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Beyond “East and West” Nishida's Universalism and Postcolonial Critique

  • Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover


During the 1930s and 1940s, many Japanese intellectuals resisted Western cultural imperialism. This theoretical movement was unfortunately complicit with wartime nationalism. Kitaro Nishida, the founder of modern Japanese philosophy and the leading figure of the Kyoto School, has been the focus of a controversy as to whether his philosophy was inherently nationalist or not. Nishida's defenders claim that his philosophical "universalism" was incompatible with the particularistic nationalism of Japan's imperialist state. From the standpoint of postcolonial critique, I argue that this defense is insufficient. Philosophical universalism is not in itself anti-imperialist, but can in fact contribute to imperialist ideology.
The Review of Politics 59:3, Summer 97, pp. 541-560
Reprinted in Border Crossings: Toward a Comparative Political Theory. Fred Dallmayr, ed.
Lexington Books Lanham: 1999. pp. 236-252
Beyond East and West: Nishidas Universalism and Postcolonial Critique
Yoko Arisaka
Philosophy Department
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, CA 94117
During the 1930s and 1940s, many Japanese intellectuals resisted Western cultural
imperialism. This theoretical movement was unfortunately complicit with wartime
nationalism. Kitaro Nishida, the founder of modern Japanese philosophy and the leading
figure of the Kyoto School, has been the focus of a controversy as to whether his
philosophy was inherently nationalist or not. Nishidas defenders claim that his
philosophical universalismwas incompatible with the particularistic nationalism of
Japans imperialist state. From the standpoint of postcolonial critique, I argue that this
defense is insufficient. Philosophical universalism is not in itself anti-imperialist, but can in
fact contribute to imperialist ideology.
Beyond East and West: Nishidas Universalism and Postcolonial Critique
1. Eurocentrism and Japanese Philosophy
For a century, Asian intellectual and cultural life has been inordinately preoccupied with
the meanings and implications of “Westernization” and modernization.Japan
sidestepped this problem during its long years of isolation,
but finally in 1853
Commodore Perry and his cannon-wielding black ships” came to the shores of
Yokohama and demanded the opening of the country. At that point the country faced two
alternatives--either become a victim of Western expansionism, or modernize in order to
protect itself. Japan chose the latter path, and with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it
inaugurated an era of daunting modernization in all aspects of life--social, intellectual,
technological, political, economic, religious, aesthetic, and of course, in popular culture.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the history of post-Meiji Japan has been a
history of the struggle with the notions of Westernization and modernization. At first,
aversion to the barbarians” caused public outcry against any foreign influence. However,
as the political leaders of the new government actively promoted the idea of building a
new, modern country and getting rid of old feudal ways, people in the cosmopolitan
centers began to embrace the new way of life with enthusiasm. Soon infatuation with
things Western was extreme; for instance, one group of reformers proposed to convert the
Japanese emperor to Christianity, since that was the religion under which science had
developed in the West. Beef-eating became popular, and the local authorities issued a
public notice recommending this unorthodox diet on the ground that it would create
energy for the performance of patriotic duties and strengthen the national physique.
Perry kawara-ban
,” an ornamental tile depicting the beautifulblack ships, became a
objet dart
among the fashionable. Red Hairprints, depicting northern
Europeans and their lifestyles and technologies, became popular as well. Western style
dance halls became the craze among the forward-looking modern types.
Viewing the world in terms of East vs. West(
toyo vs. seiyo
) became a deeply
ingrained practice in almost all aspects of life; it was the framework people used to
understand their rapidly changing and often chaotic lives.
Cutting across class and gender
lines, people became keenly aware of their non-Westernway of life vis-a-vis what they
imagined to be the Western,the foreign,the newway of life. The process of
negotiating with the West manifested itself in myriad ways: Political elites debated how to
construct a modern nation-state called Japan; education reformers had to reconsider the
balance between the traditional and the scientific so as to cope with the bombardment of
new knowledge; women and men alike were suddenly faced with the problem of self-
presentation--clothing, hairstyle, and possessions were transparent markers of their stake
From 1639 to the mid-1850s, the Tokugawa Shogunate isolated Japan from nearly all foreign contact in order
chiefly to control the spread of Christianity; only the strictly controlled port of Nagasaki was open to continue trading
with China and Holland. After 1653, no Japanese could travel abroad, and all Japanese who lived abroad were
prohibited from returning.
G. B. Samsom,
The Western World and Japan
(Tokyo: Charles Tuttle Co., 1984), p. 383.
in the cultural transformation, both to others and to themselves.
The initial shock of
difference” established a long-standing paradigm of Japan as the other of the West.
While some thinkers, such as Yukichi Fukuzawa, fully embraced the Western
notions of liberalism and democracy,
the rapid process of modernization/Westernization
also provoked a strong traditionalist reaction. Although Japan was already cut off from its
premodern past (represented as Eastern), cultural conservatives actively promoted
traditions many of which they had to put together from remnants of the old way of life.
