Introduction to Japanese Philosophy

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The Existence of Japanese Philosophy*

The Japanese term for philosophy, kitetsugaku (abbreviated from kikyū tetsuchi, "the science of seeking wisdom"), was introduced by Nishi Amane1 (1829-1897) in 1862 when he was preparing his lectures on Greek and European philosophy.2 Twelve years later, he abbreviated the term further to the now standard tetsugaku (哲学).3 The word was used to describe something that the Japanese perceived sometimes favourably, as a necessary condition to develop a modern society, sometimes with distrust, as a loss of spirituality or an ethnocentric menace, but always as foreign and completely alien to their culture. This led Nakae Chōmin to declare in 1901 that

from antiquity to the present day, there has never been any philosophy in Japan.4

However, the philosophy that Nakae Chōmin was referring to was, primarily, the elaborate political philosophy of Rousseau and similar theories of social Justice.5 This brand of thought is just a particular strand of philosophy and, although it is arguably absent from the history of Japan before the Meiji era,6 this is hardly an argument against the existence of Japanese philosophy prior to its introduction from the West. If the existence of Chinese and Indian philosophies is widely acknowledged, is it not legitimate to ask the question whether there is in Japanese culture something that we ought to refer to as Japanese philosophy?

The word “philosophy” can be understood in different ways. We sometimes say things like “the firm’s philosophy” or “the University’s philosophy” meaning an attitude towards finance, education, life, etc., but “philosophy” can also have a more technical sense, when we refer to “the philosophy of Aristotle,” for example. It is the latter technical meaning that we are concerned with in this article.7

It might be objected that we are trying to apply a Western concept in a culture that might not perceive philosophy as something distinct from religious spirituality or from literature. I believe the objection is valid. However, the fact that we are using our own words and concepts to speak about Japanese culture does not necessarily entail that we are trying to impose our way of understanding. In our search for philosophical issues and reasoning, we must be aware of the fact that the problems we are focusing on, which we consider philosophical, might not be perceived by the Japanese as a separate discipline or body of thought.

The existence of a history of philosophy in Japan is not enough to prove that Japanese philosophy exists8 because it can be argued (as even some Japanese philosophers argue) that philosophy is something imported into Japan from China (and later from the West) and that there is nothing genuinely Japanese in it. Blocker & Starling (2001) argue that Japan did not just import, copy and, perhaps, develop Chinese and Western philosophy, but that it understood the problems in a completely new way. Doctrines were reinterpreted, solutions were viewed in a different light, and thought developed in a genuinely Japanese way. This is, of course, a controversial claim, as Nakae Chōmin's remark (quoted above) shows.

Philosophical thought in the history of Japan[edit | edit source]

The history of philosophy in Japan can roughly be divided into four periods,9 the first of which begins with the introduction of Buddhism into Japan in the sixth century.10

Buddhism[edit | edit source]

The first great impulse to the spreading of this religion was given by Prince Shōtoku when he took office half a century after its official introduction into the country.11 Prince Shōtoku was mainly interested in giving his people a better moral code and in providing a justification for the rule of the imperial throne. In his famous Seventeen-Article Constitution, he writes:

[A]ll men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. [...] Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and, though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them.12

The values of harmony and obedience are emphasized repeatedly in the Constitution in such a way as to be moral guidelines and, at the same time, justify the position of the rulers.

Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition is to be honoured. [...] when those above are harmonious and those below are friendly, [...] what is there which cannot be accomplished?13

Although Buddhism is a religion, and not a philosophical doctrine, it nevertheless raised questions about the ultimate nature of reality that were sometimes examined in a philosophical way. We encounter a situation similar to that of Christian thought during the middle ages, where, although philosophy is closely linked to religious thought, it is not absent, and it is still possible to trace its development. The famous scholar Ètienne Gilson describes the situation as follows:

The emphasis of this book is on philosophy itself; it is primarily concerned with the history of philosophical ideas even though, as is generally the case in the middle ages, philosophy is only found in a theological context.14

Buddhism encouraged the attainment of a state of enlightenment in which one finally realized that the ultimate nature of reality was a transcendent Oneness. At the time that it was being introduced into Japan, Chinese Buddhism, heavily influenced by Yogācāra idealism conceived empirical reality as something empty (śūnyatā), a trick of the mind which had to be overcome.

