Japanese Philosophy

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The first, and perhaps the most interesting, question regarding Japanese philosophy is whether there is such a thing. Or, to be more precise, whether there was any Japanese philosophy before Nishida Kitarō's 1911 An Inquiry into the Good (Zen no kenkyō ). Some Japanese scholars today, such as Sakamoto Hyakudai, deny that there has ever been any Japanese philosophy. Others, like Nakamura Yōjirō, argue that there was none before Nishida. This is somewhat surprising in that since 1920 much of the same literature originating from China has been called Chinese philosophy by the Chinese, while a little later a Korean version was labeled Korean philosophy by the Koreans.

To understand why the Japanese have not followed suit, we need to examine how the notion of "philosophy," as it is known in the West, first took shape in the Japanese intellectual world during the Meiji period (18681911). At that time the Japanese government was encouraging the wholesale importation of Western intellectual culture, including something called "philosophy." To designate this newly introduced Western study, Nishi Amane introduced in 1874 a new word, tetsugaku (a shortened form of "kitetsugaku," " kitetsu " itself abbreviated from kikyō tetsuchi ), which he formed using two Chinese characters, or kanji, meaning the "science of seeking wisdom." The first philosophy instructors were foreigners, who began to arrive three years later, and it was not until 1893 that they began to be replaced by Western-trained Japanese professors of philosophy. This development fostered the idea that that thing called "philosophy" was a solely Western product standing alongside other Western disciplines such as chemistry, physics, and biology.

Since tetsugaku was formed of two Chinese characters, the Chinese themselves adopted the Japanese convention and began toward the end of the nineteenth century to refer to Western philosophy using these same two characters (pronounced in Chinese, zhu-shway, or, in pinyin, zhe xue). As in Japan, most Chinese scholars initially thought that zhe xue was one of the Western sciences and was therefore something previously nonexistent in either China or Japan except in very rudimentary form. However, as it gradually became clearer that Western philosophy was not a science but a metaphysical and speculative world view based largely on a sense of cultural values (partially through the efforts of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell, who visited China just after the World War), Chinese scholars began to see greater similarities between Western philosophy and ancient Confucianism, Mohism, Daoism, and Legalism.

The final shift in definition was achieved following the great debates on this issue in China during 19221923, led by Liang Shuming and Chang Chunmai (Carson Chang). Chinese intellectuals now reached the consensus that much ancient Chinese writing (Confucian, Daoist, and some Buddhist texts) should be considered zhe xue and that zhe xue must be divided into Western, Indian, and Chinese, each representing different value orientations or Weltanschauungen of these different cultures. Since philosophy was now deemed not a science but rather the expression of cultural values, Liang and his group successfully argued that the Chinese should embrace Western science but continue to espouse Chinese philosophy.

Shortly afterward Koreans began referring to their ancient literature derived from Chinese sources as "Korean philosophy," but the Japanese disagreed, refusing to designate Japanese versions of this same Chinese literature as Japanese philosophy. It is true, as Japanese intellectuals such as Nakae Tokusuke (pen name Nakae Chōmin 1901) argued, that anything one might want to designate as Japanese philosophy was borrowed and evolved from Chinese sources. But this is no more true of Japanese borrowing from external sources than of British, German, or French philosophy borrowing from Greek sources. A transplanted tradition often becomes culturally identified with its adopted country if and when it takes deep root and permanently transforms the original product into its own image. And this seems no less true of Japanese versions of Chinese philosophy than it is of Korean renditions of Chinese philosophy or of British transformations of Greek philosophy. The important issue, therefore, is not the origins of Japanese philosophy but how Japanese philosophers interpreted, criticized, modified, developed, and used imported Chinese philosophical ideas and methods in accordance with Japanese predilections and needs, and how their writings contributed to a continuing, distinctively Japanese tradition of thought. Exactly the same criteria should be used to distinguish twentieth-century Japanese philosophy of a Western or international style from the earlier study of European philosophy in Japanese universities (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).

Distinguishing Japanese from Chinese Philosophy

One difference between Japanese and Chinese philosophy arises from the fact that Japanese philosophy is highly selective about the much larger range of philosophical schools that arose in China. This is partly due to the historical accident that by the time Chinese philosophy was imported to Japan in the seventh century, many earlier Chinese schools had already become obsolete or absorbed into other philosophical schools.

