Japanese Philosophy, Japanese Thought

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To write about Japanese intellectual history is to take part in the lasting Japanese scholarly tradition of recalling the past in order to make sense out of the present, that is, the writing of Japanese history. These histories, official or nonofficial, are structured around key ideas reflecting the intellectual life of a particular period. Constituting a rational effort at legitimizing the power of the elites, these histories also have a more reflective and critical dimension offering insights about the social, political, and religious dimensions of a particular period. What becomes clear through these histories is that Japanese identity is rooted in the construction of a virtual "other" source of fear and admiration. That "other," whether it is China, the West, or the United States, serves as an incentive to the construction of a Japanese "self." The Japanese "self" is not the result of an imitation or a reproduction of an exterior model, but the result of a long and painful interior process of realizing that what is idealized in the "other" is in fact the essence of Japanese culture. For example, the Kojiki (712 c.e.; Record of ancient matters) and the more voluminous Nihon shoki (720 c.e.; Chronicles of Japan), expose the prestigious genealogy of the leaders of the Japanese kingdom. These historical records were created after encountering Chinese culture and are meaningful as long as they can be contrasted with Chinese historical records. The sense of excellence and uniqueness emphasized by these histories is not exclusivist or isolationist but relational and agonistic. When later on during the twentieth century the "other" became the "West," historians forged the image of a Japanese "self" as a model of Asian civilization, rivaling the Western one.

From the short-term horizon of the Heisei era (the name Heisei, meaning "peace everywhere," was introduced in 1989 by the emperor Akihito after the death of his father, the emperor Showa [Hirohito]), the other is still the West and more precisely the West as an idealized United States. However, a strong conviction that it is time for Japan to establish a new order has surfaced in the early twenty-first century through the traditional and symbolic call for reformation (Jap. kaizo or kaikaku ).

All levels of twenty-first-century Japanese society are affected by a confused but real desire for reform. Still, one has difficulties in grasping what precisely are the key ideas that would guide the effort toward the building of a new Japanese identity. The Heisei era is one of paradoxes and uncertainties generated by a long-lasting economic crisis, a lack of leadership, a sense of insecurity, a loss of moral and religious incentives, and above all a younger generation that values impermanence (mujo ). In that context, education and new means of communication are calling back to memory aspects of the Japanese past. Under the initiative of the Ministry of Education, new history textbooks have been written, but they are the object of continuing controversies. Replacing the traditional monogatari (romantic tales), novels, comic books, and movies nourish a popular taste for what is exotic and perceived as unique in the Japanese past, that is, geomancy (onmyodo ), romantic tales, and biographies of religious leaders. The weakening of political, academic, and scientific authority as well as the discrediting of leftist revolutionary ideals have reopened the debate on Japanese culture. The Japan of the Heisei era is experiencing a postcolonial, postwar, post-Marxist, postmodern phase. After the aborted attempts to restore the intellectual tendencies characterized by the theorization on "Japaneseness" (Nihonjin ron ), the intellectual discourse has shifted to the notion of "belonging": how does one belong to Japan? What has probably been underestimated about twenty-first-century Japanese thought is the effect the new concept of globalization has had on the Japanese imagination. This concept is in fact very disorienting because it radically transforms the perception of space and renews the reflection on belonging. Globalization does not seem to be compatible with the establishment of a virtual other, reopening the questioning about what makes one Japanese.

