(113)Section 5: The Rise and Fall of Polytheistic Civilization II

Chapter 1: The Indus

13-2 Suzuki Shosan and the Birth of Japanese CapitalismIt’s

   It's the seventeenth century in Japan, and the warrior-turned Zen teacher and moralist, Shosan Suzuki has a visitor. A merchant, distressed, has come to the Buddhist monk in search of spiritual guidance. His life of buying and selling is consumed with the pursuit of profit, he laments, leaving him no time for Buddhist training. Shosan’s answer, in short, is a simple one: a merchant need not denounce monetary gain to achieve enlightenment. Shosan has some more advice:

     Throw yourself headlong into worldly activity. For the sake of the nation and its citizens, send the goods of your province to other provinces, and bring the goods of other provinces into your own. Travel around the country to distant parts to bring people what they desire. Your activity is an ascetic exercise that will cleanse you of all impurities. Challenge your mind and body by crossing mountain ranges. Purify your heart by fording rivers. When your ship sets sail on the boundless sea, lose yourself in prayer to the Buddha. If you understand that this life is but a trip through an evanescent world, and if you cast aside all attachments and desires and work hard, Heaven will protect you, the gods will bestow their favor, and your profits will be exceptional. You will become a person of wealth and virtue and care nothing for riches. Finally you will develop an unshakable faith; you will be engaged in meditation around the clock. (Yamamoto Shichihei, The Spirit of Japanese Capitalism and Other Essays, trans. Lynn E Riggs [New York: Madison Books, Library of Japan, 1992])

   After the Japanese critic Shichihei Yamamoto introduces Shosan’s commentary on the merchant (above), Yamamoto goes on to introduce a modern Japanese industrialist. Yamamoto explains that this businessman has been quoted as saying he has never sought to make profit for his company, but instead has devoted his career to providing electronics as cheaply as tap water. It’s not a little-known fact that tap water is a processed commodity that comes with a price. Yet, the business man explains, very few people would complain if they saw a passerby drinking large quantities of water from a roadside tap since water is plentiful and practically free.      Yamamoto never mentions the business man by name, but his ideas are practically common knowledge in Japan. The unique ideology, known in Japan as the “tap water philosophy,” is the vision of Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita. Matsushita may have been called by some the “god of management,” but the “tap water philosophy” was inspired by Suzuki Shosan, which is why Yamamoto describes the Zen Buddhist monk as the father of Japanese capitalism.

The True Origin of Japanese Capitalism.

   If you remember, Max Weber argued that it was Calvinism’s rationalization of profit as an end in itself that helped give rise to capitalism. But Calvinism, also known as reformed
Christianity, had almost no hold in Japan, which seemed like a world away. (During Shosan’s life, Christianity was banned in Japan as a prevention measure against Portuguese and Spanish invasion. There were officially no Christians in the island nation.) Instead, Japan had Shosan, who, by reforming Buddhist teachings, gave rise to Japanese capitalism. Yamamoto argues then Baigan Ishida, the Japanese educator and philosopher responsible for creating the Shingaku Movement (literally translated as “heart learning”), who separated capitalism from Buddhism to popularize ethics as a philosophy for the ordinary citizen.                The American sociologist Robert Bellah came to the same conclusion. Where Yamamoto and Bellah differ however is Baigan’s ideological basis—Bellah believed it was not Zen but Shinshu 真宗 Buddhism.
   But first, I’d like to talk a bit about a region in central Japan near the former capital of Kyoto known as Omi 近江 (present-day Shiga prefecture). It was the home to the famous Omi shonin, a group of high-profile merchants known for both their wealth and their unique moral code.            The Omi shonin were active not only in the Edo period, but also through the Meiji period into Japan’s modernization. One of its members, Chubei Itoh (1842-1903), even created the prototype to Japan’s Sogo shosha (general trading companies), which became the business model for many Japanese corporations. Born at the end of the Edo period, Itoh came into his element during the Meiji period when his business efforts really took off through his founding of the ITOCHU Corporation and Marubeni, two Sogo shosha companies still in existence today.                  Having come from a long line of Shinshu Buddhists, Itoh was a fervent follower himself and lived by a moto that clearly reflected the spiritual lineage from which he came: “Trade is a compassionate business (literally translated as “trade is the work of a Bodhisattva”). It is noble when it accords with the spirit of Buddha by profiting those who sell and those who buy and supplying the needs of the society.” (https://www.itochu.co.jp/en/ir/doc/annual_report/online2017/introduction.html)               The founder of Shinshu Buddhism, Shinran, was a fervent preacher to his believers of the doctrine jiri-rita enman. In the thirteenth century when Shinran was teaching jiri-rita enman自利利他円満, he was referring to the fulfillment of Amitabha’s wish to attain Buddhahood himself so that he could enable all people to be reborn as Buddhas as well. Eventually, however, the phrase came to refer to certain social behaviors that brought well-being to both oneself and others, before evolving into the idea that this was the function of commerce—hence, the idea that “trade is the work of a Bodhisattva.”
   It was this Shinshu Buddhist belief that, sociologist Bellah believed, was the ideological basis for Baigan’s philosophy. Bellah cites the Gengen yoshu幻々要集 as an example of this idea in fleshed out form:

     In merchandising we receive remuneration for supplying the
    consumer with manufactured goods. The artisans receive their
    remuneration by producing the goods and supplying them to the       consumer. What the world calls this remuneration is profit. But the
    basis of receiving this profit depends on profiting others. Thus both
    the business of merchants and of artisans is the profiting of others.
    By profiting others they receive the right to profit themselves. This
    is the virtue of the harmony of jiri-rita. The spirit of profiting others
    is the Bodhisattva spirit. Having a Bodhisattva spirit and saving all
    beings, this is called Bodhisattva deeds. Thus Bodhisattva deeds
    are just the deeds of merchants and artisans. In general the
    secrets of merchants’ and artisans’ business lies in obtaining
    confidence through Bodhisattva deeds. (Robert N. Bellah,
    Tokugawa Religion [New York: The Free Press, 1985])

   So the question is, which eventually went on to become the philosophical foundation to Japanese capitalism? Zen or Shinshu Buddhism? I happen to think the former, i.e., Shosan Suzuki. Thanks to Shinshu Buddhism’s rival philosophy, Zen, arriving at the idea first, Baigan was able to break free from the shackles of religion. On the other hand, even if Shinshu believers had been exposed to Shosan’s ideology, they couldn’t have very well converted. Instead, they would have likely sought a doctrinal modification.                               Had Shinshu Buddhism been the seminal idea of Japanese capitalism, it would have required Baigan to divorce his philosophy from its Shinshu Buddhist context, which would have almost certainly fomented fierce protest from fervent believers of Amitabha.                     But this is now. New research and new historical discoveries could change everything.

Editor/ Noriko Knickerbocker , Aquarius Ltd.
Translator/ Matthew Hunter , Aquarius Ltd.
©Motohiko Izawa 2018-2020 All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.
Motohiko Izawa

Izawa tackles for the first time the mysteries of the world in a historical journey of intrigue and cross-cultural understanding.

Born in Japan, 1954, Nagoya native. Writer of historical nonfiction and mystery novels.