Chūshingura’s Innovation: From Kaishaku (Execution) to Kaishakugaku (Hermeneutics)

  • Jay Goulding York University



Japan possesses a history of resilience. Innovation is the mother of that resilience. The Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府, 1603-1868) provides many examples of Japanese innovation. In early Tokugawa, Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵, 1584–1645) becomes Japan’s greatest swordsman. His innovative fighting style reveals a Chinese Daoist inspiration, as does that of rival Yagyū Munenori (柳生宗矩, 1571–1646) sword master to Tokugawa and his Zen teacher Takuan Sōhō (沢庵宗彭,1573-1645). One of Tokugawa’s most prominent thinkers, Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長, 1730-1801) is an 18th century progenitor of innovation in both language and culture. His strategies serve to shape inter-cultural communications which allow Japan to exist in the flux of a multi-dimensional Floating World (ukiyo, 浮世). Some of his thinking relies on Daoist classics. Above all, some aspects of Chūshingura (忠臣藏, the Treasury of Loyal Retainers) exemplify Daoist philosophy. Chūshingura continues to be one of the premier innovations in Japanese history. Its significance can be understood by not only concentrating on the centre of the event but also turning to the periphery. Much scholarship focuses on the rōnin (浪人, masterless samurai [侍, 士]) and jōnin (上人, mysterious ninja [忍者] masters). Some attention should be placed on the onlookers of Chūshingura: the chōnin (町人, townsfolk). It is in the ethics of the townsfolk’s chōningaku (町人學), the backbone of Japanese commercial culture, where we see the continuing lessons of 1702. In the wake of Chūshingura, Ishida Baigan’s (石田梅岩, 1685-1744) Daoist inspired creation is a three component ethical creed for Tokugawa townsfolk, the chōningaku (町人學, learning of the townsfolk) or seigaku (性學, learning of nature) or later shingaku (心學, learning of the heart/mind) that artfully blends Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto (神道) into a harmony reminiscent of China’s sānjiào héyī (三教合一).

How to Cite
GOULDING, Jay. Chūshingura’s Innovation: From Kaishaku (Execution) to Kaishakugaku (Hermeneutics). JSAC: Japan Studies Association of Canada, [S.l.], v. 2014, dec. 2016. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 23 jan. 2018.