The Production of Thought: Writing as Philosophy

When the Silk Road and other trade roads were flourishing, when the Han Empire and the Korean kingdoms entertained relations with the emerging Yamato kingdom, not only goods and ideas, but also a new means of communicationthe Chinese writing systemreached the Japanese islands. The mastering of reading and writing Chinese characters gave to the populations living on the Japanese islands a new conception of space and time: educated Japanese could now belong to the vast thinking network that had brought together Indian, Chinese, and many other inspiring cultural centers. A few hundred years later, the Utsuho monogatari (976983) mentions for the first time the word kana (provisional names) to speak about a writing system derived from mana (perfected names), that is, the original Chinese characters. The invention of the kana writing system was interpreted during the Edo era (16001867) and up to twenty-first-century Japan as a symbol of Japanese cultural unity, independence, and superiority. Some twenty-first-century scholarship has criticized such an approach and offers new readings of Heian creativity. These new studies tend to emphasize hybridity and hierarchy as the key factors involved in the formation of the classical Japanese community. The kana system has never been a mere tool to transcribe phonemes and was never really thought of as independent from the mana system. These studies underline the importance of looking at the Japanese writing system as a whole entity ensuring the intelligibility of inscription. In brief, a study of Japanese thought requires an in-depth study of the working out of "philosophies of writing" shared by cultures using Chinese characters. From the Heian period (7941185) up to contemporary Japan, Japanese have been using an ever-increasing variety of writing systems in order to preserve the intelligibility (not to be confused with clarity or efficiency) of written communication. The combination of Chinese characters, kana scripts, Sanskrit syllabary, and, later, the Western alphabet in the Japanese writing system is a constant reminder of the importance of inscription as a symbol of the complex correspondence between the social, political, and cosmological orders.

At the time of the formation of the Japanese writing system, the power and authority received through the mastering of the art of calligraphy gave to Heian scholars the possibility of uniting the social order of the kingdom with the cosmological order found in Buddhist texts. Furthermore, the reading of written works gave to Japanese scholars the sense that texts written in the past were the ultimate source of authority and perfection from which the present derived its legitimacy. Finally, written works gave access to Buddhist teachings, adding new figures such as Sanskrit letters to symbolize new types of associations.

The Capital City as the Space of Thought Production

Originality, clarity, or imitation cannot serve as guiding ideas for studying Japanese thought in the first centuries of the Heian era. Japanese scholars are part of a network in which intellectuals of the past and present influence one another. Thinking insightfully is bound to a space of rivalry. This is why, very early on, the Japanese court organized carefully planned contests between its best intellectuals (Buddhists, Confucians, Nativists) for the production of an insightful intellectual space. Thus, from a Western perspective the modes of production of ideas in Japan are quite original. After the encounter with Chinese literature, one of the favored means of conceptualization became poetry. Even in the most philosophical commentaries on Buddhist teachings, poems appear in the text as unique and powerful modes of conceptualization. Later on, other written works combine poetry and prose and develop in the forms of popular tales. All these written works share in common an appeal to the senses of the readers. Ideas have to be embodied in order to be understood and to influence modes of life.

The production of ideas requires a space and that space is symbolized by the "capital city" (miyako ). Protected from evil forces, that sacred and pure space allows the formation of the quintessence of Japanese thought. This is why a study of Japanese thought is bound to be a study of the representations of the city in general and of the capital city in particular. Heijo, Heian, Kamakura, Edo, Tokyo are not just names of capital cities but emblems of unique symbolic structures allowing the production of thought.

Time as a Gift of Nature

Another important factor in the production of ideas in Japan is an element of stability assuring the basic structure of the understanding of time. The temperate climate of the islands with their five seasons (autumn, winter, spring, rainy, summer) generates a cyclical notion of time. Japanese poetry and literature created a rich set of symbols characterizing each one of the five seasons. The description of the passing of seasons and their return is associated with the Japanese landscape. Mountains, plains, and rivers change according to seasons and offer the senses a unique experience of time. Historical figures like the Buddha or Christ, the founding of the Japanese kingdom at a particular point in time, or important historical events have never structured the basic experience of time shared by the Japanese. Among the many symbols that are used to represent their experience of time, rice is definitely the most important. Rice appears as the symbol of an enduring identity, a "Japaneseness" that is not so much handmade but given by natural forces, that must be offered, eaten, or drunk in order to assure the communion among Japanese, including the sharing of thoughts.