[The four Buddhist schools'15] final aim was to prove the vacuity (śūnyatā) of all intellectual modes -the roots of the presented universe- by drawing attention to the real experience, which is transcendent (atīndriya). The transcendent experience, being neither intellectual nor sensuous, is realized only by the Buddhist triadic discipline.16

Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintō, was also holistic.

[I]n the East things are endowed with a Spirit, an element of divinity which gives them significance in the universe. Called [...] Kami by Shintoists, this essence cements the oneness of all nature’s components.17

However, whereas Chinese Buddhism’s objective was to ‘transcend nature, to move out of a crude natural state into an “enlightened” one,’18 Shintoists worshiped the Kami present in the world of everyday experience.19 This natural attitude in the culture of the time led thinkers like Saichō, Kūkai and Dōgen, among others, to move away from Yogācāra idealism and to emphasize that empirical reality is not empty (śūnyatā), that there is nothing beyond this everyday experience. Dōgen writes:

To study Buddhism is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to realize oneself as all things [in the world]. To realize oneself as all things is to strip off one’s own mind and body and the mind and body of others.20

Dōgen’s conception of enlightenment does not involve going beyond the world of phenomena to achieve Oneness. Instead the mind realizes that it ‘is walls and pebbles; it is mountains, rivers, and the earth.’21

Confucianism[edit | edit source]

During the Tokugawa period, a turn towards practical matters of ethics and government led to a renewed interest in Confucianism.22 Some elements of Confucianism were already present in the culture transmitted from China during the Buddhist phase. Zen monasteries played an important part in its diffusion as a complement to the learning process.23 Even Prince Shōtoku’s constitution contains some Confucianist elements.

When you receive imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. [...] If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore it is that, when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance.24

However, the Japanese interpretation of Confucianism was, again, a distortion of the original doctrine. For example, Mengzi (Mencius), one of the most important interpreters of Confucius, claimed that when the government does not support the interests of the ordinary people, it is legitimate for them to rebel against it. Mengzi’s interpretations were completely ignored by Tokugawa Confucianism.25

Shintō[edit | edit source]

Towards the end of the Tokugawa era, some writers started questioning the validity of the culture that had been entering from China and they turned to Japan’s Shintoist tradition. Among these writers was Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), who severely criticised any rational attempt to understand fundamental truths. The human mind, according to Motoori, is too limited to grasp the divine doctrine that only the Japanese had transmitted correctly.26

But in the foreign countries where the Right Way has not been transmitted this act of divine creativity is not known. Men there have tried to explain the principle of Heaven and earth by such theories as the yin and yang, the hexagrams of the Book of Changes, and the Five elements. But all of these are fallacious theories stemming from the assumptions of the human intellect and they in no wise represent the true principle.27

Motoori also insisted on the importance of everyday experience and criticised philosophical theories for encouraging us ‘[n]ot to be happy over happy events, not to be sad by sorrowful events [...] in a word, to consider it proper not to be moved by whatever happens.’28

Philosophy in Japan after the Meiji period[edit | edit source]

This critique of foreign thought continued through the Meiji period and still lasts today. Against the enthusiast rationalists, eager to adopt Western thought, some thinkers turned to Japan’s tradition (sometimes with a very biased and ethnocentric attitude29) and developed a critique of European modernity. The problematic nature of European philosophy was described by Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945) in the following terms:

Japan’s attitude in adopting European Culture was problematic in every respect. The Japanese did not try to transplant the roots of the plant, but simply cut off eye-catching flowers [...] but the roots that could have produced such blossoms did not come to grow in our country.30

Japanese philosophers were quick to recognize the similarities between Hegel’s holistic philosophy and their own inherited interpretation of Buddhist philosophy. Nishida and the other members of the Kyōto school of philosophers adopted Heidegger’s phenomenological method, but also developed a critique of his project. Nishida claimed that Heidegger, in his Being and Time31, had given too much priority to the concept of time over space. By introducing his concept of pure experience, Nishida tried to overcome the subject-object duality problem,32 something he believed even Heidegger had succumbed to.

