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The Worship of Confucius in Japan

The Worship of Confucius in Japan

James McMullen

ISBN 9780674237261

Publication date: 02/04/2020

How has Confucius, quintessentially and symbolically Chinese, been received throughout Japanese history? The Worship of Confucius in Japan provides the first overview of the richly documented and colorful Japanese version of the East Asian ritual to venerate Confucius, known in Japan as the sekiten. The original Chinese political liturgy embodied assumptions about sociopolitical order different from those of Japan. Over more than thirteen centuries, Japanese in power expressed a persistently ambivalent response to the ritual’s challenges and often tended to interpret the ceremony in cultural rather than political terms.

Like many rituals, the sekiten self-referentially reinterpreted earlier versions of itself. James McMullen adopts a diachronic and comparative perspective. Focusing on the relationship of the ritual to political authority in the premodern period, McMullen sheds fresh light on Sino-Japanese cultural relations and on the distinctive political, cultural, and social history of Confucianism in Japan. Successive sections of The Worship of Confucius in Japan trace the vicissitudes of the ceremony through two major cycles of adoption, modification, and decline, first in ancient and medieval Japan, then in the late feudal period culminating in its rejection at the Meiji Restoration. An epilogue sketches the history of the ceremony in the altered conditions of post-Restoration Japan and up to the present.


  • A major contribution to understandings of Japanese political and cultural history as mediated by ritual and forms of apparent religiosity related to Confucius and company…Future sekiten studies will certainly have strong shoulders on which to stand.

    —John A. Tucker, Journal of the American Academy of Religion


  • James McMullen is a University Lecturer in Japanese (Retired), Fellow Emeritus of Pembroke and St Antony’s Colleges, University of Oxford; and Fellow of the British Academy.

Book Details

  • 566 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center