Part of the selection process, however, reflected Japanese political priorities and cultural preferences. In China philosophy had developed independently of government. In Japan, by contrast, philosophy was admitted by the government for the aid it could provide the government in the service of the state. Hence there never developed until quite late an independent class of literary specialists from which scholars could be selected for government service, as was the case in China with its famous meritocratic examination system. In Japan government positions tended to be hereditary.

For all these reasons Japanese tended to select only those aspects of Chinese philosophy best suited to the perceived needs of Japanese government leaders and advisers. So, for example, Japanese never developed (until the late Tokugawa eraeighteenth and nineteenth centuries) the idea, so prominent in China, of the role of philosophy as a tool for self-cultivation. Also, the Japanese were never very interested (again until late Tokugawa) in China's second most important and popular philosophy, philosophical Daoism (Dao Jia ), which the Japanese government leaders thought encouraged anarchy, rebellion, and lack of loyalty to the government and devotion to the state.

For similar reasons, the Japanese tended to exclude Kongzi's (Confucius's) and, more so, Mengzi's (Mencius's) theory of the "mandate of heaven," the view that to be successful, governments must be acceptable to a moral order of heaven, without which they could be legitimately overthrown (not a popular idea among government leaders anywhere). Where Mengzi and the Confucian tradition offered advice to governments on how they ought to rule in order to fulfill their moral obligations to their people and to heaven, this advisory function was largely excluded from Japanese Confucianism, at least until very late in the Tokugawa period. Also, Japanese Confucians emphasized loyalty to the state government over filial piety (family loyalty), whereas for the Chinese it was just the reverse.

Japanese Buddhism, in its early centuries, was similarly politically enmeshed, having been introduced into Japan by government leaders as a way to protect and bring good fortune to the state and not as a popular movement of personal faith among ordinary Japanese people. Whereas Chinese Buddhism spread among all classes of people in all parts of the country, the Japan variant was limited for several centuries to aristocratic families living in the capital. Moreover, whereas Chinese Buddhists tried and largely succeeded in staying out of government service, Japanese Buddhists were from the beginning heavily involved in the affairs of state.

The particular selection of texts the Japanese made from the Chinese and Korean traditions and the interpretations these texts received were also much affected by Japanese cultural predispositions. In the later neo-Confucianism of the Tokugawa period, for example, Japanese philosophers rejected the more abstract, transcendental, and rationalist elements of the philosophy of Zhu Xi (Shushi) in favor of material, phenomenal, sensual, immediate, intuitive principles. Japanese philosophers often explicitly criticized Chinese philosophers for being too intellectual, abstract, logical, and otherworldly.

Japanese Buddhist Philosophy

Although Confucianism and Buddhism arrived more or less simultaneously in Japan as part of a "package deal" of Chinese culture, for various reasons Buddhism played by far the greater role before Tokugawa (seventeenth century). One reason for this was the rising power of Buddhism over Confucianism in China at the time of significant contact with Japan. In the Sui dynasty (seventh century) Buddhism was at its peak in China and was strongly supported by the Sui rulers. A more practical reason inhibiting the spread of Confucianism was the enormous difficulty Japanese people had in reading Chinese. Although the characters are the same, the grammar of the two languages is completely different. Not until the Tokugawa period a thousand years later were these problems sorted out, affording Japanese greater access to Chinese sources.

Indeed, for nearly a thousand years Buddhism played much the same educational role in Japan as Confucianism had in China. Throughout most of this long period, the Buddhists ran the schools and educated most of the ruling and military elites. Ironically, it was the Zen Buddhists who introduced neo-Confucianism (Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming) to Japanese in the seventeenth century. Even in the early twenty-first century the most successful and distinctively Japanese philosophy is that of the Kyōto school, which combines Zen Buddhism with the European philosophies of Hegel and Heidegger.

In light of the Japanese traditional preference for the aesthetic surface of the world as it directly appears to us, the Japanese in general rejected any transcendent, otherworldly, metaphysical reality "behind" appearances and embraced instead the "here-now" phenomenal world sanctified and glorified as aesthetic ritual.

The philosophically most sophisticated Buddhism to emerge in China (Tien Tai, Hua Yen, and Chan Na [Japanese, Zen]) endorsed the profound and paradoxical idea that the changing, dependent phenomenal world is simply a false way of seeing the eternal, ultimate reality. This striking theory results from carrying to its logical conclusion the idea that there is nothing in the world but this one Buddha reality. There is therefore no dualism by which we might contrast the Buddha reality with the ordinary space-time physical world. What we experience as ordinary mundane existence is simply the one Buddha reality misunderstood. Because this outlook fit in very well with Japanese predispositions, Japanese Buddhist philosophers (Saichō [767822], Kōkai [774835], and Dōgen [12001253]) developed this aspect of Buddhism to the fullest.

