Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867) was a time of peace and significant cultural shift. Religion and spirituality had been deeply affected by the Warring States period, a century of near-constant civil war. When the Tokugawa clan took power, the family raised a new dominant philosophy to help keep the land stable: Neo-Confucianism.
Neo-Confucianism was introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the era in which the foundation of Japan’s feudal system was established. However, it rose to prominence in the Edo period. The Tokugawa clan made Neo-Confucianism Japan’s official guiding philosophy. This had significant consequences for the entire nation.
According to the rationalistic and humanistic perspective of Neo-Confucianism, the existing social order—four social classes and untouchable outsiders who weren’t considered humans—had a heavenly sanction. The universe could be understood through human reason, and it was up to each human to build a harmonious relationship with the universe. That harmony was maintained by the benevolence of the superior and the obedience of the inferior. Observing propriety was incredibly important for everyone, no matter which social position one occupied, as was filial piety.
The emphasis on filial piety, history, and duty contributed to the development of bushido, the code of honor designed to control and influence samurai in the absence of near-constant war. Scholars were encouraged to focus on law, economics, and politics. As such, while other religious and spiritual traditions continued to exist in the Edo period, the legal code often hewed closer to the standards of Neo-Confucianism. Many tales record the struggles of people caught between impossible moral standards, such as a woman torn between her duty to her murdered husband and her father, who had committed the murder.
In Tale of Ronin, the values of Neo-Confucianism have begun to change Japanese society. The rise of bushido and a strict social hierarchy are just a few of these changes. But for the homeless and dangerous ronin, a code of honor that is impossible for most to fulfil may have devastating consequences.