The father of Japan’s capitalist economy is Shibusawa Eiichi (1840-1931), a highly respected Japanese industrialist. Guided by his study of Confucius’ Analects, Shibusawa brought Western capitalism to Japan, but with a core emphasis on morality and business ethics.
In this series, we look at Shibusawa’s philosophy and understanding of Confucius’ teachings, which guided the creation of Japan’s modern economy.
Last week, we examined Shibusawa’s perspective on the oversupply of university graduates and why they can’t find jobs.
Shibusawa believed that the modern education system places too much emphasis on teaching technical knowledge instead of grooming moral character. The younger generation is taught to believe that they should only aspire to graduate-level work and that lower skilled jobs are demeaning.
As such, they fight for a limited number of high-skilled jobs in society, without considering their personal situation or true passion.
In fact, Shibusawa himself committed this same mistake when he was young.
Shibusawa Sought Blindly When He Was Young
In his book The Analects and the Abacus, under the chapter “The Path One Should Take In Life”, Shibusawa wrote:
“When I was 17, I made up my mind to become a samurai. That’s because businessmen at the time were looked down upon like peasants.
Society did not even treat businessmen like humans, and their situation was really bad.”
During the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868 AD), Shibusawa saw that samurai were respected nobility, while businessmen were disparaged. Shibusawa himself came from a humble farming family. As he was still young and immature, Shibusawa could not stand being treated poorly by others. He felt it unfair that a person born to a samurai family enjoyed lifelong prestige, even if the person had little knowledge.
“I could no longer stand being a peasant or a businessman for the rest of my life, so my obsession with becoming a samurai became stronger and stronger,” he said.
To rise above his lowly status in society, Shibusawa entered politics with the sole objective of becoming a samurai, without considering whether he was suited for a political career. He left his hometown and, after drifting around, eventually landed a job in the Ministry of Finance. He later came to regret this time of his life.
It was only during the fifth year of the Meiji Era that Shibusawa realised his temperament and abilities were not suited for politics. He decided to leave the political realm and pursue his interest in business. This, in fact, was his true calling.
Shibusawa reflected, “My youthful aspiration [to become a samurai] was formulated with a lack of understanding of myself. Moreover, it did not suit my abilities. As such, I felt helplessly lost and unsure of myself.”
If Shibusawa had not been blinded by status and rationally considered his own capabilities and passion, he would have entered his forte—business—much earlier in life. He would have been able to accumulate an extra decade of experience, and become even more successful as a businessman and industrialist.
Shibusawa regretted his blind pursuit as a youth, “wasting a period of precious time for nothing”. He hoped that future generations would learn from his error and avoid making the same mistake.
Shibusawa felt that we should rationally weigh our ambitions against reality, instead of blindly pursuing things that are unsuitable for ourselves. Toiling to boost our self-esteem or social status will not bring us true bliss. It is more important to be content with fulfilling one’s duty responsibly, as well as to contribute to society in a beneficial and meaningful way.
Balancing Wealth With Morality
So if one doesn’t become a samurai, how can one still become a respected, upstanding member of society?
Having studied The Analects and other Confucian teachings since young, Shibusawa was able to rationally think it through. Was it really necessary to be a samurai or politician to be considered a true gentleman in society?
Shibusawa saw that, although the samurai had been educated in sinology and Confucian teachings, they took things to an extreme by believing that true gentlemen must avoid any monetary dealings. As such, they avoided going into business, and businessmen were viewed as sly, corrupt, and lacking in good character.
But Shibusawa realised that,
if righteous people run businesses and engage in other financial activities, they can still generate wealth and material goods to benefit society. Isn’t that a good thing?
In addition, Shibusawa pointed out that we all need money to live, to receive an education, to carry out activities in society, and to finance a country. Money is needed everywhere. If we all do not work and earn an income, how can we have money to spend and to drive the country’s economy?
Unfortunately, later generations of Confucianists have misrepresented Confucius’ teachings and taken it to an extreme, believing that true gentlemen do not dabble in money or wealth, and vice versa. Over time, this led to an unethical culture among Japanese businessmen, which further strengthened society’s negative view of them.
In fact, when Shibusawa revisited The Analects, he realised that Confucius simply preached that one should earn money honestly and use one’s wealth ethically. In other words,
if one is wealthy, one should not forget one’s morals and be cautious of greed and selfishness.
Therefore, Shibusawa decided to restore the true meaning of Confucius’s teachings by reintroducing Confucian ethics to the business realm. He became a businessman, entering a profession that was disparaged in Japanese society, and turned everyone’s perspectives around by running his businesses honestly and righteously.
While starting hundreds of Japanese corporations and building Japan’s capitalist economy, Shibusawa also revived the ideals of generating honest wealth and using it to benefit society and strengthen the country’s economy.
By setting an example through his life,
Shibusawa demonstrated to later generations of Japanese that any honest occupation is a worthy one, regardless of social status. If it can benefit society, it deserves to be respected.
In so doing, Shibusawa also demonstrated that one should follow one’s passion and interests, rather than pursue a job for its status. As long as one is principled and of good character, one will naturally receive respect and rise to the top, regardless of one’s occupation.