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Intellectual Giants of Pre-War Japan and a Distinctly Japanese Approach to Thought
  - Famous Books on Japan to Read Before You're 30 (4)
  – Minakata Kumagusu/Yanagita Kunio/Nishida Kitaro/Watsuji Tetsuro/D. T. Suzuki | BOOKS & MAGAZINES #010
2021/10/11 #010

Intellectual Giants of Pre-War Japan and a Distinctly Japanese Approach to Thought
- Famous Books on Japan to Read Before You're 30 (4)
– Minakata Kumagusu/Yanagita Kunio/Nishida Kitaro/Watsuji Tetsuro/D. T. Suzuki

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Researcher of classical Japanese literature



The ICT revolution of the late 20th century and 21st century has changed the way we live, work, and communicate in dramatic ways and at a breakneck speed. With the spread of PCs, smartphones, the internet and social media, people can now get the information and content that they want anytime, anyplace. We can stream audio and video on the commute to work, or video chat with people on the opposite side of the globe with minimal lag.

But have all of these changes made us happier?

In recent years, the limits of rational thought and logic have started to become painfully clear. And we’re slowly realizing that in our pursuit of efficiency over the past 50 to 100 years, we’ve in many ways lost more than we have gained.

In this column, I will introduce five intellectual giants of pre-war Japan who pioneered Japanese thinking at a time when the country was still processing an influx of Western ideas and thought. Their work lays out a different way of looking at the world that I believe can help us navigate these turbulent times and break free of this collective rut our civilization seems to be stuck in.

2.Minakata Kumagusa: Integrating Eastern Thought With Western Science

The first person I’d like to talk about is Minakata Kumagusu, a naturalist, biologist and ethnologist. Born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1867, Minakata moved to Tokyo for his schooling, and set off to study in the U.S. when he was around nine years old. He would later travel to Cuba, Haiti, Panama, and Venezuela, and spend an especially long time in England, where he conducted his studies at The British Museum. He had an extraordinary ability to absorb information and teach himself through books, and while at The British Museum he immersed himself in Japanese, Chinese, and Western books. He ultimately contributed 51 articles on different topics to the British science magazine Nature. After 14 years of experience abroad, he returned to Japan and settled in his birthplace. There, through his correspondence with Yanagita Kunio, he would begin to compare and contrast Japanese folklore and religion to various examples abroad, and in the process help establish Japanese folkloristics.

Minakata’s research was broad. He was known as a world-class slime mold researcher, and recognized for his work in biology and botany; he is also known for his work in anthropology and folkloristics. When attempting to learn about a specific area of study, he made it a point to learn about all of the adjacent fields of study in a comprehensive manner. Parallels have been drawn between his approach to academics and knowledge and the concept of a mandala. In the book Minakata Mandala, philosopher and anthropologist Nakazawa Shinichi provides important commentary about the concept of mandala in Minakata’s worldview.

Minakata Mandala
Minakata devised the Minakata Mandala, a unique model of causality that integrates Eastern thought with Western science. Modern Western science interprets reality on the basis of a linear conception of cause and effect; it is a two-dimensional worldview. The Minakata Mandala, on the other hand, is a jumble of curved and straight lines that symbolize the complex and mutually influential way in which different causes and different effects relate to one another. In other words, he presents a three-dimensional worldview.

Minakata was a man of many hats, but natural history was the most important and all-encompassing of his research interests. Natural history involves observational study of organisms, which include animals, fungi, and plants. While each of these subjects has become its own specialized field of study today, the Minakata Mandala worldview seems to be trying to tell us about the importance of a more general and integrated approach to natural history.

3.Yanagita Kunio: On the Japanese Identity

Yanagita Kunio, known as the father of Japanese folklore studies, was born in 1875 in the region known today Hyogo Prefecture. Born as the sixth son of a poor country intellectual, he grew up experiencing poverty and famine. He moved in with an older brother living in Ibaraki Prefecture when he was 13 years old. There, he was deeply affected when he came across a votive tablet depicting mabiki (infanticide) at a local temple. Such childhood experiences would instill in Yanagita the spirit of keisei-saimin (経世済民, govern the people and provide relief to them), leading him to study agricultural management at Tokyo Imperial University, and ultimately taking him down the path to establishing folkloristics.

After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University, Yanagita became employed as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. As he visited different parts of rural Japan on official visits and lecture tours, he was exposed to the full scope of the poor living conditions of farmers, and he became more and more interested in folklore. The interest in yokai (supernatural monsters and spirits) tales at the time would inspire him write The Legends of Tono, a record of folk legends gathered in Iwate Prefecture. (Lafcadio Hearn, whom I wrote about in BOOKS & MAGAZINES #009, was one such writer of yokai tales.)

The Legends of Tono
The word Tono combines the kanji characters for “far" and “field"; as the title implies, this is a collection of legends from a land that is far removed from the Japanese capital. The stories cover old customs and beliefs, and depict nature and animals as intertwined with human lives. Many characters walk the line between the natural world and the supernatural. Intriguingly, Yanagita begins the book with the dedication, “I present this book to the people of foreign lands." In other words, he realized all those years ago that regional Japan would be integral when it came to communicating the essence of Japan to the world.

