Modern Japanese Philosophy: Historical Contexts and Cultural Implications

Yoko Arisaka. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement. Volume 74. July 2014.

Historical Background

Japan has a unique history. From 1639 until the mid-1800s it remained isolated from the rest of the world; in order to control the spread of Christianity, the Tokugawa Shogunate closed all the ports, except the port of Nagasaki in the southernmost island of Kyushu, and only China and Holland were allowed to continue trade (under strictly controlled conditions). By the time the American ‘Black Ships’ lead by Commodore Perry arrived at the shores of Yokohama in 1853, Japan had missed out on the industrial advancements and revolutions that occurred in Europe and America during the 18th Century. With his modern weaponry and superior military power, Perry demanded the opening of the country, and Japan faced two alternatives: either to become a victim of Western expansionism, or to open itself up to modernization, and thereby protect itself.

So began the period of rapid modernization with the official Meiji Restoration of 1868. Due to its 250 years of isolation, the contrast between ‘what is Japanese, traditional, always existed’ and ‘what is Western, modern, foreign/exotic and new’ was clearly perceivable. Simple choices of clothing (kimono or dress/suit), eating utensils (chopsticks or silverware), whether to eat beef (a new custom), where to sit (a mat on the floor or a chair), entertainment (traditional or Western-style) and other daily practices all became markers of this cultural transformation. The daunting processes of change reached all aspects of life—social, political, economic, educational, technological, cultural, aesthetic, and of course, intellectual. It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of post-Meiji Japan is shaped by the cultural understanding of a difference between ‘Japanese vs. Western,’ or more commonly, ‘East and West,’ where the East represented what is traditional, spiritual, indigenous, cultural, backwards, particular (to Japan or Asia), and the West represented its contrast, namely what is modern, materialistic, foreign, scientific, advanced, universal (as science and technology, the chief markers of modernity, were said to be based on the principles of universal truth). Reactions to ‘things Western’ were at first mixed; while the newly elected Meiji government fully endorsed the creation of a modern nation, the remaining powers from the feudal lords protested with uprisings and attempts at counter-reforms. As the initial shock of ‘either-or’ difference has subsided, the Meiji intellectuals began to grapple with the idea of advancing a hybrid culture of ‘Japanese yet modern,’ epitomized in Shozan Sakuma’s well-known slogan, wakon yosai, or ‘Eastern spirit, Western science.’ The hope was to combine and develop the best elements of both, to form a unique, modern yet non-Western culture of Japan.

Japanese philosophy was born in this milieu, and it too was preoccupied with the theme of developing a philosophy based on Japanese culture, yet embodying the systematic universality of the Western philosophical tradition. In fact the term ‘philosophy’ (tetsugaku) had to be coined in Japanese, as the form of systematized, scientific philosophy did not exist in the traditional neo-Confucian or Buddhist traditions. At first, the Meiji intellectuals such as Amane Nishi and Yukichi Fukuzawa concentrated on exegesis of Western philosophers (Mill’s utilitarianism was one of the first philosophies to be introduced to Japan)—but as they became more aware of the differences between Western modes of rational thinking and ‘traditional Japanese values,’ philosophy became a site of intellectual negotiation among rationality, system, logic, on the one hand, and spirituality, holistic thinking, artistic thinking, on the other.

What enormously appealed to the Meiji thinkers at the time was the power of science, especially its universalist implications. During this period, Western philosophy also aspired to be scientific and construct a universal system (such as Hegel’s Logic) or develop theories of ‘truth’ about the mind or the nature of human being. Western philosophy was not understood as ‘representing the thoughts of Europe’ but the ‘truth about reality.’ It was taken for granted that philosophy should apply to all human beings and the nature of reality as such. Japanese philosophers thought that there are unique elements in their own tradition that must be universal, and that they too could find philosophical expressions. The question is which elements, and how can they be philosophically articulated? By the time of the victory over the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japan succeeded in becoming the first non-Western nation to become modernized. General cultural confidence increased, such that Japan too was seen to be able to contribute to world civilization in the way Europe and America had done.

In this mood of optimism, some thinkers and cultural leaders (such as the founder of ‘Japanese arts’ Tenshin Okakura) began to critique the inherent ‘Eurocentrism’ of Western thought. In the European tradition at the time, it was rather taken for granted that the philosophical ‘center of truth’ and the most advanced and civilized culture was that of Christian Europe. The metaphysical and historical view still reflected the developmentalism in Aristotelian naturalism (in which entities developed according to their natural endowments and capacities over time, to reach fully developed states), and the newly emerged Darwinism substantiated the developmental ‘scheme of things’ scientifically. The long-standing Christian ontology that contrasts reason/faith/civilization vs. irrationality/heathen/barbarism became combined with the developmental thinking, so that the heathen non-West, including Japan, was seen simply to fall outside the realm of truth or ‘behind and backwards’ in the timeline of societal development.

