A Study of Ito Jinsai - Focusing on the Issues of Heaven and Human Nature


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Ren TAN


Awarding Institution
Award date13 Jan 2016


Itō Jinsai 伊藤仁斎(1627-1705) is considered to be one the most creative and influential Confucian scholars of the seventeenth century Japan, and even “the founder of Japanese Confucianism”. His teachings were essentially derived from the writings of the Chinese thinker Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), the leading figure of Neo-Confucianism which started in China in the eleventh century and grew in a wavelike fashion to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. One of the most important features that distinguish Neo-Confucianism from ancient Confucianism is the metaphysical foundation, that “principle” (li 理) combines with the material element called Ki 気 to produce and sustain the actual world in which we live.
This dissertation mainly concerns the developmental process of Jinsai’s understandings towards the topics of Heaven and Human Nature, which have always been the focal issues in Confucian tradition, arguing that Jinsai formed a different metaphysical foundation with Japanese characteristics. Moreover, this metaphysical foundation played a central role in his teachings. Like many educated Japanese of his day, Jinsai began his studies with Neo-Confucian texts. Later he explored the school of Wang Yangming 王陽明 (1472-1529) and Buddhism, only to become frustrated with the highly metaphysical and ontological notions and concepts. In his late thirties, he advocated a return to ancient Confucian ideas, and characterized his teachings as Kogigagaku 古義学, or “the study of ancient meanings”, focusing primarily on the Analects and Mengzi.
This dissertation starts with contextualization of Heaven as ancient Chinese cosmology from pre-Qin period to Song-Ming dynasty in the introduction. Chapter II addresses the historical background of the usage of Heaven in Japan, by examining several typical classic works of Japanese literature written before Jinsai’s time, such as Manyōshū万葉集, Ruijumyōgishō類聚名義抄etc. Chapter III focuses on the early writings of Jinsai as a Neo-Confucian scholar in that they are critical to understand why and how Jinsai turned against Zhu Xi after being Zhu Xi’s advocator for almost fifteen years. Chapter IV focuses on Jinsai’s later and more famous works.
This dissertation concludes that, firstly Yangming’s “The Unity of Knowledge and Action” played a vital role in the formation of Jinsai’s own idea of Confucian philosophy. After Jinsai realized that Zhu Xi’s speculative philosophy was not practical in everyday ethics, he doubted the metaphysical foundation and developed a philologically-based approach to restore the philosophy of the original sages. Secondly, Jinsai viewed the universe as a “living thing” in his later works. Although the characters “katsubutsu 活物” derived from China, the expression of “the universe as a living thing” is not common in the Chinese academia. Instead it shows similarities with the tradition of Shintō religion shown in Kojiki 古事記. Jinsai refashioned the concept of Heaven in ways that made it more consistent with the Japanese tradition and social reality. His view of the morality of human nature also changed accordingly. Therefore, this dissertation suggests a new way in understanding the characteristics of Jinsai’s thought, and his implications on humanity and worldview, which originated and then broke away from the Neo-Confucian tradition.