By the late 17th century, Japan's economy was nearing a peak of tremendous growth. In the wake of the Tokugawa reunification and strict limits on the abilities of warlord daimyo to threaten the bakufu or each other's domains, both urban merchants flourished. Trade density as measured in both extant inventories and first-hand impressions approached incredible levels. Those who could ride the flows of money and goods between the prefectures of Japan at the time were inheritors to what seemed the blessings of the heavens.
Contemporaneously, an intellectual tide gathering since the beginning of the century burst forth in publications from a variety of sources to instruct the populace in the ways of living as a Noble Person (kunshi) such as Yamato Zokkun's The Greater Learning for Females or Yamato Zokkun's Life and Thought. This movement, termed Neo-Confucianism, stemmed from the scholar Zhu Xi and stressed the importance of studying Confucius's original texts and commentaries immediately following them, rather than the later commentaries of Zhu Xi's time.
The dissonance of these two paths to bliss, mercantile and spiritual, makes puzzling their apparent coexistence in the minds of Japanese urbanites of the period. The Japanese Family Storehouse, subtitled The Millionaires Gospel Modernized, a humorous work of quasi-parables by the immensely popular writer Ihara Saikaku, reveals within its ironic irreverence a more serious blending of Neo-Confucianism and Japanese capitalism that sheds light on the ways in which these two movements spread side by side.
In the course of several stories occupying the Storehouse, some demonstration of exemplary merchant ethics emerges in the behavior of the main characters. Efficiency, resourcefulness, and initiative feature prominently as the means toward success that propel Ihara's positively-viewed protagonists toward their happy ends. Being a work of humor, the Storehouse never lets the reader take these precepts too seriously, exaggerating them in such cases as the miserly Fuji-ichi, who would rather let rice cakes grow cold than tolerate the extra weight that their steam would force him to pay for. But beneath the mocking tone lies an implicit respect for the ways of these exemplary merchants. Individuals who show the virtues Ihara outlines, even to absurd extremes, still end in prosperity and contentment. The poor man's "Millionaire Pill," though comically listed off like a prescription, nonetheless cures his ailment of abject poverty.
These virtues of successful men are not only revered by Japanese merchants. Each bears similarity to Neo-Confucian virtues such as dedication and hard work during youth, proper discipline conforming to the Five Human Relations, and utmost respect for the advice of learned superiors. Due to the prominence of Confucian teachings in Japanese scholarship, especially dominant in intellectual movements of the late 17th century, most members of Ihara's audience would recognize the equivocation. In addition, the narrative interludes commenting upon the on-going parables summarize the teachings to be drawn from them in a manner strongly reminiscent of the language found in such moral treatises as Yamato Zokkun's Life and Times, for example during the story of the virtuous beggar—"The golden rule for men is to save in youth and spend in old age. It is impossible to take your money to heaven, and it is essential to have it on earth." Within the laughter predicated by Ihara's ironic wit lies a subtle and elegant melding of Neo-Confucian and mercantile ideals made all the more accessible to a popular audience by the light-hearted tone they're delivered in.
Like most parable collections, the Storehouse does not include only stories of virtuous men and women. A slight majority serve more as warnings, relating downfalls never predicated by forces beyond the main characters' control, but rather solely the result of their own misbehavior. These unsympathetic anti-heroes often meet their reckonings in comic fashion, with the ironic twist so highly prized among Ihara's literary talents, however there is also a taint of disdain and disgust that colors the humor. Ihara describes defaulting debtors as, "[curling] up defiantly on a soft bed of dishonoured bills," combining a vivid image with judgmental language to produce an impression both comic and earnestly disapproving. To underline the vices Ihara introduces, he ensures that no person of mean character ends unpunished, always in a manner fitting the mercantile theme of the book. The fraudulent religious devotee tastes the bitterness of his hypocrisy when in dire straits his community ignores his meagre wares. The extravagant debutant Sanya falls to ruin when no man of sound mind remains to save his holdings from his own prolifigate habits. These cautionary tales remain purely commercial from beginning to end.
Yet here too one recognizes a Confucian undertone strengthening the mercantile diatribe. Before detailing Sanya's descent to ruin, Ihara declares "a man's affairs are his own, and others can never judge their rights and wrongs, but there remains the censure of heaven with which to reckon". Consequences of heavenly origin for earthly misconduct underly the Confucian moral system as well, thus fitting the two together by placing the heavens as the agents of Sanya's destruction, and his financial collapse as their means. The two flow smoothly from one another, as do the teachings of Ihara's other cautionary parables, painting a picture of a world in which Neo-Confucian ideals and mercantile practicalities may be followed in harmony.
As a sense of 'modern' Japan took gestalt at the cusp of the transition from Tokugawa military rule to the imperial Meiji Restoration, such movements as Neo-Confucianism and mercantile ethics played vital roles in shaping the cultural norms that were to come. The process of interpretation and extrapolation apparent in Ihara's popular work of humor illustrates the ways in which both domestic and foreign visions of Japan began to emerge, not as static traditions, but as the dynamic interactions common to all cultures.