Theoretically, then, philosophical universalism is supposed to apply to all human beings, yet—in practice—the Western thinkers took it for granted that only Euro-American civilization represented the truth. The Meiji intellectuals were dissatisfied with such imperialistic arrogance and aspired to develop a philosophy that is ‘Japanese yet universal’; if Japan could develop a culturally non-Western yet universal form of philosophy, then that would be a proof that European civilization is not the only center of truth. If such a philosophy could indeed be universal, then it would necessarily mean that European and American minds would be able to understand it as also applicable to the nature of the human mind or reality. If that could be achieved, then Japan could contribute to the creation of a more globally balanced world culture, offering a possibility of a counterbalance and a conception of an ‘alternative, non-Western modernity’ to the Western-dominated world.

In the following I will introduce two of the best-known Japanese philosophers of this turbulent post-Meiji period. The discussions are meant to provide a broad orientation; for detailed discussions some sources are listed the footnotes.

Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945)

Known as the ‘Father of Modern Japanese Philosophy,’ Nishida aspired to construct a systematic philosophy (in the Western sense) that expressed non-Western ideas that were not present in European or American philosophies. He was a professor at the Kyoto University from 1914-1929, and his students came to be known as the ‘Kyoto School.’ Beginning around 1911 (with the publication of his first work, The Study of Good, Zen no Kenkyu), Nishida began to develop what might be called an ‘experiential ontology,’ a form of philosophical logic based on ‘experience’ broadly conceived. His first attempt was to ground ontology in what he called ‘pure experience’ (borrowed from William James’ ‘radical empiricism’ as well as influenced by philosophers such as Bergson, Dilthey and Royce). ‘Pure experience’ was defined as ‘prior to subject and object,’ but containing the principles and contents of both. As Nishida states, ‘in the immediate experience, there is not yet the distinction of subject and object.’ ‘Reality’ is this ‘field of experience’ that is prior to the individuation of ‘experiences’ belonging to persons; as such, it was not a psychological notion but rather an ontological ‘field’ or a ‘ground’ that contained in itself principles that defined what would be subsequently called ‘subjective and objective.’ Thus according to Nishida, ‘it is not that the individual has experience, but in Experience emerges the individual. The individual experience is only a small part of Experience.’

The distinctively Japanese (or East-Asian, in particular ‘Chan/Zen Buddhist’) element in this theory is the identification of this ‘field of experience’ with the spatio-temporal immediacy of the ‘Here/Now,’ not as abstractly conceived in space/time but as a ‘concrete universal’ that is the Here/Now (i.e., as you read this paper right now). Nishida calls it the ‘eternal present’ and it is a philosophical elaboration of the Buddhist notion of time, although Nishida deliberately avoids making references to Buddhism.

During the 1920s, Nishida tried to account for the principles of division within this ‘immediate field’ following Fichte’s notion of Pure Act (Tathandlung), and during the 1930s he developed further the dynamic structure of this ‘field/reality’ as a metaphysical system, a Logic of ‘Place’ (basho), in an attempt to avoid the subjectivistic or idealistic tendencies in his earlier theories. Reality, in its manifold, is a constant ‘expression’ of this Place conceived as the absolute, yet this Place itself cannot be a metaphysical object in any sense, such as ‘substance’ or Hegelian ‘Spirit’; rather, the Place is simply a ‘that through which’ or ‘that in which’ reality manifests itself, as a pure ‘negative’ of Being. As such, it must be ‘Absolute Nothingness.’ If it is ‘something’ (including the ‘idea’ of nothingness), even conceived as an ultimate ontological field or anything similar, then it would still be defined as a ‘something’ which would require a contrast, a not-something. So this ‘not-something’ cannot be a conceivable entity in any way; it must simply be referred to as Absolute Nothingness but without the reduction of it into a ‘notion’ of any sort.

If the ultimate field of reality is Absolute Nothingness, then it would also mean that it is actually identical with all the Being; a mirror reflects all its images, precisely because the surface itself is purely empty. One can never see the surface of the mirror as such but only what is reflected on it. Nishida calls this feature of reality-qua-emptiness ‘the identity of the absolutely contradictory opposites.’ Again the Buddhist theory of sunyata, or emptiness, is evident, although he does not elaborate his theory in terms of it.

