The father of Japan’s capitalist economy is Shibusawa Eiichi (1840-1931), a highly respected Japanese industrialist. Guided by his study of Confucius’ Analects, Shibusawa brought Western capitalism to Japan, but with a core emphasis on morality and business ethics.
In this series, we look at Shibusawa’s philosophy and understanding of Confucius’ teachings, which guided the creation of Japan’s modern economy.
Shibusawa’s lifetime achievement was to guide an entire country in creating its modern economy—one that remains highly successful even today. While he credits his achievements to studying and applying the teachings of Confucius, he also drew wisdom from Japan’s sage lord—Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616 AD).
Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, and one of the three unifiers of Japan. Like the ancient sage kings of China—Yao and Shun, he is known as the Sage Lord of Japan, ruling with benevolence and virtue. He established a peace that lasted for 260 years during the Edo period.
In his book The Analects and the Abacus, under the chapter “The Bushido Spirit and Business Acumen”, Shibusawa writes: “Conducting oneself well in society is not easy, but one can find guidance through studying Confucius’ Analects and carefully appreciating its inner meanings.
Conducting oneself well in society is not easy, but one can find guidance through studying Confuciusí Analects and carefully appreciating its inner meanings.
“Since ancient times, Japan has had many sages and great figures. One such person who excelled both in battle and in conducting himself was Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was precisely because he excelled at conducting himself that he won the support of many great figures, who aided him in establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted 15 generations. He gave the people over 200 years of peace and prosperity, and he is indeed a great figure.”
Tokugawa’s ‘Teachings From the Sage Lord’ Originated From The Analects
Tokugawa left behind many teachings. Among them, the book Teachings From the Sage Lord had the greatest impact on subsequent generations of Japanese, including Shibusawa.
Shibusawa said that he once read Teachings From the Sage Lord in conjunction with The Analects, and found that much of its content mirrored The Analects.
“One example is the following sentence from Teachings From the Sage Lord: ‘A person’s entire life is akin to shouldering a heavy burden while journeying a long road,’” Shibusawa writes.
“This sentence mirrors a quote by Zengzi in The Analects: ‘The officer may not be without breadth of mind and vigorous endurance. His burden is heavy and his course is long. Perfect virtue is the burden which he considers it is his to sustain – is it not heavy? Only with death does his course stop – is it not long?’”
Other examples included Tokugawa’s quote, “Better to fall short than to exceed,” which is a derivative of The Analects’ “overreaching the mark is as bad as falling short of it”.
Through this, Shibusawa realised that Tokugawa must have studied and applied The Analects in his life, which was why he was able to have such great achievements.
Shibusawa realised that Tokugawa must have studied and applied The Analects in his life, which was why he was able to have such great achievements.
Shibusawa astutely followed in Tokugawa’s footsteps by putting Confucius’ teachings into practise in his work as an economist, thereby becoming a great man himself.
When Leaders Are Corrupt, Society Degenerates As Well
Shibusawa’s writings reveal a truth: when the higher-ups are corrupt, those under them will follow in their footsteps. In other words, if a society has an unhealthy culture, it is because the moral compass of the country’s leadership has become deviated.
The person at the top of the hierarchy carries the heaviest responsibility, and the society’s condition reflects the leader’s own condition.
The Japanese believe that children mirror their parents’ behaviour and values. No matter whether you are a parent, a minister, or the boss of a company, you have a huge influence on those under your care, whether it’s your children, countrymen, or employees.
For decades, the Chinese government has decimated traditional Chinese culture, from the Cultural Revolution to the modern-day production of state media dramas that warp and vilify figures in Chinese history. Ancient Chinese are depicted as scheming, back-stabbing, and fighting using underhand tactics.
But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cannot destroy the fact that, for 5,000 years, China was once known as a land of propriety and righteousness. China’s traditional culture has spread to the rest of the world and earned historical regard. If the ancient Chinese were truly so debauched, how could they have established such a glorious civilisation, which the Japanese have exalted and emulated?
In today’s China, morality is no longer valued and people no longer trust each other. When the people’s hearts have become so corrupted, isn’t that a reflection of the top management—aka the CCP’s—corruption and degradation? Isn’t it the sad result of the CCP’s destruction of traditional values?
Many Chinese admire modern Japan, without realising that Japan is built on a foundation of traditional Chinese wisdom. If Japan did not embrace Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, and if Tokugawa had not started a Confucian-based education for the nobility, the Tokugawa Shogunate would not have enjoyed a golden era of 260 years.
Although Tokugawa was the ruler of his shogunate, he led a simple and humble life, earning the people’s support with his virtue. As a magnanimous and disciplined leader, he inspired society to have confidence in their leader. He integrated the practice of Confucianism in Japanese society, combining it with Shinto and Zen Buddhism to form bushido—the samurai code of honour that is highly regarded in Japan.
Although Tokugawa was the ruler of his shogunate, he led a simple and humble life, earning the peopleís support with his virtue.
Subsequent generations of Japanese, including Shibusawa, all benefited from Tokugawa’s influence. When the leadership takes the right path, the people will emulate their example and take the right path as well.
When the leadership takes the right path, the people will emulate their example and take the right path as well.