Monday, 7 April 2014

Introduction to Japanese Philosophy, Part 1: Background

In my last post, I shared my experiences of presenting at my first-ever academic conference, where I spoke about Japanese philosophy. This time, I'm going to try to recreate my presentation. In fact, since I don't have the same time constraints here, I'm actually going to expand a bit. But I'll still be mainly drawing on the handful of philosophy courses I took as an international student in Kyouto, one of which dealt specifically with Japanese philosophy. Oddly, though, it wasn't called “Japanese Philosophy.” Instead, it was called “History of Japanese Thought.” I think I have an idea why now, but to get it, you need to understand the Japanese conception of philosophy, and in order to understand that, you need to know a little bit about Japanese history.

Historical Background

Made by myself in MS Paint, hence why it looks so shitty
I've put up all these dates for those of you are interested in that sort of thing, but the main one to pay attention to is the 1603 one. If you study Japanese history in its entirety, I think you'll start to notice two main trends that tend to dominate it. One is “War and Peace;” the other is “Generals and Emperors.”

The first is exactly what it sounds like: Very long periods of bloodshed and carnage broken up by very long periods of relative peace. I do say “relative peace” because it's measured by the standards of the time. Heike Monogatari, a semi-historical period piece that takes place during the Heian Jidai (平安時代、the “Era of Peace and Safety,” 794-1185), at one point notes that its main character is a very strong leader because he's subjected his constituents to only two major wars over a period of ten years. The Heian Jidai was preceded by widespread civil war, and it dissolved into one as well.

The other factor concerns the intermittent struggles of the Emperor and the Shougun. When all is functioning as intended, the Emperor is the unquestionable autocrat, the Son of Heaven and lord of all he surveys, and the Shougun is his top general guy. But every once in a while, the military loses confidence in the Emperor for one reason or another, and stages a coup. When this happens they can't very well up and murder the Emperor, who is a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and still an embodiment of holiness even when deposed. So he goes into semi-exile and becomes kind of a figurehead, and the Shougun rules for a while as head of a kratocracy or military junta type deal. But the Imperial bloodline is still around, and eventually somebody decides it needs to be reintroduced to power.

This exchange happened a few times, notably in the aftermath of the Heian Jidai, which led into the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai or Warring States Period. Basically, the Fujiwara ended up acquiring so much power in the Imperial Court that they became bloated and fat, until finally the provincial warlords they were supposed to control got so pissed off that Japan just went and completely balkanized itself. So we ended up with several centuries of really gritty, State of Nature-type stuff, with constant rolling, local conflicts. It would be like if Manhattan went to war with the Bronx but then got sneak-attacked by Queens and was forced to forge a tenuous alliance with Brooklyn to overcome its enemies.

Oda Nobunaga
After a couple centuries of this, Oda Nobunaga finally came into the picture, and decided he'd had enough of this bullshit and was going to unify the country. And he came damn close, until he was betrayed by one of his lieutenants and overrun. So his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, finished the job, and then promptly died, so his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, stood up and said “Hey guys! Check it out! I totally just unified Japan!” So in 1603, he opened the Edo Jidai (Edo 江戸 being the old name for Toukyou, and which became the national seat of power and culture), which for the length of its run was ruled entirely under the aegis of the Tokugawa Bakufu (or “Shogunate,” if you're a fan of dumb, made-up words.) I'm hard on Tokugawa Ieyasu because he did a lot of idiotic things, like trying to conquer Korea, just for the hell of it, despite all of his best advisors explaining that he wouldn't be able to. But even I have to admit that he did, at least, bring a good three hundred years of relative peace to Japan, which was particularly valuable after what had come directly before.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Unfortunately for his legacy, there were two serious problems with the regime he put in place. The first was that it used a system of patrilineal succession, so, simply put, the reigning Shougun wasn't always the best man for the job. And without any serious pressures on them for much of the Edo Jidai, the Shougun and their Bakufu became increasingly complacent and ineffective, quite understandably arousing popular ire. The other big problem was that Japan then decided to totally close off the country and thereby preserve its pure, unique Japaneseness. This really came back to bite everybody in the ass when Admiral Perry rolled in with his Black Ships in 1858. He was all, “Hey, Japan! Open up or we rip you open!” And Japan was all, “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?” So Perry said, “Not so much an army as these ships and their shiny new cannon, which are capable of drowning your entire country in a sea of fire.” Then he fired a warning volley into the harbour to prove his point and Japan said “oh ok then.” And the Japanese never did anything xenophobic ever again.

So Japan opened up for trade, which, actually, was good for them, because they were at this point years and years and years behind the times. But it also demonstrated to the Japanese people that the Bakufu really was not doing its job anymore, if it couldn't even protect them from the foreign dogs, so there was a surprisingly brief civil war, which ended in 15-year-old Emperor Meiji (明治) being installed as formal ruler. It was a fascinating little spell that included the Shinsengumi, and one day I swear I'm doing a whole post on them, but not today. The main point is that in 1868, the Meiji Jidai began.