From the mid- to late 1930s the abstract Logic of Place as Absolute Nothingness acquired a distinctively historical content, influenced by Hegel and Marx’s dialectic. The difference from Hegel, Nishida maintains, is the nature of ultimate reality; Hegel’s Absolute Spirit must have a ‘background’ (otherwise one cannot identify it as such), and such a background must be Absolute Nothingness. Here Nishida adds some metaphysical elements from the Buddhist tradition. The historical development (qua the self-development of Place as Absolute Nothingness) takes place through what Nishida calls ‘Action-Intuition’ (Koi-teki-Chokkan, ‘Koi’: Action, ‘Chokkan’: Intuition). Historical development is to be understood as the dialectic of the subject making the world (object) which in turn forms the subject. The original insight of the ‘experiential field’ that is supposed to develop into subject and object is now historicized and concretized through action.

The dialectical structure (as well as all of his earlier theories) was developed as a universal system, which was particularly important as a philosophical system (and not just a cultural or religious theory which would merely be a ‘particular’), so Nishida avoided references to Buddhist metaphysics even though his thought was much influenced by it. As noted above, the universalism was needed in order to stake a claim that Japanese thought could transcend its marginalized cultural bounds (which they knew to be denigrated in the Euro-American view), as well as to try to establish a place in world culture.

Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960)

Watsuji was a younger colleague of Nishida’s at the Kyoto University, where he served as a professor from 1925-1949. His interests were much wider than philosophy; in addition to his extensive commentaries and analyses of Western philosophers, he is widely known for his cultural theories, aesthetics, ethics, and intellectual history in Japan. While Nishida never studied abroad, Watsuji went to Germany in 1927 and studied under Heidegger. Through his comparative studies, he too was deeply interested in cultural elements that might be theorized as being unique to Japanese or East-Asian traditions.15His philosophies combine influences from Nishida, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard.

Two theories that are best known from Watsuji are those of ‘climate’ (fudo) and ‘ethics’ (rinri-gaku). In his theory of fudo (literally fu: wind, and do: earth), developed around 1935, Watsuji argues that human beings are existentially intertwined with the environment, both social and natural. By ‘fudo’ Watsuji means ‘the climate, characteristics of the soil, landscape, etc.’ yet the notion should not be confused with the scientific notion of ‘nature’ or the ‘natural environment.’ The notion of ‘nature’ or the ‘natural environment’ is an object that is seen by ‘human beings’ already conceived as the subject, yet Watsuji argues that in the notion of fudo refers to a much broader sense of one’s surroundings, a milieu. Human beings are existentially formed through the place of one’s being, i.e., prior to the ontological separation of subject and object. It is with one’s interaction with the environment that one ‘becomes’ the particular subject. The conception of ‘who one is’ should not be abstract, as in the notion of ‘personhood’ or the ‘individual,’ but it should reflect ontological connections to the ‘existential place’ of where one lives and becomes who one is.

Watsuji engages Heidegger’s notion of Being-in-the-World yet criticizes Heidegger’s emphasis on temporality and individuality; human existence is just as spatial as temporal, and the place and space of existence must equally be a fundamentally constitutive part of a human self. Likewise, over time someone growing up in Germany would necessarily be culturally different from someone growing up in Japan (or different places even within one cultural or linguistic group), but this difference is not simply about culture or language; the difference is geographical, involving different environmental factors, weather patterns, soil, landscape, etc. These elements provide contours and qualities for the very being of who that person can be, and when the person moves to another place, new elements absorbed from the environment become mingled with the original elements, creating a new sense of self over time. The self is never an enclosed ‘essence’ but a dynamic interconnection with and through the environment. Our actions constantly reflect this interconnection and societies are organized through it as well:

We put on clothes when it is cold or go near a stove, nay, more than that, we put on clothes on the children and urge the old folks to go near the fire. Or we would labor in order to buy coal and clothes. Coal-makers make coal in the mountain and fabric factories produce cloth. Thus in order to protect ourselves from the cold, individually and socially we have complex ways of “dealings” with it.

Our lives and selves are shaped over time and the totality of such ‘dealings’ express who we are/have become. One can, in this sense, never be cut off from the place of one’s being. Cultural differences are geographical differences as well, as different groups living in different climates develop different ways of dealing with the environment.