This dissolving of the individual consciousness defended by the Kyōto school philosophers was used in the 1930s in favour of the rising ideology of the time: the abandoning of subjective interests in favour of the interests of the state. The Kyōto school has been much criticised for this, especially from democratic and Marxist movements within Japan. Japanese philosophy finds itself today in the tension between the overcoming of the subject-object duality of Western thought, on the one hand, and the development of critical thinking, on the other.33

Conclusion: Japanese Philosophy?[edit | edit source]

This article argues that we can find a tradition of philosophical thought in the history of Japan (about the ultimate nature of reality, aesthetic appreciation of life, ethics and politics) and that this tradition is not just a collection of problems or doctrines imported from China and Europe. However, some Japanese philosophers have argued that there was no genuine Japanese philosophy before the Meiji era. For example, Sakamoto Hyakudai writes:

When asked [...] to explain the essence of “Japanese Philosophy,” one cannot but experience a twinge of regret to have to respond that “There is no such thing; everything is imported, imitated.”34

This comment is backed by Nakamura Yūjirō’s claim that ‘Nishida’s work is the first to deserve the name of philosophy.’35 The reader may wish to take these comments as a counterargument. However, the motivation for these statements might be the Japanese understanding of themselves as intuitive instead of rational; interested in everyday experience instead of abstract transcendent realms.36 But, as we have seen above, this insistence on everyday reality is precisely one of the main characteristics of the Japanese way of doing philosophy. In the words of Suzuki Daisetsu:

The Japanese Mind is so attached to the earth that it would not forget, however mean they may be, the grasses growing under the feet.37

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

* This article was written by Alex beta for the older version of Wikiversity (when it was hosted at Wikibooks). It was moved to by user JWSchmidt.
1 I have adopted the convention followed in most modern studies of Japan of using the technically correct Japanese name-order, with the family name before the personal name.
2 Blocker & Starling (2001 p.119).
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid. p.1. Nakae Chōmin was the pen name of Nakae Tokusuke.
5 Kaufman-Osborn (1992).

6 I say that it is arguable that no philosophical reflection had existed before the Meiji Era on matters of social justice because, during the Tokugawa period, some Confucianists had given serious thought to issues of benevolent rule and obedience. Consider, for example, the following text by Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691):

Benevolent rule cannot be extended throughout the land without first developing our material wealth. In recent times there have been a great many people with no one to turn to: that is, with no one to depend upon, no place to go for help, and no work by which to support their parents, wives and children. (Blocker & Starling, 2001 pp.92-93)

Nakae Chōmin himself issued a proposal to 'reinstate Confucian texts within the public school curriculum' (Kaufman-Osborn, 1992 p.56).

