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The Confucianism of Japan and Korea

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Chinese Confucianism influenced Japanese and Korean culture, particularly when it came to human relationships. Explore how Confucianism's Five Key Relationships were interpreted in Japan and Korea, and then discover the differences in how the two nations looked at filial piety and ruler-subject relationships. Updated: 10/04/2021

Five Key Relationships

When discussing Confucianism's influence in Korea and Japan, it's important to understand the emphasis that Confucianism places on human relationships.

Unlike most Western religions, Confucianism does not teach the worship of any particular deity. Instead, it focuses more on human behavior, causing many scholars to consider it more of an ethical system or a code of conduct rather than a religion. Rather than focusing on the attributes of a deity, Confucianism focuses on human behavior, especially in the realm of human relationships.

In its ideal sense, a person practicing Confucianism will seek to always act honorably in all his relationships. This is especially important in what Confucianism calls the Five Key Relationships, which are the relationship of ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger, and friend to friend.

It is this emphasis on relationships that has had a huge impact on the cultures of Korea and Japan. However, as is usually the case with religion and culture, each country has sort of put their own spin on this ancient faith.

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  • 0:01 Five Key Relationships
  • 1:11 Korean Confucianism
  • 1:33 Filial Piety
  • 2:44 Japanese Confucianism
  • 3:46 Lesson Summary
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Korean Confucianism

Confucianism has profoundly impacted the structure of Korean society. In fact, although both North and South Korea have in many ways become modernized, Confucianism's influence still remains extremely strong in these lands, especially when it comes to the Five Key Relationships of Confucianism, specifically those dealing with the family.

Filial Piety

With such a great focus on these family relationships, Korean Confucianism is full of rituals which are meant to uphold and strengthen the family. The most important of these is the ritual of filial piety, or deep respect of one's elders. However, going way further than what we in the West would call respect, filial piety is deeply ingrained. It's a hierarchical system of family governance in which the elderly outrank the young.

Even more odd to our Western paradigm, the ritual of filial piety applies to both the living and the dead. With this in mind, many consider filial piety to be ancestor worship or ancestor veneration. In this practice, sacrifices are very regularly made to one's deceased relatives in order to not only commemorate them but also to communicate and care for them.

This deep respect for the elderly also seeps into outside relationships and everyday activities, making Korea a very formal society. For instance, a Korean person will seldom if ever address an elderly person by their first name. In fact, most Koreans use Mr. or Mrs. when addressing anyone outside their families. Also, bowing to one another is the customary Korean greeting.

Japanese Confucianism

Like that of Korea, Japanese Confucianism also places a very high value on relationships. However, whereas Korean Confucianism seems to place the highest importance on family ties or filial piety, Japanese Confucianism has historically emphasized the ruler-to-subject relationship.

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