The Japanese Philosophy Blog

News and discussion of ancient and modern Japanese philosophy

January Roundup

Between going home for the holidays and getting back into the groove of teaching, it’s been over a month since I’ve posted anything here. I’m sorry for the delay, but here’s a bunch of links to recent goings on to make up for it.



Yasuoka Masahiro’s ‘New Discourse on Bushidō Philosophy’: Cultivating Samurai Spirit and Men of Character for Imperial Japan by Roger H. Brown

This essay considers the bushidō (Way of the Warrior) discourse of the nationalist ideologue and theorist of Tōyō shisō (Oriental thought) Yasuoka Masahiro (1898–1983). As part of his Confucian nationalist perspective on jinkakushugi (‘personalism’), Yasuoka propagated self-cultivation that would enable Japanese to resist the supposedly debilitating effects of materialist ideologies and effete urban living upon their personalities. Relying on Tokugawa-era reflections on the bushi (warriors), late Meiji musings on bushidō and budō (‘martial arts’) and modern idealist responses to materialism, he exhorted Japanese men to embrace a self-sacrificial ‘samurai spirit’ and to act as exemplary ‘men of character’ (jinkakusha) loyal to the emperor-centered state. Articulated during the advent of universal male suffrage, Yasuoka’s bushidō discourse not only revealed the obvious expectations of wartime service to the empire but also expressed elite anxiety over the prospect of mass political participation in an age of radical ideologies. Concern for political stability was also prominent in his insistence that these enfranchised public men be supported by disenfranchised housebound women living a feminine analog to bushidō. Examining what Yasuoka called his ‘new discourse on bushidō philosophy’ (bushidō tetsugaku shinron) thus sheds considerable light on the modern reproduction and political implications of bushidō as national ideology, as masculine ideal, and as part of the pervasive prewar discussion of self-cultivation.


Comic Theory and Perceptions of a Disappearing Self by Mark Weeks doesn’t have an abstract but it’s fun topic: the effect of shifting theories of humor on the jokiness of Buddhism.


Finally, there several articles of possible interest in Vol. 2, No. 2 of Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory:

  • “Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn” by Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita
  • “Acting with things: Self-poiesis, actuality, and contingency in the formation of divine worlds” by Miho Ishii
  • “An interview with Naoki Kasuga” by Casper Bruun Jensen



Via No Sword comes the news that JSTOR’s new Register and Read program allows those without an institutional affiliation to read articles from a number of sources, including

  • Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
  • Japan Review
  • Japanese Journal of Religious Studies
  • Japanese Language and Literature
  • Journal of Japanese Studies
  • Monumenta Nipponica

Be sure to check it out.

And remember to keep reading the University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy blog, which had several good reports over the break.



Icons and Iconoclasm in Japanese Buddhism: Kukai and Dogen on the Art of Enlightenment by Pamela D. Winfield:

Does imagery help or hinder the enlightenment experience? Does awakening involve the imagination or not? Can art ever fully represent the realization of buddahood? In this study, Pamela D. Winfield offers a fascinating comparison of two pre-modern Japanese Buddhist masters and their views on the role of imagery in the enlightenment experience. Kukai (774-835) believed that real and imagined forms were indispensable to his new esoteric Mikkyō method for “becoming a Buddha in this very body” (sokushin jobutsu), yet he also deconstructed the significance of such imagery in his poetic and doctrinal works. Conversely, Dogen (1200-1253) believed that “just sitting” in Zen meditation without any visual props or mental elaborations could lead one to realize that “this very mind is Buddha” (sokushin zebutsu), but he also privileged select Zen icons as worthy of veneration. In considering the nuanced views of both Kukai and Dogen anew, Winfield updates previous comparisons of their oeuvres and engages their texts and images together for the first time. In so doing, she liberates them from past sectarian scholarship that has pigeon-holed them into iconographic/ritual vs. philological/philosophical categories. She also restores the historical symbiosis between religious thought and artistic expression that was lost in the nineteenth-century disciplinary distinction between religious studies and art history. Finally, Winfield breaks new methodological ground by proposing space and time as organizing principles for analyzing both meditative experience and visual/material culture. As a result, this study presents a wider and deeper vision of how Japanese Buddhists themselves understood the role of imagery before, during, and after awakening.


Embodied Selves, edited by Stella Gonzalez-Arnal, Gill Jagger, and Kathleen Lennon:

This interdisciplinary collection explores the role the body plays in constituting our sense of self, signaling the interplay between material embodiment, social meaning, and material and social conditions. Collectively the papers draw attention to aspects of embodiment which are not always centre stage in other debates, particularly issues of bodily vulnerability. They make clear, in considering the relation of bodies and selves, that more is at stake than social identity categories; but that what is at stake is, nonetheless, an inter-subjective making of the self. Utilizing theoretical and biographical material, key strands of contemporary thought are brought into conversation: the new materialism, poststructuralism and, importantly, phenomenology. The consequences for an embodied ethics and a corporeal political theory are considered. There is a substantial and accessible introduction placing the papers in the context of contemporary debates. Collectively, the volume marks a major development in philosophical and critical accounts of embodiment.


Theses and Dissertations:

“Coming of Age in the Box: Social Function and Japanese Karaoke” by Donovan Reuel Perry:

Karaoke in Japan is all too often overlooked as simply being a leisure activity. Even the scholarly work that has looked at karaoke in various terms has usually been limited to topics such as communication, social class and individualism versus collectivism. A structural-functionalist approach is utilized in analyzing the karaoke box in terms of the social function that the box provides, and is complemented by the use of the theories of socialization and dramaturgy. Though the karaoke box is emphasized, different karaoke spaces are also examined in terms of the age and sex of frequenters. The result is that the karaoke box aids in the transition from youth to adulthood in various ways, which is a large part of the social function that the karaoke box provides in Japanese society. This and other social functions of the karaoke box is demonstrated through academic research, participant observation and casual interviews.


“Maiden’s Fashion as Eternal Becomings: Victorian Maidens and Sugar Sweet Cuties Donning Japanese Street Fashion in Japan and North America” (PDF) by An Nguyen

Lolita fashion is a youth street style originating from Japan that draws on Victorian-era children’s clothing, Rococo aesthetics, and Western Punk and Gothic subculture. It is worn by teenage girls and women of a wide range of ages, and through the flow of related media and clothing aided by the Internet, Lolita style has become a global phenomenon. Wearers of the style are known as Lolitas, and local, national, and global communities can be found around the world outside Japan from North American to Europe. This study is a cross-cultural comparison of Lolita fashion wearers in Japan and North America, examining how differences in constructions of place and space; conceptualizations about girlhood and womanhood; perceptions of beauty and aesthetics; and formation of social groups and actor-networks have bearing on how an individual experiences the fashion. This work deconstructs Lolita style by using Japanese cultural concepts like shōjo (‘girl’ as a genderless being), otome (maiden), kawaii (cuteness) to explore the underlying framework that informs Japanese Lolita’s use of the fashion as a form of subversive rebellion, creating personal spaces to celebrate their individuality and revive the affects and memories of girlhood that are distanced from gendered social expectations. English-speakers, not having the same social and cultural knowledge, attempt to recontexualize Lolita fashion along the lines of feminism, sisterhood, personal style, and escape from the ‘modern’ to give meaning and purpose to their involvement with the fashion. Lolita fashion allows wearers to travel in between the lines of becoming-girl and becoming-women by offering a way to access girl-feeling and its associated happiness objects.


“A Disagreement of Being, A Critique of Life and Vitality in the Meiji Era” by Sean Koji Callaghan

My dissertation involves a critique of the concept of life or seimei as it emerged in modern use during the Meiji era (1868-1912). Specifically, I have outlined the conditions of possibility for thinking seimei at particular moments in the development of the modern, market-centered Japanese nation-state in historical and literary terms such that I can begin to use these conditions to think its impossibilities. In short, I argue that a central condition of possibility for thinking life in its modern, historical form is a process of individuation that takes hold of and shapes bodies at an ontological level. By critiquing life and its ontology of individuation, I unearth the traces of an impossible “apriori collectivism” - that is, a collectivism not merely reducible to a congregation of individuals, but originally collective – buried under the calls for individual freedom, self-help, and industrialization that were at the heart of the Meiji era’s modernization project. I track this apriori collectivism in a lineage relating (through non-relation) the mutual aid societies or mujin-kô of the Edo period to the life insurance industry of the Meiji 10s and 20s. I then use this material history of life as backdrop to my study of the literary trends in the latter decades of the Meiji era, and end with a consideration of the political and aesthetic implications seimei has for thought by taking up a study of Iwano Hômei’s Shinpiteki hanjûshugi (Mystical Demi-animalism).


And while I’m at it, I suppose I should link to…

“Watsuji Tetsurō and The Subject of Aesthetics” (PDF) by Carl M. Johnson (me):

A central question in aesthetics is whether aesthetic judgment is subjective or objective. Existing approaches to answering this question have been unsatisfying because they begin with the assumption of an individual observer that must then be communalized through the introduction of a transcendent object or the transcendental reason of the subject.

Rather than introduce a vertical transcendence to account for the ideal observer, I propose an alternative account based on the anthropology of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō. According to Watsuji, human existence is a movement of double negation whereby we negate our emptiness in order to individuate ourselves and we negate our individuality in order to form communal wholes. Human beings are empty of independent existence, and thus open to create ideal aesthetic subjects in historically and regionally situated communal contexts.

I propose an account of aesthetic experience as a double negation in which we negate our surroundings in order to create a sense of psychical distance and negate our ordinary selves in order to dissolve into the background of primordial unity. I examine aesthetic normativity and find that the subject of aesthetics is active and plural rather than passive and individual. Aesthetic judgment and taste are, respectively, individual and communal moments in the process of double negation. Artistic evolution is a process by which the context of artist, artwork, and audience develop into a meaningful historical milieu. Genius is the ability to make public one’s private values through the creation of objects that can travel beyond their original contexts and create new contexts around them. Such an ability is the result of a double negation played out between the genius and critical receptivity.

Extended examples taken from Noh theater, Japanese linked verse, tea ceremony, and The Tale of Genji are also used to illustrate my arguments.