For example, Takamori Saigo, a major political figure in the Meiji Restoration, was known
for his antiforeign beliefs and his praise of the spirit of the samurai.He eventually led a
tradition-centered rebellion against the very modernizing regime he had helped to create.
Japanese calligraphy, using the traditional brush, which had been chased from the
educational curriculum as outmoded, was re-introduced in order to preserve the spirit of
Japanese style and thinking.Buddhism was reformed and modernized, and new martial
arts such as judo were constructed from traditional elements. The result of this
modernization process was a peculiar combination of rapid Westernization and a rather
artificial return to imagined origins. The hopeful intellectuals echoed the sentiment
epitomized in Shozan Sakumas slogan: Eastern morality and Western techniques.
Japanese philosophy was born in this general cultural milieu, and it was by no
means an exception to this trend. What came to be identified as philosophyin Japan--
Westernphilosophy as opposed to Confucianism and Buddhism which were increasingly
regarded as feudalistic--was introduced around the time of the Meiji Restoration.
At first
Japanese thinkers concentrated on exegesis and commentary on Western philosophers.
However, as they became more aware of the fruitful tension between “Western rationality
and traditional Japanese values,philosophy became a site in which Japanese intellectuals
negotiated their relation to European intellectual trends.
In the European consciousness of the time, the “West represented the universal;
the age-old quest of philosophy has been to find the truthwhich speaks to
mind, just as scientific knowledge is considered universal.
Moreover, as exemplified by
Hegel, the dominant view of history is represented as a temporally linear progress,from
the pre-modern past to the modern present, culminating in the techno-scientific culture of
Europe and America.
Since both philosophy and science developed chiefly in Europe, the
notions of truth,universality,modernity,” and being Westernoften came to be
conflated in the minds of philosophers, both Japanese and Western. In this framework,
what was non-Westernwas either simply false,or due to a particular time lagwithin
For instance, women wearing dresses, as opposed to the traditional
, were “modern.The choices in daily
life--anything from umbrellas, shoes, furniture, eating utencils, hairstyle--reflected ones position in the process of the
assimilation of things Western.
Funayama Shinichi dates the introduction of Western philosophy to Japan in 1862, when Nishi Amane and Tsuda
Mamichi went to Holland and brought back Comte and Mills utilitarianism. Shinichi Funayama,
Hêgeru Tetsugaku
to Nishida Tetsugaku
Hegels Philosophy and Nishidas Philosophy
), (Tokyo: Mirai-sha, 1984), p. 107. See also
Ryôsuke Ohashi,
Nihon-teki na mono, Yôroppa-teki na mono (Things Japanese, Things European)
, (Tokyo: Shinc-
sensho, 1992), Chapter 2. Nishi is credited with coining many philosophical terms in Japanese, including the term
Of course, ethnocentric discourse is not limited to Europe. China, for instance, has had a long tradition of
understanding itself to be the “centerof the world; however, this consciousness was already eroding with the arrival
of the British and the Opium Wars since 1839.
Less dominant views of history included, for example, the romantic conception of Rousseau which represented
history not as progressbut as decline.
the universal scheme of things. The central reference point remained the West--hence, the
familiar problem of Eurocentrism.
As is well-known, American intellectuals have recently begun to criticize their own
Eurocentric representation of intellectual history and to pay closer attention to the
different voices at the margins of this intellectual mapping. The critique of Eurocentrism
has gone along with a new appreciation of multiculturalism” and a wider self-
understanding in the context of global history. However, despite such efforts,
Eurocentrism does remain a persistent reality, both in the United States and elsewhere,
Western as well as non-Western. As Dipesh Chakrabarty laments, That Europe works as
a silent referent in historical knowledge itself becomes obvious in a highly ordinary
way...Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians
of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.
What is significant about Japanese
in this context is its self-
positioning vis-a-vis Western universalism. The idea was that Japan, as a non-Western
nation, could provide something universalof its own, the truth of which the West could
recognize. As Nishida optimistically claimed,
Up to now Westerners thought that their culture was superior to all others, and
that human culture advances toward their own form. Other peoples, such as
Easterners, are said to be behind and if they advance, they too will acquire the
same form. There are even some Japanese who think like this. However...I
believe there is something fundamentally different about the East. They [East and
West] must complement each other and...achieve the eventual realization of a
complete humanity. It is the task of Japanese culture to find such a principle.
Japanese philosophy could not be reduced to Eastern spirituality, a mere particularity,
since it too could validate itself in terms of rational universality. In Nishidas words, To
become global Oriental culture must not stop at its own specificity but rather it must shed
a new light on Western culture and a new world culture must be created,
and further,
Todays Japan is no longer a closed society, an island in the East. It is a Japan in the
world. The principle of the formation of Japan should reflect the principle of the
formation of the world.
The West no longer had a monopoly on universal culture.
