Medieval Japanese Marxism?

Continuing my theme this week of “Idleness Week“, I wanted to post another good quotation from the 13th Century Japanese text, the Essays in Idleness, or tsurézurégusa (徒然草). This comes from section 142:

It is wrong for anyone who has abandoned the world and is without attachments1 to despise other men burdened with many encumbrances for their deep-seated greed and constant fawning on others. If he could put himself in the place of the men he despises, he would see that, for the sake of their parents, wives and children, whom they truly love, they forget all sense of shame and will even steal. I believe therefore it would be better, instead of imprisoning thieves and concerning ourselves only with punishing crimes, to run the country in such a way that no man would ever be hungry or cold. When a man lacks steady employment, is heart is not steady, and in extremity he will steal. As long as the country is not properly governed and people suffer from cold and hunger, there will never be an end to crime. It is pitiful to make people suffer, to force them to break the law, and then to punish them.

How then may we help people? If those at the top would give up their luxury and wastefulness, protect the people and encourage agriculture, those below would unquestionably benefit greatly. The real criminal is the man who commits a crime even though he has a normal share of food and clothing.

To modern ears/eyes, this may sound Marxist to some,2 but of course this predated it by six centuries. Instead, I think Kenkō is drawing inspiration from Confucian idea of the government’s responsibility toward the people. Compare this passage from the Analects of Confucius:

[12:9] Duke Ai asked Youruo: “It has been a year of famine and there are not enough revenues to run the state. What should I do?”

Ruo said, “Why can’t you use a 10% tax?”

The Duke answered: “I can’t even get by on a 20% tax, how am I going to do it on 10%?”

Ruo said, “If the people have enough, what prince can be in want? If the people are in want, how can the prince be satisfied?” (trans. A.C. Muller)

Or from similar statements in the Chinese Taoist classic, the Dao De Jing, section 75:

The reason people starve
Is because their rulers tax them excessively.
They are difficult to govern
Because their rulers have their own ends in mind. (trans. A.C. Muller)

But Kenkō’s inspiration may also come from Buddhist compassion and wisdom. It’s easy to punish, governments do it all the time, but Kenkō is asking people to stop and consider whether the problem is the people, or the conditions they are forced to endure due to government mismanagement. A leader who knows when enough is enough, can be benefit the country greatly, but of course, in Kenkō’s era, when society was still highly stratified by rank and aristocracy, this was rarely the case. Maybe they could have taken inspiration from the famous Edo-period daimyo, Uesugi Yozan, a few centuries later. :)

P.S. An interesting piece on crime in America.

1 In Japanese, this is a Buddhist term or shukke (出家), meaning to go forth and become a monk or nun, in other words, a fully dedicated disciple of the Buddha. This is a time-honored tradition from the days of the Buddha himself.

2 Even if it does, I still agree with the basic sentiment.

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2 Comments on “Medieval Japanese Marxism?”

  1. Kendall says:

    I find this type of thing interesting to think about from time-to-time. While it sounds reasonable to take care of our neighbors and try to take away people’s perceived need to commit crimes, there’s also the issue of those who would abuse the compassion and take advantage of the compassion shown toward them. Of course, focusing on the potential negative sides of a good deed should not keep us from being compassionate toward others. We don’t act compassionate in order for those people to treat us better.

    If the solution to the problem was easy, I’m sure we would have done it by now.

  2. Doug says:

    Ha ha ha, true. If nothing else, it’s something to work toward, even if the idea doesn’t entirely pan out in reality. :)

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