Japanese Confucian Philosophy

As previously indicated, Confucianism did not have much immediate impact and was for a time hardly studied in any detail. In this early period, as can be seen in Prince Shōtoku's "Constitution" (604 CE), the main Japanese interest in Confucianism was its support for the ancient Chinese customs that Kongzi defended and systematized and that therefore became attached to his name. Many of these customs were similar to ancient Japanese practicesthey were understood, that is, as a justification and theoretical support for hierarchy in society and cohesion within the family and more generally within society. The governing principle in both cultures was loyalty to the superior and loyalty to the group.

Neo-Confucianism was introduced at the beginning of the Tokugawa era through Zen Buddhists in whose monastery schools (Song dynasty [9601279]) neo-Confucianism was studied as a sideline. What Western scholars call neo-Confucianism Chinese call Dao Xue Jia, the School of the Study of Dao. And this name indicates the new metaphysical and spiritual direction of Chinese Buddhism and late Daoism, beginning in the Tang dynasty (618907) but coming to maturity in the Song dynasty. Although neo-Confucians rejected Buddhism because it was not Chinese either in origin or in tradition, they absorbed into Confucianism many elements of both Buddhism and Daoism. Neo-Confucians also selected those Confucian texts more in line with Song dynasty Buddhist-Daoist spiritualism and then interpreted those texts in the new way. Mencius is selected over Xunzi and interpreted spiritually and idealistically, emphasizing the idea in Mengzi that everything lies within us, that we share the goodness of human nature with heaven, that the direct, spontaneous feeling or intuitive thought is the best insight into reality. The key virtues during this period were not so much the social ones of propriety and benevolence but rather the self-cultivation of an inner quality of Buddhistlike mental tranquility and sincerity.

Cosmologically, the ba gua, or trigrams (and the sixty-four hexagrams of paired trigrams), were added to the older Daoist cosmology of qi in an effort to explain the evolution of the natural world from a single element into the multifaceted world we are familiar with. The original qi ether is said to divide into the yin and yang ethers (representing the passive and active forces in nature), which in turn evolve into the five elements (wu xing : earth, wood, metal, fire, and water), which finally produce the "ten thousand things." Philosophically the most important element added during this period is the notion of li in opposition to qi. Qi is the material stuff of the world, and li is the formative principle that shapes it into stable and predictable forms.

This idea probably comes from Buddhist Tien Tai and Hua Yen metaphysics (which may, in turn, have been influenced by Daoism, suggestions of which are found still earlier in the I Jing ), where the root idea is that the inner nature of everything is the same, namely the Buddha nature. In neo-Confucianism the emphasis is more specific and somewhat more secular, each kind of thing being governed by its own principle, or li. The li of chickens makes their eggs hatch into chicks which then grow into chickens, and so on. But as in Yogō cōra Buddhism, an understanding of all the li lies innate within each person's mind. By quietly reflecting within our own minds, we can come to realize the inner li of all things.

Zhou Tunyi, Shao Yung, and Chang Cai (eleventh century), are all "fathers" of Chinese neo-Confucianism, but the tradition really begins with the Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi (eleventh century). Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi (late eleventh century) form the Cheng-Zhu Li Xue school (also called the Rationalist school), whereas Cheng Hao, along with Lu Jiuyuan (better known under his literary name Lu Xiangshan [twelfth century]) and Wang Yangming (fifteenth to sixteenth century) form the Lu-Wang Xin Xue school (also called the Idealist school).

Li Xue held that li exist independently of particular things and also independently of human consciousness (or minds). As Fung Yulan points out, this view is akin to Plato's theory of Forms. Xin Xue held that li do not exist independently of human consciousness (or particular things). So, for the Li Xue we discover li by examining things in the world, whereas for the Xin Xue we discover li by examining our own minds. Also, for the Li Xue human nature is li, whereas for the Xin Xue human nature is mind (human consciousness). That is, for Li Xue human consciousness is part of the qi, the material stuff, or body, whereas for Xin Xue it is the essential characteristic of human beings.

