Filial Piety and Japanese Tales

“A man who respects his parents and his elders would hardly be inclined to defy his superiors. A man who is not inclined to defy his superiors will never foment a rebellion. A gentleman works at the root. Once the root is secured, the Way unfolds. To respect parents and elders is the root of humanity.” (Leys, 3) This quote by Master You in The Analects encapsulates the importance of Filial Piety, which has perhaps been the most important virtue in Japanese society for some fifteen centuries. Filial Piety comes from the practice of Confucianism, which took deep root during the Heian and Muromachi periods. The importance of Filial Piety throughout the Japanese culture is demonstrated time and time again through their stories and tales that arose after Confucianism made its way to Japan.

Although Confucianism has its origins in China, Japan only started to take notice of its practices when it started to gain popularity. Japan began to learn and adopt many Confucian practices from Japanese students who were studying in China. A passage in Filial Piety in Japan and China states that “Japan voluntarily sent students to China who systematically and assiduously learned a language that bore no resemblance to theirs, and brought it back to Japan where it became a central part of Japanese education and was emulated and sanctioned by Japanese rulers.” (Kurian, 1) Japan started to take Filial Piety so seriously that, “Japanese rulers awarded citation and material benefits to citizens for exemplary filial behavior.” (Kurian, 1) This is especially fascinating because in a society, any action awarded with a material benefit will likely become very popular. Also it is significant that many younger students were being taught important aspects of Filial Piety because it ensured that future generations would continue to teach the importance of this.

Over time Filial Piety became deeply rooted in Japanese culture and society, and eventually made its way into works of literature and tales that people shared amongst each other. In the book Japanese Tales, the story, “Be Good to Your Mother and Father!” from collect Kasuga Gogen Genki is a prime example of a tale that stresses the importance of Filial Piety through the main theme of the story. The story is about a fifteen-year-old dancer named Koma no Yukimitsu. Yukimitsu fell ill and passed away, eventually waking up in hell. When he came to, he spoke to the God of Kasuga, who gave him a tour of hell. After seeing hell Yukimitsu was horrified and begged for Kasuga to tell him how he could avoid this awful fate. Kasuga’s answer was “Be good to your mother and father! That is the highest virtue. If you cultivate it, you wont fall into hell.” In this example the aspect of familial respect for your parents is stressed so greatly that readers are told that failing to respect their parents will result in an eternity in hell. It is significant that this tale explicitly states that you must respect your elders because it suggests that it is from stories like these that the Japanese express the significance of Filial Piety.

In this same book there is another tale entitled “The Old Woman on the Mountain” which was written during the Heian Period. In this tale an old “mother-like” woman lives with a younger married couple. Unlike the husband, the wife detested the old woman and ordered her husband to abandon her in the woods so she may not find her way back to them. The husband, to his chagrin, takes the old woman to a high mountain behind their village and flees from her. When he gets home he cannot stand the guilt so he went back to the mountain to retrieve and care for her. After the man makes right with the old woman again, the tale states, “So don’t let your wife’s unpleasant tongue turn your mind to unworthy thoughts.” (Tyler, 315) This has a subtler but definite echo of filial piety in the form of respecting your elders. It is also important to recognize that this tale was written in the late Heian period, because the Heian period is sometimes considered to be the height of Japanese culture. This means that during a very culturally important period there was a strong presence of Filial Piety. In Confucius’s The Analects the Master states, “A gentleman who lacks gravity has no authority and his learning will remain shallow. A gentleman puts loyalty and faithfulness foremost; he does not befriend his moral inferiors. When he commits a fault he is not afraid to amend his ways.” (Leys, 4) This particular section of The Analects aligns with this behavior of the husband in this Japanese tale through his actions after he abandoned the old woman. The husband recognizes he was not loyal or faithful to an elder, and makes it right by retrieving her and caring for her. This tale is perfect for conveying the prominence of the Confucian message of Filial Piety during the Heian Period. It is important to recognize the different aspects of Filial Piety between these two tales. The first story is an obvious focus on parental and familial respect, while the second story takes more of a focus on respecting elders in general.

As you can see the importance of Filial Piety is reflected through many Japanese tales. Filial Piety was first brought to Japan from the students who studied in China and brought what they had been taught back home with them. From the Heian to the Muromachi Period, Confucianism was a the main practice throughout Japan, and a strong presence of the importance of Filial Piety is a direct result of this. The first tale “Be Good to Your Mother and Father” explicitly conveys the message that in order to avoid hell, one must respect their parents. The other tale “The Old Woman on the Mountain” also echoes of Filial Piety in the way that the husband felt he was morally obligated to continue to care for one of his elders. Overall, it was through tales like these that the Japanese conveyed the importance of Filial Piety during the Heian and Muromachi Periods.


Works Cited

  1. Kurian, GeorgeGeorGeorge. “Filial Piety in Japan and China: Borrowing, Variation and Significance.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 2, no. 1 (1971): 67-74.
  2. Confucius, and Simon Leys. The Analects of Confucius. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
  3. Tyler, Royall. Japanese Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. Pg. 311-317.

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