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Top>Opinion>Striving to Transcend Fish Justice


Shunji Hosaka

Shunji Hosaka [Profile]

Striving to Transcend Fish Justice

-Reviving the Spirit of the Orient-

Shunji Hosaka
Professor of Religious Studies, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

Is Japanese society sick?

Japanese society at present is a unique affluent community, like none ever before seen in history. Materials and information are also flooding the entire country, and anyone who avails themselves of these, who makes an effort, and who has even a bit of opportunity, can actually achieve wealth and gain fame in society, rather than just dreaming about doing so. However, we need to stop and consider whether a society that glorifies such so-called winners in this way is really a society that will bring us happiness. In other words, I mean to ask if a society that allows only excellent and strong people to monopolize fame and wealth while ignoring others, is really an excellent society.

If I had proposed such a question several years ago, I might not have received a sympathetic reaction from readers because Japanese society was following in the wake of the American neo-liberal economic system, strongly advocating the value of small government and the social rule of individuals' responsibility for themselves.

The result, however, was that many people in Japanese society focused on achieving greater wealth and lost the desire to consider other people, madly pursuing greater monetary riches and attempting to satisfy their own limitless desires. The financial supremacy of Japanese society in recent years developed because members of society, fighting with almost divine ferocity, pushed straight forward into the money game. But the limitations of this new liberal economic system have now been clearly revealed by the subprime loans collapse, and the dark side of this system has rapidly become apparent. Japan is now overflowing with unprecedented factors of instability including poverty, loneliness, anxiety and disorder.

Justice known as Fish Justice

Here, I reflect on an Indian classic that provided political guidelines in ancient times in India, that is, the famous political document known as the Arthashastra Sutra (translated into Japanese as the Arutasha Sutra). Containing practical theories, it was written by Kautilya (Chanakya), prime minister under King Chandra Gupta (Chandragupta) who established the Maurya Empire. Chandra Gupta was the grandfather of King Ashoka (circa 263 BC ~ 223 BC), famous for his devotion to and propagation of Buddhism. The intense nationalism advocated by the Arthashastra Sutra inspired the famous sociologist Max Weber of Germany (1864 ~ 1920) to comment that Machiavelli would have been astonished by this predecessor to his own work. At the beginning of this sutra, concerning why sovereign power is needed, it states that there are various types of justice, and that strong sovereign power is essential in order to protect people from "fish justice." In the modern way of speaking, this "fish justice" refers to the type of society in which the strong devour the weak: strong people madly make efforts to pursue wealth and fame for themselves without reflecting upon weaker people.

The sutra says that in human society, if left to their own devices, strong people will inevitably oppress and exploit weak people and chase them to destruction. This resembles the way big fish swallow small fish, hence the term "fish justice." If such "fish justice" permeates society, government could be considered unnecessary. But in such a society, there is a whirlwind of violence, fear and mutual distrust, and it is said that this type of society will never last for long. In other words, there is no such thing as continuously winning forever; therefore the winner of today will be the loser of tomorrow, and no one can escape the path of destruction. Of course, it is interesting that the sutra acknowledged this as a kind of justice, concluding, however, that such justice will not endure.

This sutra stipulates the functions of sovereign power or politics. In other words, "the function of kings and governments is said to be protect weak people (the masses) from 'fish justice.'" But this practical reason theory also has its limitations. In other words, the king himself is the strongest person, and if he exercises his power unilaterally, that itself is really "fish justice." I consider that the person who confronted the limitations of this practical reason theory discovered a new political philosophy, and practiced it, was none other than King Ashoka himself.

After he ascended to the throne, King Ashoka waged aggressive war in ancient India as a faithful practitioner of practical reason theory, and for some time he continued to kill and injure many people. But eventually he regretted his own mistake in killing so many victims, and became deeply devoted to the teachings of Buddhism.

Teachings regarding En and Others go first, and I come after them

Recently in Japan, Buddhism is understood only as funeral Buddhism, but Buddhism is actually a religion with an established political philosophy. King Ashoka became a believer in Buddhism, and did his utmost to embody the spirit of Buddhism in politics. He has been revered ever since, and in India is even now referred to as a saint.

King Ashoka referred to himself as what would today be called a servant of the people. He was a great king, governing India while practicing the Buddhist concept of considering other people's happiness first and his own happiness last-seeking his own pleasure only after the happiness of his subjects was assured. The Japanese expression of this translates as, hardship now, pleasure later. Another interesting fact is that is that he considered his subjects to include cattle, horses, and other animals and birds as well as humans, and built hospitals to treat them all. To put in modern terms, he provided advanced medical treatment and welfare even for animals. King Ashoka emphasized the importance of respect for life-for all living things-because in the doctrine of Buddhism in which he believed, all living things are considered to be mutually connected and to exist by supporting each other. The idea is that even if something seems to be independent and remain aloof from others, it is still connected with deep relationships, and none can live without the help of others. This is the Buddhist doctrine of En.

In other words, all living creatures are connected by relationships, and severing these bonds is in a sense, "fish justice," with the results mentioned above. Therefore, it is essential to follow a doctrine that will apply the brakes and control the actions of human beings who become selfish when left to their own devices. Such doctrines include ethics and morality, and the underlying principle is: Think of others first, then of yourself. Thinking of other people first, rather than insisting on your own opinion, can be expected to lead to and result in profit for oneself. This is also is fundamental thinking in the ideology of En, in which everything is connected.

The matters introduced here date back over 2,000 years. Am I the only one who feels that they can be useful references for solving the various problems confronting Japanese society today? Recent arguments in Japan have mostly focused on the economy, and as a result Japan is likely to fall into a vicious circle of losing even economic profit.

Related to this, the Buddhist doctrine symbolized by King Ashoka, has formed the foundation of the Japanese spirit since ancient times. However, I feel that lately this cultural tradition is not being properly used.

It seems that we need to get back to having a humble attitude toward drawing wisdom from history in order to solve present-day problems for the sustainable development of Japanese society.

Find the educational programs edited by author, Cloister of Wisdom (The Japanese Heart as reflected in Traditional Religion) here:New window

Shunji Hosaka
Professor of Religious Studies, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Professor Hosaka was born in Gunma Prefecture in 1956. He completed graduate school at Waseda University, and his specializations include religious studies, philosophy, comparative ideology, comparative culture, and sociology. Professor Hosaka took up his current position in 2008. He is currently seeking a new methodology concerning the relationships between religion, politics, and society in order to grasp religion and politics in a way that can comprehensively elucidate the real relationships between religion and politics-as opposed to pretending that they have no relationship, as in the traditional approaches (with the so-called separation of politics and religion).
Professor Hosoka's primary works include: Sikh Culture and Teachings (Hirakawa), Dialogue with Islam(Seibundo), Buddhism and Yoga, (Tokyo Shoseki), Why Indian Buddhism was Ruined (Hokuju Shuppan), Nation and Religion (Kobunsha)
Healing, Calm, and Religion in Japan (Hokuju Shuppan).