We Japanese are not philosophers

A quite poignant quote from May’s book “Atomic Sushi” (that I talked about in a previous post). The author is talking to his japanese host about the reasons for being a philosopher in modern Japan (p.148-149):

“We Japanese are not philosophers,” he conceded proudly. “We have our philosophy, of course; but we prefer not to speak about it.”

I agreed with this wholeheartedly: “You don’t need to spell out your philosophy unless your roots are endangered, unless the question of your identity becomes a conscious, live problem.”

“Like the Jews,” he said, without a trace of anti-Semitism.

“Yes. In the West we are all becoming Jews,” I replied, tongue-in-cheek.

“You are right, May-san. We Japanese do not need philosophy. We are still racially-pure. Perhaps we are the last racially-pure people.”

I found this a shocking gloss on my point, and yet the way he said it was too “innocent” to be sinister. Japan must be the only nation in the world where a blut-und-bloden – blood-and-soil – mythology is openly voiced in an inoffensive, even naive, way. People don’t seem to associate it with Nazi evil, or with names like Auschwitz.

“But if we are forced to accept more foreign influence, then we will need more philosophy,” he persisted, warming to the theme. “Foreigners will endanger our identity. Then we will import their philosophy in order to regain the identity they destroyed.” He grinned with satisfaction as he drew his conclusions: “Foreigners will try to cure the disease they cause to us. But the cure will simply lead to further disease.”


2 Responses to “We Japanese are not philosophers”

  1. Timothy Hill Says:

    But this is total bollocks … Japanese thinkers like Nishida were totally overawed by the power of Western philosophy. Their interest stemmed from a sense of a Japanese lack in this area.

    As for the claim that there is any Japanese ‘naivete’ here – also ridiculous: witness the ongoing struggles over the way history is presented in Japanese textbooks, the ‘controversial’ character of claims that the Japanese are racially related to the Koreans, the recurring scandals (to the West, anyway) over black people not being served in shops, etc.. Any naivete is purely disingenuous at this point.

  2. Yeah it’s definitely a pretty extreme view of the japanese attitude to philosophy (and most likely representative of the ‘man of the street’ only)!

    But I found this ‘rationalized’ version of the well-known Japanese fear for whatsoever cultural invasion quite interesting.

    Nishida and other philosophers invalidate the point made above, I agree, although it’s also true that Japanese philosophy is not very varied and often (I’m tempted to say almost always) it develops directly from Japanese religions. Which we can’t really say about western philosophies. Even Nishida (who I’m looking into a bit) seem to mostly be trying to integrate views coming from buddhism with the western schools of thought he likes the most… and using the philosophical method championed by the west: rational discourse.

    However I can’t really say these are my last words on the topic.. just first impressions of someone who’s trying to penetrate japanese culture a bit more! thanks for the comment 🙂

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