Arai Hakuseki

From New World Encyclopedia

Arai Hakuseki (新井 白石) (March 24, 1657 - June 29, 1725) was a Japanese Confucianist, poet and politician during the middle of the Edo Period, and an advisor of Shogun Tokugawa Ienobu. His real name was Kinmi (君美), however he later adopted the pen name Hakuseki. His father, Arai Masazumi (新井 正済), was a Kururi han samurai. Hakuseki was also an ambitious scholar and a student of Kinoshita Junan.

After Tokugawa Ienobu became the sixth shogun, Arai Hakuseki worked with Manabe Akifusa to counter the economic havoc wrought by the previous Shogun's policies by launching Shotoku no Chi, a series of economic reforms. Hakuseki was a prolific writer, including the Seiyō Kibun (西洋記聞)—a clandestine work describing the Occident, based on Hakuseki's interviews with Giovanni Battista Sidotti, which was instrumental in the Shogunate's decision to open Japan to foreign trade when Commodore Perry and his Black Ships arrived almost 180 years later.


Arai Hakuseki was born in Edo (Tokyo) on March 24, 1657. His ancestors were lords of a small feudal state, but their power declined after Toyotomi Hideyoshi attacked Odawara Castle. Hakuseki was born in a shelter at the day after the Great Fire of Meiwa. Because of his birth after the Great Fire, and because he was hot tempered and the crease of his frown looked like 火 or 'fire,' he was affectionately called Hi no Ko (火の子) or "child of fire." In later years his rivals in the Tokugawa shogunate (Bakuhu), feared Arai Hakuseki as an oni (demonical person). From a very early age he displayed signs of genius. According to one story, at the age of three Hakuseki managed to copy a Confucian book written in Kanji, character by character.

After temporarily serving Lord Tsuchiya, he became a retainer of Hotta Masatoshi. After Masatoshi was assassinated by Inaba Masayasu, the Hotta clan was forced to move from Sakura to Yamagata and then to Fukushima, and their income declined. Hakuseki offered to leave them, becoming a ronin (a masterless samurai). He studied Confucianism, using Nakae Toju’s precept as a study guide. According to his memoirs, Oritaku Shiba-no-ki (“Told Round a Brushwood Fire”), he received an offer of marriage from a rich businessman named Suminokura, who suggested that Hakuseki marry his friend’s daughter and inherit their business. Hakuseki refused this proposal because of his ambition to become a scholar. Soon thereafter someone counseled him to become a physician, but continued to pursue his scholarly ambitions. At the age of 22, Hakuseki was offered another marital arrangement by Kawamura Zuiken, who had become extremely wealthy selling lumber to builders after the Great Fire of Meiwa. Arai Hakuseki was acquainted with Kawamura Zuiken through his son, Michiaki, who was a fellow student. This marriage offer also included a large amount of money and a building lot for a home, but Hakuseki very courteously declined. Hakuseki became apprenticed to a famous scholar of Confucianism, Kinoshita Junan from whom he learned The Five Classics and studied history. Kinoshita Junan served as a Confucian scholar to Lord Maeda of the domain of Kanazawa in Kaga, and in 1682 became a scholar for the Tokugawa shogunate. In his memoir, Oritaku Shiba-no-ki, Hakuseki describes the many books he gathered under Kinoshita Junan’s guidance.

Hakuseki’s rival among the disciples of Kinoshita Junan was Muro Kyuso, who later also became an official scholar for the Tokugawa shogunate. Muro Kyuso was a conservative scholar, while Arai Hakuseki had great ambitions. Many brillant scholars, such as Arai Hakuseki, Muro Kyuso, Amenomori Hoshu and Gion Nankai studied under Kinoshita Junan. Kinoshita Junan recommended Arai Hakuseki for a position as official scholar of the Kaga domain, where academic activities were flourishing under Maeda Tsunanori. However, a fellow pupil named Okajima Chushiro, who had an old mother living in Kaga, begged Hakuseki to propose him to Master Kinoshita Junan in his place. Hakuseki surrendered his position in Kaga to Okajima Chushiro, and this story later became a famous episode illustrating Hakuseki’s generous nature. In 1693, when Hakuseki was thirty-seven years old, Kinoshita Junan recommended him for service in the domain of Kofu. The Lord of Kofu was Tokugawa Tsunatoyo, who later became the sixth Tokugawa shogun, changing his name to Tokugawa Ienobu. This assignment to serve under Tsunatoyo gave Hakuseki the opportunity to work in the central circle of the Tokugawa shogunate.

In 1709, the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi died and Tokugawa Ienobu became the sixth shogun. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s policies had brought about social confusion and economic decline. Known as the “dog shogun,” he had issued edicts forbidding cruelty to dogs, and had been feeding and housing fifty thousand stray dogs at taxpayers’expense. He had imposed strict censorship and restrictions that encouraged smuggling.

