Individuals of Note: Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859)

Self-portrait of Yoshida Shoin, c. 1850’s

A man who lived for only 29 years but taught some of the most important figures in the Meiji Restoration, Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859) serves as a testament to the power of a single individual. He was a teacher and philosopher who’s been described as “physically frail, soft-spoken and a master of self-control whose willpower knew no bounds. He was an avid scholar who denied himself sleep, and who was known to stand or walk in the snow to keep himself awake for his studies”. In his final year, he was beheaded for conspiring against Tokugawa rule. He was known far and wide for his actions, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of Yoshida Shoin’s achievements, describing him as “a military engineer, a bold traveller (at least in wish), a poet, a patriot, a schoolmaster, a friend to learning, a martyr to reform, — there are not many men, dying at seventy, who have served their country in such various characters”.

In his time, Yoshida Shoin published several written works, of which only fragments have been translated into english, the quotes available to us are worthy of consideration nonetheless:

“The existence of the nation is your own existence. Why do we beg of outsiders? There is nothing to beg for. Why do we let outsiders command us? They have no (good) commands. Thus, let us be the ones to command the outsiders.”

– The First Year of Ansei, Winter. “A Record of Imprisonment.”

“A government cannot escape times of order and then times of anarchy. A nation will most certainly have times of prosperity and then times of decline. Declining and then prospering; Falling into anarchy and then restoring order: This is the normal way of things.”

– The First Year of Ansei, Winter. “A Record of Imprisonment.”

“As a rule, those born as a human should know that good people have a different way of doing things than animals. Certainly, people have the five relationships, and the relationship betwen lord and retainer, and father and child are the most important.”

– The second year of Ansei, March. “Seven Regulations for Samurai”

“Do not strive to develop and strengthen yourself, and wish for others to be weakened. This is how modern day people see things. It’s heartbreaking, terribly heartbreaking…”

– The Second Year of Ansei, the 19th of July. “Minutes of the Head Lecturer.”

“Patriots (shishi) have a goal to reach; they are gentlemen who consistently keep their integrity. From the start, they have preparedness before poverty; they don’t forget to think fondly of even eventually rolling into a ditch to die of starvation… Having this resolve once, they have nothing to want of people, nothing to desire in the world. Triumphantly, their vision should encompass Heaven and Earth, past and present.”

– The Second Year of Ansei, The Twenty First Day of August. “Minutes of the Head Lecturer.”

“By and large, the saints and sages of old fully explained the Way. Modern scholars mostly just read those books and repeat them. They don’t really drive any new insights from the ancients. Thus modern students and teachers alike are all students of the saints and sages. How can reckless teachers or students who follow the same teachers not be awed by the original saints and sages of old?”

– The Second Year of Ansei, The Sixteenth of August. “Lecture Notes”

“As a person for a single day exists in this world, he eats a day’s worth of food, he wears a day’s worth of clothing, and he uses a day’s worth of shelter. Why, then, does he lack the motivation to pursue a day’s worth of wisdom, a day’s worth of right action?”

– The Third Year of Ansei, The Fourteeth of May. “Minutes of the Head Lecturer.”

“Usually, for the merit of reading and writing, you cannot neglect it day or night. If you do not endevour to do this, regretting the smallest shadow, you will never see its merit.”

– The Third Year of Ansei, The 26th of May. “Minutes of the Head Lecturer.”

“Modern people lack a wide view and prefer to discuss petty details. This ill trait is extremely serious in readers… If you watch how they personally act, they embellish their outer appearance and esteem their language. They are carefully moderate in even minor things, and desire to drop the names of great men in home town. They curry favour with influential Houses, and ingratiate themselves with flattery even when they are wrong. They lack a sturdiness, fail to listen to other’s opinions, lack loyalty, lack filial piety and do not trust even their close friends. They don’t know when to feel ashamed of their actions. Such people like this don’t understand what they should be doing.”

– The Third Year of Ansei, The 29th of May. “Minutes of the Lecturer.”

“The Way of the Warrior is not seen in those knights inclined to rudeness, lawlessness, violence, and immorality. It is not seen in that learning inclined to mindless recitation and frivolous, soft philosophy. True knights study true learning, cultivate their bodies, straighten their hearts, govern their country, and works towards peace under Heaven. That is the Way of the Warrior.”

– The Third Year of Ansei, After August. “The Complete Book of Teachings for Warriors.”

“Generally, the foundation of all under Heaven is the nation and the home.”

– The Fourth Year of Ansei, The 28th of October. “Return Letter to Kuchiba Tokusuke”

“Renew your martial arts, prohibit extravagance, guard against laziness, cease your excuses. This all is reasonable.”

– The Second Year of Kaei, the Eleventh Day of October. “A Letter of Counter-measures.”

“It is bad to feel one is not the same as the crowd. But certainly it is good to feel one must not be the same as the crowd. Perhaps this is the difference between being arrogant and being inspired.”

– The Fourth Year of Kouka. “A Record of Unselfishness.”

“Once a man’s will is set, he need no longer rely on others or expect anything from the world. His vision encompasses Heaven and earth, past and present, and the tranquility of his heart is undisturbed.”

– Yoshida Shoin Zenshu, Vol. III

“What I mean by the “pursuit of learning” is not the ability to read classical texts and study ancient history, but to be fully acquainted with conditions all over the world and to have a keen awareness of what is going on abroad and around us. Now from what I can see world trends and conditions are still unsettled, and as long as they remain unsettled there is still a chance that something can be done. First, therefore, we must rectify conditions in our own domain, after which conditions in other domains can be rectified. This having been done, conditions at court can be rectified and finally conditions throughout the whole world can be rectified. First one must set an example oneself and then it can be extended progressively to others. This is what I mean by the “pursuit of learning.””

– Yoshida Shoin Zenshu, Vol. IV

“Nowadays everyone lives selfishly and seeks only the leisure in which to indulge his own desires. They look on all the beauties of nature-the rivers and mountains, the breeze and the moon-as their own to enjoy, forgetting what the shrine of the Sun Goddess stands for. The common man thinks of his life as his own and refuses to perform his duty to his lord. The samurai regards his household as his own private possession and refuses to sacrifice his life for his state. The feudal lords regard their domains as their own and refuse to serve King and Country. Unwilling to serve King and Country, at home they cherish only the objects of desire and abroad they willingly yield to the foreign barbarian, inviting defeat and destruction. Thus the scenic beauties they enjoy will not long remain in their possession.”

– Yoshida Shoin Zenshu, Vol. IV

“Life and death, union and separation, follow hard upon one another. Nothing is steadfast but the will, nothing endures but one’s achieve­ments. These alone count in life.”

– Yoshida Shoin Zenshu, Vol. V

“What is important in a leader is a resolute will and determination. A man may be versatile and learned, but if he lacks resoluteness and determination, of what use will he be?”

– Yoshida Shoin Zenshu, Vol. VIII

The quotes of Yoshida Shoin are sourced from here and here.