7 It is clear that both meanings are related to each other, but an analysis of this interrelation is beyond the scope of this article. A discussion of the issue can be found in Pirie (1988 pp.3-52) and Blocker & Starling (2001 pp.12-23).
8 Otherwise, it would also be possible to prove the existence of Japanese philosophy just by pointing to Japanese philosophers (Nishida, Tanabe, Watsuji, etc.) and Japanese philosophy departments (Kyōto, Hokkaido, Hiroshima, etc.).
9 Blocker & Starling (2001).
10 Miyamoto (1967).
11 Prince Shōtoku took office in 593. The Nihongi states that Buddhism was introduced when a copper statue of Buddha was presented to the emperor Kimmei in 552, but there is some controversy about the dates. For more information, see Miyamoto (1967, p.4)
12 Miyamoto (1967, p.7).
13 Ibid.
14 Gilson (1955, p.v).
15 Vaibhāsikas, Sautrānticas, Mādhyamikas and Yogācāras.
16 Sarkar (1968 p.60).
17 Puck Brecher (2000 pp.57-58).
18 Ibid. p.45. The intellectual climate of the time was much more complicated than is suggested by this description, but a detailed analysis of the different schools of Buddhist thought and their relation to Chan (Zen) and Tao traditions is beyond the scope of this article. See Blocker & Starling (2001).
19 Kennedy (1910 pp.226-230).
20 Ueda (1967, p.170).
21 Dōgen: Shōbōgenzō, cited in Nakamura (1967 p.187).
22 See note 6.
23 Hori (1994, pp.15-18), Blocker & Starling (2000).
24 Miyamoto (1967, p.6).
25 Blocker & Starling (2000 p.66).
26 Ibid. pp.103-110.
27 Ibid. p.105.
28 Ibid. p.109.
29 Sakamaki (1967).
30 Blocker & Starling (2000 pp.124-125).
31 Heidegger (1996).
32 Riepe (1961).
33 On this conflict between the individual consciousness and the Universal, see Furukawa (1967), Kōsaka (1967), Kawashima (1967), Nakamura (1967).
34 Blocker & Starling (2000 p.1).
35 Ibid. p.2.
36 The experiential and anti-intellectual characteristics of the Japanese mind are explored in Moore (1967).
37 Puck Brecher (2000 p.60).

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

[1] Blocker, H. G. & Starling, C. L. (2001) Japanese Philosophy. Albany, State University of New York Press.
[2] Furukawa, T. (1967) The Individual in Japanese Ethics, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[3] Gilson, E. (1955) History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. London, Sheed and Ward.
[4] Heidegger, M. (1996) Being and Time. Albany, State University of New York Press.
[5] Hori, G. V. S. (Winter, 1994) Teaching and Learning in the Rinzai Zen Monastery. Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1. pp.5-35.
[6] Kaufman-Osborn, T. V. (Feb., 1992) Rousseau in Kimono: Nakae Chōmin and the Japanese Enlightenment, in Political Theory. Vol. 20 No. 1, pp.53-85.
[7] Kawashima, T. (1967) The Status of the Individual in the notion of Law, Right and Social Order in Japan, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[8] Kōsaka, M. (1967) The Status and the Role of the Individual in Japanese Society, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[9] Kennedy, J. M. (1910) The Religions and Philosophies of the East. London, J. Werner Laurie.
[10] Miyamoto, S. (1967) The relation of Philosophical Theory to Practical Affairs in Japan, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[11] Moore, C. A. (1967) Editor’s Suppliment [sic.]: The Enigmatic Japanese Mind, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[12] Nakamura, H. (1967) Consciousness of the Individual and the Universal Among the Japanese, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[13] Pirie, M. (1988) Micropolitics. Wildwood House.
[14] Puck Brecher, W. (2000) An Investigation of Japan’s Relationship to Nature and Environment. Japanese Studies, Vol. 12. The Edwin Mellen Press.
[15] Riepe, D. (Jun., 1961) An Introduction to Nishida’s Pure Radical Empiricism, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 21, No. 4. pp.479-489.
[16] Sakamaki, S. (1967) Shintō: Japanese Ethnocentrism, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.
[17] Sarkar, A. K. (1968) Changing Phases of Buddhist Thought. A Study in the Background of East-West Philosophy. Bharati Bhawan.
[18] Ueda, Y. (1967) The Status of the Individual in Mahāyāna Buddhist Philosophy, in Moore, C. A. (ed.) (1967) The Japanese Mind. Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, East-West Center Press.

See also[edit | edit source]

  • Aikido - A Japanese martial art with a strong philosophical and spiritual component