Arai Hakuseki and Manabe Akifusa, working under the top Roju (a member of the Shogun’s Council of Elders), Abe Seikyo, with strong support from Tokugawa Ienobu, launched Shotoku no Chi, a series of economic reforms designed to improve the Shogunate’s standing. Minting new and better quality currency controlled inflation. Calculating from trade records, Hakuseki deduced that fully 75 percent of the gold and 25 percent of the silver in Japan had been spent on trade with foreign countries and implemented a new trade policy, the Kaihaku Tagae-ichi Shinrei (海舶互市新例), to control payments to Chinese and Dutch merchants by demanding that instead of precious metals, products like silk, porcelain, and dried seafood be used for trading. He also simplified rituals for welcoming the Joseon Dynasty's ambassadors, in the face of opposition from the Tsushima Confucianist Amenomori Hoshu. Hakuseki's policies were still carried out after Ienobu's death, but after the death of the seventh shogun, Tokugawa Ietsugu, and Tokugawa Yoshimune's rule began, Hakuseki left his post and began a career as a prolific writer.

Seiyo Kibun (西洋記聞)

Hakuseki wrote a 90-page manuscript on handmade paper that was placed in a drawer and never shown officially to others. In 1882, during the Meiji era, the manuscript was published as Seiyo Kibun (“A work describing the Occident, based on Hakuseki's interviews with Giovanni Battista Sidotti”).

In 1708, when Hakeseki was at work in the office of the Tokugawa Shogun Ienobu at Edo Castle, Hakuseki received news that a foreign missionary, Battista Sidotti, had arrived at Yaku shima Island in Kyushu and been immediately arrested. In that period Japan was under a policy of isolation and Christianity was prohibited. The missionary was sent to Nagasaki, where even under the isolation policy, some precarious trade was conducted with the Dutch and Chinese. The officials in Nagasaki could not understand the foreigner’s intentions because no one spoke his language. Hakuseki suggested that someone who knew Dutch might be able to guess what the foreigner was saying. Most foreigners spoke several languages; surely as a Christian missionary he had studied Japanese, since he could not witness without understanding the language. Hakuseki thought that, with patience, it would be possible to converse with him and make a thorough investigation of him.

In Edo (Tokyo), akuseki cross-examined him four or five times. These occasions were a precious experience for Hakuseki, so he wrote everything down as a book (Seiyo Kibun). For seventy years, since the Shimabara Rebellion, the Tokugawa Shogunate had persecuted Christians and thought they had all been executed. As Hakuseki questioned Battista Sidotti, an Italian, about Christianity and wrote his answers down in detail, he probably had to keep his document secret.

Hakuseki was amazed by Sidotti’s knowledge, especially of astronomy and geography. Hakuseki himself was unusually educated for that time, and knew about trigonometric functions; he was surprised that Sidotti could compute the time through watching the sun and his own shadow. They used compasses to point out their capital cities, Rome and Edo (Tokyo). Sidotti also understood Hakuseki’s erudition. Hakuseki however was not impressed when Sidotti explained the theory of Christianity. Hakuseki wrote that, notwithstanding his cleverness, when Sidotti spoke of Christianity he sounded like an idiot. Hakuseki took pity on Sidotti and offered him protection on the condition that he never preaches Christianity. Seven years passed and then an old couple, Chosuke and Oharu, who were Sidotti’s servants, confessed to officials that they had become Christian. All three were put in different prisons, where they died. After 139 years, on July 8, 1853, when the four American ships commanded by Perry sailed into Edo Bay to demand that Japan be opened to foreign trade, Hakuseki’s book about his interviews with Sidotti became instrumental in the Tokugawa Shogunate’s decision to open the door of Japan.

He was buried in Asakusa (currently Taito, Tokyo), Ho'onji temple but was later moved to Nakano, Tokyo, Kotokuji temple.

His works include:

  • Hankanfu (藩翰譜) - A list of the daimyo's family tree
  • Koshitsu (古史通) - A work that detailed the ancient history of Japan
  • Oritaku Shiba-no-ki (折りたく柴の記) - A diary and memoir
  • Sairan Igen(采覧異言)
  • Seiyō Kibun (西洋記聞) - A work describing the Occident, based on Hakuseki's interviews with Giovanni Battista Sidotti
  • Tokushi Yoron (読史余論) - A historical work

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Arai, Hakuseki and Joyce Ackroyd (trans.). Told Round a Brushwood Fire: The Autobiography of Arai Hakuseki. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980. ISBN 0691046719
  • Arai, Hakuseki and Joyce Ackroyd (trans.). Lessons from History: The Tokushi Yoron. University of Queensland Press, 1982.
  • Nakai, Kate Wildman. Shogunal Politics: Arai Hakuseki and the Premises of Tokugawa Rule (Harvard East Asian Monographs). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. ISBN 0674806530


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.