Arai Hakuseki

Arai Hakuseki

Arai Hakuseki (Japanese 新井 白石, Arai Hakuseki; * March 24, 1657 in Edo;  June 29, 1725 ibid) was a Neo-Confucian scholar, economist, poet, and advisor to Shōgun Tokugawa Ienobu. Hakuseki was a pseudonym, the real given name being Kimiyoshi (君美) or in respectful reading Kinmi.

He is best known for postulating a law in his writings that economists know as the Quality Theory of Money or Gresham's Law. Furthermore, he wrote books on the Shintō (Koshitsū, Koshitsū wakumon, and Tōga) as well as historical and geographical works. He also left behind numerous poems in the Chinese style.

Arai Hakuseki Life

Hakuseki's father was Arai Masazumi (新井正済), who was in the service of the Tsuchiya princely house of the Kururi domain. Hakuseki showed an alert mind even as a child; legend has it that at the age of three he copied a Confucian work character by character.

Because he was born in the year of one of the greatest fire disasters of the Edo period ("Meireki Great Fire," Meireki no taika 明暦の大火), and because his eyebrows contracted into the character 火 (hi, fire) when he became angry, Prince Tsuchiya Toshinao, who took a great liking to him, nicknamed him Hi-no-ko (火の子; "fire child").

After Toshinao's death, the Tsuchiya house went downhill. The deranged son and successor Tsuchiya Naoki lost the fiefdom, and the castle was even destroyed. Hakuseki, thus unattached, had to look for a new lord.

Eventually, he entered the service of Hotta Masatoshi, who held the highest position in the Shōgun's Imperial Council as regent (tairō).

However, after Masatoshi fell victim to an assassination attempt by his cousin Inaba Masayasu in 1684, the fief was transferred, and the House of Hotta lost influence, Hakuseki once again had to readjust his path in life.

Finally, in 1686, he took up the study of Confucianism under the renowned scholar Kinoshita Jun'an (1621-1699). Here he met some illustrious minds such as Amenomori Hōshu, who had a great career ahead of them.

In 1693 he entered the service of the prince (Daimyō) of the Kōfu domain, Tokugawa Tsunatoyo (1662-1712). Tsunatoyo was one of the grandsons of Iemitsu, the 3rd Shōgun of the Tokugawa dynasty.

When the childless Shōgun Tsunayoshi died in 1709, the 48-year-old Tsunatoyo succeeded him and ruled under the name Ienobu. During the few years until his death, he pushed powerful supporters of his predecessor out of office and began to reform finance and foreign trade with the help of Arai Hakuseki and Manabe Akifusa.

These policies were continued by the two under their only surviving son and successor, Ietsugu, who took office as a four-year-old and died as a seven-year-old. In particular, the government's finances had to be brought under control.

An analysis of the trade books showed that 75 % of gold and 25 % of silver was drained in foreign trade, which destabilized the country's own currency due to the lack of cover.

Through "New Regulations for Overseas Trade" (Kaihaku Goshi Shinrei, 海舶互市新例), the number of Chinese and Dutch ships entering Nagasaki each year was limited, as was the volume of trade.

In addition, imported goods were paid for with Japanese products such as silk, porcelain, and dried seafood whenever possible. Nagasaki was under direct government control.

Trade with Korea and the Kingdom of Ryūkyū (now Okinawa Prefecture), respectively, which passed through Tsushima and Satsuma provinces, was conducted largely independently by the local princely houses.

Since important goods such as ginseng came into the country here, and payment in silver was also unavoidable, Arai quickly encountered resistance and the central government reached the limits of its ability to control.

There were also protests from Tsushima when the costly ceremonial for the legation that the Korean Joseon dynasty sent to Edo every time a new Shōgun took up his reign was simplified.

In 1709, with the help of the gifted interpreter Imamura Eisei, he interviewed the Jesuit Giovanni Battista Sidotti, who had entered the country illegally, and established a relationship of trust with him, obtaining a great deal of information.

The Seiyō Kibun, compiled on this basis around 1715, reproduces Arai's conversations with Siddotti in the first part. The second part is devoted to the five continents, the third to Catholicism. A second text, written around 1713, entitled Sairan Igen, describes the geography, history, customs, and living things in the world.

After Ietsugu's passing, he resigned his post at court and devoted himself entirely to writing. When he died in 1725, he was initially buried in the Hōon Temple (Hōon-ji, 報恩寺) in Asakusa (now Taitō-ku, Tokyo), but the tomb was later moved to the Kōtoku Temple (Kōtoku-ji, 高徳寺) (Nakano, Tokyo).

Arai Hakuseki Works (selection)

  • Hankanfu (藩翰譜) - genealogies of various sovereign princes (Daimyō).
  • Koshitsū (古史通) - A work on Japanese antiquity.
  • Oritaku Shiba-no-ki (折りたく柴の記) - Memoirs. English translation: Joyce Akroyd, Told round a brushwood fire: the autobiography of Arai Hakuseki. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1979.
  • Sairan Igon (采覧異言) - A five-volume description of many regions of the world (geography, history, customs, wildlife, etc.).
  • Seiyō Kibun (西洋記聞) - A three-volume description of Europe.
  • Tokushi Yoron (読史余論) - a work of history. Annotated English translation: Ackroyd, Joyce, Lessons from History. The Tokushi Yoron by Arai Hakuseki. St. Lucia: University of Queensland, 1982,
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