Periodization of Japanese Intellectual History

Japanese intellectual history can be roughly divided into four periods, Buddhism, Confucianism, the Western Canon, and the Heisei era. Each period is characterized by the production of a "virtual other" and a "canon."

China and the Buddhist canon.

The Japanese inherited from the kingdoms of Korea and China a great variety of texts belonging to different traditions, namely, Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist. However, during the first period of Japan's intellectual history, literati chose the sacred texts of Buddhism as the most authoritative. During that period the major centers of learning were Buddhist monasteries and the most influential thinkers were Buddhist monks. Buddhist teachings rely on a common set of sutras that are used by all Mahayana traditions, the most important sutras being the Flower Garland (Kegon ) and the Lotus (Hoke ). The teaching of Buddhism also relied on a variety of Chinese commentaries, mainly those of late Mahayana (Mahyamika and Yogacara). One of the characteristics of Japanese Buddhism is that, while it is highly intellectual, it is also down to earth and often very practical, thus appealing not only to the literati but also to ordinary Japanese. Buddhist teachings are not confined to the highly sophisticated treatises produced by Kukai (774835), who transmitted the Shingon tradition to the Japanese, or by the monks of the Tendai tradition. Works such as the Nihonryoiki, written by the Nara monk Kyokai in the early Heian period, spread Buddhist principles to ordinary Japanese. Contrary to what is often said, Buddhism did not wait until the Kamakura period (11851336) to become popular. Sophisticated and popular Buddhist works contributed to the harmonization of religious teachings and practices by incorporating former Japanese beliefs (honjisuijakusetsu and ryobushinto ). Through the deeds and stories of the monks, Japanese as a whole took Buddhist cosmologythe theory of karma, the theory of the six worlds (rokudo ), Buddhist piety, Buddhist architecture, and Buddhist ritualsas their norm. The study of the Genji monogatari (early 1000s c.e.; Tale of Genji ), as well as other monogatari of the Heian period also show that Japanese writers used the concept of impermanence and instability (mujo ) to characterize their perception of nature and society.

During the twelfth century, dissonant voices began to disturb the harmony of Heian society. The military were opposed to the rich and grandiose capital city of Kyoto and preferred the modest and rustic "tent government" (bakufu ) of Kamakura. To the hierarchical distribution of the Heian system, a new age favoring the nonhierarchical and the provisional had succeeded. On the Buddhist side, dissident monks, most of them trained in the Tendai tradition, abandoned the traditional Buddhist centers to experiment with new forms of practices. Among many other Buddhist monks, Kakuban (10951143), Jien (11551225), Myoe (11731232), Honen (11331212), Shinran (11731262), Eisai (11411215), Dogen (12001253), and Nichiren (12221282) addressedeach one in a very creative waythe new concern that Buddhist teachings might have entered a period of decay (mappo ). The rich debates affecting all the Buddhist traditions had remarkable effects on Japanese Buddhism. However, the Buddhist traditions were now offering such a variety of cosmologies, visions of the perfect society and understandings of the human, that Buddhist texts could no longer be the authoritative canon. After a short encounter with Western thought that accompanied the arrival of Jesuit missionaries, the Japanese literati constructed a new authoritative canon.

China and Confucianism: Tokugawa Japan

Years of war and social chaos ended in the year 1600 at the battle of Sekigahara. The return of peace under the Tokugawa leadership opened a new era of intellectual creativity on the Japanese islands. The predominant concern of the Tokugawa elite was the maintenance of a peaceful and harmonious society; they emphasized human responsibility in the formation and maintenance of such a society. In order to achieve that goal, the intellectual discourse had to be rational, pragmatic, humanistic, and focused on social concerns. During the first Tokugawa century, the official discourse found inspiration in three intellectual traditions: Nativism (Shinto), Buddhism, and Confucianism. The new order drew its legitimization using insights from these three traditions, combining them in a very creative way. At the beginning of the Tokugawa era, a ruling class did not yet exist. Intellectuals were to create that virtuous ruling class of warriors, invent its new symbols, and sacralize the new order. While Buddhism and Shinto played an important role in creating a new "common sense" among peasants, craftsmen, and merchants for the legitimization of the warrior class hegemony, Confucianism produced a great variety of concepts to nourish the intellectual discourse of the elites. The genius of the Tokugawa leaders was to never name their organic intellectuals but use for their own advantage the insights of competing intellectual traditions in search of official recognition.