Japanese philosophy exemplified the claim that history does not culminate” in European
civilization; instead history would have to recognize multiple centers, all of which had
claims to being just as valid as the West. Hence, Nishidas thought gave voice to the
cultural ambivalence people felt at the time, that somehow Japan was differentbut not
thereby worse” than or behindthe West. Japanese philosophy represented one of the
earliest formulations of anti-Eurocentrism.
2. Universalism and Nationalism: Kitaro Nishidas Case
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘IndianPasts?
(Winter 1992), p. 25.
Nishidas works are collected in
Nishida Kitaro Zenshu (Collected Works of Nishida), vols. 1-19
(Tokyo: Iwanami
Shoten, 1987-1989)
which will be abbreviated as
and followed by the volume number. This quote is from a
lecture “Nihon Bunka no Mondai(The Problem of Japanese Culture),
NKZ 14
, pp. 404-405. For a good discussion
of Nishidas conception of modernity, see Andrew Feenberg,
Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in
Philosophy and Social Theory
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), Chapter 8.
NKZ 14
, p. 407.
NKZ 12
, p. 341.
Japanese philosophy is said to find its own voice with the publication of Kitaro
Zen no Kenkyu
An Inquiry into the Good
, 1911).
Influenced by William
Jamesconcept of pure experience,Nishida initially attempted to articulate an
experiential ontology of immediate experience
partially inspired by Zen Buddhism.
presented his early philosophy as a synthesis of Western and Eastern thinking.What
was “Westernwas his method; he deliberately chose the language of Western philosophy,
borrowing from Aristotle, neo-Kantianism, German idealism, and in his later writings,
Hegelian Marxism. What was Easternwas his inclusion of the concept of absolute
) derived from Buddhist metaphysics. This hybrid trope became
standard in the Kyoto School,
which established itself as the dominant philosophical
school after the 1920s. All major thinkers after that time either belonged to the Kyoto
School, or as in the case of Marxists and neo-Kantians, responded polemically to it. What
is known as Japanese philosophy today in the West largely represents the legacy of the
Kyoto School.
Despite its initial, seemingly apolitical, philosophical stance, the Kyoto School
became entangled in politics during the 1930s and 1940s when a wave of nationalist
sentiment swept the country. Then the critique of Eurocentrism took a distinctively
nationalist turn. The chief concern of Japanese intellectuals at the time was to theorize a
specifically Japanese form of modernity that would remedy the defects of a Euro-
American model driven by rationalism, materialism, technocentrism, and the will to
domination. Japan was supposed to be uniquely suited to develop such an alternative
modernity, since it was the only nation in Asia to modernize successfully while retaining
the spirit of the East. Several series of roundtable discussions and symposia on this theme
were held in the early 1940s, the most infamous of which was the Overcoming
kindai no chokoku
) debate of 1942
in which some of Nishidas students
participated. Iwao Koyama, for instance, developed a philosophy of world history
based on Nishidas thought, as an answer to Western imperialism. In order to fight
Zen no Kenkyu
. For an English translation, see
An Inquiry into the Good
, Masao Abe and Christopher
Ives, trans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
For a discussion of the theory of pure experience, see Feenberg, A. and Y. Arisaka, Experiential Ontology: The
Origins of the Nishida Philosophy in the Doctrine of Pure Experience.
International Philosophical Quarterly 30
(1990: 2) pp. 173-205.
Robert Sharf argues that the kind of Zen which emphasizes immediacy,such as D. T. Suzukis writings, is a
post-Meiji construct already driven by nationalism. For analyses see Sharfs Zen and Japanese Nationalism,
History of Religions 33
(1993: 1) pp. 1-43, and Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited,in
Rude Awakenings: Zen,
the Kyoto School, & the Question of Nationalism
, John Maraldo and James Heisig, eds.
Honolulu: University of
Hawaii Press, 1995). See also Bernard Faures critique, The Kyoto School and Reverse Orientalism,in
Japan in
Traditional and Postmodern Perspectives
, Charles Wei-shun Fu and Steven Heine, eds. (Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1995).
The broad rubric of Kyoto School(
Kyoto Gakuha
) includes Nishida and his colleagues and students, such as
Hajime Tanabe, Tetsuro Watsuji, Keiji Nishitani, Iwao Koyama, Masaaki Kosaka, Torataro Shimomura, and
Shigetaka Suzuki. The term Kyoto Schoolwas first used by Jun Tosaka, a Marxist student of Nishidas, in order to
designate the right-wing thought which developed in the early 1930s.
The debate was intially published in
(Literary World), 1942; for the texts and commentary, see T.
Kawakami, et al.,
Kindai no Chokoku
(Tokyo: Fuzanbo, 1990). For commentary, see also Wataru Hiromatsu,
no ChokokuRon
(Tokyo: Kodansha, 1989). Discussions in English include H. D. Harootunian, Visible
Discourse/Invisible Ideologies,in
Postmodernism in Japan
, M. Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, eds. (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1989), pp. 63-92, and Ryoen Minamoto, The Symposium on Overcoming Modernityin
, pp. 197-229.
