Peter Flueckiger


Peter Flueckiger is associate professor of Asian Languages and Literature at Pomona College, California. He is the author of Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy and Community in mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism (Stanford University Press 2010).

Home Summer 2012 Features Peter Flueckiger Interview
An Interview with Professor Peter Flueckiger PDF Print E-mail

by Robert D. Wilson

RDW: Thank you, Professor Flueckiger, for agreeing to this interview. I've read your book, Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism, a book that made me re-examine and question some of my previously held beliefs regarding the influence of religion and philosophy on Japanese poetry. For example, the influence of Confucianism. There are many today, outside of scholarly circles, who believe tanka and haiku are primarily Zen Buddhist constructs. What role did Confucianism play in the writing of poetry during Japan's Mid-Tokugawa period?

PF: It was uncommon for poetry of the time to directly express Confucian philosophical teachings in a didactic manner. The primary impact of Confucianism on mid-Tokugawa poetry came, rather, from the linguistic and cultural education that accompanied the study of the Confucian classics. The centrality of the Confucian classics in Tokugawa education implied an important role for the study of the classical Chinese language, as well as Chinese history and literature. The composition of poetry in Chinese was then a natural outgrowth of this education. While today most people tend to think of literary scholarship and literary composition as separate activities, in pre-modern Japan these were seen as necessarily intertwined, especially when it came to poetry. Any scholar of the Chinese classics, then, would be expected to be able to compose at least passable poetry in Chinese.

RDW: How extensive was this influence and was it compatible with Zen Buddhism, Shinto, Tao, and shamanic animism?

PF: The extent to which Confucian education led people to compose poetry depended in part on the particular variety of Confucianism they were exposed to. To simplify somewhat, a broad division can be made (not only in Tokugawa Japan, but in China as well) between interpretations of Confucianism that see it as a speculative metaphysical doctrine, and interpretations that tie Confucianism more closely to its concrete historical roots in the culture of ancient China. It is the latter type of Confucianism that puts greater emphasis on the study of such things as ancient Chinese history and literature, and its most influential exponent in Tokugawa Japan was Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728). He believed that scholars could not properly understand Confucian texts without an intimate knowledge of the ancient Chinese language, and that such knowledge was impossible without not only studying Chinese poetry, but also composing it oneself. It is no accident, then, that Sorai’s students were among the most prominent practitioners of poetry in Chinese during the mid-Tokugawa period. Many of his students, in fact, were much more interested in composing poetry than in following Sorai’s Confucian philosophy. When this Confucian element was removed, Sorai’s students gravitated toward the “bunjin” (literati) ideal, in which poetry, painting, and other such cultural pursuits were cultivated among circles of like-minded enthusiasts as a way of escaping the mundane reality of contemporary society. This bunjin ideal was shared by many haikai poets as well, such as Yosa Buson (1716-1783). As far as the relationship of Confucianism to other doctrines is concerned, one noticeable tendency among bunjin writers was to replace the Confucian focus on social responsibility with Taoist escapism. In my book, for instance, I provide some examples of poems by Sorai’s student Hattori Nankaku (1683-1759) that reveal this kind of Taoist attitude.

RDW: You mention in your book the "prominent place" 18th century Japanese philosophical and political discourse "gave to poetry in imagining the ideal society."

You write: "Many writers of this time viewed emotionality as the essential truth of human nature, and claimed that poetry had a unique capacity to express and communicate authentic emotions." You go on to add, "They [mid-Tokugawa poets] looked to idealized versions of ancient China or Japan as the source of a 'Way' (michi) that could be used to give order to society, and investigated these historical cultures through the philological analysis of ancient texts."

This ideal society the poets of this time imagined, then, was sculpted with the "scholarly tool" of pure language (ancient Chinese and/or Japanese) and the conceptualization that said language(s) "embodied" aesthetic qualities and cultural forms that could put people in touch with normatively correct cultures from the past," thus a "neoclassical approach to composition, in which they composed poetry by imitating canonical models from the past."

It almost seems contradictory, the emotionality essential to poetry coupled with mimesis to express it.

Please elucidate.

PF: This was definitely perceived as a potential contradiction by many in the Tokugawa period as well. In my book, though, I argue that the pursuit of these seemingly opposed ideals in poetry was not simply the result of having confused or poorly developed theories of literature. Instead, I maintain, both of these views were tied to eighteenth-century writers’ conception of the ideal society; they believed such a society needed to be held together by fixed cultural forms inherited from the past, but they also thought that people could only form social bonds by empathetically connecting with others through the communication of authentic emotions. Their social ideals themselves, then, involved a certain contradiction, or at least tension, and one reason poetry was so important to eighteenth-century writers, I argue, is that it was seen as having a unique capacity to resolve this contradiction. In their minds, poetry could embody both authentic emotions and fixed cultural forms, without these coming into conflict. These writers had to resort to various theoretical contortions to explain how this was possible, but the effort they went through to formulate such theories reflects the broader social ideals that they were trying to give voice to in their writings on literature.

