Making a Moral Society: Ethics and the State in Meiji Japan
248pp. November 2009
Making a Moral Society: Ethics and the State in Meiji Japan
Author: Richard M Reitan;
This innovative study of ethics in Meiji Japan (1868–1912) explores the intense struggle to define a common morality for the emerging nation-state. In the Social Darwinist atmosphere of the time, the Japanese state sought to quell uprisings and overcome social disruptions so as to produce national unity and defend its sovereignty against Western encroachment. Morality became a crucial means to attain these aims. Moral prescriptions for re-ordering the population came from all segments of society, including Buddhist, Christian, and Confucian apologists; literary figures and artists; advocates of natural rights; anarchists; and women defending nontraditional gender roles. Each envisioned a unity grounded in its own moral perspective. It was in this tumultuous atmosphere that the academic discipline of ethics (rinrigaku) emerged—not as a value-neutral, objective form of inquiry as its practitioners claimed, but a state-sponsored program with its own agenda.

After examining the broad moral space of "civilization," Richard Reitan turns to the dominant moral theories of early Meiji and the underlying epistemology that shaped and authorized them. He considers the fluidity of moral subjectivity (the constantly shifting nature of norms to which we are subject and how we apprehend, resist, or practice them) by juxtaposing rinrigaku texts with moral writings by religious apologists. By the beginning of the 1890s, moral philosophers in Japan were moving away from the empiricism and utilitarianism of the prior decade and beginning to place "spirit" at the center of ethical inquiry. This shift is explored through the works of two thinkers, Inoue Tetsujiro (1856–1944) and Nakashima Rikizo (1858–1918), the first chair of ethics at Tokyo Imperial University. Finally, Reitan takes a detailed look at the national morality movement (kokumin dotoku) and its close association with the state before concluding with an outline of some conceptual linkages between the Meiji and later periods.

With its highly original thesis, clear and sound methodology, and fluid prose, Making a Moral Society will be welcomed by scholars and students of both Japanese intellectual history and ethics in general.

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“Innovative and challenging. . . . Recommended for graduate courses in ethics, politics, religion, and of course Japanese history and cultural studies.“ —Historian (October 2011)

“A lucidly written, impressively sophisticated work of intellectual history. It will be of great value to anyone interested in the intellectual history of late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century Japan, and is especially recommended to those who want to learn more about the intellectual rationalizations of state ideologies in this period.” —American Historical Review (April 2011)

“Richard Reitan argues that modern Japanese ethics—and particularly the creation of an ethics of a ‘Japanese spirit’ or ‘Japanese national character’—arose in the context of the Meiji movement for civilization, as Japan attempted to become more like Europe in order to recover its sovereignty and equality with western states. His is a thoughtful and original contribution to the historiography of Japan and valuable account of the rise of ‘national morality.’ The book demonstrates an admirable command of the material, great clarity with which Japanese concepts are explained, and an argument of nuance and subtlety. Making a Moral Society will not only be of interest to scholars of Japanese history, religion, and culture, and scholars of ethics, nationalism, and modernization generally, but will also be useful in graduate seminars and advanced undergraduate courses.” —Douglas Howland, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

“Ethics cannot be separated from the history of ideas: that is the point of this innovative and illuminating study. Reitan shows that the discipline of ethics in Japan emerged over time out of vigorous debates on how society ought to be ordered. He not only interprets the relevant documents in the context of the debate over the legitimation of ideals and norms; he also demonstrates the ways that terms used in common were recast to fit the divergent agendas of competing schools of thought. This is a highly valuable work that will make a significant and lasting contribution to Japan studies and to the history of ethics in general.” —John C. Maraldo, University of North Florida

Author: Richard M Reitan;
Richard M Reitan is assistant professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Read the introduction (PDF).

Introduction: Ethics and the Universal in Meiji Japan
1. Civilization and Foolishness: Contextualizing Ethics in Early Meiji Japan
2. The Epistemology of Rinrigaku
3. Rinrigaku and Religion: The Formation and Fluidity of Moral Subjectivity
4. Resisting Civilizational Hierarchies: The Ethics of Spirit and the Spirit of the People
5. Approaching the Moral Ideal: National Morality, the State, and "Dangerous Thought"
Epilogue: The Ethics of Humanism and Moral Particularism in Twentieth-Century Japan