Tokugawa Confucianism

The first phase of Tokugawa Confucianism in Japan was basically a variation of the neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi. Zhu Xi is clearly the most important neo-Confucian and the one who had the greatest influence outside of China (he is the central figure in Korean and Vietnamese Confucianism as well). Zhu Xi interprets the Supreme Ultimate (tai qi ) as a metaprinciple, the superprinciple that governs the other principles just as they govern the formation of individual things. So Zhu Xi argues not only that every distinct kind of thing has its own principle but also that everything in the world has the same nature or principle (the Tai Qi, or Supreme Ultimate, sometimes referred to as the Dao ), the superprinciple of principles, which governs other principles as they govern particular things in the world.

Unlike Buddhism, however, this inner nature of everything, according to Zhu Xi, is not Buddhahood but the central Confucian virtue of ren or human-heartedness. The difference between human beings and plants, rocks, or other animals, each of which has its own li, is that this nature (Supreme Ultimate, tai qi ) is more clearly displayed, more prominent, and more accessible in human beings. Zhu Xi reasoned that in a profound sense the Supreme Ultimate meta- li of ren (human-heartedness) was the controlling force of the world. No longer, then, is ren merely one of the human virtues; it has now become a metaphysical principle governing the entire universe.

Because neo-Confucianism was first presented to the Japanese by Buddhists within the context of Buddhism, the antagonism between Confucianism and Buddhism was not apparent at first, and the two coexisted peacefully for centuries. But the new political regime of Tokugawa shōguns, in their attempt to unite the many feudal principalities of Japan into one nation under the nominal head of the Emperor but controlled by the Shōgun, found the differences between Confucianism and Buddhism politically useful and therefore encouraged the development of a new Confucianism that was not only different from Buddhism but also antagonistic to it. Whereas Buddhism was perceived as otherworldly, spiritual, personal, and metaphysical, Confucianism came to be perceived as being this-worldly, humanistic, rational, and focused on social and political concerns. As a result, Buddhism declined as Confucianism rose, though not to such a great extent as in China. Buddhism was disparaged as superstitious, emotional, and socially useless, whereas Confucianism was praised as humanistic, rationalistic, and pragmatic.

Nonetheless, imported Chinese culture was always adjusted to Japanese sensibilities and needs, and neo-Confucianism was no exception. Almost immediately Japanese intellectuals, including Fujiwara Seika (15611617), Hayashi Razan (15831657), Gahō Razan (16181680), Hōkō Razan (16441732), Nakae Tōju (16081648), Yamazaki Ansai (16181682), Kumazawa (16191691), and Itō Jinsai (16271705) accepted that part of neo-Confucianism that suited their needs and rejected those parts they considered un-Japanese. Basically, they accepted the humanism and rejected the rationalism. The main criticism of Zhu Xi was his stress on rationality at the expense of emotion.

What is most interesting about Japanese followers of Zhu Xi (Shushi) is their complete rejection of his notion that the ultimate reality of the world is the abstract, immaterial, eternal, and unchanging li. Korean Confucians, by contrast, took this Platonic element in Zhu quite seriously, actively debating for centuries whether both li and qi exist (that is, whether the abstract li can exist independently of the material qi ) and, if so, which of the two is primary.

Some 300 years after Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming (ō yōmei ) rejected Zhu's "li xue " (the philosophy of principle) in favor of " xin xue " (the philosophy of mind). And this, too, had its important counterpart in Japan, especially in the work of Oshio Heihachirō (17931837). Wang Yangming identified the ultimate nature or essence of things with mind, adopting a position similar to Western idealism; the ultimate reality is mind and ideas entertained by mind. For Wang human nature is mind, not li, and the Supreme Ultimate (the overarching Dao of everything) is Mind (xin ), not li.

Other differences follow from Zhu's privileging of li and Wang's preference for xin. Whereas for Zhu we follow the Da Xue (the Han dynasty [third century BCE to the third century CE] Confucian classic, The Great Learning ) in "extending learning by investigating things," Wang contends that, following the other Han dynasty Confucian classic, Zhong Yong (Doctrine of the Mean ), one can best learn the ultimate principles of reality by simply reflecting within oneself. The ultimate Dao is Mind, and where better to study Mind than one's own mind? The other major difference between these leading neo-Confucians is that whereas Zhu (somewhat like Aristotle) sees a gap between knowledge and action (that one can know the right thing to do and not do it [Aristotle's "weakness of will"]), Wang argues (somewhat like Socrates and Plato) that if one truly understands what is right, one will do it. Of course, part of the disagreement between Zhu and Wang on this point has to do with different notions they have of knowledge, Zhu stressing something akin to ordinary common sense knowledge, and Wang, something closer to meditative quasi-Buddhist enlightenment. While it seems clear that Zhu Xi borrows from Hua Yen Buddhism the li-qi (in Hua Yen li-ji ) distinction, Wang Yangming's indebtedness to Yogōcōra Buddhism is equally clear.

