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Making a Moral Society

Making a Moral Society: Ethics and the State in Meiji Japan

Richard M Reitan
Copyright Date: 2010
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    Making a Moral Society
    Book Description:

    This innovative study of ethics in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) explores the intense struggle to define a common morality for the emerging nation-state. In the Social Darwinist atmosphere of the time, the Japanese state sought to quell uprisings and overcome social disruptions so as to produce national unity and defend its sovereignty against Western encroachment. Morality became a crucial means to attain these aims. Moral prescriptions for re-ordering the population came from all segments of society, including Buddhist, Christian, and Confucian apologists; literary figures and artists; advocates of natural rights; anarchists; and women defending nontraditional gender roles. Each envisioned a unity grounded in its own moral perspective. It was in this tumultuous atmosphere that the academic discipline of ethics(rinrigaku)emerged-not as a value-neutral, objective form of inquiry as its practitioners claimed, but a state-sponsored program with its own agenda.

    After examining the broad moral space of "civilization," Richard Reitan turns to the dominant moral theories of early Meiji and the underlying epistemology that shaped and authorized them. He considers the fluidity of moral subjectivity (the constantly shifting nature of norms to which we are subject and how we apprehend, resist, or practice them) by juxtaposing rinrigaku texts with moral writings by religious apologists. By the beginning of the 1890s, moral philosophers in Japan were moving away from the empiricism and utilitarianism of the prior decade and beginning to place "spirit" at the center of ethical inquiry. This shift is explored through the works of two thinkers, Inoue Tetsujiro (1856-1944) and Nakashima Rikizo (1858-1918), the first chair of ethics at Tokyo Imperial University. Finally, Reitan takes a detailed look at the national morality movement(kokumin dotoku)and its close association with the state before concluding with an outline of some conceptual linkages between the Meiji and later periods.

    With its highly original thesis, clear and sound methodology, and fluid prose,Making a Moral Societywill be welcomed by scholars and students of both Japanese intellectual history and ethics in general.

    4 illus.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-3768-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Ethics and the Universal in Meiji Japan
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    Moral universalism is a contentious idea. The theory of “moral universals”—the idea that all humanity or all those of a particular national or cultural community share certain common moral sensibilities, or that one’s own moral perspective is in fact a timeless moral truth—has in some form long been a central feature of moral discourse. Those who accept this theory may disagree over what “our values” are, or what foundation verifies the truthfulness of these values, but that such values exist is widely presupposed. But can any moral claim ever transcend its own historicity? Given that any morality asserting...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Civilization and Foolishness: Contextualizing Ethics in Early Meiji Japan
    (pp. 1-21)

    During the first decade of the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan was plagued by intense social turmoil. In the years immediately following the 1868 revolution that toppled the Tokugawa regime, the new Meiji government contended with riots, rebellions, and civil war, while perceptions of the very real threat of colonization, posed by the growing presence of the Western powers in East Asia, intensified with the introduction of Social Darwinist thought to Japan in the early 1880s. Meanwhile, the syncretic collection of moral principles called “Neo-Confucianism” that had served to legitimize the social order of the prior Tokugawa regime had lost...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Epistemology of Rinrigaku
    (pp. 22-56)

    In the first two decades of the Meiji period, a number of texts appeared that took up the question of ethics. Some of the most important of these works included Nishi Amane’s “The Three Human Treasures”; Inoue Tetsujirō’sA New Theory of Ethics;Katō Hiroyuki’sA Reconsideration of Human RightsandThe Relationship Between the Right of the Strongest and the Moral Law;and Nishimura Shigeki’sOn Japanese Morality. Except for the last text, these writings approached ethics from a utilitarian or evolutionary standpoint. In all of these works, their authors linked the “good” to state power and social order....

  7. CHAPTER 3 Rinrigaku and Religion: The Formation and Fluidity of Moral Subjectivity
    (pp. 57-80)

    As the new discipline of ethics began to emerge out of the social disruption and moral disorientation of early Meiji, it contended with religion for the authority to speak for “the good.” At stake in this contest between ethics and religion was the human interiority. To what extent, if at all, should the state play a role in shaping the individual’s moral conscience?Rinrigakuscholars argued that if the state is barred from such a role, moral unity will never be realized. For many religious apologists, on the other hand, the autonomy of one’s conscience was inviolable. This struggle over...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Resisting Civilizational Hierarchies: The Ethics of Spirit and the Spirit of the People
    (pp. 81-113)

    In the 1890s, moral philosophers in Japan began to reconfigure the discipline of ethics. The utilitarianism and evolutionary naturalism that dominated the moral discourse of early Meiji gave way to a moral philosophy of spirit. This shift was part of an effort to resist the civilizational hierarchies imposed by the West and internalized by many Japanese thinkers during the foregoing decades. But this required not merely the critique of assertions of Western superiority in the realms of knowledge and virtue, two key markers of “civilization” upheld since Fukuzawa Yukichi’sOutline of a Theory on Civilization.¹ It required also the destabilization...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Approaching the Moral Ideal: National Morality, the State, and “Dangerous Thought”
    (pp. 114-152)

    The Taoist classicTao te chingobserves, “[W]hen the state is in confusion, it is then that there are faithful subjects.”¹ Such a statement might well be describing turn-of-the-century moral discourse in Japan. At this time, while the “dangerous thought” of anarchism, socialism, and individualism threatened to undermine the foundation of the state, various state apparatuses sought through a number of strategies to produce “good and faithful subjects.” In other words, “dangerous thought” and the “faithful subject” emerged together, the one providing the negative condition against which the other was conceptualized and defined. National morality(kokumin dotoku),a state-sponsored articulation...

  10. Epilogue: The Ethics of Humanism and Moral Particularism in Twentieth-Century Japan
    (pp. 153-166)

    The discipline of ethics(rinrigaku)emerged in Japan not as an objective and value-neutral form of academic inquiry, but as one among many competing normative views on how society ought to be ordered. From the early Meiji period, when Inoue Tetsujirō and others established this discipline, to the late Meiji project to create a homogeneous moral space called “national morality,”rinrigakuoccupied a position in proximity to the state. As the state pursued “civilization,” Inoue Tetsujirō and otherrinrigakuscholars sought to universalize a morality in keeping with this aim—suppressing “superstition” and “foolishness” in the process. When religious thinkers...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 167-204)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-218)
  13. Index
    (pp. 219-230)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 231-233)