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Time to drop Confucius

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Old habits die hard.  Cultural values and traditions are passed from generation to generation by families and society.  Change does take place, but usually slowly unless contact with the outside world provokes sudden change.


Japan was cut off from the rest of the world from 1600 to 1868, Japan's Tokugawa era (also known as the Edo Period).  And while it has since been "open" to the rest of the world, it has really been very isolated.  Even in the current period of globalization, Japan receives a very low levels of tourists and foreign investment, and imports are a small share of the economy.  It is not surprising therefore that Confucian values and customs remain strong in Japanese society.

Chinese Confucianism has made a very important contribution to Japan's unique culture.  While Confucius lived some five centuries before Christ, it was not until the 6th to 9th centuries after Christ that Confucianism was introduced into Japan.  Prince Shotoku made Confucian ideals the foundation of Japan at the time.  Confucianism was subsequently kept alive in Japan by Buddhist monks. 

Confucianism is not considered to be a religion but a set of ethical and cultural values.  In his Analects, Confucius said that if you lead the people with excellence and show them their station through roles and rituals, they will develop a sense of shame and they will order themselves harmoniously.

It was however only in the Tokugawa era that Confucianism came to be a dominant influence over Japanese society and political life.  Japan had been ravaged by internal wars, and so the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Neo-Confucianism (developed by the Chinese scholar Zhu Xi in the 12th century) as an instrument of peace and order. 

The Tokugawa military government established an elaborate bureaucracy which ruled over the feudal lords and ensured peace.  The introduction of Confucian loyalty and obligations ensured a standard code of conduct and social order.  This was underpinned by a rigid social class system comprising the warrior samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants.  Each person had a distinct place in society and was expected to fulfill this role. 

The samurai (most of whom were attached to lords) was the only class allowed to bear arms, and non-warriors were not allowed to enter this class.  This helped maintain peace as lords could not raise large armies.  But, peace left the samurai idle.  Their role was thus transformed into that of a role model of cultural, moral and intellectual development for the rest of society, based on the values of diligence, honesty, honour, loyalty, frugality, temperance, self-sacrifice, high discipline and fearlessness.  This system enabled Japan to enjoy some 260 years of peace.  

There are two broad facets of Confucianism: first, political and social order; and second, the behaviour and coduct necessary for being a worthy human being.  Thus, at the heart of the Confucian system is a hierarchical model for social and political order for the following types of relationships -- master-servant, parent-child, husband-wife, and elder sibling-younger sibling.  The person in the superior position has to look after the person in the lower position, who in turn must be loyal to the superior person.  When each person acts according to his or her status, it creates a harmonious society and ensures loyalty to the state.

Japan's history and Confucianism have bequeathed the country with a society which is authoritarian and hierarchical, and yet ethical.  This is evident in the work seniority system, practice of loyalty to one's company, low rates of crime, filial piety, stable family structures, respect for teachers (sensei) and strong education.  A highly complex system of respect, deference and courtesy also means that ambiguity, indirectness and face are key aspects of communication.  And the warrior code of the samurai has also left many Japanese men proud, heroic and sometimes arrogant.

This Confucian culture no doubt helped Japan and other Asian tigers in their nation-building and very rapid economic growth after World War 2 (other factors contributed too).  Their outstanding performance was driven by hard working, well educated and obedient workforces, and by governmental and business elites (neo-samurais) which chose the strategic direction.

But how relevant is Confucianism to the continued development in East Asia?  The question must be raised as Japan now finishes its second lost decade and some other Asian economies are having difficulty going the full distance in catching up the world's leading economic nations.

The world economy and society of today are different, and becoming increasingly so.  Innovation is key, which means that meritocracy should be more important than seniority.  And innovation is conducted more and more through open networks which cross narrow and strict job definitions.  Companies are developing increasingly flat organisational structures, instead of the hierarchical ones of the past.  Knowledge workers change companies, and sometimes even occupations, several times in a life, rather than being married to their company. 

It is clear that while Confucianism has its merits, it is in many ways a system which is more relevant to the past than the future.  What hope do Japan and other Asian countries have of jettisoning Confucianism?  In Japan it will be difficult.  The population is both ageing and declining.  Older, traditional people are a big force and have an interest in holding on to their privileges.  But by doing so, they are holding back their very own children, and also reducing prosperity and the capacity of governments to pay for their pensions and health care.  Not wise!