A major contribution to Chinese Mahōyōna Buddhism was Yogōcōra idealism, which held that everything is the Buddha Mind, that the phenomenal world is a mentally produced illusion. Yogōcōra joins with Nōgōrjuna's Mōdhyamika, or "middle way" (which holds that reality is empty, not mental) to form most of the leading schools of Chinese Buddhism, especially, when further combined with Daoism, Chan (Japanese Zen). For that reason Wang is often called a closet Chan Buddhist. Most Japanese Buddhist philosophers rejected Yogōcōra idealism as too remote from common-sense realism and too alien from the peculiarly Japanese celebration of the infinite aesthetic richness of the phenomenal world of everyday sense experience. For this reason most Japanese neo-Confucians rejected Wang's idealism, though many Japanese found great sympathy for the spiritual sincerity of Wang's emphasis on inner reflection and self-cultivation. Nonetheless, Japanese followers of Wang rejected his main idea, just as followers of Zhu rejected his main idea. In both cases Japanese adopted Chinese neo-Confucianism in their own, peculiarly Japanese way.

Modern Nationalistic Philosophy

In the Qing dynasty (seventeenth through twentieth centuries), Chinese Confucians rejected all the Daoist and especially Buddhist elements with which Song (Zhu Xi) and Ming (Wang Yangming) dynasty neo-Confucianism had become embedded and urged a return to the original Confucianism of the Han and pre-Han period. In reaction to this Buddhistic (and hence Indian, ergo, non-Chinese) Confucianism, the Qing dynasty Confucians led a movement "back to the original (thoroughly Chinese) Confucianism." And this too was closely followed by Japanese Confucians.

More interesting was the Japanese adaptation of this "back to the (nationalistic) origins" as a "return" to Japanese, not Chinese, ancient writing. Of course, there is no Japanese writing of comparable antiquity to that of China, but there were the early "histories," such as the Kojiki, commissioned in the seventh and eighth centuries by Japanese rulers. These accounts were mostly collections of mythological prehistories of what later became known as Japanese Shintō. Like its Chinese counterpart, this trend represents the first dawning in Japan of a kind of "intellectual nationalism" that became increasingly important all over the world in the early twentieth century, especially in the period from 1920 to 1940.

Whereas Japanese Confucians rejected Confucian rationalism in favor of humanism, their embrace of Confucian humanism was itself qualified. On the whole, it was rejected politically but accepted morally; that is, Confucian humanism was rejected, at least initially (in the seventeenth century), as part of the political philosophy supporting the new Japanese Shōgunate "bakufu " government, whereas it was accepted as the foundation for a more general and widespread moral code throughout the country. In its military guise, Japanese government was less paternalistic and more rigidly duty-bound. Military leaders demanded and expected absolute obedience from their citizens. Here again Chinese thought was used to support, justify, and defend Japanese traditions rather than to modify them. On the other hand, Confucianism was a very important factor in the development of Japan's early modern (seventeenth and eighteenth century) moral consciousness, especially among the rising middle class of wealthy, educated merchants in the cities.

At first Japanese Confucians sought to find this more humanistic side of Confucianism in the earlier Han and pre-Han Confucianism of the Analects and the Mengzi. But eventually Japanese Confucians turned away from Chinese sources altogether for this missing ingredient and began to look instead within their own ancient Japanese traditions. This opened the door for the focus on the more religious, nonrational ancient Japanese (i.e., Shinto) learning, which rejected both the humanism and the rationalism of neo-Confucianism. Japanese ancient learning portrayed the secular humanism of neo-Confucianism as a weakness, not a strength; it was bad because it ignored the ancient Japanese belief in the kami, a mysterious power that cannot be discovered by logical analysis or empirical investigation but only by the authority of ancient texts.