RDW: You state that the Confucian scholar Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) "saw the study and composition of classical Chinese poetry by the governing elite as key to the practice of the Confucian Way." The Confucian Way, I take it, was well ingrained in the mindset of the ruling class. As with all belief systems, however, Confucianism was comprised of varying schools of thought. In addition, some intellectuals, such as Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) and Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769), referred to by many as Nativists, believed that only the ancient Japanese language could achieve the results Sorai said could be achieved through the ancient Chinese language. Diversity of thought, then as now, is/was common among thinkers even in a structured society like Tokugawa Japan. No one writer, poet, intellectual thought alike.

Your thoughts, professor.

PF: The diversity of thought in the Tokugawa period is indeed noteworthy, and is one of the reasons I was so attracted to Tokugawa thought as a field of study. One reason for this intellectual diversity lay in the lack of any centralized, hierarchical system of education. Unlike in China, there was no competitive examination system in Tokugawa Japan for gaining employment in the bureaucracy, taking away the pressure to spend vast amounts of time absorbing a fixed intellectual orthodoxy. There was a Confucian academy sponsored by the bakufu (the military government of the shogun) in Edo, as well as academies run by the various feudal domains, but these hardly represented the entirety of the education system. Private academies flourished, and were key to the development of new philosophies (all the main figures I discuss in my book operated their own academies). These academies allowed for lifetime learning (students didn’t just stay for a fixed number of years and graduate), as well as a variety of levels of involvement depending on the interests and ability of the student; some students might just attend the occasional lecture or poetry gathering, while others were full-fledged intellectual collaborators with their teachers. Moreover, these academies often brought together people from a wide range of social classes.

RDW: Continuing on the topic of the diversity of Confucian thought, it was a thought system constantly evolving, coinciding with the Japanese belief in the importance of becomingness versus the object something becomes: everything is in a constant state of being, becoming, deconstructing, and reconstructing in an activity-biased, non-static world. For instance, as you point out, Sorai argued that the Song Dynasty Confucians’ "practices of 'investigating things' and ‘extending knowledge' involved deciding for themselves that such-and-such must be this way, and such-and-such must be that way, and that this must certainly be the Way of the sages.” Later Confucian scholars saw this as a faulty ideal because such thinking represented generalized opinions based upon the subjectivity of those ordaining what is and isn't right, making it impossible to gain new knowledge. States Sorai: "They have a fixed form and predetermined logic, and apply this method to everything. But Heaven-and-earth is dynamic, as are humans. When we view these as if they were tied up with a rope, then this is truly a useless form of study." Sorai viewed this approach as being blinded by subjectivity, and dismissed it as reflecting mere “personal opinion.” His concept that virtue is flawed when subject to the interpretations of a collective culture seems flawed when he further iterates that humaneness as a virtue comes from above, via society's rulers. Your thoughts?

PF: Sorai’s criticism of the subjectivism of Song Confucians is rooted in his denial of the innate virtue of human nature. For Song Confucians, humans possess within themselves the universal moral principle that gives normative order to the cosmos. When humans use their innate moral intuition to make judgments about the empirical world, then, they are channeling this governing principle of the cosmos, which gives legitimacy to their judgments. Sorai, however, rejects the idea that humans possess any innate moral compass that could serve as the basis for such judgments. For him, personal judgments simply reflect the prejudices of particular individuals, and even collective judgments are merely a collection of such prejudices. For this reason, he argues, we need to look to the historical examples of the ancient Chinese sage kings to find stable norms with which to deal with the dynamic reality of our world; otherwise, we are stuck trying to manage an unstable world with our own personal subjectivity, which is itself unstable and unreliable. In contrast to the Song Confucian belief in the universal potential for people to achieve sagehood, Sorai claims that the sages were a limited group of people who lived in the past, and that it is impossible for people of the present to become sages. Instead, he argues, it is necessary for people to rely on what the sages of the past have created. The people he sees as responsible for enacting these historical examples in the present are the ruling class of a society (in the case of Tokugawa Japan, the samurai class). His view of human nature, then, leads to a certain authoritarianism in his political philosophy.

RDW: Poetry, it appears, was a controlled medium that restricted what a poet could and could not say. How was Matsuo Basho viewed by the Confucianists, once he made his poetry available to the commoner, using commoner language, and turning the medium into a voice that could not be regulated by Japan's ruling class?

PF: Confucians generally didn’t have much to say about haikai poetry, although an exception is Dazai Shundai (1680-1747), who was very critical of the genre. He didn’t specifically mention Basho, but he described haikai of the Tokugawa period as vulgar, and as a debased form of the waka tradition from which it had originally derived. He also took a dim view of haikai masters, expressing particular concern about the corrupting influence they could exercise on members of the ruling class who studied poetry with them. Although Shundai’s views on haikai were extreme even for a Confucian (he had extreme views about a lot of things), to a certain degree they reflect a view of literature shared by all the figures I discuss in my book. As you put it, they saw poetry as a “controlled medium,” an attitude quite at odds with how haikai sought to expand the definition of what could be considered legitimately poetic. Interestingly, though, many Confucians and nativists argued that the ancient poetry they emulated was simply the unadorned expression of ordinary people in ancient times. The reason that people could no longer express themselves spontaneously in this way, they claimed, was that over the centuries people’s emotions had grown shallow, and the world as a whole had declined into vulgarity. For people of the present day to express their ordinary sentiments, then, would be to give in to this decline by uncritically reflecting the vulgarity of the present. Confucians and nativists sought to fight this supposed decline, though, by composing based on poetic models from the past.