When people think of folklore, they tend to think of exotic rural festivals and odd customs being deciphered by someone approaching the study as more of a hobby than as a serious subject of pursuit. However, at the heart of Yanagita’s folklore studies are two serious questions: the question of Japanese identity, and the question of why farmers and peasants were so poor. He argued against historical narratives that typically only tell of events involving rulers and high-ranking government officials, and instead focused on the lives of ordinary Japanese people. For him, folklore studies were a way to provide relief to the farmers and peasants.

Yanagita once wrote, “Academic fields of study have to ultimately serve the greater good of society and its people." In a time where academics and research are being further and further subdivided into specific areas of expertise, it seems wise to heed Yanagita’s approach.

4.Nishida Kitaro: Introducing Eastern Thought into Western Philosophy

In terms of Japanese intellectual giants in philosophy and ethics, the first name that must be mentioned is Nishida Kitaro.

Nishida Kitaro was born in 1870 in what is currently known as Ishikawa Prefecture, and passed away in 1945. In other words, he was born right after the Meiji Restoration, and died the year that World War II came to a close. He lived at a time when the Japanese identity was in question—when Eastern and Western thought stood in opposition to one another. But Nishida was able to bring together Western philosophy with Eastern thought at a very high level in what is now called Nishida Philosophy.

Nishida’s young life was marred with tragedy: the death of his older sister and younger brother, bankruptcy as a result of his father’s failed business, and the death of his own child, among other things. Such experiences—which could not be put into words and could not be sufficiently manifested solely through tears—would serve as the basis for his philosophy. After graduating from university, he returned to his hometown and became a middle school teacher; he also became very interested in Zen meditation, and spent much of his free time thinking about philosophical questions.

The Japanese word for philosophy is tetsugaku (哲学). The word philosophy itself is comprised of the Ancient Greek words “philos", which means “loving", and “sophia", which means “wisdom". Philosophy is a 2000+ year tradition that goes all the way back to ancient Greece; after the Meiji Restoration, 2000+ years worth of the philosophical tradition was imported into Japan at once. Nishida is credited with establishing philosophy as an area of study in Japan. And more significantly, he is recognized for bringing Eastern thought to the table and trying to forge a distinctly Japanese take on philosophy.

An Inquiry into the Good
The core concept of Nishida’s book is the idea of “pure experience", which he encountered in William James’ writings and built upon based on his experiences with Zen meditation. Pure experience refers to the part of experience that occurs before reflection or thought, prior to the separation of the objective world and the subjective world. To put it another way, it is about being in tune with something in and of itself, rather than attempting to ascertain information about something, or attempting to define it. Nishida is arguing that there is a Japanese or Eastern worldview that is distinct from the Western worldview of needing to define and quantify things. He calls that worldview “pure experience". Furthermore, he says that it is only through pure experience that we can experience what he calls jitsuzai (実在、 “the real"). “The real" refers to the natural state of things, and ultimately, veritas (the truth). In other words, only through pure experience can we begin to understand the essence or the crux of a matter.

An Inquiry into the Good was written at a time when the language of philosophy was still not established in Japan. As a result, the book is notoriously difficult to read. But to heed Nishida’s lessons, readers should be careful not to focus their energies on parsing the text; rather, they should focus on what is between the lines. By using hard-to-decipher language, Nishida is showing us that there are things out there that cannot be conveyed by words and logic alone.

In another sense, An Inquiry into the Good was a chronicle of Nishida’s philosophical awakening. The fact that the book became a classic is a reflection of the fact that reading it awakens the inner philosopher in the reader.

The success of An Inquiry into the Good would lead to Nishida getting a doctor of letters from Kyoto University in 1913, and he would begin teaching at the school. The many students who studied under him came to be collectively known as the Kyoto School. Perhaps the most well known of the bunch is Watsuji Tetsuro.

5.Watsuji Tetsuro: Ethics in a Human Community

Watsuji was born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1889. He was interested in literature and art from a young age, and became well versed in Western academics and thought. In his early career his focus was on introducing the work of Western philosophers to Japan, but over time he came to feel an objection to what he saw as the self-serving, individualistic ethics of the West. Through comparing and contrasting Western and Eastern ethics, he would establish his own conception of ethics, called Watsuji Rinri.

Ningen no Gaku to shite no Rinrigaku
In his 1934 book, Watsuji explores how Western philosophy views human beings and ethics before putting forth his own conception of ethics as centered on human beings and social relationships.

Another seminal work by Watsuji is his 1931 book Fudo. In it, he puts for his argument for how climate influences human existence and culture. He defines three types of climate: monsoon, desert, and pastoral, and explores the complex relationship between nature and culture, and how climate shapes thought.