Meiji Jidai

Emperor Meiji. Man had concubines
Emperor Meiji is one of my favourite Japanese Emperors, not for his warmongering, but definitely for a lot of the other stuff he did for Japan (certainly more than Emperor Shouwa, who was basically a puppet of Shougun Toujo, but anyway). The Meiji government recognized that Japan had been left behind and immediately set about trying to rectify their predecessors' lack of foresight and worldliness, so scholars began to voraciously consume every foreign book, scroll, and handwritten note they could get their hands on. If it was from abroad, they wanted it, especially if it was from the West, which had so decisively demonstrated its technological superiority just recently.

So they started to bring in new ideas on all manner of topics. New ideas about, say, architecture, which is why so many Japanese buildings from this period look like they've been plucked directly out of Victorian England. Some Japanese began regularly wearing Western clothing – still mostly limited to the political and business elite, but it was starting. They began to implement new ideas about governance, and economic policy. Modern medicine was a huge revelation. And they also stated importing more academic, intellectual topics as well, including Western philosophy.

The Japanese word for philosophy is 哲学 tetsugaku. The gaku means “studying,” and is similar to the -logy in biology or psychology. The tetsu means “clarity” (or nowadays can just mean “philosophy” by itself), so if you want to think of “tetsugaku” as meaning “the study of clarity,” you can see how this tracks with our Western understanding of philosophy or the “love of wisdom” as being a search for truth. This word tetsugaku didn't exist until the Meiji Jidai, when a guy came up with it to describe this new Western idea. In fact, he wasn't sure there was even such a thing as “Japanese philosophy,” because anything that resembles it falls more under the category of religion. Personally, I think this misses the point. Not only do plenty of Western philosophers come from a heavily religious perspective (Descartes, Locke) or deal with religious topics (Pascal, Aquinas), but there's a lot of overlap between the two; metaphysics and morality, for example. He's right about at least one thing, though: Most of Japanese philosophy is based in religion.

Shintou and Buddhism

Japan, I'm assuming most of you know, has two main religions. The cool part, to me, is how they interact; that is, they are completely compatible. The majority of Japanese are utter atheists, but they nominally participate in both Shintou and Buddhist activities as the mood strikes them. Most festivals are in honour of the local deity, for instance (and are also awesome). The saying in Japan is that your birth rites are performed at a Shintou shrine, your marriage rites are performed at a Christian church, and your funeral rites are performed at a Buddhist temple. And all the while, most don't actually believe in any of it, so that should tell you something about the unusual relationship the Japanese have with religion.

Shintou 神道 or the Way of the Gods is Japan's native religion, and, like testugaku, didn't even have a name until a foreign influence necessitated one. The core of Shintou is that the world is inhabited by many many many many many many many many gods, called kami. Here's a picture of the pantheon of the most powerful, all gazing upon Amaterasu, who was the greatest of all and maybe a lesbian. Also, she may have been based on Queen Himiko and had the legend distorted over the millennia. Underneath the big dogs we have somewhat lesser gods, like the ones who govern the cosmos and natural forces, many of whom have been mixed up with what were originally Buddhist figures because of that continual cross-pollination. And then there are gods who live in immense ancient trees, or in rivers, or are enshrined. Particularly great human beings can even become gods; the Emperor does upon his death. And inanimate objects can eventually take on gods over time, gaining character and personality. So if you've ever had like a really old, shitty car, and it refuses to start when you're late for work, and you say, “Gah, my car hates me!” - well, yeah! Maybe! Or if you, you know, like to hurl verbal abuse at your computer? Like, “Come oooon! Work, you piece of junk!” You know, like it could work anytime it wanted to, it's just a little lacking in motivation? Then you might make a good Shintou.

Buddhism (仏教 bukkyou), like so many things, arrived in Japan from elsewhere and was repurposed for Japanese palates. This is just my own observation, but as far as I can tell, the Japanese understanding is that Buddhism was born in India; developed in China; and then finally perfected in Japan. So only once we're in Japan are we getting the real, true and best incarnation of Buddhism. In fact there's a particular sect that basically says, “We are the truest and most pure form of Buddhism because we are the only sect that uses the wisdom of this particular scroll, which was written by this one Buddhist master. All those other versions of Buddhism are ok, they're not wrong, but they're not quite as good as ours, because we have harvested and implemented this important knowledge.” And that always kind of makes me laugh when I think about it, because it's not like Buddha himself came down from on high and personally imparted all this shit he'd forgotten to mention earlier! Buddha had already been dead for thousands of years by the time your guy even put pen to paper! But those are their beliefs, and I have to say that it's kind of very Japanese.


To me, Shintou is the much more fun of the two religions. Its places of worship are colourful rather than austere; it's all about living, partying, fucking. Buddhism is about tragedy and asceticism. But for some reason, Shintou philosophy just hasn't gotten the traction that Buddhism has. There are Shintou philosophers, their works are extant, and they've written on topics both secular and specifically relating to Shintou issues, but they're just not anywhere near as read as their Buddhist counterparts. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I would say it might have to do with the nature of their thought. Buddhism encourages interpretation and consideration, while Shintou is more doctrinaire and dictatorial. Shintou, after all, is the Way of the Gods; you don't question that shit. But much of Buddhism requires you to look inward and find answers for yourself. That's much more conducive to the study of philosophy. Either way, most of the stuff I'm going to talk about in the next post is going to be dealing with Buddhist philosophy in particular. Please look forward to it.

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