Differing Attitudes to Confucianism Across East Asia


Confucianism in Japan and the Asian Mainland

Japan’s relationship to Confucianism is fundamentally different from that of its two neighbors, China and Korea. In Chinese and Korean culture, Confucianism is a core element of classical morality. In Japan, on the other hand, Confucianism has never been an element of primary importance in the local culture. In China and Korea, Confucianism is not just a unified way of looking at human nature, life, happiness, and the world—traditionally it has been regarded as a source of wisdom for everyday living. In Japan, values such as respect and consideration for others have played a more prominent role.

One unavoidable aspect of Confucianism is the fact that it is a system of thought that grew up China, meaning that it is inherently a philosophical outlook that was developed by and for the Chinese people. It was in this context that Confucianism spread through East Asia. Its influence was particularly strong in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty that lasted from the late fourteenth to the early twentieth century, when Confucianism was the official state ideology. In the sixteenth century, prominent Confucian scholars like Yi Hwang (Toegye) and Yi I (Yulok) took Confucian learning to new heights. The Korean peninsula was famous as a “model student” of Confucianism, and people in Korea took to referring to their own country as a “little China.”

Historical dramas made in South Korea are currently coasting a wave of popularity across East Asia. China is no exception. Why are these shows so popular? For Chinese audiences, they are easy to identify with because the plots of these dramas are shot through with Confucian thinking. The dialogue of successful series like Dae Jang Geum (which attracted an audience share of 27% in China) and Yi San is overflowing with the expressions of Confucian values. This familiar philosophical underpinning is surely one reason for the popularity of these series.

The Rehabilitation of Confucian Thought in Twenty-first Century China

There was a period when the Chinese Communist party saw little to praise in Confucianism, and for many years the Party tried to suppress or expunge Confucian traditions. Gradually, however, people realized that Confucian thought was an integral part of the Chinese cultural identity. For China to attempt to reject Confucianism was tantamount to denying its own nature. In the years since the millennium there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes, and the central importance of Confucianism to Chinese culture is widely acknowledged once more.

Confucianism is now a key part of the curriculum in schools again, frequently cited as a central pillar of China’s traditional culture. It is also being used by the national government as part of state efforts to increase the influence of Chinese culture worldwide. The best examples of this are the Confucian Institutes that have been built to improve understanding of Chinese culture around the world. By October 2010, 332 of these institutes had opened in 96 countries, many of them attached to universities. In addition to these, 368 smaller “Confucius classrooms” are also in operation. The Confucius Institute scheme was founded in 2004, and opened its first overseas branch in November that year. Perhaps not coincidentally, that first school was located in Seoul.

The Impact of Confucian Thought on Economic Success

In the 1980s, former US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer was one of a number of Western scholars to argue that the vitality and vibrancy of Confucian thought was behind the economic success of the Asian Tigers. In those days, the Chinese economy was something of a straggler—a fact that Reischauer and others attributed to the rejection of Confucian thought in China at the time. It is probably fair to say that this still holds true as a kind of bird’s-eye view of the East Asian region as a whole.

Evidence for the long-term validity of this view comes from the economic growth of China itself, particularly since the millennium, and from the fact that the four Asian Tigers all earned a Human Development Index score of close to 0.9 in 2011.

How does Japan fit into this rubric? Unlike China and Korea, where Confucianism became inextricably intertwined with everyday life, in Japan it was never more than a system of knowledge and thought to be studied. It seems likely that this was part of the reason why Japan was able to shift so easily to Westernization in the years before and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

(Originally written in Japanese on November 5.)

diplomacy Asia Japan China Korea Foreign Affairs Wang Min Hong Kong Singapore Confucianism