Western domination, Japan had to offer some non-Eurocentric principle” which could
unify Asia and establish a new world order.
As such, it was Japans responsibility to
free Asia from Western colonial powersso that it could develop a modern global culture
equal to or even better than the model hitherto established by the West. As anyone
familiar with the nationalist discourse of the day can easily recognize, this rhetoric
coincided with the slogans of the imperialist regime.
After the war, progressive leftists harshly criticized the debate for its reactionary
agenda, its complicity with nationalism, and its justification of the Greater East Asia Co-
Prosperity Sphere. The debate was cast into oblivion, at least during the years following
the war, and the Kyoto School acquired an unsavory imperialist image. During the
postwar period, just the mention of Nishida” or the Kyoto School would have made one
appear complicit with imperialism, and the intellectual community shunned their
philosophy as politically evil. However, the followers of the Kyoto School continued to
maintain its tradition of religious philosophy somewhat in isolation. They believed that
their philosophy was not inherently nationalist despite its problematic associations, and
that it was the only original thought ever to appear in Japanese philosophy, and as such,
still worth pursuing.
The assessment of Nishidas own role in this debate is far from clear. He did not
participate in the debate nor did he explicitly support the nationalist regime, but his
philosophy is held accountable for many of the politically problematic concepts his
students employed. However, Nishida did not explicitly state his political views but rather
buried them in complicated philosophical theories, so the evaluation of his politics has
given rise to an intense controversy in the postwar years. His writings were so coded and
cryptic that interpreters used them to support politically opposing views.
Nishida developed his metaphysical theories during the late 1920s and 1930s,
when Japanese military and political leaders were mobilizing the whole nation with full-
blown nationalism. He was by then a well-known figure, and his books were widely read.
However, until he began to write on history during the mid 1930s, he had concentrated
primarily on abstract metaphysical theory with little reference to politics. As a result, his
philosophy was attacked by Marxists for lacking real historical significance. For instance,
Nishidas Marxist student, Jun Tosaka, denounced his teachers philosophy as an
academic, bourgeois philosophy of idealismthat is trans-historical, formalistic,
romantic, and phenomenological.
Nishidas letters indicate that he began to write on
Jeffrey Herf's concept of "reactionary modernism" is useful for understanding Japanese philosophers’ reaction to
Western rationality from the 1920s to the end of the War. (Jeffrey Herf,
Reactinary Modernism: Technology,
Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich
, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). The works of
the German reactionary modernists--such as Ernst Juenger, Oswald Spengler, Werner Sombart, and Carl Schmitt--
were introduced to the Japanese audience through young Japanese philosophers who went to Germany in the 1920s
and 30s. German nationalists believed that Germany could meaningfully combine technical rationality and spirit,
since Germans were supposedly uniquely cultured in a way the Anglo-Americans and French were not. Many pro-
modern Japanese intellectuals were also strongly nationalistic and hoped to create a specifically Asian modernity in
Japan. They rejected Western imperialism while trying to coopt Western rationality for their project.
For a more detailed analysis of the debate, see Yoko Arisaka, The Nishida Enigma: The Principle of the New
World Order,
Monumenta Nipponica
51: (1996:1), pp. 81-105. For a collection of essays on the politics of the
Kyoto School, see
Rude Awakenings.
Masakatsu Fujita, Nihon ni Okeru Kenkyushi no Genjo(An Overview of the History of Research [of Nishida] in
Japan), in
Nishida Tetsugaku: Shin Shiryo to Kekyu e no Tebiki
, Y. Kayano and R. Ohashi, eds. (Kyoto: Minerva
Shobo, 1987), p. 118. At that time, Nishida accepted this criticism (see his letter to Tosaka, #749,
18, p. 460).
politics in the late 1930s, partly in response to such criticism, and partly to show his
concern for the issues of the day. His writings soon touched on such subjects as the
Imperial House, the project of WWII, Japanese National Polity (
), and the role of
the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
According to his many postwar critics,
Nishida is guilty of complicity with
imperialism or ultranationalism because not only did he employ the nationalist discourse of
the time, but he also gave it philosophical meaning in essays such as The Principle of the
New World Order(1942) and The Problem of Japanese Culture” (1940).
example, regarding the concept of
hakko iu
(Eight corners, one world),
a wartime
slogan, Nishida claims;
Each nation/people lives its own unique historical life and at the same time joins in
a united global world through carrying out a world-historical mission. This is the
ultimate Idea [principle] of human historical development, and this is the principle
of the New World Order that should be sought in the current world war. It seems
that our countrys principle, Eight corners, one world,” expresses this idea. I
humbly believe that this view is also expressed by the imperial statement
proclaiming that all nations should understand this principle.
Pierre Lavalle points out that ideas such as this put Nishida squarely in the camp of the
ultranationalists, in their justification of the self-appointed leadership of Japan in Asia.
