Friday, December 16, 2005

Thomas Jefferson and Tokugawa Ieyasu

Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence from Britain, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1603-1868, were very different people. Jefferson espoused Enlightenment ideals of individual liberty and Tokugawa was a ruthless military dictator. Their works set their respective countries on very different paths that would last centuries. Yet surprisingly, the personal codes for living used by the two men were remarkably similar.

Jefferson's Ten Rules are available from Monticello or, for a more academic link, see Cornell University Library.

Tokugawa's Creed is here in Japanese, but the creed itself is translated into English.

True to Jefferson's protestant Christian cultural package, most of his rules are negative directions, whereas Tokugawa's Asian philosophies come out in his positive directions for the "proper" way of living.

Both men went to great lengths to calm their minds to avoid acting from anger. Jefferson: "Take things always by the smooth handle.", "When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, count a hundred." Tokugawa: "Patience is the foundation of security and long life; consider anger as an enemy."

Both recognized what is today sometimes called " material trap", although I suspect Jefferson came to it pretty late in life. Jefferson: "Never spend money before you have earned it.", "Never buy what you don't want because it is cheap.", "We seldom repent of having eaten too little." Tokugawa: "If you regard discomfort as a normal condition, you are not likely to be troubled by want.", "The insufficient is better than the superfluous." (which is more literally translated as, "Realize your limitations. It is the biggest dew drop that first falls from the leaf.")

Both preferred to be their own men. Jefferson: "Never trouble another for what you can do yourself." Tokugawa: "Blame yourself, do not blame others."

Neither believed their own press and fought against the temptation to do so. Jefferson: "Pride costs more than hunger, thirst and cold." Tokugawa: "When ambition rises in your mind, consider the days of your adversity." Note that Tokugawa was held as a captive for much of his childhood and here he councils patience, as he does elsewhere.

Naturally, there are some differences. Jefferson's "Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today." seems to conflict with Tokugawa's "Man's life is like making a long journey with a heavy burden. One must not hurry." Still, I suspect that those rules refer to different concepts. I doubt Tokugawa was lazy, he just knew how and when to wait. Jefferson may have had a similar concept in mind when he penned "How much pain the evils cost us that never happened.", his consideration that one should avoid excessive worry.

There does not seem to be a direct comparison to Jefferson's "Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly." Tokugawa may have recognized the fact, but probably didn't think it important given his austere manner of daily living.

One has no way of knowing Jefferson's feelings regarding Tokugawa's "He who only knows victory and does not know defeat will fare badly.", but, given Jefferson's support of the American Revolution, he was clearly willing to put his privileged position at risk.

In all, I find the number of similarities to greatly outweigh the differences. That these two men should share so much in common makes me re-evaluate the boundary between Adolph Bastian's "elementary ideas", which we all share, and "folk ideas" (culture).


  1. Very Nice comparison between Tokugawa and Jefferson. I noticed you talked about Tokugawa's childhood of being held captive. Did you research that? I think that was Tokugawa Hidetada not Tokugawa Ieyasu. ;) But good comparison of Ieyasu's creed and Jefferson's ideals.

  2. (Original sent by email)

    Thank you for your kind comments.

    I did research Tokugawa Ieyasu's early life. According to English language sources, he was taken hostage when he was six years old by Oda Nobuhide, the leader of the Oda clan, and held for three years at the Manshoji Temple in Nagoya. Following the death of Oda Nobuhide, he was handed over to the Imagawa clan at Sampu and lived there until he was fifteen years old.

    You are correct that Tokugawa Hidetada was also held hostage as a child by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, from the time he was eleven to the time he was fifteen.

    However, English language sources are not particularly good in relation to Japanese (or more generally, Asian) history. If you know differently, I would appreciate hearing about it.