Extending the human ontology of interconnectedness, during the late 1930s and 40s Watsuji develops an ethic that is based on the notion of ‘in-between-ness’ or ‘Being-between’ (aida-gara; lietrally aida: in-between, and gara: characterstics of), whereby this ‘in-between-ness’ is both spatial and temporal. In-between-ness constitutes not only our selves-through-fudo but also our identities with and through others. Watsuji argues that human beings, in their ontological meaningfulness, are not fundamentally separate ‘individuals’ but rather their fundamental characteristics are mutually co-determined through the interactions that take place over time. As babies we are dependent on our parents, as children socialized through our family, friends, and school, and as adults these circles get wider and may include extended communities and acquire national/cultural characteristics.

In fact, Watsuji extends the notion of Being-between to claim that it should be read as the fundamental feature of a ‘human-being.’ The term for ‘human being’ is ‘nin-gen,’ which is ordinary Japanese, but Watsuji analyzes it with his notion: ‘Nin’ means ‘person’and ‘gen’ means ‘between’ (although it is pronounced differently, the Chinese character is the same as ‘aida’ in ‘aida-gara’ above, the Being-between). Referring to the original meanings of the characters Watsuji claims that ‘what is meant by ‘human being’ (nin-gen) is not simply ‘man’ (anthropos, homo, man, Mensch), but it implicitly includes society as the co-existence of a people, as the fundamental double-structure.’ This structure, moreover, involves negation and emptiness. Here the influence from Nishida’s dialectic is evident: An individual negates himself in his identification of himself with the whole (society, community), and simultaneously negates the whole in order to determine itself as the individual. The individual ‘empties itself’ in the whole, yet the whole gives particular characteristics to the individual.

Perhaps for Watsuji the socially mediated and the ‘empty’ nature of the self is noticeable also from the fact that in the Japanese language there are several words for the ‘I,’ and one must use the appropriate one depending on one’s gender, age, levels of familiarity/formality and social context. For example, whether a man or a woman is speaking with another man or woman (and the degree of familiarity), whether the speaker occupies a lower or a higher social status, and/or is older or younger than the other, and whether it is a public or private occasion, all affect which ‘I’ one should use. There is no such thing as a neutral ‘self’ apart from these embedded relations, in the sense that one cannot even form a sentence referring to oneself. (There is a neutral ‘I,’ but this only indicates a ‘neutral context’ that is consciously chosen, such as for newspaper reporting, which still indicates a socially mediated context. So the ‘I’ refers to the indexical focal point in the system of reference and not to a substantial subject. There is no such thing as a ‘real’ self apart from such systems of reference; it is in this sense that the self is said to be ‘empty.’)

It is not that Watsuji rejects the notion of the individual. Of course we take ourselves to be individuals in an ordinary sense, physically separate and having ‘different thoughts’ from others. Watsuji’s point is rather that ontologically speaking, the notion is subordinated under or abstracted from the more fundamentally conceived notion of the Being-between. The very notion of an ‘individual’ is even possible at all because we have relations to others, in that it is only in contrast to others that we form our idea that we are individuals. In this sense Being-between is already presupposed in the notion of an individual.

Philosophy and the Pacific War

Up to the 1930s, as Japan succeeded in becoming the first Asian nation to modernize, it also began its expansion into the East-Asian continent. The colonization of Formosa (Taiwan) began as early as in 1895, the colonization of Korea began in 1910, the Manchurian government north of the Korean peninsula was established in 1931, and the invasion of China began in 1937. During this time the intellectual currents that favored the combination of modernity and Japanese culture became more dominant. Let me review, in some detail, ‘Nishida’s Case’ as he was considered the most important Japanese philosopher at the time.

Up until the mid-to-late 1930s, Nishida’s theory was metaphysical and apolitical; in fact it was criticized by his Marxist student Jun Tosaka to be a bourgeois idealism, ‘merely phenomenological and historically insignificant.’ Partly in response to such criticisms and partly also in order to voice his views in the increasingly urgent political situation of Japan’s expanding empire in Asia, in the late 1930s and early 1940s Nishida began to lecture as well as write about the political application of his theory. In 1938 at Kyoto University he delivered the lecture series The Problem of Japanese Culture, which was published in 1940. In 1943 at the request of the Tojo Government and its Imperial Army which was seeking a theoretical expression for Japan’s role in the construction of the ‘Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere’ (Dai toa kyoeiken) Nishida (who was by then considered to be the most important philosopher in Japan) wrote his controversial essay, The Principle of New World Order (Sekai shinchitsujo no genri). That Nishida disliked and even opposed the actions of the Imperial Army was a known fact, but nevertheless the essay could be seen as providing a philosophical justification or at least an articulation for the establishment of the Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

In The Principle of the New World Order the metaphysical-dialectical theory of Nishida’s ‘Historical World,’ which posits all entities to be mediated through the process of historical action-creation-mediation, was applied to a theory of the ‘Age of the Self-Realization of the World’ through nation-building. Every nation, in order to establish itself, would do so through a negation of itself (in the recognition of other/difference) as well as a negation of the other (to establish itself as the other of the other) and through this dialectic each nation affirms itself in relation to others. In this process the particularities of cultures are preserved and the essential interdependence of nations is recognized. Through this process on a global scale, the ‘realization of the Global-World’ (sekaiteki sekai no jikaku) is achieved. In Nishida’s words,

Every nation/people is established on a historical foundation and possesses a world-historical mission, thereby having a historical life of its own. For nations/peoples to form a global world through self-realization and self-transcendence, each must first of all form a particular world in accordance with its own regional tradition. These particular worlds, each based on a historical foundation, unite to build a global world. Each nation/people lives its own unique historical life and at the same time joins in a united global world through carrying out a world-historical mission. This is the ultimate Idea [principle] of human historical development, and this is the principle of the New World Order which should be sought in the current world war.

The dialectic (as well as the idea that the self-realization of the parts increasingly unfolds and realizes the whole) is rather explicitly borrowed from Hegel’s notion of the development of Weltgeschichte, but Nishida rejects Hegel’s process-oriented dialectic as well as his European provincialism that the world civilization culminates and finds true expression in Europe. To this extent Nishida’s theory was ahead of time for today’s postcolonial critiques of Eurocentrism as well as the move to include the legitimate participatory capacities of non-Western civilizations in global culture.

At the abstract and universal level of this description (which was not dissimilar to Herder’s view that all cultures had a role to play in the creation of world culture), the theory is not politically problematic. What made it problematic was Japan’s position in this dialectic at the time of Japanese colonialist expansion in Asia: It so happens that it was Japan that expressed this universally applicable, globally significant world-making dialectic, and as such, it was the ‘historical mission of Japan’ to bring this insight to the greater world ravaged by Euro-American imperialism (which Nishida criticized to be operating under the principle of the ‘egoistic imperialism of the 19th century’ that merely dominates and subjugates others for its own purposes). The creation of the Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere is a step to consolidate the world-historical expressions of the peoples of East Asia (against the Euro-American domination), and Japan self-appoints itself to be the leader of this mission:

Up to now, East-Asian peoples [minzoku] have been oppressed under European imperialism and viewed as colonies. We were robbed of our world-historical mission. It is time now for the East-Asian peoples to realize our own world-historical mission. Each people [in East Asia] must transcend itself to form a particular world [of East Asia] and thereby carry out the world-historical mission of the East-Asian peoples. This is the principle of the formation of the Greater East-Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. We the people of East Asia must together assert our principle of East-Asian culture and assume our stance world-historically. But in order to build a particular world [of East Asia], a central figure that carries the burden of the project is necessary. In East Asia today, there is no other country but Japan [that can undertake such a role].

Here not only the imperialist wartime program of the Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, but all of the other war-slogans and symbolisms, such as National Polity (kokutai—literally ‘national body’), the Imperial House (koshitsu), Imperial Way (kodo), Imperial Spirit (kodo seishin) ‘Oneness of the Emperor and his people’ (kunmin ittai) and ‘All the people assisting the Emperor’ (banmin yokusan), were used and given a philosophical re-interpretation within his theory. The Imperial House of Japan embodies the universal principle of ‘world-formation,’ yet since it is an ‘empty’ subject (referring to his theory of ‘Place’ as ‘Absolute Nothingness,’ in turn suggesting that the Japanese Polity should be seen as the Place of Absolute Nothingness in which all entities show themselves), metaphysically speaking Japan itself cannot be an oppressive force and a dominating particular, like England or America. As Nishida puts it:

As this is the essence of our national polity, formative globalism does not lose the subjectivity of our nation. Rather, this is precisely the principle of subjectivity unique to our country, that it contains others by emptying itself. To abide by this principle is to demonstrate to the rest of the world the essence of our national polity. It is fair to say that the principle of our national polity can provide the solution to today’s world-historical problems. Not only should the Anglo-American world submit to it, but the Axis powers too shall follow it.

The metaphysical placement of Absolute Nothingness in Japan is ingenious and to a certain extent it made sense, given the fact that it was the only nation that succeeded in modernity at the time. However, the problem is that the presumed universality of ‘Absolute Nothingness’ becomes identified with a historical particular, a Japanese National Polity, the symbol of the atrocious colonial expansion in Asia during the Pacific War, and the formative principles of the dialectic represents Japan’s ‘logic’ for the establishment of the New World Order. At this point, the philosophical universal collapses into a standard wartime imperialist narrative, regardless of its original metaphysical meaning or intent. As John Dower notes,

[…]the Kyoto School also made it clear that the current conflict represented Japan’s ascension as the leading ‘world-historical race.’ To them as to all other Japanese patriots, the war in Asia and the Pacific was a ‘holy war,’ and represented an unprecedented struggle for the attainment of a transcendent Great Harmony (Taiwa).

Apart from whether it was realistic to do so, theoretically Nishida could have used his world-historical dialectic in order to oppose the Imperial House (which cannot be but a historical particular). In fact, that would have been more consistent with his theory. The concretization/self-determination of Absolute Nothingness could occur everywhere (and in fact, it does, given the theory) and there is no logical or metaphysical necessity that Japan would have to embody the principle. Every nation is theoretically an individual in the dialectic that affects others, and the particular ‘hierarchy’ of powers comes from the particular power relations that are at work in the particular situation. Here then, the connection to Japan was made politically, in that it was the leading modern nation most powerful in East Asia at the time, but the idea that the most ‘advanced’ nation should lead and free the less advanced peoples belongs to the standard European colonial procedure (which Japan adopted). It was not a necessary component of the theory.

In addition, the metaphysical connection which allowed the theory to work perniciously was precisely the notion of ‘Absolute Nothingness,’ the most ‘universal’ of all notions—in fact it is strictly speaking no ‘notion’ at all but a metaphysical postulate ‘in which’ or ‘through which’ all notions can appear—as such, it can only be negatively ‘postulated.’ The ‘emptiness’ allowed Nishida to claim that his theory differs from the European colonialist discourse; if Japanese Polity, in essence, is absolutely empty, then it merely serves as a metaphysical ‘placeholder’ and cannot be an aggressive force. But here the theory contradicts itself if one tries to make it a theory of historical development, with one leading nation as the ultimate Place through which the world realizes itself. Nevertheless, The Principle of the New World Order in its insight is a good example of the theory of the dialectic universal at work, especially if we could re-work it today. Nishida died in June, 1945, two months before Japan’s ultimate defeat.

Watsuji’s case was more straightforward, in that he was involved, albeit in the early stages, in the drafting of the Fundamental Principles of the National Polity (Kokutai no Hongi), which was published by the Ministry of Education in 1937. The book endorsed the importance of the Japanese citizens’ total support of the Emperor and it was a required reading for the schools. In terms of theory, Watsuji’s notion of ‘human-being’ as fundamentally interconnected not only to others but also to the whole, was used as a support for the National Polity. He openly discussed and defended the role of ‘totality’ in which a human being would become who she is and, in return, a network of such individuals contribute to the development of the totality. Such totality has power and role to play in the historical context at the time, and he defended Japan’s use of its power. For example:

The essential characteristic of the power of totality… is not simply force but also military force … The source of national power is the authority of the totality. It is not that the totality acquires authority because it is powerful, but rather its power comes from its authority’ (emphasis by Watsuji).

Watsuji’s writings made it clear that the Japanese culture possessed unique characteristics (such as the notion of nothingness and deep aesthetic sensibilities) which were superior to the vulgar and materialistic Euro-American cultures. His cultural nationalism supported the common nationalistic sentiments of the time.

However, the most infamous case from the post-war perspective was the participation of Nishida’s students in the Overcoming Modernity (Kindai no Chokoku) symposia in 1941-1942, which were published in the major journal Chuokoron. Some of the members of the Kyoto School (Keiji Nishitani, Masaaki Kosaka, Shigetaka Suzuki, Torataro Shimomura, and Iwao Koyama) actively defended the role the Japanese Imperial Army played in the Pacific War, in order to ‘overcome’ the Euro-American forms of modernity and its domination across the globe. The hitherto dominant version of modernity was criticized as being mired in materialism, rationalism, individualism, selfishness, pursuit of profit, and the like; it lacked spiritual wholeness and ground. They had hoped that the newly emerging ‘non-Western’ modernity and its emphasis on culture, such as represented by Japan, could provide a positive alternative (‘modern yet spiritual’). The ideas reflected the contents of Nishida’s Principle of the New World Order essay, although the support of the Imperial Army was much more explicit among his students.