Watsuji’s idea of fudo encompasses climate, weather, geological features, topography, landscape—basically everything about our natural environment. The key point here is that he uses the word fudo instead of shizen (nature) or kankyo (environment). Whereas shizen, as the subject of natural science, is often considered separately from culture and human existence, Watsuji sees fudo as a tightly woven relationship between climate and culture.

During the coldest weeks of winter, Japanese people frequently greet each other by saying something like samui desu ne (寒いですね, “cold, isn’t it"). There’s a strange phenomenon that occurs when you hear someone saying samui samui (cold, cold)—suddenly you begin to feel cold yourself. In a nutshell, that is what Nishida means by pure experience, and what Watsuji means by aidagara and fudo.

6.D. T. Suzuki: Japanese Nondualistic Consciousness

I wrote about D. T. Suzuki’s work introducing Zen Buddhism to Western audiences in BOOKS & MAGAZINES #009, but he is also an important figure in any discourse about modern Japanese thought. In this column I’d like to bring up his book Nihon-teki Reisei (Japanese spirituality).

D. T. Suzuki was a Japanese Buddhist scholar known for spreading interest in Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism to the West. Well versed in both Western literature and Western philosophy, Suzuki was able to convey the Zen spirit to Westerners in a language that they would understand. He left behind many works in English, and was instrumental in helping the West achieve a deeper understanding of Eastern thinking.

Nihon-teki Reisei (Japanese Spirituality)
In this seminal book, Suzuki explores the idea of Japanese reisei—a word that can be translated as “spirituality" but in this context means something closer to “religious consciousness". He argues that while Buddhism was introduced to Japan back in the Yamato and Nara periods, for a long time it remained a purely scholarly pursuit for the upper classes. It was only during the Kamakura period when, thanks to the spread of Zen Buddhism among the warrior class and Jodo-shu among the common people, Buddhism as a religious experience blossomed in Japan.

The key here is that Suzuki is not saying that Buddhism led to the development of a Japanese religious consciousness; rather, he is saying that Buddhism taking root is what allowed a theretofore unseen Japanese religious consciousness to finally manifest itself.

Suzuki’s idea of Japanese reisei is both subjective and objective, individual as well as collective. He chose the word reisei as opposed to seishin (spirit) or kokoro (heart) because the spirit is often considered as opposite to the material. Reisei, meanwhile, is a nondualistic consciousness. Nondualism refers to a mature state of consciousness in which the dichotomy of “I" and “the other" is transcended. Suzuki contends that Japanese reisei allows us to experience that transcendence.


Modern Western culture is founded on the notion that scientific advancements benefit our lives and will solve all of our problems.

For example, in the industrial age, when humans needed a more efficient form of transport over long distances, Westerners invented the steam engine, and later, the automobile. As the West has improved upon these technologies, the focus has always been on the quantitative: factors like speed, horsepower, mileage.

Meanwhile, the Japanese like to focus on more qualitative notions like “the feeling when you ride it” or “how convenient it is”. These are inherently vague and hard to define in concrete terms, but they go hand in hand with the concept of kaizen. That sense of vagueness is everywhere in Japanese society, as evidenced by the fact that people regularly talk about “reading the air” (reading a social situation or general atmosphere to intuit how one should act or react, usually in a way that does not inconvenience others). This is perhaps the aspect of Japanese society that foreigners most struggle with, because it is completely divorced from all logic and rational thinking.

As our lives have become increasingly—and perhaps unnecessarily—more convenient and materially abundant, more and more of us seem to be becoming chronically unhappy. The thinkers I’ve written about in this column offer an alternative approach to looking at our world, and suggest that we may be able to find the keys to happiness in the traditions and old ways of life depicted in their works.

To put in another way, if breaking things down into their constituent parts and defining and quantifying everything isn’t working as well as it used to in terms of providing us with transcendental experiences, it may be fruitful to try the reverse. Perhaps it is time to identify the connective tissue between things and build our world back up. This is the idea at the core of Minakata’s approach to natural history.

Nishida and Watsuji demonstrate their ability to integrate Western philosophy and Japanese thought, while Suzuki argues that it is the Japanese who are especially adept at integrating different and often contradictory elements. This is evidenced by the fact that the country was able to rapidly internalize Western technology and culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it also explains the nonchalance with which Japanese people practice both Shinto and Buddhist traditions.

Many of the works I’ve listed in this article have been translated into English and other languages, but judging by the fact that they are relatively unknown in comparison to their Western counterparts, it is clear that something about the essence of each work has been lost in translation. In a way, the very Japaneseness of the concepts make them untranslatable, unsuited for logical explanations or rational interpretations. If that is the case, then it falls to the Japanese people to lead by example. While the Japanese are not particularly skilled at conveying ideas through textbooks and manuals, they have a long tradition of master-apprentice relationships –which are founded on the idea that the true essence of things can only be relayed through nonverbal communication and repetition. When we live in a world where words seem to have lost their meaning, perhaps it is time for a different approach.


Intellectual Giants of Pre-War Japan and a Distinctly Japanese Approach to Thought

※2021/10/13: サイトのtitleタグが変更されました。
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