The Rise and Fall of Japan's First 'Enlightenment'

What is the takeaway from Japan’s Muromachi Era? A little bit of freedom goes a long way.

In the Western world, we think of feudalism as predominant during the period from (roughly) the reign of Charlemagne to about 1500. That’s 700 years, a long time for serfdom to put down deep roots. Eventually it dissolved into about 300 years of mercantilism, a system which loosened the chains somewhat but was nonetheless mired in growth-choking economic fallacies.

When the ideas of Adam Smith and the Enlightenment gained prominence late in the 18th Century in Europe, people and economies were substantially liberated. Private property, entrepreneurship, free enterprise, and limited government became the consensus.

The result?

An explosion in life spans and living standards in the 19th Century for which there was no close precedent in human history.

Having developed a recent interest in the history of the Far East, I wondered, “What about Japan?” Did that country experience anything similar at around the same time? The answer is complicated, but fascinating, nonetheless.

Though feudalism’s roots in Japan go back further, a system of lords, vassals, and serfs (by other names) was firmly established during what Japanese historians label as “the Kamakura Period,” from 1185 to 1333. The samurai warrior class emerged during this era. For the masses of Japanese, life offered little upward mobility; they were tied to the land, owned by the elite nobility. That fact, combined with constant warfare, guaranteed economic stagnation—until the last of the Kamakura shoguns (military dictators) was overthrown in 1333.

In Europe, the pro-freedom impulses that produced first the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment were still many decades in the future when the Japanese began moving in similar directions. This is notable because in Japan, there was comparatively little intellectual ferment immediately preceding the loosening of bondage—no indigenous counterparts to giants such as John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Voltaire, etc.

The Japanese seem instead to have stumbled toward freedom more for practical reasons than for ideological ones. Individuals began to exert their personal independence not because they attended the salons and tea houses of enlightened thinkers, but because central control was weakened with the fall of the last Kamakura shogunate. People then just did more of what they tend to do naturally when politicians get out of their way—they start businesses and engage in trade.

That brings us to the Muromachi Era, the period beginning with the fall of the Kamakura regime and persisting for almost 250 years—until 1573. In some limited ways, it was Japan’s first Enlightenment, appearing and then disappearing before one ever got underway in Europe.

The one intellectual who enjoyed prominence in the Muromachi period was the ancient Chinese scholar Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.), whose nearly two-thousand-year-old writings staged a comeback. Confucianism during this time became an essential focus of learning in Japan. The philosopher’s essentially peaceful, self-improvement- and virtue-based teachings likely contributed to the growth of commerce.

He articulated the “Golden Rule” a half millennia before Christ when he wrote, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

Confucius encouraged wealth-creating entrepreneurs and believed that a good government should get out of their way. “When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of,” he wrote. “When a country is ill governed, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of.”

In their chapter, “The Growth of Commerce and the Trades,” in the anthology titled Japan in the Muromachi Age, scholars Toyoda Takeshi and Sugiyama Hiroshi write,

… the Muromachi period saw a steady growth in the quantity of trade and commercial production and in their freedom from proprietary control. Those aspects of the economy which had been limited in production and distribution, but which had been stimulated by the patronage of the aristocratic class, grew in importance and scope. Eventually merchants freed themselves from the control of their patrons and found new markets and new independence of enterprise. Complete freedom of trade was as yet many centuries off. But commerce as a separate component of the economy was coming into its own.

Small businessmen and artisans organized trade associations for the first time in Japanese history, especially in the central part of the country where government control was weakest. Merchants during the Muromachi period, write professors Toyoda and Sugiyama, “sought economic and political independence, and we find among them…patterns of group association for self-protection.” Class distinctions even began to erode. Toyoda and Sugiyama reveal a “willingness to recognize able men of even the lowest orders of society and to allow them to exercise their talents.”

Austrian economist F. A. Hayek observed in the 20th Century that as shackles on freedom are removed in a society, it is not chaos that ensues but rather a “spontaneous order” that is ultimately more rational and beneficial than any state-run regimen. Signs of this very thing are apparent in the early Muromachi period in Japan.

Trade with China greatly increased during this time. “Japanese wood, sulfur, copper ore, swords, and folding fans,” writes Richard Mason in A History of Japan, “were traded for Chinese silk, porcelain, books, and coins, in what the Chinese considered tribute but the Japanese saw as profitable trade.”

Art and culture flourished as well, evidenced by such developments as Japanese ink painting, the indigenous stage drama known as Noh and the famous tea ceremony.

Late in the Muromachi period, Christianity debuted in Japan with the arrival of the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier in 1549. He led the first-ever Christian mission to the country. Three decades later, Japanese Christians numbered about 150,000 and attended some 200 churches.

Historian Martin Colcutt notes the progress of the era:

Overall, the economic gains made during the Muromachi period probably outweighed the losses and dislocations. The disintegration of shôen created new opportunities for some merchants and farmers. Local merchants benefited from the relaxation of guild privileges and greater access to markets. A nascent merchant class emerged. Although coinage was not being minted in Japan, the use of money, bills of exchange, and pledges, were all accepted.

Alas, this Japanese Enlightenment ended late in the 16th Century when a warlord by the name of Oda Nobunaga seized power. His aim was to “unify” Japan by centralizing political, economic, and cultural influences. He suppressed opposition with brutal force. Though he reduced taxes on trade and further restricted the power of guilds over the labor market, Nobunaga’s centralization nonetheless signaled a shift away from liberalization.

That shift became complete in 1603 with the start of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a military dictatorship that lasted for more than 250 years. It enforced a rigid class system, a return to the feudal economy, and a radically isolationist foreign policy. It even banned Christianity. Not until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 would Japan see liberalization again (see Mori Arinori, the Japanese Tocqueville).

What are the takeaways from our understanding of Japan’s Muromachi period? A little bit of freedom goes a long way, even without a large body of supporting literature. But it’s also fragile, subject to the same toxic motivation that has reared its ugly head time after time the world over—the lust for power.

For Additional Information, See:

The Golden Rule is as Golden as Ever by Lawrence W. Reed

In Praise of Spontaneous Order by Kerry McDonald

The Miracle of Industrialization by Marian L. Tupy

How the Scottish Enlightenment Glorified Commerce and the Individual by Graham McAleer

Mori Arinori, the Japanese Tocqueville—Part One by Lawrence W. Reed

Mori Arinori, the Japanese Tocqueville—Part Two by Lawrence W. Reed

Mori Arinori, the Japanese Tocqueville—Part Three by Lawrence W. Reed

What Caused Japan’s Post-War Economic Miracle? by Lawrence W. Reed

Japan in the Muromachi Age, edited by John Whitney Hall, et al

Japan’s Medieval Age: The Kamakura & Muromachi Periods by Martin Colcutt

A History of Japan by R. H. P. Mason

More by Lawrence W. Reed