The most important of these "National Learning" philosophers was Motoori Norinaga (17301801). For more than thirty years Motoori struggled to have the Kojiki made the basis of accepted Shintō scripture. The problem was that the Kojiki is mainly a loose collection of ancient myths, legends, and genealogical records of the imperial family. It contains little abstract or profound philosophical thought. Motoori, nonetheless, tried to show that this was a strength and not a weakness. He argued that, like other sacred texts, the religious truths in the Kojiki are beyond ordinary sense perception, common sense, or reason. He also interpreted certain elements in the Kojiki as a purely Japanese sensibility of spontaneous sentiment privileging the emotional and aesthetic side of human nature over its more rational and moral side as favored by the Chinese.

Not surprisingly, Motoori was severely criticized by the neo-Confucian philosophers of his day for his naive and irrational theories. One objection Motoori tackles head-on is the criticism that instead of appealing to a universal human reason that could be appreciated by all people everywhere, as most philosophers try to do, Motoori isolates the Japanese people from everyone else in the world. According to Motoori's explanations, only the Japanese who follow the Kojiki know the truth and follow the true Way; only they are the chosen people. But that is just the way it is, Motoori responds. The gods favored Japan and more clearly revealed the Way of the gods to them, and the Japanese people have preserved this ancient, sacred tradition better than other people, who have abandoned what religious understanding they once had in favor of new, man-made philosophical explanations.

Motoori tends to be theistically fatalistic: everything is decreed by the gods, whether for good or evil. How can we explain the existence of evil? Instead of looking for rational reasons to justify the fact of undeserved evil, Motoori simply says that we know from the Kojiki that this is what the gods decided and the way they acted. If you go on to ask why the gods did things in this way, you are asking a question that cannot be answered. The Way of the gods is not the Way of man.

Instead of constantly trying to control or restrain our emotions, as the rationalistic philosophers are always telling us to do, Motoori insists on a more frank acknowledgment of the power of emotion in our lives. Sometimes, it is true, emotion leads us into indiscretions which we later regret. But we cannot help ourselves. We should not be so judgmentally harsh on ourselves or on other people, Motoori urges us, but rather sympathetically recognize (with fatalistic resignation) the power of emotion to occasionally lead us astray.

Motoori forms the transition to the late-nineteenth-century Meiji rejection of Chinese in favor of Western learning as the only way to compete with the West and avoid Western domination. The central paradox of this early adjustment to the modern ways of the West is that the Japanese suffered no sense of inferiority in their need to emulate at least some aspects of the West. The general consensus among Japanese intellectuals of this period followed Motoori's conviction that the gods arose in Japan and therefore favored the Japanese people, giving them a natural and undeniable edge over all other peoples. By the early twentieth century, Japan had thoroughly mastered Western science and technology but was torn politically between liberal and more conservative Western thoughtspecifically between British empirical and neo-Kantian ideas on the one hand and German Hegelian and Heideggerian doctrines on the other. In the end the conservatives won the day.

Perhaps the most important thinker in this regard was Watsuji Tetsurō (18891960). His 1935 work Fōdo (Climate and Culture ) replaces Heidegger's emphasis on time (in Being and Time ) with a focus on space. Like other Japanese philosophers, Watsuji did not accept Heidegger's thought without reserve. Indeed, it was deemed by most Japanese to be too concerned with the individual at the expense of the social. In Watsuji's view, Heidegger's neglect of space precluded a description of human existence concrete enough to allow for a true depiction of history and (to cite Watsuji's chosen focus) of the role of climate within it. Again, we see the Japanese predilection for the empirical and phenomenal over the abstract and transcendental.

In Rinrigaku (Ethics, 19371949) as in Fōdo, Watsuji again taxes Heidegger with having scanted space relative to time and thereby the social relative to the individual. The German philosopher, he complains, "stuck fast to an atomistic individuality"(Rinrigaku, 224). This Cartesian, Hobbesian notion of self, Watsuji declares, is artificial and must be replaced with a more communitarian view of authenticity. Watsuji's terminological lynchpin for this idea is ningen, the Japanese word for "human being," where nin means "person" and gen signifies "between or together," thus implying a communal relationship. Inseparable from their cultural and social context, humans are fixed in a tensed, contradictory relationship to society; each person is at once an individual and a member of a social order and never wholly one or the other.

In place of Heidegger's "nothingness," Watsuji substitutes the Buddhist notion of emptiness (sunyata ), an "authentic" surrender of selfish ego out of which compassion may arise. The problem with this idea, of course, is that his "authentic individual" can easily be submerged in totalitarianism because the community of which he or she is a selfless member is, in practical terms, inseparable from the state.

