Status, Kinship and Society in pre-modern Korea and Japan

Victor Yakovlev

Status, Kinship and Society in pre-modern Korea and Japan

(55th Meeting, 2012)

Kinship makes an important component of the social web of oriental societies, and plays a particular role in the countries influenced by civilization of China, such as Korea and Japan. Durability of the corresponding social web can be traced on the example of mortuary rites in both societies. The cult of the dead seems to make a sort of foundation of the social tissue there. Patrimonial unit, or cell, in Korea is represented by the “familial house” (chip) — the eldest son’s household, called “main household (k’ŭṅ jip). The family line continues through its eldest representative from generation to generation. But there were several other levels of kinship, such as the “mourning group”, the lineage (p’a), and, the most extensive, the common name group.

Korean mortuary ceremonies were influenced or even modified by Confucianism, coming from China. There is a principle of patrimonial integrity at the basis of honouring the dead. According to the notions of Koreans, “the spirits of the dead formed, so to say, an invisible part of the tribe and the family” (Ionova 2011, 230). In a dimension of historical memory the society as a whole and its institutions are placed. The eldest direct descendant in the extended family “kept genealogical table, pointing therein origin and social status of progenitor, … mentioning merits and feats of the outstanding relatives” (Ibid, 239). Such pedigrees were read during worship ceremonies. Therefore, “celestial bureaucracy” as part of cultural-traditional, or literary Confucian bureaucracy, which existed in China, Korea and, to a smaller degree, in Japan, continued to hover over those, who lived. The cult of ancestors and the memory of the deceased relatives were the foundation, upon which Confucianism in Korea and Japan established. Nevertheless, the systems of social relations in both countries, though evidently built according to the principles and ideas of Confucianism, display substantial distinctions. Basically there is similarity in the structure of Korean and Japanese family. Traditional Japanese family (ie, also “house”) is a very complex kind of a family system. There may be three, four, and conceivably even five generations of the family members living together. All the property, the social standing, rights and duties go, as a rule, from father to son. At this point similarity probably ends, and if in Korea the ancestors cult may be represented horizontally by concentric circles, in Japan it forms three level pyramid, and, according to Shinto tradition, subdivided as domestic, communal (the clan and the tribal cult originally), and the state cult (the worship of imperial ancestors).

To ascertain similarities or peculiarities of the two social systems, it is enough to remain in the boundaries of Choson dynasty in Korea and the Tokugawa period (1603 — 1867) in Japan. An official doctrine in both countries was neoconfucianism. The most authoritative proponent of this teaching in Korea Yi Hwan  (1501 — 1570) exerted great influence upon Confucianism in Japan.

The followers of the Song Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Confucians of Korea and Japan believed, that the social system consisted of four main classes, called shino:ko:sho: 士農工商 in Japan, sa nong gong sang in Korea — gentry scholars, farmers, artisans and traders. This was the core of fengjian (封建) quasi-feudal social system of late Zhou China, and may be considered in the Weberian sense an “ideal-type” concept. This system founded on five principles (Kor. o ryun; jap. gorin 五倫): affection between father and son; righteousness between ruler and minister; separation of functions between husband and wife; the proper order between old and young; and faithfulness between friends. In reality the hierarchy of social classes was more complicated. Although the four classes’ paradigm was identical in Korea and Japan, there were substantial differences in the ruling class nature and government system. Sa 士 in Korea, shi in China were shen shi 紳士 “men of learning”, and belonging to the military profession was not emphasized. Yet aristocracy in Japan for different reasons, cultural and historical, was engaged in fighting activity and leaned on the military estate — the samurai, unique for this country. Such term as ryo:han (Korean yangban) here is absent, though the term shinshi (Chinese shen shi) preserves. The corresponding system of government (bakufu or shogunate) existed in Japan since 1192 and passed through three periods till the Meiji revolution (1867 — 1868). During the Tokugawa epoch the rulers encouraged studying of Confucian classics by members of warrior class. The shoguns established various schools in the many domains to prepare young warriors for their new peacetime role as government officials. However, the Chinese civil service examination system was not adopted. Heredity alone decided which warriors became officials.

In spite of the marked differences of the two societies during the epoch of feudalism, their further development probably may be defined as a parallel, rather than a divergent one. Though at the era of modernization and undeniable westernization human relations inside the industrial organizations and work enterprises there can be defined as quasi-familial, the ethics of filial piety projected on this sphere of activity is quite genuine and significant for the work efficiency and diligence of the employees and for the growth of national economies.