RDW: What role did waka (tanka) play as a poetic genre during 18th century Japan?

PF: For eighteenth-century nativists, waka was important as a vehicle for accessing the Japanese past, and specifically for recovering forms of human nature and emotionality that they believed had existed in that past. Nativists approached the Japanese past through textual analysis, and they saw the study and composition of waka, which they considered the purest form of ancient Japanese, as crucial training for such textual studies. They also valued waka for its emotional authenticity, which they contrasted with the rationalism and artificiality of Chinese poetry, and more broadly Chinese culture as a whole. Different nativists had different views on which specific periods in the history of waka should be emulated, but they all saw waka as uniquely capable of expressing the emotional truth of human nature. In addition to these scholarly and philosophical discourses surrounding waka, waka was valued by many simply as a form of literary expression, as well as for its social aspects. Waka was often composed in a group setting, and waka gatherings were one of the main forms of social interaction for nativist schools. Compared to a genre like haikai, waka was more of an elite than a popular genre. This elite character of waka should not be exaggerated, though, as one of the most important developments in waka during the Tokugawa period was its spread from the imperial court and aristocracy to a much broader audience of commoners. Nativism, despite its idealization of the traditions of the emperor and imperial court, was in fact a commoner movement, and it challenged the authority and elitism of the aristocratic court poets of the Tokugawa period, such as by attacking the legitimacy of the esoteric “secret transmissions” (hiden) through which the court poets taught waka. While nativists looked to the imperial court of the past as the source of the best waka, then, they did not see the imperial court of the present as properly upholding these poetic ideals. Rather, they claimed that all Japanese, not just the aristocracy, were the heirs of the poetic traditions of the ancient imperial court.

RDW: Kamo no Mabuchi saw Confucianism as trapped within the limitation inherent in human creations and human reasoning, what he called rigid categories. He believed such thinking was the antithesis of the spontaneous thinking essential to artistic voice.

Spontaneity versus controlled societal thought. How was he accepted by the government and what was the opposition to his reasoning?

PF: Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, Mabuchi did not face opposition from the authorities. This despite the fact that in addition to the attacks on Confucian ideas of social order that you mention, he also idealized the imperial government of ancient Japan, a stance that could be interpreted as a criticism of the political status quo of the eighteenth century, in which the emperor in Kyoto was merely a figurehead, while real political power was exercised by the military government of the shogun in Edo. Mabuchi’s romanticized depiction of the ancient emperors did not, however, translate into any effort to upset the current relationship between the emperor and the shogun. In fact, his patron for much of his career was none other than Tayasu Munetake (1716-1771), the second son of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751). Those in Mabuchi’s time who did engage in plots or rebellions against the authority of the shogun, such as Yamagata Daini (1725-1767), were dealt with harshly, but Mabuchi was not involved in any of these activities.

RDW: What can we as readers learn by exploring the ways in which writers in 18th century Japan valued poetry? How can this understanding help us in understanding the depth and breath of Japanese short form poetry, especially in the use of aesthetics?

PF: From an aesthetic standpoint, the poetry of eighteenth-century Confucians and nativists is characterized by a deliberate lack of originality; instead of trying to create something strikingly new, they aimed for a faithful reproduction of their chosen poetic models from the past. This has led their poetry to have a low reputation among modern Japanese scholars, who have seen it as noteworthy mainly as a manifestation of Confucian and nativist intellectual ideas, rather than having value as literature per se. Taken as literature, this eighteenth-century poetry is typically viewed as little more than a pale imitation of the poetic models that it copied. It is important to keep in mind, though, that this conformity to models was not the result of a failure of imagination; it was a very consciously pursued method of composition, one that was meant to bring the past to life in the present. I think this poetry is interesting in part, then, for how it challenges our modern ideas of what constitutes “good poetry.” By saying this, I am not trying to assert that modern readers are somehow wrong for finding Confucian and nativist poetry monotonous. Rather, I am simply calling attention to the historical and cultural conditions that lie behind our assessment of what constitutes quality in poetry.

RDW: Thank you, Professor, for taking time from your busy schedule to answer these questions. Your book, Imagining Harmony, though not a walk in the park to read (what academic book is?), was an illuminating read that helped me to see Japanese poetry and thought from an altogether different perspective. I recommend your book to those wishing to deepen their knowledge of Japanese poetry and the culture that composed it. Do you have anything further to add to this interview or advice to give to our readers?

PF: I would just like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss my book with your readers. My intention in my book was to analyze an aspect of Japanese literary thought that had received relatively little attention in English-language scholarship, so I hope that your readers find it informative.