high above the imprisoning ego-self that life and death were a matter of perfect indifference to them. Service to the state was all. Self-gratification was contemptible.

"Avoid things you like and turn your attention to unpleasant duties," wrote Tokugawa Ieyasu, the bakufu's founding father. Ieyasu, his successors and their court philosophers probably never heard of ancient Greece. China was their model -- seen through a conveniently distorting lens called "Neo-Confucianism." The convenience lay in the suppression of Confucius' notion that virtue -- not heredity -- legitimized the ruler. Japanese Neo-Confucianism simply assumed that the Tokugawa dynasty was inherently and incorruptibly virtuous.

Over time, this flaw was noticed and exploited by dissident forces. Philosophy therefore not only established and propped up the Bakufu Republic, it also undermined it and helped bring it down.

The bakufu owes its most characteristic features to a gaping contradiction, one Plato's Republic might also have fallen into. It was a military dictatorship, exalting Bushido, "the way of the warrior," above all other "ways," and ruling by unrelenting martial law during 2 1/2 centuries of near-uninterrupted peace. (Ieyasu fought some 80 battles in his lifetime; his grandson Iemitsu commanded 300,000 troops but never confronted an enemy force.)

The peace was secured by an isolation so total and so rigidly enforced -- death was the penalty for leaving the country, or for returning, having left -- as to be without precedent. What induced the regime to turn the country into a prison? Not natural inclination, for in its earliest years Tokugawa Japan was friendly, outgoing and expansionist. Christian missionaries were welcomed, global trade was anticipated, and there was talk of imperialist campaigns in Asia.

It was fear that checked this outward impulse -- fear of the Western powers, of Christian intrigue, of rebellious "outside lords" whose sullen acquiescence to Tokugawa rule could not be taken for granted.

What do warriors do when there are no wars to fight? Tokugawa warriors studied the fine arts and philosophy. Bushido is the result -- bastard offspring of martial ardor and philosophical serenity. Plato's FROM PAGE 9 guardians foreshadowed it. They were to cultivate a dispositon "at once gentle and full of spirit" -- a seeming contradiction, but consider the dog, said Socrates: affectionate to those it knows, hostile to strangers. Bushido has its own version of the warrior-philosopher-dog. A warrior must "hold life lighter than a feather," while simultaneously steeping himself in the spirit of benevolence. "Think what a frail thing life is, especially for a samurai," exhorts a 17th-century text known as the "Primer of Bushido."

"This being so, you will come to consider every day of your life your last and dedicate it to the fulfillment of your obligations."

But intimacy with death withers in peacetime. Life is still "a frail thing" -- but less so. People no longer feel inclined to live every day as if it were their last. Yoshimune, the eighth shogun (ruled 1716-45), feared peace was slackening the national fiber. His vast hunting parties and military exercises were an attempt to check the decline of the martial spirit. It was a rearguard action, doomed to fail. Yet in some ways he was the most genuine of the philosopher-shoguns. His intellectual curiosity extended even to Western learning, the ban on which he eased.

Most famous of the Tokugawa official philosophers were Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725). Central to their thinking was the notion that the laws holding the universe together are the same as those governing human relations. The constituent forces of the universe are knowable, and 14th-century Chinese Neo-Confucianists had discovered them. All their Japanese successors had to do was transmit them. These constituent forces are Yin/Yang, the Supreme Ultimate, Principle and Ether.

It is an easy leap from here to Plato's Forms, also known as Ideas -- non-physical absolutes that underlie the semi-real physical world. Whatever they were called, they clearly favored the Tokugawas. The mere fact of the Tokugawas being in power proved that -- for no ruler holds power without Heaven's consent. Challenging the regime was therefore as gross a breach of common sense as challenging the laws of the universe.

Through 267 years, until its final collapse in the Meiji Restoration, the Bakufu Republic's state terrorism froze the country in time just as the West was accelerating into that new world we today call modern. Outside the licensed pleasure quarters, the human spirit under the Tokugawas shrivelled and cringed. "The administrators of this country," remarked Kaempfer, fresh from a tour of the execution grounds that moved him to sarcasm, "are so careful and so compassionate that they aim to stop any possible crime, and thus they constantly produce new laws."

Townsmen and servants must not wear silk; townsmen must not live extravagantly; merchants must not give lavish parties; peasants must work hard and eat little and respect their betters; women should not drink tea. By edicts such as these the bakufu, blind to the distinction between moral problems and fiscal ones, sought to make people good. If people would only be good, the nation would prosper.

Cracks in the edifice

Meanwhile, expanding cracks in the edifice went unnoticed and untreated. A growing population stretched the seams of the shut-in state. Famines, frequent and harsh, made nonsense of moral injunctions from on high. Money-based commerce, uncomprehended and despised, engulfed the rulers' land- and rice-based economy. Fiscal ruin was imminent long before the insolent foreigners came knocking.

The regime's inner rot brought on no relaxation of vigilance. No aspect of life was too private or too trivial for government oversight. And innocence was no protection once the fury of the law was roused, as the fate of Sakura Sogoro's family shows. "It is doubtful," observed the British historian-diplomat Sir George Sansom, "whether previous history records a more ambitious attempt on the part of a state to interfere with the private life of every individual, and so to control the thoughts as well as the actions of a whole nation."

What Plato only talked of doing, the bakufu did -- with social, political and cultural results that remain among Japan's principal claims to uniqueness.



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