Japanese philosophy


The most distinctive characteristic of Japanese philosophy is how it has assimilated and adapted foreign philosophies to its native worldview. As an isolated island nation, Japan successfully resisted foreign invasion until 1945 and, although it borrowed ideas freely throughout its history, was able to do so without the imposition of a foreign military or colonial presence. Japanese philosophy thus bears the imprint of a variety of foreign traditions, but there is always a distinctively Japanese cultural context. In order to understand the dynamics of Japanese thought, therefore, it is necessary to examine both the influence of various foreign philosophies through Japanese history and the underlying or continuing cultural orientation that set the stage for which ideas would be assimilated and in what way.

The major philosophical traditions to influence Japan from abroad have been Confucianism, Buddhism, neo-Confucianism and Western philosophy. Daoism also had an impact, but more in the areas of alchemy, prognostication and folk medicine than in philosophy. Although these traditions often overlapped, each also had distinctive influences.

In its literary forms, Japanese philosophy began about fourteen centuries ago. Confucian thought entered Japan around the fifth century ad. Through the centuries the imprint of Confucianism has been most noticeable in the areas of social structure, government organization and ethics. Philosophically speaking, the social self in Japan has its roots mainly in Confucian ideals, blended since the sixteenth century with certain indigenous ideas of loyalty and honour developed within the Japanese samurai or warrior class.

The philosophical impact of Buddhism, introduced around the same time as Confucianism, has been primarily in three areas: psychology, metaphysics and aesthetics. With its emphasis on disciplined contemplation and introspective analysis, Buddhism has helped define the various Japanese senses of the inner, rather than social, self. In metaphysics, Buddhist esotericism has been most dominant; through esoteric Buddhist philosophy, the Japanese gave a rational structure to their indigenous beliefs that spirituality is immanent rather than transcendent, that mind and body (like humanity and nature) are continuous rather than separate, and that expressive power is shared by things as well as human thought or speech. This metaphysical principle of expression has combined with the introspective psychology and emphasis on discipline to form the foundation of the various aesthetic theories that have been so well developed in Japanese history.

Neo-Confucianism became most prominent in Japan in the sixteenth century. Like classical Confucianism, it contributed much to the Japanese understanding of virtue and the nature of the social self. Unlike classical Confucianism in Japan, however, neo-Confucianism also had a metaphysical and epistemological influence. Its emphasis on investigating the principle or configuration of things stimulated the Japanese study of the natural world. This reinforced a tendency initiated with the very limited introduction of Western practical sciences and medicine in the sixteenth century.

Western philosophy, along with Western science and technology, has had its major impact in Japan only since the middle of the nineteenth century. The process of modernization forced Japanese philosophers to reconsider fundamental issues in epistemology, social philosophy and philosophical anthropology. As it has assimilated Asian traditions of thought in the past – absorbing, modifying and incorporating aspects into its culture – so Japan has been consciously assimilating Western thought since the early twentieth century. The process continues today.

What in all this is distinctively Japanese? On the superficial level, it might seem that Japan has drawn eclectically from a variety of traditions without any inherent sense of intellectual direction. A more careful analysis, however, shows that Japanese thinkers have seldom adopted any foreign philosophy without simultaneously adapting it. For example, the Japanese philosophical tradition never fully accepted the emphasis on propriety or the mandate of heaven so characteristic of Chinese Confucianism. It rejected the Buddhist idea that impermanence is a reality to which one must be resigned, and instead made the appreciation of impermanence into an aesthetic. It criticized the neo-Confucian and Western philosophical tendencies toward rationalism and positivism, even while accepting many ideas from those traditions. In short, there has always been a complex selection process at work beneath the apparent absorption of foreign ideas.

Both historically and in the present, some Japanese philosophers and cultural critics have tried to identify this selection process with Shintō, but Shintō itself has also been profoundly shaped by foreign influences. The selection process has shaped Shintō as much as Shintō has shaped it. In any case, we can isolate a few axiological orientations that have seemed to persist or recur throughout the history of Japanese thought. First, there has been a tendency to emphasize immanence over transcendence in defining spirituality. Second, contextual pragmatism has generally won out over attempts to establish universal principles that apply to all situations. Third, reason has often been combined with affect as the basis of knowledge or insight. Fourth, theory is seldom formulated in isolation from a praxis used to learn the theory. Fifth, although textual authority has often been important, it has not been as singular in its focus as in many other cultures. Thus, the Japanese have not typically identified a single text such as the Bible, the Analects, the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gītā as foundational to their culture. Although there have been exceptions to these general orientations, they do nonetheless help define the broader cultural backdrop against which the drama of Japanese philosophy has been played out through history.

    Citing this article:
    Kasulis, Thomas P.. 'Japanese philosophy'. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1998: Accessed (May 24, 2015). https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/japanese-philosophy/v-1/
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