Does Japan have philosophy?


I grew up with a philosopher and theologian for a father.  He taught me about Heiddegar, Plato, and Kant.  I would then argue metaphysics with my best friend in high school.  But by the time I entered college, I had come to the solid conclusion that my feeble capabilities of logic and reason could never lead me beyond a certain point along the path to the Truth. One thing only I knew and that was that I knew nothing, and I didn’t know how to proceed after that. It has taken me eight years since then to figure out how to move on, and the search, which led me to Japan, has questioned my assumptions about what philosophy is.  For now, I’d like to tentatively posit that philosophy is the search for the truth, for the reasons and circumstances of our existence, and for the ideal way to live, but how philosophy is engaged in and how its traditions are preserved is the focus of my question.

Does Japan have philosophy? I couldn’t find it when I first came here. I was completely baffled by the society I saw around me. Where does the society’s ideals come from?  There is probably no satisfactory answer to that question, but I couldn’t find the same kind of philosophical canon or historical dialogue as I was used to in European philosophy.   But at the time I noticed that the society nevertheless functioned in certain idealogical patterns, and my teachers in the traditional arts taught me what seemed like fragments of philosophical thought, so perhaps the question needed to be revised:  Where is Japan’s philosophy?

The Japanese polymath Shuichi Kato, a medical doctor who became heavily engaged in Japanese literature since WWII, had a very large collection of philosophy-like documents published in 1974 in his Compendium of Japanese Thought (Nihon shiso taikei), and in it are included various historical texts on religion, education, government, etc. from which philosophical ideals might be gleaned, but although I have a feeling Kato intended this collection as a proof of Japanese theoretical thought, it doesn’t seems to be a philosophical dialogue like that in Europe.  I own one volume from the Compendium, a collection of Zeami and Zenchiku’s treatises on Noh theater, and from what I know, these documents have been heralded for their discussion of aesthetics, but there are difficulties interpreting these documents as philosophical documents – for example, the fluctuating meaning of its key terms.  These texts were originally intended not as philosophical documents, but as references for educating students of Noh.  In other words, these documents cannot be approached in the same way as European philosophical texts.  So, my question is now:  What is the key to unlocking the ideas these texts contain?

Before I address that question, let me take a step back a few years to a meeting with my college Japanese history professor in my favorite coffee shop in Kyoto, on the second floor of an old Kyoto townhouse with retro advertisements on the walls behind the bar, heavy wooden beams above our heads, and solid wooden tables on which are served solid meals and delicious coffee.  (Unfortunately, the building was torn down two years ago when I went back.)  Telling my professor about my realization about the pointlessness of philosophy towards the end of high school, he began to protest, “What about looking at the simple things of everyday life!”

I began to laugh, “How Japanese of you,” I teased him, how Zen, I thought at the time.  I didn’t quite understand, but recently a text by Heinrich Zimmer, the Indologist, gave me a hint to understanding what my professor had said.  In a chapter entitled “Philosophy as a Way of Life,” he quoted a friend of his as saying, “After all, real attainment is only what finds confirmation in one’s own life.  The worth of a man’s writing depends on the degree to which his life is itself an example of his writing.”  (Characteristic of Germans writing in English around the time of WWII,  Zimmer likes to use “man” for “person” or “human.”  It’s probably a direct translation of the German “man.”)  Although Zimmer writes about not just Buddhist philosophy, but also Hindu and Brahman philosophy, and this statement is made without referring to any particular denomination of philosophy.  It’s a broad statement that – simply put – a philosopher’s greatest achievement is living.  So, it is not the logical soundness of the ideas or their ability to weather centuries of dialogue that proves their worth. Even if a philosopher writes no texts, his life is the proof of his ideas. (I wish there were a gender-neutral pronoun! Haha!)

For thinkers of the present, this approach is fantastic.  The artists and thinkers who have inherited oral traditions from their masters (who inherited them from their masters, etc.) are the living result of the history of Japanese philosophicy.  They are the heirs to a long line of people who wanted to know the truth of their existence and who searched for an ideal existence during their lifetimes.  My tea ceremony teacher Matsumoto-sensei and my Noh teacher Udaka-sensei are such embodiments of philosophical history.  Their lives are molded on the ideals upheld by their art, and they engage their traditions in their own practice.  There is no other way to learn these master’s ideas beyond becoming their student, and to put what I’ve learned from them into words would require defining the subject-specific terms they use to express their ideas.  That would require a few books rather than a paragraph here.

It also becomes more difficult to look at thinkers of Japan’s past. It is impossible to untangle the various ideas from the oral tradition held by a living master.  There are so many voices compressed into the Japanese tradition – the great and fantastic characters of Buddhism, like Ippen or Ikkyu or courtiers like Sei Shonagon or Ki no Tsurayuki, who documented their lives in diaries and poetry.  The lives of Zeami and Zenchiku needn’t be forgotten here either.  The problem in applying this idea to most thinkers of the past, however, is then how do you reconstruct the life of a philosopher who left no texts of his own or who left texts that are not logical as we expect philosophy to be?  How do we interpret their work from outside the context of a society that doesn’t exist anymore?

Furthermore, the teachings of contemporary and historical thinkers alike are laced with mystery.  Discovering meaning through practice, esoteric mysticism, and aesthetic allusion cannot be sifted out, they are a fundamental part of their philosophies, but how could meaning be extracted from them?  It is the same problem as Nietzsche proposed when he said in his Self-Critique, he wished to look at scholarship through a lens of the arts, but at the arts through the lens of life itself.  In other words, he couldn’t find all the answers he wanted in scholarship and rational thinking and turned to the arts to gain more insight into life.  But how can the arts in turn be discussed in scholarship?  How can the philosophical ideals contained in art be written about?