After the war the participants were labeled ‘right-wing’ and were forced to resign from their academic posts. Watsuji did not participate in the symposia but he also became the target of criticism by the left in the postwar period. Once prominent, the Kyoto School thus acquired the notorious image of an ultranationalist enclave and gradually declined and became isolated after the late 1940s. Nishida never participated in the roundtable discussions, but since his students’ ideas were heavily influenced by his philosophy, among the left-circles he is often held ‘guilty by association.’ During the postwar period, ‘Japanese philosophy’ was thus forced into oblivion, and just as at the beginning in the Meiji Period, ‘Philosophy’ in Japan became ‘Western Philsosophy’ again, and Eurocentrism was even justified in the face of Japan’s defeat. It was unfortunate that the particular historical context and the language of the philosophy of East-Asian modernity caused much grief and even a demise of the tradition of Japanese philosophy at the time. Yet it would probably be just as much of a mistake to reject all further forms of philosophical examination, as if the historical contingency of a theory could force it to be invalid, for good.

Philosophy and Culture Today

After the recovery period of the 1960s into the 1980s, as postwar Japan again emerged as a global economic success, the national confidence grew again and the leading elites again began to represent Japan as a unique center of non-Western modernity. This time, the kind of universalism Japan spread to the world was not philosophy or cultural discourse but through consumer technology and pop culture; nevertheless, Japan finally succeeded in having a globally recognized presence and power. In this milieu of optimism, there had been a renewed interest in the themes of the interwar Overcoming Modernity debates. The new interest was not so much to rekindle the old debate, but think anew the possibility of ‘overcoming’ the West by studying some unique features of the ‘Japanese mind and behavior’ which purportedly gave the Japanese a special cultural advantage. Without much actual study of the old debate, the phrase ‘Overcoming Modernity’ was resurrected and popularized again in the renewed atmosphere of cultural nationalism. Growing self-confidence and a renewed sense of identity produced what is known as ‘nihonjin-ron’ (Theory of Japanese-ness), engaging numerous scholars (from the natural sciences to sociology, politics, arts and humanities, cultural geography, literature) to speculate on the uniqueness of being Japanese.34Interest in Japanese philosophy, including Nishida and Watsuji, was rekindled and a new generation of scholars appeared, who wanted updated theories that reflected elements in Japanese culture. For example, Yujiro Nakamura’s 1987 book, Nishida Tetsugaku no Datsu-kochiku (Deconstruction in Nishida Philosophy) opened up a new circle of Nishida scholarship, and Bin Kimura’s innovative use of Watsuji’s theory of Being-between in psychiatry became well-recognized.

This tendency continued to grow particularly after the 1970s, this time with the idea that Japan is the genuine ‘post-modern’ nation. The underlying reverse-orientalist claim is still that Japan is somehow positively different, the real Other of the West, and that this accounts for Japan’s amazing civilizational recovery since W.W. II, an event unprecedented in world history. According to this reasoning, what makes Japan so special culturally are the supposedly indigenous notions of ‘emptiness’ and ‘harmony.’ Because of its emptiness, Japan is able to absorb advanced technologies readily, and it is also perfectly suited for the internationalized ‘information society’ which is to prevail in the coming century vis-a-vis the material industrial civilization of the past. As the ‘post-Western’ world arrives in the late-20th Century with its multiple global power-centers, Japan will be able to offer a leading paradigm of world-civilization for the next millennium. Note the contemporary significance of the ideas expressed by Nishida in the New World Order essay in such a rhetoric. This sort of neonationalist discourse was consciously promoted by the Ohira and Nakasone cabinets during the early to mid-1980s, with their optimistic portrayal of Japan as the leader of the internationalization movement. Thus, as cultural critic Akira Asada notes, far from being an embarrassing memory, today the issues raised in the ‘Overcoming Modernity’ debate are ‘ideologized and revived like ghosts’ in contemporary Japan’s ‘groundless self-confidence.’