The Twentieth-Century KyŌto School

Using our criteria for what constitutes "Japanese philosophy," the first clearly Japanese philosophy of the post-Meiji period is the 1911 publication of Zen no kenkyō (An Inquiry into the Good ), by Nishida Kitarō (18701945). Nishida was the pioneer of the Kyōto-ha, the Kyōto School of philosophers, which included other notable thinkers such as Tanabe Hajime and Nishitani Keiji. On the one hand, all the school's major members were condemned in some quarters for having collaborated with, or at least having endorsed, ultranationalist objectives; on the other hand, there has been widespread admiration for the quality of their purely philosophical activity, the best of which has been deemed of worldwide significance.

The originality of Zen no kenkyō lay in its author's attempt to express the Zen ideal of "unity of thought" within a densely argued philosophical system applying Western methods and concepts. Like his contemporary readers, Nishida faced the problem of reconciling Japan's traditional values with those implicit in the Western-inspired technological revolution. Nishida saw Zen insight as a possible solution for the crisis facing Japan.

Nishida's solution centered on the Western notion of "pure experience." Western writers had used the term "pure experience" in a way that seemed to him fundamentally flawed. What dissatisfied him in Mach, James, and others was their dualistic analysis of pure experience. Nishida held that any theoretical representation of pure experience inevitably introduces falsification. Sense-datum psychologists and philosophers had tried to describe our experience prior to perceptual syntheses and conceptual classifications but had nonetheless presupposed a subject-object dichotomy in which the perceiver is aware of himself looking at a world beyond himself. What Nishida sought to describe was a still more elementary, "pure" experience prior to any subject-object distinctionthe experience of a newborn child.

From the standpoint of Zen Buddhism, in which the self is perceived as an artificial construction that inhibits the Buddha vision and is therefore best "dissolved," such a position does not surprise. But expressed philosophically, it took on the power of subversive dialogue with established Western beliefs. If self precedes experience, universal principles posited on the basis of individual experience are suspect. To avoid solipsism, Western thinkers have traditionally had to make assertions beyond experience. "Higher" realms and "hidden" essences have become chimerical foci in the hopeful quest of a human commonality. If, however, pure experience precedes self, then such experience itself can be declared a universal principle. The problem for modern Western philosophyHow do I get my private individual self to a reality beyond, understood in terms of universal principles accessible to everyone?is not a problem in Nishida's notion of "pure experience," for he presupposes no division between "me" and "reality" nor between me and others.

Nishida's "logic of place (basho )" or "logic of nothingness" was quite unlike the "objective" logic of Western rationalism. Just as he had criticized the dualistic opposition in the Western representation of pure experience, so he calls here for a regress from the standpoint of reason (ensconced in the constructed subject) to the very starting point of our awareness, prior to the construction of self with its constructions of categories of determinate being. Only after pure experience has been differentiated into self and worldand after world, in turn, has been classified into categories of conceptual thoughtcan reason and cognition begin their work. Nishida developed a logic prior to the confrontation of a knower confronting an object.


Whether there is a Japanese philosophy or not depends on how one defines the word philosophy and how one judges the efforts to indigenize, or nationalize, borrowed, alien philosophical sources. Since the early 1920s there has been a general if not unanimous consensus in the philosophical community that there are three independent (literate) philosophical traditions: Greek, Indian, and Chinese (of which Japanese philosophy is an offshoot). Throughout Japan's 1,300-year history, that nation's philosophers have borrowed freely from outside sourcesfirst from Chinese and later from Western philosophical traditions. But the Japanese have always interpreted and used these foreign sources in their own distinctive way. What is perhaps most peculiar about Japanese philosophy is that whereas nearly every other literate (and nonliterate) non-Western tradition is eager to claim for some of its thought the honorific title of "philosophy," the Japanese have mostly been reluctant to do soor indeed to identify themselves with other cultures in any way that might appear to detract from their cultural uniqueness.

See also Aristotle; Buddhism; Cheng Hao; Cheng Yi; Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Hayashi Razan; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Itō Jinsai; James, William; Korean Philosophy; Kumazawa Banzan; Lu Xiangshan; Mach, Ernst; Mencius; Nāgārjuna; Nakae Tōju; Nishi Amane; Nishida, Kitarō; Plato; Self; Socrates; Wang Yang-ming; Watsuji Tetsurō; Yamazaki Ansai; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


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H. Gene Blocker (2005)

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