Medieval Japanese Social Justice

This week, I’ve been posting lots of interesting quotations from the 14th Century Japanese text, the Essays in Idleness, or tsurézurégusa (徒然草). Kenkō, the author, covered a lot of subjects from idle to spiritual to political. In this excerpt, he covers some important social issues that affected his time as much as it affects ours.

142) It is wrong for anyone who has abandoned the world1 and is without attachments to despise other men burdened with many encumbrances for their deep-seated greed and constant fawning on others. If he could put himself in the place of the men he despises, he would see that, for the sake of their parents, wives and children, whom they truly love, they forget all sense of shame and will even steal. I believe therefore it would be better, instead of imprisoning thieves and concerning ourselves only with punishing crimes, to run the country in such a way that no man would ever be hungry or cold. When a man lacks steady employment, is heart is not steady, and in extremity he will steal. As long as the country is not properly governed and people suffer from cold and hunger, there will never be an end to crime. It is pitiful to make people suffer, to force them to break the law, and then to punish them.

How then may we help people? If those at the top would give up their luxury and wastefulness, protect the people and encourage agriculture, those below would unquestionably benefit greatly. The real criminal is the man who commits a crime even though he has a normal share of food and clothing.

Translation by Donald Keene

I imagine that Kenkō is drawing inspiration (consciously or not) from the Confucian idea of the government’s responsibility toward the people. Compare this passage from the Analects of Confucius:

Mencius, one of the great minds of early Confucian thought, as painted by by Kanō Sansetsu in 1632. ColBase: 国立博物館所蔵品統合検索システム (Integrated Collections Database of the National Museums, Japan), CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

[12:9] Duke Ai asked Youruo: “It has been a year of famine and there are not enough revenues to run the state. What should I do?”

Ruo said, “Why can’t you use a 10% tax?”

The Duke answered: “I can’t even get by on a 20% tax, how am I going to do it on 10%?”

Ruo said, “If the people have enough, what prince can be in want? If the people are in want, how can the prince be satisfied?”

Translation by A. Charles Muller

Or from similar statements in the Chinese Taoist classic, the Dao De Jing:

75) The reason people starve

Is because their rulers tax them excessively.

They are difficult to govern

Because their rulers have their own ends in mind.

Translation by A. Charles Muller

But Kenkō’s inspiration might also come from Buddhist compassion and wisdom. It’s easy to punish, governments do it all the time, but Kenkō is asking people to stop and consider whether the problem is the people, or the conditions they are forced to endure due to government mismanagement. A leader who knows when enough is enough, can be benefit the country greatly, but of course, in Kenkō’s era, when society was still highly stratified by rank and aristocracy, this was rarely the case. Maybe they could have taken inspiration from the famous Edo-period daimyo, Uesugi Yozan, a few centuries later. 🙂

1 In Japanese, this is a Buddhist term or shukke (出家), meaning to go forth and become a monk or nun, in other words, a fully dedicated disciple of the Buddha. This is a time-honored tradition from the days of the Buddha himself in 5th century BCE India.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: