Itō Jinsai (伊藤仁斎) (August, 30, 1627 – April 5, 1705), who also went by the pen name Keisai, was a Japanese Confucian philosopher, sinologist, and educator. Along with his contemporary Yamaga Sokō, he pioneered the Kogaku philosophical movement in reaction to the stifling Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi, which was the official doctrine of Tokugawa, Japan, and which enforced authoritarian rule and the four social classes of samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant. Building on Mencius' interpretation of Confucius, which placed the common people above the rulers, his Kogaku developed an approach to Confucianism that promoted human morality and happiness through rational thought rather than authoritarian rules. He believed that Confucianism should be practiced in everyday life, and that human emotion needed to be expressed in poetry.
Ito Jinsai advocated a return to classical Confucian teachings, and produced one of the first and most systematic visions of Confucian philosophy. He is considered to be one of the most influential Confucian scholars of seventeenth century Japan. He and his son, Ito Togai, founded a private school, the Kogi-do (“School for Study of Ancient Meaning”) in Kyoto, in 1662, which continued in existence until 1904, when it was absorbed into the public school system.
Itō Jinsai was born August 30, 1620, the eldest son of a Kyoto merchant, timber-yard owner, and lumberman, Itō Ryōshitsu. From an early age, he began studying Chinese and devoted himself to study of the Song Confucianism of Zhu Xi. By the age of ten, he was learning under his uncle, a noted physician who had once treated Emperor Go-Yōzei. Together they commented on works such as, The Great Learning. He continued to study Confucianism throughout his teens, going over old books his uncle had left his father.
When he was twenty-eight, Jinsai suffered an illness and turned the family business over to his younger brother in order to devote himself to teaching and scholarship. He became a recluse, studying Buddhism and Daoism, and at this time began to have his first doubts about Zhu Xi's philosophy, realizing that it was not true to the early teachings of Confucius and Mencius. He even changed his pen name to demonstrate his commitment to humaneness (jin). He became famous for his gentle manner and his dedication to humanistic ideals.
Refusing offers of employment from the powerful feudal rulers, he and his son Ito Togai (1670–1736) founded a private school, the Kogi-do (“School for Study of Ancient Meaning”) in Kyoto in 1662. The school was run by his descendants until 1904, when it was absorbed into the public school system.
The Kogidō was located on the east bank of the Horikawa River, directly across from the school of Yamazaki Ansai, who was a great proponent of Song Confucianism and rejected the place of poetry in philosophy. Jinsai's school, in contrast, offered a sustained critique of Song Confucianism. The school met with great success, attracting three thousand students from many different classes and professions.
Ito Jinsai opposed the official Neo-Confucianism of Tokugawa Japan, which was essentially derived from the writings of the Chinese thinker Zhu Xi, and promoted the ideal of orderly submission to the authorities and the theory of the four social classes (samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant), but he is considered a Neo-Confucian himself because he produced his own interpretation of the Confucian classics. Ito tried to develop a rational basis for human morality and the pursuit of happiness, and advocated a return to classical Confucian teaching.
Ito's thought, considered to be without a rival in Tokugawa Japan for its level of moral elevation, is outlined in a small work called Gomojigi (1683), a commentary on the analects of the Chinese philosophers Confucius and Mencius. Ito Jinsai was concerned with what he considered the underlying truths of Confucian thought. Building on Mencius' evaluation of Confucius, which placed the common people above the rulers, his Kogaku developed an approach to Confucianism that promoted human morality and happiness through rational thought rather than authoritarian rules.
Ito Jinsai, along with his contemporary Yamaga Sokō, pioneered the Kogaku ("Study of Antiquity") philosophical movement, a reaction to the stifling and excessively metaphysical ideas of Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism, the official doctrine of Tokugawa Japan. Ito Jinsai produced one of the first and most systematic visions of Confucian philosophy. The Kogaku school of thought supported the imperial house and suggested that under the emperor there was no distinction among the four classes, a position which made it unpopular with the ruling shogunate. When Japan and China began to face each other in conflict, the emphasis on Chinese sources and the desire to study them in their original form became additional grounds for unpopularity, and Ito Jinsai's philosophy became marginalized.
Jinsai formed his own understanding of Confucian philosophy after coming to realize that the speculative philosophy of Song Confucianism was not practical in implementing in everyday ethics. Instead, he felt one could learn the way of the sages through understanding of the Analects and the Mencius, the original two of the Four Books. The other two, Doctrine of the Mean and The Great Learning, were theories and elaborations added by later philosophers, and it was these later books, which Jinsai thought were closer to Buddhism and Daoism then the original works, that had formed the basis of Song Confucianism. Jinsai's approach was to abandon these later commentaries and focus on the interpretation of the Analects and the Mencius. His method was a careful linguistic reconstruction of the works' meaning, known today as kogigaku, or "study of ancient meanings." This approach was taken up by later Confucian scholars, particularly Ogyu Sorai. It was one of the first attempts at critical analysis of early Confucian texts and teachings.
Ito Jinsai is considered to be one of the most influential Confucian scholars of seventeenth century Japan. During his lifetime, Ito Jinsai had a significant influence on Japanese public thought, through the hundreds of students at the Kogido ("School for the Study of Ancient Meaning") in Kyoto.
Jinsai had several fundamental philosophical disagreements with Song Confucianism. The Zhu Xi school had claimed that human nature is inherently good; Jinsai did not agree and argued instead that human nature had the potential to become good, but that this could be accomplished only through daily practice and the performance of deeds of goodness. Jinsai also rejected the dualism of the rational principal (ri) and material force (ki) proposed by Song Confucianism, believing that material force alone led to the creation of life and all things. Song Confucianism connected the Heavenly Way (tendō) with the Human Way (jindō) through a rational principal. Jinsai saw the Way (michi) as being inseparable from common everyday life, and not on some elevated plane as taught by the Song Confucianists. Jinsai perceived the material force of the world as constantly shifting, and considered the question of how to conduct oneself in everyday life to be the most important.
Song Confucianists believed that all humans were born with "original human character" (sei), which included natural goodness and moral virtue. Jinsai rejected this concept, and promoted the importance of everyday conduct. He emphasized natural human emotions (ninjō), which he found to be rooted in everyday life and to be constantly changing based on circumstances. Believing that Song Confucianism advocated too much seriousness and placed too many restraints on human nature, he placed a great deal of importance on poetry, which he believed allowed for the expression of human emotions and provided a necessary release for emotions and desires. Some of his students were attracted to the Kogidō more because of an interest in Chinese poetry and literature than in Jinsai’s Confucian teachings.
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