Jin Makabe

“Go where no one else will go. Do what no one else will do.”

Jin Makabe , Associate Professor

Graduate School of Law (Department of Law, School of Law)

High school : Christian Independent High School (Yamagata Prefecture).

Academic background : Doctorate from Tokyo Metropolitan University

Research areas
History of Japanese political thought
Research keywords
orthodoxy, academia, diplomatic policy, higher educational institutions (schools, universities)

What type of research are you engaged in?

Photo 1: Draft translation of a letter sent to the King of Korea (1811)

I am focusing on the intersection between politics and academic studies, and studying the history of political thought, as well as the history of political studies in Japan from the age of modernization through to the present. Against this background, a few years ago I published my research clarifying the involvement of governmental Confucian scholars in the broad-ranging diplomatic policy-making process in late Tokugawa Japan, focusing on analysis of their thoughts and activities. The Japanese government’s official letters and formal Japanese international contracts, not only with the countries of East Asia, but also of the West, were written entirely in kanji (classical Chinese) until 1854. Some of the governmental Confucian scholars, who were fluent in writing documents in the international language of kanji, went on to be involved in the front lines of diplomacy, compiling diplomatic documents, studying past precedents, forming policy, translating national documents (Photo 1), writing replies and drafts (Photo 2) and being responsible for interactions with international ambassadors and other external diplomacy.

What is unique about your research? What sort of political thought do you focus on?

It is standard practice for researchers to base their analysis of the history of political thought on western printed texts. Feeling the need to look into the academic world of these scholars, I created a document archive and chronological records of three generations of a scholar family belonging to Shoheizaka Gakumonjo, the Shogunal Academy. Studying information handed down in hand-written documents and copies located in various locations allowed me to clarify the participation of governmental Confucian scholars in diplomacy, and revealed a wide range of historical resources. I had the opportunity to come into contact with some information that had been confidential, showing that in fact, the neo-Confucian scholars of the Shoheizaka Academy allowed the proactive collection of information from overseas. This was actually different from the generally accepted notion that they were “attached to the old laws” and that they were trapped in “hopeless resistance,” avoiding international current affairs, following the opening of the country. Among these, in fact, were many who claimed to see a need for change in international diplomacy.

The governmental Confucian scholars based their work on the principle of “hentsu” (“bian-tong”; adaptability), as in “I Ching” (“the Book of Changes”), considering it vital for political decision-making in times of reform. Yukichi FUKUZAWA said, “Hentsu (adaptability) is a work of intelligence; it is the power to discern the relative values of things and the momentum of the times.” (‘A defense of Gakumon no Susume’, 1874). Determining the importance of things in relation to the passage of time has always been important not only in the East but also in the West. When doing so, it is important not only to use your own experience, but also the knowledge that you have acquired. The manner in which that knowledge has been formed within each individual is also in question. As such, I focused not only on kanji documents and various letters and responses, but also on the education and the examination systems (interpretation of the Chinese classics, “sakumon” tests and “jimusaku” (general policies)) at the Shogunal Academy and private schools, in order to recreate the scholar’s new way of thinking and to reveal the intellectual background of the time.

Photo 2: Roju (the Senior Council of the Shogunate government) cosignatory letter in kanji, addressed to the Dutch King (1845) 

How did you become involved in this research?

Research into political thought tends to be evaluated according to the preoccupation of the researcher who selected the philosopher him/herself. As I moved on to study at graduate school, however, I was warned quite clearly by my teacher that, “You can’t just look at subjects you like.” Since we are not engaging in regional studies overseas or the history of thought, it is not enough to simply take up theories and philosophers who have already been evaluated and considered authoritative, and to re-interpret what they said. Generally speaking, Confucian studies relating to the late Tokugawa period, which are considered “the intellectually stagnant period,” and the studies of neo-Confucian scholars of the Shogunal Academy have been almost unevaluated to this day despite having had a significant impact on nationwide study under the Shogunate government at the time. However, I have been working on my studies encouraged by the words of Ms. Mary Lyon which were introduced by Kanzo UCHIMURA (an alumnus of Sapporo Agricultural College, class of 1881): “Go where no one else will go”. Even if your focus seems boring, seeking a method that is suitable for analysis thereof and defining appropriate problems will allow you to find the hidden attractions of the subject.

What is your research in aid of? What are you aiming to achieve?

The history of Japanese thought within the study of politics is different from the study of Japanese history, and requires receptivity to the political theories of both East Asia and the West, and comparison with modern political thought. As Japan opens itself up to the world, it is extremely valuable to know the history of Japanese thought, including the movements that have occurred since the pre-modern age, in order to understand the attributes of Japan’s political and legal cultures. Studying Japan’s political thought based on these points, as well as comparatively over time (the past) and space (different political cultures), allows us to confirm exactly where we stand nowadays, and understand that the classic questions asked in modern times, both in the West and East, are similar to the issues that our political society faces today.

I hope to continue the challenge of studying the history of thought as left to us by previous scholars, without fear of failure, and to contribute to expanding and developing the academic realm of the history of Japanese political thought.


Makabe, J., Politics and Academia in Late Tokugawa Japan: Shoheizaka Confucians and Diplomatic Transformation, The University of Nagoya Press (2007), (30th Kadokawa Genyoshi Prize (Historical Research Division), 6th Tokugawa Prize).