Philosophy: Japan, Asia, and the West

Readers of the chapter are obviously aware that the interplay between foreign and indigenous ideas and practices is a major theme in Japanese spiritual traditions, and the same is true regarding philosophical thought. Foreign ideas and concepts that seem to work are retained and modified so as to fit into the culture while what does not fit the Japanese situation is rejected. Since Japanese began to interact with the West in the mid-19th century, one reoccurring dilemma that some of Japan’s greatest thinkers have pondered is how to learn from Europe and the United States yet retain traditional Japanese and East Asian spiritual and philosophical values.

In some cases, there has been a good fit. Neo-Confucianism, which was influential during parts of the Tokugawa period and afterward, stressed the investigation of a variety of phenomena, which was a good fit with the Western emphasis on science. The 19th-century samurai, artist, and proponent of Western science and medicine Watanabe Kazan epitomized this combination of East and West in his life’s work, yet Tokugawa government persecution led him eventually to suicide. The religious leader and educator Uchimura Kanzo, who described himself as Japanese, the son of a samurai, and an independent Christian, also successfully synthesized Eastern and Western ideas, as did the philosopher Nishida Kitaro, who was influenced by both William James and Zen. Other Western and Asian ideas—the Chinese notion that the emperor has a mandate of heaven that can be revoked or the reliance of South Asians, Muslims, and Christians on a sacred text—have largely been rejected.

Since the latter part of the 19th century, public intellectuals, university philosophers, social critics, and the increasingly well-educated public have been steeped in Western ideas ranging from Marxism to classic liberalism. Just as was the case with earlier continental Asian influences, many Japanese have borrowed some elements of Western ideologies and belief systems that met their needs while rejecting other components of various doctrines. So what are some modes of thought that can be identified as ones that many Japanese hold? One is a tendency in spiritual traditions to emphasize the immanent, or the notion that divinity is in all things including humans, rather than the idea of a transcendent god. Another Japanese approach to life is a kind of situational pragmatism, or the use of a mode of thinking for concrete real-life situations, rather than a reliance on a set of overarching absolute principles. Most Japanese at some level also seem to manage to critique Western notions of the overarching importance of the rational while still employing this mode of thinking in their everyday lives. These modes of thought that have just been described must be taken with many grains of salt. Japan is a free society and a dynamic one. Still, these propensities exist and have been commented on extensively by both Japanese and foreigners.