The language of respecting the historical lives of each nation,while it sounds good, was
itself a part of imperialist discourse.
Nishida further comments on the Japanese national
polity (
) and the Imperial Way (
Japans national polity is not merely totalitarianism. The Imperial House is the
beginning and the end of the world, as the absolute present that embraces the past
and the future. The quintessence of the unbroken line of our national polity
consists in the completion of the historical world itself with the Imperial House as
its center.
See, for instance, his essay Sekai Shin Chitsujo no Genri(The Principle of the New World Order),
NKZ 12:
426-434. For an English translation, see Arisaka.
The critics, largely representing the intellectual historians of modern Japan, include H. D. Harootunian, Tetsuo
Najita, John Dower, Robert Sharf, Peter Dale, Bernard Faure, and Pierre Lavelle. See especially Lavelles The
Political Thought of Nishida Kitaro,
Monumenta Nipponica
49 (1994: 2), pp. 141-162.
Excerpts from The Problem of Japanese Culture” are translated in
Sources of the Japanese Tradition,
vol 2, W.
T. de Bary, ed. and trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958). Both the “New World Order” essay and
The Problem of Japanese Culture” are included in
NKZ 12
Hakko iu
,or more typically
hakko ichiu
,was used to justify Japanese expansionism. The phrase was taken
Nihon Shoki
. It is also translated as All the world as one family,or The universal harmony.
NKZ 12
, p. 428. Arisaka, p 102.
Lavelle, p. 160.
One of the items of the declaration at the Great East Asia Meeting reads: Each nation of the Great East Asia
should respect each other’s tradition and each people should promote each other’s creativity in order to enhance the
culture of Great East Asia.(Kenryo Sato,
Dai Towa Senso Kaikoroku
, Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 1966, p. 318). The
meeting was held in 1943 in order to strenghthen the coherence of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere under
the auspices of Tojo. Nishidas The Principle of the New World Orderwas initially conceived at the request of the
Tojo military government in preparation for this meeting. For detailed discussions of the circumstances, see Michiko
Yusa, Fashion and
Hikaku Shiso Kenkyu
16 (1990), pp. 281-294; Hikaru Furuta, Sekai Shin
Chitsujo no GenriJiken-ko, I and II,(
NKZ 14 and 19
, inserts); and Hisashi Ueda,
Zoku Sofu Nishida Kitaro
(Tokyo: Nansosha, 1983).
NKZ 12
, p. 430. Arisaka, 102.
In light of such blatantly nationalist ideas, it seems hardly possible to defend
Nishida. However, others insist on more nuanced analyses of these passages in a wider
philosophical and historical context, especially since his letters and diaries clearly
demonstrate his anti-imperialist sentiments.
Moderates in the debate, such as Jan Van
Bragt, hold that while there is evidence of theoretical complicity, nationalism was not the
fundamental inspiration of Nishida and other figures of the Kyoto School.
John Maraldo
also argues that Nishida did not intend to support state nationalism, although he was
complicit more by effect than intention” and thus should still be held responsible.
Andrew Feenberg examines the application of his dialectic of place” to history and
acknowledges that it has a strong cosmopolitan implications,
a point Nishidas defenders
For these defenders, Nishidas cosmopolitanism derives from a universalistic
philosophy which excludes nationalism on principle despite his concessions to the
Hence, they argue that the accusation that Nishida was complicit with
ultranationalism is unwarranted. What I argue in the last section is that the chief claim of
the defenders--that Nishidas philosophical universalismis incompatible with nationalist
ideology--fails because universalist discourse was used both as a tool of liberation
oppression in Japans case. How does Nishida apply his universalistic philosophy of place
to history?
Nishidas signature theory of place” (
) is a system of concrete
universals,which explains the conditionsof abstract thought.
All of the categories
which appear in this system are universals such as judgment,consciousness,action,
historical world,” and absolute nothingness.The theory is modelled after Hegels
logic, which is meant to be a universal system of reality as such and not the expression of a
nation. What makes this theory distinctively non-Western, despite its universal
form, is the last stage of absolute nothingness (
zettai mu
). If the whole history of Western
philosophy is a history of objectified Being, then absolute nothingness is the place” of
such Being. This utterly non-objectifiable place” is the ultimate non-reifiable that in
which” all beings manifest themselves; it cannot be objectified, for if it were, it would
simply be another being” and not the place” of being. As such, it does not appear in the
(Western) system of metaphysics. Insofar as the place of nothingness encompassesthe
metaphysics of Being, it is an ultimate universal under which all categories are subsumed.
On Nishidas personal writings, see Michiko Yusa, Fashion and
” and Nishida and the Question of
Monumenta Nipponica
46 (1991: 2), pp. 203-209, and Nishida and Totalitarianism: A Philosopher’s
Rude Awakenings.
Jan Van Bragt, Kyoto School Philosophy--Intrinsically Nationalist?in
Rude Awakenings
, pp. 233-254.