The cultural-nationalist sentiments continued to grow in the 1990s, and as Japan commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War in 1995, the issue of how to account for its colonial activities in Asia attracted renewed interest in the public sphere. Although the stories of atrocities are no longer a secret, the once-sloganized justification, the ‘liberation of Asia from Western imperial powers,’ still enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) considerable support among the conservative sector of society. Although Prime Minister Murayama finally issued a formal apology on August 15, 1995, the event was shrouded in controversy and resistance; the preferred national discourse is that of being a victim (of the atom-bombings) and ‘in humiliation’ there is considerable resistance in recognizing Japan as the perpetrator of violence. The issue is far from settled. We can detect three currents of thought underlying such resistance: that Japan’s intent to liberate Asia was noble; that war (and its associated atrocities) is simply a part of history; and that Japan should not be ‘singled out’ for its violent actions. Retrospectively, one could read all of these ideas already expressed in Nishida’s and Watsuji’s writings, as well as in the Overcoming of Modernity debates. Critics on the left continued to be weary of the use of inert historicism to evade responsibilities and worried about the re-affirmation of nationalist sentiments that its resurgence implies, yet the once-forgotten giants of Japanese philosophy and the cultural ideas they represented, too, became a focus of attention again.

After nearly 50 years of avoidance, in 1995 the Kyoto University officially re-established ‘Japanese Philosophy’ in the graduate curriculum. After the war, the descendants of the Kyoto School, most notably the students of Nishitani, continued primarily in religious philosophy in an academically isolated environment but they now gained a recognized center again where they continue the tradition. Nishida scholarship boomed again, although the criticism from the left continued. It is still the case that the vague image of the ‘right’ continues to follow those who study Japanese philosophy today, but it is no longer a shunted field in the academy. There are indeed excellent scholarship emerging from the new generation of the Kyoto School scholars, as well as others in the West who specializes in the Kyoto School philosophies. The renewed focus is on intercultural or global modes of philosophizing, which continues the themes of the traditional Kyoto School in today’s contexts.

The cultural discourse of emptiness, interconnectedness, and the dialectic which were central themes of Japanese philosophy, are still alive today. In closing, let me reflect on the reactions after the ‘3.11. Catastrophe’ (of the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accidents) with references to the relevant philosophical ideas.

First, the idea of emptiness or nothingness is not only an important notion in philosophy but also in cultural discourse, having its root in Buddhism. All that happens in reality, is ‘in essence’ empty; they are mere temporary and colorful reflections arising out of nothingness. As such, life is fleeting, ephemeral, fragile, and therefore all the more precious, and we must appreciate every moment of it. Both Nishida’s and Watsuji’s philosophies express this cultural idea, although articulated in abstract philosophical languages. In our present context, catastrophes are also part of this occurrence-in-nothingness, in itself neither good nor bad, but simply to be experienced and be dealt with. The appropriate attitude would be acceptance. There is a Japanese expression, ‘shouganai,’ which was heard over and over after the tsunami: It means ‘it cannot be helped’ or ‘what it must be, must be,’ but not so much in the spirit of resignation but as a recognition of reality-at-hand. In its positive sense it helped those who lived in the region face the horrendousness of the situation steadfastly without unnecessary drama.

In its negative sense, the idea of emptiness can also lead to nihilism, cynicism, or fatalistic attitudes. If everything that happens is in essence empty in the end, then it does not really matter what one does or does not do. Catastrophes happen and there are good people and bad people, but that is the way it is; why should I act? It is difficult to generate a moral ought from nothingness, as the sufferings of the people could also be viewed as fleeting and in essence empty. The understanding of emptiness could also contribute to a lack of orientation or direction: why should a certain goal, and not the other, be chosen? Why should it matter?

Second, and perhaps more notably, the notion of the fundamental interconnectedness among people was also clearly discernible in the reports of the aftermath. The remarkable communal unity and collective efforts in the immediate recovery period were reported in foreign media as evidence of ‘Japanese togetherness’; indeed, the consciousness of the ‘we’ is much stronger than the ‘I’ generally in Japan, but especially so in such times of emergency. It is simply taken for granted that ‘we must help ourselves and others together.’ On its negative side, such pressure for solidarity made it difficult for individuals to opt for autonomous decisions, for example, to move out of community. It was not impossible but the one who ‘abandons the group’ risked being labeled a ‘traitor’ and could not expect to return and be accepted with open arms.

Philosophy and culture are remarkably intertwined. Philosophers are cultural beings, and philosophizing occurs in a cultural context. Putting aside the anti-essentialist critiques, we still understand the term ‘culture’ as referring to geopolitical particularities, yet we can also understand the universal elements in our humanity. Tracing the development of Japanese philosophy over 130 years of turbulent history shows first an exercise in the pursuit for universality in cultural particularity, followed by the pursuit for particularity in the particularity, then reflecting on the process on a global setting. Today our philosophical discourse goes beyond such categories, yet our fascination and interest in different philosophical traditions and imaginations, as well as ways of philosophizing, are worth preserving.