Another German who immigrated to the states in WWII, Ernst Cassirer gave me the next clue: symbols.  Instead of defining the human being as a rational animal, he proposes we consider ourselves symbolical animals.  What differentiates us from animals is not that our thoughts are logical, but that our thoughts are one more step removed from reality, they are abstract, and therefore symbolic.  Whats more, symbols are universal.  “Universal applicability, owing to the fact that everything has a name, is one of the greatest prerogatives of human symbolism.” (An Essay on Man, p 56)  Symbols are not the bricks that build up our conception of the world, but the architectural structure by which we organize things.  Also, “a genuine human symbol is characterized not by its uniformity but by its versatility.  It is not rigid and inflexible but mobile.”(p 57)  A symbol is shaped by what we perceive.  For example, a dragon in Europe can have very similar or very different associations from a dragon in Asia.  It depends on the values a story-teller wishes to express in his story.  The fascination is in untangling the various threads of symbols to discover a philosophical idea, but I do not doubt it is possible.

From here, the main body of work begins.  Now I must put the ideas to the test in discovering the contents of the philosophy of Noh.  However, that is not the end of the work.  Working with symbols in and of themselves could lead in erroneous directions.  I read here that Cassirer lived completely in that world, and according to his daughter, he did things like put bottles of milk on the stove to warm them up.  Once warm enough, they promptly exploded. A connection between the world of symbols and the reality we live in must be maintained.  As I wrote before, the test of ones ideas is in practice, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in the traditional Japanese arts.  I do not know much about Daoism, but I imagine this idea of practice is strongly influenced by its ideas of emphasizing “the path,” or process of acomplishing one’s goals.  The Dao or path character is found in almost all the traditional arts: sado (the way of tea), kado (the way of insence), budo (the way of martial arts).  That character doesn’t exist in Noh, because Noh goes one step further and becomes entertainment, but the practice of Noh, it’s training and development in a young performer, is based on the same principles of “the way.”

5 thoughts on “Does Japan have philosophy?

  1. Hallo Hanna,

    schöner Thread, wie immer. :)

    Das Thema Philosophie kann in Japan meiner Meinung nach nicht durch eine eurozentristische Linse betrachtet werden, auch wenn die Japaner das selbst jahrzehntelang getan haben.

    Ich empfehle Dir eine Lektüre von Andô Shôeki – je nach Blickpunkt wird er als Japans erster Utopist/Kommunist/etc. bezeichnet. Auch Züge einer originär japanischen Philosophie (vermutlich unbeeinflusst von den Holländern zur damaligen Zeit) lassen sich finden, soweit ich weiß.

    Nur als ein kleiner Beitrag zu Deinem so selten aktualisierten Blog… aber wie heißt es so schön? Qualität vor Quantität. :)

    1. Hallo Bastian,

      schön dass jemand mein Blog liest und noch was dazu zu sagen hat. Vielen Dank!

      Ich wollte ja gerade NICHT eurozentrisch in meiner Betrachtung sein. Deswegen wollte ich nicht in Deutschland oder den USA weiter studieren. Ich suche aber immer die Gemeinsamkeiten zwischen den Kulturen. Japan steckt doch auch nicht in ein Vakuum. Du und ich obwohl wir Europäer (bzw. Amerikaner) sind, können irgendwie die Kultur in Japan verstehen. Warum ist das? Natürlich darf man auch nicht die Schwierigkeiten vergessen die wir als Ausländer in einem Noh Unterricht erleben. Außerdem ist es nicht leicht die japanische Kultur auf englisch oder deutsch zu erklären. Es scheint mir als wären diese Schwierigkeiten einiger Maßen den Schwierigkeiten beim Spracherwerb ähnlich. Deswegen habe ich die Ideen der Symbolik benutzt.

      Was mich eigentlich fasziniert aber ist der Unterschied zwischen den traditionellen Bildungsmethoden in Japan und den Erwartungen von Europäer oder Nordamerikaner. Du hast doch auch ähnliches beim Noh Unterricht erlebt, oder? Ich will sagen – wage es aber noch nicht ganz – dass der Unterschied in den Erwartungen von dem Ziel der Bildung steckt. Im Noh, ist der Ziel etwas Unbeschreibliches (“hana”) das nicht in der Wissenschaft überliefert werden kann. Es ist außerhalb der Logik. Man muss es selbst gegenständlich erleben um es zu verstehen. Aber die Symbolik (z.B. “hana”) weist nur den Weg. Symbolik gibt nicht die Antwort.

      Ich suche mir das Buch von Ando Shoeki. Ist aber Kommunismus nicht auch Eurozentrisch?

      Alles Gute,


  2. Dear Hanna

    Incidentally I visited your site and get interested in your question.

    I am a medical doctor in Kyoto making a reseach on biophilosophy.

    If you define philosophy as a emerge from religion, Tominaga Nakamoto may be a great philosopher. And Ando Shoeki, as you may know, is a real philosopher.

    Anyway I enjoyed and appreciated your article and photo.

    1. Dear Takashi,

      Thank you very much for your comment! I don’t know enough about Japanese philosophy to say as much as I did, perhaps.

      Your comment has prompted me to read “Okina no Fumi” by Tominaga Nakamoto. He said the followers of Shintoism, Confucianism, or Buddhism make a show of following a particular religion. I liked what he said about all the religious systems having at their core the Way of Truthfulness, which can also be fostered without following a particular religion. Is there anything else from Tominaga Nakamoto that you recommend?

      I still need to read Ando Shoeki, but he seems interesting as well. Thank you very much for your input, and I hope I can see you here again sometime.

      Best wishes!

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