John Maraldo, The Problem of World Culture: Towards an Appropriation of Nishidas Philosophy of Nation and
Eastern Buddhist
27: (1995: 2), pp. 183-197.
Andrew Feenberg, The Problem of Modernity in the Philosophy of Nishida,in
Rude Awakenings,
pp. 151-173.
For the universalist implications of this aspect of Nishidas thought, see Shizuteru Ueda, Nishida, Nationalism,
and the War in Question” and Michiko Yusa, Nishida and Totalitarianism: A Philosopher’s Resistance,both in
Rude Awakenings
. The followers of the Kyoto School today generally agree on the defensive voice represented by
these essays.
For Nishidas theory of place,see his works from 1926-1937, primarily
NKZ 4-7
and other essays. In English,
see Feenberg,
Alternative Modernity,
Chapter 8; Masao Abe, Nishidas Philosophy of Place,
Philosophical Quarterly
28 (1988: 4), pp. 355-371; and Robert Wargo,
The Logic of Basho and the Concept of
Nothingness in the Philosophy of Nishida Kitaro
(Doctoral Dissertation, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan
UMI 73-11291, 1972).
Nishida applies his concept of absolute nothingness historically. At the ultimate
historical stage, absolute nothingness appears not as the goal of a temporal progression
ordered in terms of premodern to modern, but as a spatialized realization of all of cultures
in a global place.All cultures interact to create their own identity vis-a-vis each other in
his dialectical theory of the identity of contradictions.Nishida opposes the
undialectical” conception of national self-determination of 19th Century Western
imperialism: Each nation considered that its historical mission was to strengthen itself by
subjugating others.
He contrasts this view with his own dialectical formative
globalismwhich calls for the self-realization and self-transcendence of nations/peoples.
In this view, each nation develops itself, yet at the same time it must negate itself and
reach beyond itself to participate in building a global world.
Each nation must have a
world historical mission,which seeks the preservation of the identity of the nation
forms a global community through mutual co-determination and self-negation.
In this view, the West is not a privileged center of world culture, but just another
particular site in which certain forms of civilization developed. By spatializingglobal
history, that is, by treating the world as the place of nationshistorical co-determination
and self-transcendence, Nishida includes non-European spheres as full participants in the
realization of global history. All other cultures have different ways of participating in
world culture which are no less valid than the European forms. The new world order
therefore must involve all nations coming to a dialectical self-understanding in these global
terms, and the historical mission of Japan is to further that process. This theory is
postmodernto the extent that it destablizes the Eurocentric conception of history and
culture and makes each cultural formation and identity a matter of interaction and co-
determination rather than assuming essentialized entities.
If cultural identities are formed
i.e., through the identity of contradictions, then there cannot be any
centerwhich would dominate others. But if so, Japanese nationalism itself would be
In fact, Nishida explicitly opposed the ethnocentric and totalitarian interpretation
of the official policy. For example, he states,
What is most deplorable is to subjectivize Japan. That merely militarizes the
Imperial Way and transforms it into imperialism...In contrast we must contribute to
the world by discovering our own principle of self-formation in the depth of our
historical development; that principle is the identity of contradictions. This is the
authentic Imperial Way and the true meaning of Eight corners, one roof.
In The Principle of the New World Order,Nishida further states that Mere racialism,
which lacks true globalism and envisions the world only from its own self-centered
perspective, is ethnic egoism; only expansionism and imperialism can result from it.
These passages may indicate that he was distancing his own philosophical position from
state nationalist ideology.
12, p. 427. Arisaka p. 100.
12, p. 428. Arisaka p. 101.
For a “postmodernreading of Nishida, see Kojin Karatani, The Discursive Space of Modern Japanin
Japan in
the World,
M. Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), and Yujiro Nakamura,
Nishida Tetsugaku no Datsukochiku
(Deconstruction in/of Nishidas Philosophy), (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1993).
12, p. 341.
12, p. 432-433. Arisaka p. 104.
To explain Nishidas embarrasing references to such imperialist notions as
” and the Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, the defenders claim that Nishida used
the language of the day in the hopes that the political leaders would be influenced by his
own anti-imperialist interpretation of it.
Moreover, even with respect to Nishidas claim
(in particular the Imperial House [
]) offers the paradigm of cultural co-
determination (which contradicts his own no-centerview), the defenders argue that in
his theory the words Japanor the Imperial House” cannot refer to a
, a
being,since they represent his philosophical concept of absolute nothingness” as the
fieldor place” [
] in which all nations co-exist dialectically. In other words, Japan
one of these nations which interact, but in fact an empty scene” in which all others
work out their mutual existence. It is truly universalsince it is not in any sense a
particular; it enfolds all being. If so, Japanese nationalism is again impossible, since the
Imperial House is not an entitywhich could exert a force on others. The defenders thus
claim that Nishida was not a nationalist, neither as a person nor as a philosopher, since his
philosophy cannot theoretically accomodate nationalism. If every nation followed his
thought, no nation could fall into the sort of nationalism which embraces expansionism.