One of the characteristics of the new intellectual setting of the Tokugawa era was new developments in Confucian studies. Fujiwara Seika (15611619) and Hayashi Razan (15831657) were among the first Japanese intellectuals who presented Confucianism as a useful philosophical instrument for justifying the new Tokugawa policies. Over the centuries, the Japanese had received from China and Korea a variety of Confucian teachings. Japanese intellectuals of the early Tokugawa period began a process of critical analysis of the Confucian intellectual tradition. Through a process of selection and creation, they developed original types of teachings adapted to their cultural and social environment. Some of these Confucian scholars focused on human relationships of loyalty, cooperation, and obedience to superiors. Others offered the ethical incentives for the class of loyal and unselfish civil servants of the new era. Emphases on education, ceremonial, and tradition became a trademark of Confucian scholarship. Furthermore, the development of Confucian teachings included a severe criticism of Buddhism and Daoism as being too otherworldly, irrational, and opposed to Japanese tradition. Thus, Confucian scholars played an important role in the revival of Nativist or Shinto teachings. Other Confucian scholars like Nakae Toju (16081648) and Yamazaki Ansai (16181682) renewed Confucian teachings by emphasizing the importance of practicing Confucian virtues based on the notion of an "in-nate moral intuition" culminating in unique interpretations about the meaning of sincerity (makoto ). The appropriate pedagogy for teaching Confucian moral virtues thus became an important theme of debate. Meanwhile, other intellectuals such as Yamaga Soko (16221685) defended the importance of Shinto as the only way for Japanese to put into practice the virtues that were so important to maintain the unity and peace of the kingdom. At the end of the seventeenth century, literati like Ogyu Sorai (16661728) criticized neo-Confucian interpretations. This marked a return to original Confucian teachings and offered the possibility to renew the reflection on virtues by abandoning relativist positions and by opening the search for eternal and natural virtues.

The critical analysis of Confucian canonical texts and the realization that the latest development in Confucian thinking might not be the most insightful, generated a movement of return to original texts that affected the entire intellectual landscape at the end of the seventeenth century. The School of Ancient Meaning (Kogaku ) started by Ito Jinsai (16271705) focused on the direct study of the Confucian classics starting with the Analects. In parallel, the National Learning movement (Kokugaku ), which specialized in the search for purely Japanese sources, unspoiled by Chinese influence, was inaugurated by Motoori Norinaga (17301801). This also opened a new reflection on Japaneseness around the key notions of human emotions: love, sorrow, longing, and regret. Motoori saw the superiority of Japanese thinking in the proper usage of emotions and sensibility.

In the eighteenth century, the debates between Confucian, Shinto, and Buddhist scholars were slowly corroded by the encounter with Western scholarship and the development of Dutch or Western learning (Rangaku ). The growing awareness among many scholars of the suffering and poverty of ordinary people in Japan, the lack of medical progress, and the need for technical improvements, encouraged scholars to study what was seen at the time as the extraordinary achievement of Western scholarship. The growing skepticism toward the importance of Chinese learning came paradoxically from the reading of the Chinese translations of major Western authors and gave Japanese scholars their first incentive toward "modernization." These Chinese translations also exposed Japanese literati to Western philosophy.

