Though he would later rise to prominence, Sorai started off with considerable difficulties. A rakugo story entitled "Sorai Tofu" relates how he opened his own academy in Edo, but suffered from considerable financial difficulties until he was hired into the service of daimyô Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu in 1696. Through association with Yanagisawa, Sorai was able to learn vernacular (and not only classical, textual) Chinese language, and had many opportunities to participate in study & discussion sessions with others examining and contemplating classical Chinese texts.
While in the service of Yanagisawa, however, Sorai had yet to achieve much prominence, being known chiefly only within certain circles. Yanagisawa fell from power around the turn of the century, and in 1709 Sorai once again opened his own academy, and struggled on his own for a brief time. The 1711 Korean embassy to Edo brought the opportunity for Sorai's school of teaching to finally gain some greater recognition and prestige. A student of his, Yamagata Shûnan (1687-1752), met the embassy, and engaged in a philosophical debate with them. Though Sorai's (and thus Shûnan's) rejection of Zhu Xi's interpretations of Confucian thought earned him no favor with the Korean scholars (avid supporters of Korean versions of the Zhu Xi school of Neo-Confucianism), the debate itself provided an opportunity to present Sorai's school as a qualified school of philosophy, capable of engaging in such a high-level debate.
This led to Sorai gaining considerable recognition and prestige. In the 1710s, he was invited to write a preface for the Six Courses in Morals, a Ming Dynasty text obtained by Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi via Ryûkyû; this new version was published and widely distributed in Japan beginning in 1722. Also in that year (1722), Sorai was appointed advisor to the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune.
His students included Dazai Shundai and Taki Kakudai, among other prominent scholars of the 18th century. His teachings were deemed heterodox by the shogunate in 1790, and removed from being part of instruction at the shogunal academies. However, his school still retained some considerable strength, and for example his disciples continued to debate with Korean scholars on occasion.
- Doyoung Park, "A New Perspective on the Korean Embassy (Chôsen Tsûshinshi): The View from the Intellectuals in Tokugawa Japan," Studies in Asia Series IV, 3:1 (2013), 19-21.
- Minoji wo aruku Ryûkyû shisetsu 美濃路をゆく琉球使節, Bisai Museum of History and Folklore 尾西市歴史民俗資料館, Bisai, Aichi (2004), 8.
- Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship, Stanford University Press (1999), 133.