3. Nishida, Orientalism, and Postcolonialism
The notion of absolute nothingnessin the theory of place is conveniently invoked
to undercut the claim that the Japanese Imperial House is an entitywhich dominates the
rest of the world. Strange as this theory sounds today, the idea that a particular nation
may be the bearer of a universal principle, such as freedom or democracy, and that,
therefore, its actions in history serve a higher end, should be familiar from recent
American experience. However, leaving aside historical parallels, there is obviously a
problem with this theory given the
imperialist expansion of Japan into East Asia. I
would like to address this issue in the context of Nishidas orientalism” and its relation to
postcolonial critique.
Since its publication in 1978, Edward Saids
profoundly changed the
way the issues related to East and West” are discussed. Saids main thesis is that the
very category of the Orientwas a European invention produced in order to contain
in the era of colonial expansion. Either by way of rejection or exoticism, the
category Orientserved as a tool for Europeans to bring under control the hitherto
unknown otherof Europe; it is by definition a part of European imperialism. The
Orientwas a sweeping category applied to Asiatic cultures regardless of the differences
among them. So despite its apparent anti-Eurocentrism, boosting the Orient(and
likewise the East) is in fact very much parasitic on Eurocentrism, and the whole
framework only reinscribes the fact that the point of reference still remains Europe. What
is called for, in Saids view, is to put to rest these very categories: if it [his discussion]
eliminates the Orientand Occidentaltogether, then we shall have advanced a little in
the process of what Raymond Williams has called the unlearningof the inherent
dominative mode.
By contrast, in confronting the West Japan reverse-orientalized
For the discussions of Nishidas semantic struggle” with the official doctrine, see Ueda and Yusa above in
See Edward Said,
(New York: Routledge, 1978), pp. 1-28.
Said p. 28. For criticisms of Said, see Aijaz Ahmad,
In Theory
(New York: Verso, 1992).
itself in order to assert its identity as the other,thus retaining the Western reference
Seen from this perspective, Nishidas theory is orientalist in that he had a vision of
creating a Japanese” philosophy which would offer something unique to the world.
However, as we noted, what appealed to Nishida about philosophy was its ability to speak
a universal language. It was precisely against the backdrop of this philosophical
universalism that Nishida was able to assert the specificity of Japanese philosophy vis-a-vis
the West.
Yet, he wanted Japans contribution to share in the universality of Western
thought. He thus had to adopt the language of Western philosophy, precisely because
Japanese thought could not have been
by the West as of universal significance
if it did not speak their language.Given the choice between speaking a purely Japanese
philosophical language and being ignored” and speaking in a universal philosophical
language and being recognized,Nishida chose the latter.
Moreover, the very drive for universality which Nishida maintained throughout is
itself a product of the Western metaphysics which postmodernism criticizes so harshly.
The grand narrative” is the phantasmic child of modernism. According to this view,
Nishidas logic of place” is as Western as Hegels system, regardless of its non-
Westernflavor. But all this would have been fairly innocuous had it remained just a
theoretical issue. The problem is that Nishidas universalist theory became unintentionally
implicated in Japanese imperialism, thereby ominously betokening the most pernicious
aspect of Eurocentrism--the problem of colonialism. This is not to suggest that
colonialism is inherently European; but Japanese imperialism was certainly modelled after
and motivated by the modern colonial empires of the European nations (in particular the
British, French, and Dutch endeavors in Asia). What I would like to address is the
particular way in which Nishidas philosophy became entangled with this brand of
Recent studies in postcolonial critique have analyzed the relation between the
colonized consciousness and its oppressor, the European colonizing consciousness.
Postcolonial critique may be traced back to Frantz Fanons books,
Black Skin, White
(1952) and
The Wretched of the Earth
(1961), which thematized the ways in which
European imperialism systematically enslaved the culture and consciousness of the
colonized. But the full blown postcolonial critique began in 1982 with a group of Indian
intellectuals who established the journal,
Subaltern Studies
, and theorized their colonized
subjectivities vis-a-vis their colonizer, Great Britain.
Some of the main theoretical concerns of this group were to understand how the
colonizing power, despite its good intentionsof modernizing India,systematically
warped the thinking of the colonized sujects to the advantage of the imperialist
administration. The way this often worked was by convincing the colonized that, since
As Naoki Sakai observes, Japans uniqueness and identity are provided insofar as Japan stands out as a particular
object in the universal field of the West. Only when it is integrated into Western universalism does it gain its own
identity as a particularity...But this is nothing but the positioning of Japans identity in Western terms which in return
establishes the centrality of the West as the universal point of reference.Naoki Sakai, Modernity and Its Critique:
The Problem of Universalism and Particularismin
Postmodernism and Japan
, p. 105.
