Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn 2012) Published on November 1st, 2012
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Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 2010) Contents
Bericht uit Tokyo Rien ne va plus
Column by Bas Valckx
Verschuivende perspectieven
Article by Willem van Gulik
Cha Zen ichi mi
Calligraphy by Arthur Witteveen
Priests, money and women: religion in Seji kenbunroku
Article by Mark Teeuwen
Het verhaal van de zwerfhond
Article by Frans B. Verwayen
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Priests, money and women: religion in Seji kenbunroku

Article by Mark Teeuwen


Seji kenbunroku, “A witness account of matters in the world,” is a long and detailed critique of all levels of society that was written in the 1810s by a samurai writer whom we only know by his pseudonym Buyō Inshi – the Hidden (or Retired) Gentleman from Musashi (that is, Edo). All we know about this figure is what he reveals about himself in the text; and this is so little that it is unlikely that he will be identified unless a new contemporary source turns up that lifts the veil. The text’s anonymity has had the effect that there is as yet no detailed study of the text; there is little more to go on than the introductions to modern editions written by historians such as Honjō Eijirō (1888-1973), who prepared the first full edition of the text, Takimoto Seiichi (1857-1931), Takigawa Masajirō (1897-1992), and Naramoto Tatsuya (1913-2001) – all composed rather a long time ago. One often encounters short quotations from the text, which is full of colourful episodes from all walks of life, but I have yet to see a sustained analysis of its arguments and its view on society in either Japanese or a Western language.
         Seji kenbunroku appeals to me for two reasons. The first is its sweeping set-up. The author (“Buyō”) has the grand ambition of writing a social critique that covers the whole of contemporary society, and dedicates separate chapters to each of the main sections of the social pyramid. Most of these chapters display a similar structure: first, Buyō briefly draws up an image of a magnificent ideal; then, he turns to the reality on the ground in great anecdotal detail, and finds it lacking in all respects. The fact that Buyō is explicit about the ideal that real life is measured against, makes it easier for the reader to discern the polemical nature of his descriptions, and it serves as a clear warning against taking Buyō’s portrayal of “reality” for granted. Buyō’s juxtaposition of high ideals and dirty actuality confuses the reader all the more because his ideals appear so utterly absurd. This makes Buyō’s text great material for methodical reflection on the nature of historical sources: what are we to make of a text’s descriptions of society if the world view that informs those descriptions is so utterly alien to our own? And, the other way around, how does our own modern perspective distort our understanding of texts written in another age and place?
        The second reason for my fascination with the text is its position within Edo period intellectual history. Finished in c. 1816 by a streetwise samurai (probably a rōnin) who prides himself on his lack of any formal learning, the text reveals much about the impact (or lack of impact) of major trends in the age’s intellectual history. As one would expect of a samurai author writing a decade or so after the Kansei Reforms (1787-93), Buyō’s outlook is in many ways a Confucian one. Loyalty and filial piety, imbedded in human nature and bestowed by heaven, are the central values to which he subscribes. Yet, he reserves his highest praise for budō, the martial Way, and he does not hesitate to criticise even Confucianism as and when it becomes an obstruction to that Way – for example by consistently preaching for mercy rather than physical punishment, and by severely restricting bushi’s right to exert violence.
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