Embracing An’ei

Ogyu Sorai, leader of the Kobunji school

As Japan enters a new era under a name that summons the nation’s artistic and cultural traditions, Funabashi Haruo suggests similarities and inspiration for a Japan based on arts and culture may be found in the An’ei era of the late eighteenth century.

The Japanese era, or period, name has been changed to Reiwa in accordance with the imperial succession. A change in era name does not mean that the daily lives of Japanese people have changed; however, Japanese people have lived with their expectations for and anxieties about a new period in terms of changes in the era name.

In the age when the Japanese economy of the Showa period (1926–1989) was thriving, the phrase “Showa Genroku” came into fashion. The phrase expressed the economic prosperity and cultural flowering of the Showa period in close connection with the Genroku era (1688–1704) of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709), the fifth shogun in the Edo period (1603–1867).

Some referred to the Heisei period (1989–2019) that followed Heisei as Kyoho, but this did not achieve widespread popularity. Heisei was called the “lost decade” or the “era of winter” after the burst of the bubble economy. Heisei was not as energetic as a sake party while enjoying viewing the cherry blossoms in the era of Showa Genroku but was more like enjoying a simple meal in a solitary small house. This is why it seems quite natural that the phrase “Heisei Kyoho” did not enter into common parlance.

The Kyoho era lasted twenty years (1716–1736) during the reign of Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751), the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa government. Known as the restorer of the Tokugawa shogunate, Yoshimune reconstructed the relaxed shogunate and domain system. Among other things, it is worth noting that Yoshimune successfully reconstructed the Tokugawa government’s finances by implementing a range of thrift-oriented economic policies and revenue increase policies. This presents a striking contrast to the reality whereby the state finances deteriorated steadily during the Heisei period and the national debt of Japan ultimately exceeded 1,000 trillion yen and still continues to increase. This means that Kyoho and Heisei can never be lumped together as “Heisei Kyoho.”

In addition, extremely fruitful thoughts thrived during the Kyoho era, and they turned out to have a huge impact on the Japanese people in later years. One of these influences was from Confucianism; more specifically, the Kobunji school led by Ogyu Sorai. This can simply be described as the spirit of practical studies with real applications. That is, the Kobunji studies created the trend of breaking away from the Achilles heel of the doctrines of Zhu Xi, which were the predominant thoughts in East Asia at the time, of deconstructing metaphysics, including li-qi-shuo, which was widespread throughout every area ranging from geophysics to human ethics, of observing things just as they were and of pursuing the principles beneath them. Natural history, astronomy and the study of Western sciences by means of the Dutch language became popular during and after the mid-Edo period, and it can be said that Kobunji studies heralded them.

Another thought was derived from Shingaku (mind and heart learning) guided by Ishida Baigan. Shingaku advocated merchant morals. It advocated a way of life in more simple terms and more in tune with human feelings. It was not the logic of authoritative people, but reason extracted from the reality of human society. Accordingly, the teachings of Shingaku penetrated deeply among the Japanese people as a whole from the merchant class and blended with some of the common morals of today’s Japanese.

These two examples show that Kyoho and Heisei can never be lumped together as “Heisei Kyoho” in terms of thought either.

Hopes for Reiwa An’ei

How can the new era name Reiwa be described? I would like to describe it as Reiwa An’ei with expectation. The An’ei era (1772–1781) was half a century after Kyoho. The eras of Houreki, Meiwa, An’ei and Tenmei in the late eighteenth century occurred during the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu (1737–1786), the tenth shogun of the Tokugawa government. Because Tanuma Okitsugu, the grand chamberlain, took over the reins of the government during that period, it is commonly called the “Tanuma era.” It is known that the arts and sciences thrived widely amid the political stability of that era.

In terms of learning and education, the domains established domain schools one after another. Private elementary schools also penetrated nationwide into every corner of the country, and the literacy rate increased rapidly. In terms of art and culture, big-name artists who can be said to have reached the summit of Japanese painting, such as Ito Jakuchu, Ike no Taiga, Maruyama Okyo and Soga Shohaku, were produced in succession. In addition, during this era, art and culture spread widely among common people through works including sharebon (novellas about life in the pleasure quarters) and kibyoshi (yellow-covered illustrated storybooks).

Considering the fact that the path Japan should aim to take from now on is that of a country based on culture and art, it will be meaningful to think of Reiwa and An’ei in combination and consider what we should do from now on.

FUNABASHI Haruo is a historian and CEO of the Sirius Institute Inc. 

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