For a brief history of
Subaltern Studies,
see Chakrabarty, and also Gyan Prakash, Writing Post-Colonialist
Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography,
Comparative Studies in Society and History
32 (1990: 2)
: pp. 383-408.
modernity liberates nations and their peoples, the British ruled them for their own good.
Many Indians were convinced and began to see their own culture as backwards” and the
new” and Europeanform of life as better” and more cosmopolitan.The real power
of colonization is to achieve this willing participation by transforming the colonized
subjectsown point of reference from the native culture to the Western one. But what this
process did was to rob Indians of their own voice. The point of the critique, then, is to
save the subaltern,the oppressed subjects under British imperialism, by theoretically
empowering them, using Marxism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and an analysis of
power based on Foucault, exposing the ways in which their own thinking was
systematically subjugated by imperialism.
Postcolonialism opened a space in which to critique the hegemonic workings of the
colonizing power. However, current postcolonial studies primarily focus on the Indian or
African cases where the relation between the colonizer and the colonized more or less
overlaps with the West/non-West. The case is much more complex in East Asia: all of the
Asian nations were threatened by the imperialism of the West; within this solidarity vis-a-
vis the West, however, Japan became a colonizer itself; Korea, Taiwan, and other South
Asian nations were fully colonized by the Japanese, while China was partially colonized.
So colonized consciousnessin East Asia is not at all a unified experience, and is much
more conflicted than the colonized consciousness of India or Africa under Europe.
Korean and Taiwanese women in the 1940s, for instance, were triply oppressed by the
Japanese, by the West, and by those of their own men who became accomplices of the
imperialist power.
It is within this context that I would like to return to Nishidas philosophy of world
history and its claim to universality. Here we must look at the two positions Japan
occupied in the 1930s and 1940s. First there is Japans position vis-a-vis the West. While
Japan was never colonized by the West, the effect the West had on Japanese
consciousness resembles its effect on a colonized country. What is “Westernbecomes
the point of reference, even in the creation of an indigenous theory. As we noted,
Nishidas theory sought to validate the universality of all non-Western cultures against the
domination of the West. It was primarily intended to be a theory of liberation. But to
develop such an overarching theory, Nishida necessarily had to adopt Western philosophy,
thereby “WesternizingJapanese philosophy. In fact, with respect to human rights, some
sort of Westernizing universalism has been an essential vehicle in many nationssuccessful
struggle for decolonization. Nishidas cosmopolitan appreciation of the multiplicity of
cultures can be seen as emancipating in that light.
At the same time, Japan occupied a very different position vis-a-vis other nations
in East Asia. This is the problem: the very universalism which is presented as the vehicle
For representative thoughts on postcolonialism, see Homi Bhabhas T
he Location of Culture
(New York:
Routledge, 1994) and Gayatri Spivaks Can the Subaltern Speak?in
The Post-Colonial Reader
, B. G. Ashcroft
Griffiths and H. Tiffin, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1995). For a scathing criticism of postcolonialism in general, see
Russel Jacoby, Marginal Returns: The Trouble with Post-Colonial Theory,
Lingua Franca (September/October
, pp. 30-37.
The theme of colonialism and postcolonialism in East Asia has been the working project of Colonialism and
Modernity: The Cases of Korea, China, and Japan(spring 1995), sponsored by the University of California
Humanities Research Institute. I wish to thank the organizers and the members of this group who introduced me to
many of the ideas discussed in this paper.
of liberation became a tool of oppression when it was implicated in Japans own
colonizing endeavor in Asia. Just as European modernity was claimed to have liberating
power in India because it was believed to raise India to the level of universal (i.e.,
European) culture, so Nishida optimistically believed that Japanese philosophy could help
liberate Asian nations by raising them to universality. In Asia, Japan was the bearer of
truth,because of the unique non-dominating metaphysics of place as nothingness
expressed in the Imperial Way. This belief in theoretical universalism eclipsed the
understanding of Japans historically contingent position and made it impossible for
Nishida to evaluate Japans Asian war realistically. He himself did not endorse
colonialism, but his theory nevertheless
formally in a similar way to the way
European universalism was used to convince colonized subjects to submit to imperialism.
In fact, the ideologized slogan of Japanese imperialism was precisely to free Asia from
Western imperialism,while the reality was simply just another brutal colonialism. So
even though Nishida personally steered clear of the militarist regime, his theory was useful
to that regime to the extent that it replayed aspects of the universalist discourse of
Western imperialism.
The category of the East(or Asian unityin the language of the Japanese
imperialists) was pernicious precisely because it weakened the perception that Japan was a
colonizer, a brutal force
other Asian nations, in favor of promoting the perception
of unity vis-a-vis the West. Japan appointed itself to be the leader of this Asian unity,
since it was, again, the bearer of truth as well as being most modern.As Nishida claims,
Up to now, East Asian peoples have been oppressed under European imperialism
and regarded as colonies. We were robbed of our world-historical mission. It is
now time for East Asian peoples t