The West and the Western Canon: Meiji, Taisho, and Early Showa

During the nineteenth century, interest in Western rational discoveries and scientific and technological advances increased. The industrial revolution, which had led to radical political transformations and the formation of powerful and growing empires, became a source of inspiration for renewing Japanese institutions. Japan entered a phase of intense reflection on its own identity that served as the foundation for its modern intellectual history. This period is characterized by a tension between the "traditional" and the "modern" leading to the new beginnings of the Meiji era. Notions like civilization, enlightenment, progress, and success captured the imagination of a new generation of intellectuals. Western learning was no longer encountered through Chinese translations. The encounter was now without any intermediary, through attending classes taught by foreign scholars or by being sent to foreign universities. However, Japanese intellectuals found themselves in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, they understood that without acquiring Western science and technology, Japan would become a colony of Europe the way China had become one. On the other hand, they wanted to protect Japanese identity and proclaim Japanese uniqueness and superiority. Debates about abandoning the Chinese script, about adopting one European language as the national one, and about making Christianity the national religion of a modern Japan, show how much the creative imagination of Japanese literati was again at work. With the Meiji era a turn to European philosophy began and the word tetsugaku was finally forged to mark the Japanese interest in that new discipline. The main centers for philosophical studies were the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. Included among the most famous philosophers of the time were Kitaro Nishida (18701945), Hajime Tanabe (18851962), Keiji Nishitani (19001990), and Tetsuro Watsuji (18891960). The Japanese literati looked at Western philosophy as part of a larger whole including religion, science, and literature. For these four philosophers and also for most Japanese intellectuals, there was no antagonism between philosophy, religion, and Japanese culture. One of their important contributions is their reflection on the inner self. During the postWorld War II period, questions about the involvement of Japanese thinkers in the support of imperialistic ideology shadowed the philosophical contributions of these philosophers. It is only very recently that intellectuals have shown a new interest in the first Japanese contributions to world philosophy. During the same period, in Buddhist circles, the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was actively studied in order to defend the position that Mahayana Buddhism, especially Kegon and Tendai, could serve as a bridge between Western and Eastern thought.

The defeat and the occupation of Japan by foreign troops inaugurated a new period of reflection, this time centered on repentance. In philosophical circles, thinkers like Hajime Tanabe reflected on collective responsibility, repentance, and the new opportunities the defeat was giving to the Japanese people. However, in the fall of 1945, a new Japan was just a potentiality, and fierce debates about what that new Japan should consist of centered on the notion of democracy. Most intellectuals turned to Marxism or Christianity in order to think about that new Japan, and they developed philosophies of action. The most fascinating contribution of the period is on "subjectivity" (shutaisei ). The Korean War and later the Vietnam War gave a second occasion for Japanese intellectuals to clarify their position about war, violence, and peace. At the end of the 1950s, an awareness that Japan had been able to modernize its economy and society in a matter of a few decades and had entered a phase of Westernization was felt by many intellectuals. The following decades were characterized by a turn to economy. After a period of social conflict and agitation in the universities, Japan emerged as a model of economic success. Democratic Japan had become one of the strongest economies in the world and Japanese society was the focus of the attention of Western and other Asian countries. However, many intellectuals expressed their doubts that the economic miracle has been matched with a parallel cultural development. Japan had become rich and powerful but with what kind of soul?

Toward a PostU.S. and Postnormative Canon: The Heisei Era

The Japan of the Heisei era has undergone a new period of inquiry in order to express what Japaneseness is about. The fact that many Japanese live a good part of their lives in foreign countries, that there are a growing number of Japanese children with a parent who does not have Japanese nationality, and the growing awareness that some parts of the non-Japanese population have lived in Japan for generations, are among the factors that generate some uneasiness when one attempts to define Japaneseness. Japan may have reached a period in its history where there is no longer the possibility of defining the self through an other such as China or the West. Japan may have entered a period that requires the creation of a "mythic Japan" as another source of creativity for constructing the Japanese self. In many ways, Japan has become foreign to itself, thus allowing the possibility for a completely new Japanese identity to emerge.

See also Confucianism ; Daoism ; Education: Japan ; Religion: East and Southeast Asia ; Shinto .


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Thierry Jean Robouam

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