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The Prince by Machiavelli worked in Japan 70 years ago

Posted May. 30, 2020 08:24,   

Updated May. 30, 2020 08:34


Japanese political scientist Masao Maruyama (1914-1996) likened Japanese Confucian philosopher Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) from the Edo period to Machiavelli in his 1952 book, “Research into the History of Japanese Political Thought.”

In the book, Maruyama took note of Sorai’s remark that a monarch should be willing to do anything that can comfort his people even if it is contrary to reason and therefore can be subject to ridicule. According to Maruyama, the remark is no problem at all if something contrary to reason is for the political purpose of comforting the people. It is clearly a shift in the value of Confucian morals.” It is also reminiscent of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which say “A monarch, however, should not hesitate to endure criticism in cases where he cannot rule without committing immoral acts.”

In other words, Sorai has something in common with the Italian Renaissance political philosopher and statesman in that he decisively denied that Neo-Confucianism extends personal morals to political decisions. Given that the separation of politics and morals symbolizes modern politics, Sorai had already taken a step toward realpolitik.

Sorai compiled political views in his 1727 book “Discourse on Government” at the request of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune of Japan. Moving from the empty words of Neo-Confucianism, the book dealt with four topics such as politics, economy, appointment of government officials, and their treatment based on reality rather than morality.

The book contains a story that Maruyama praised Sorai by saying that he gave rise to modern Japan and discovered politics. The story is about Buddhist monk who suffered from poverty and famine and eventually deserted his mother. Other vassals pleaded for mercy by saying the monk did not mean to desert his mother and it does not go against Confucian morals. On the other hand, Sorai argued that the administrative and high-ranking officials in the region should be held accountable for letting such an incident happen.

Dong-Yong Min mindy@donga.com