The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy

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Michiko Yusa
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The editor of the present volume, Michiko Yusa, demonstrates her astute historical awareness when she describes the recent “watershed for the field of Japanese Philosophy” as the general context in which this text is put together for contemporary readers (1). Indeed, since the publication of Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Editors James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis, and John C. Maraldo, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011), there has been a tremendous increase in the number of scholarly associations dedicated to the study of Japanese philosophy. More than a few international conferences and research workshops have been serialized for a continuous cross-cultural study of Japanese philosophical texts. We are witnessing an unprecedented upsurge in the quantity of publications aiming to shed light on various topics pertaining to the works of premodern and modern Japanese thinkers. What is more remarkable is that these publications are far from exhausting this source of philosophical thinking. Instead, they have succeeded in showing how many more corners of the tradition we have yet to explore both as scholars and philosophers. The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy is not only a perfect representation of the dynamic development in this discipline, but it is also a foundational work for our future investigations into knowledge and wisdom available in the works of Japanese philosophers. 

As an anthology, this volume covers various topics extending from “Phenomenology in Japan” to “Philosophical Dialogue on Gender and Life.” As is often the case with many concepts in East Asian intellectual traditions, the porosity between different subject areas in contemporary Japanese philosophy is quite prominent. I encourage readers to extend their philosophic search beyond the confines of their specializations, and would like to address here the following two essays: Ching-yuen Cheung, “In the Wake of 3.11 Earthquake: Philosophy of Disaster and Pilgrimage (133–50); and Bret Davis, “Encountering in Emptiness: The I-Thou Relation in Nishitani Keiji’s Philosophy of Zen” (231–54).  

Cheung’s article reflects on the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami as a radical shift in the grand narrative of contemporary Japanese history. It has liquidated any residual confidence in the “self” (whether it is described in terms of Enlightenment self-knowledge or Post-Enlightenment autonomy) as the foundation of philosophical thinking. If we are to do philosophy after the Tōhoku event, we must face the reality of this great disaster, which calls us to question what philosophy (or philosophers) can do in face of irreversible destructions that both natural and human disasters have inflicted on us. With vivid personal anecdotes and rich textual references, Cheung argues that contemporary philosophy, if it is to be philosophical at all, will have to give a kind of “philosophy of pilgrimage” (140), reaching out to the places of destruction and to victims of disasters in such a way that the philosophers’ reflections on the ground zero of human despair are accompanied with practical actions. Pilgrimage is a “way to reconnect the past with the present” (143), a way of philosophizing that prevents us from reconstructing a reality free of inconvenient truths about our existence as humans in nature. This chapter gives an authentic reflection on the present condition of human existence in contemporary Japan and suggests a promising overlap between the philosophy of religion and pilgrimage studies in the future. 

Bret Davis’s “Encountering in Emptiness” is an addition to the list of his achievements. It illustrates a concise and comprehensive picture of the I-Thou relation in Nishitani’s works and its findings have a crucial relevance to a key question concerning the philosophy of religion in the works of other Kyoto School thinkers such as Nishida Kitarō and Tanabe Hajime: that is, the question of “(inter-)mediation” between self and other. How can a single individual claim its irreducible singularity while maintaining its codependence with other individuals? How can we mediate one relative term with another without reducing them to a whole web of their inter-relations as the absolute? What transcends these relative terms as the absolute and does this notion of the ultimate introduce a dualism? Davis’s formulation of these questions and his answers to them is a bit more nuanced in reference to Nishitani’s works. But if I may roughly outline them, it paints the kenotic “field of emptiness” as the ultimate ground in which self and other are can freely intermediate with each other. The overdeterminate field is irreducible to any of the ontic, relative terms as self and other; and only in that sense, it represents a kind of transcendence. However, since it is only found in the abyss of one’s self-contemplation, it is always already at work in immanence, thereby signaling a non-dual “trans-descendence” (234) that is both foundational for and irreducible to the I-Thou relation in immanence. Lastly, this field of emptiness embodies the “absolute negation of self-love” (241) and because of that, both self and other are called to practice an act of compassion. Only in this way can the I-Thou relation manifest its full promise as “a harmonious and complementary competition between individual forms of life” (242). 

Davis’s interpretation of Nishitani is quite thorough in relation to the works of Nishitani. However, precisely because it is bound into a single book with Cheung’s reflection on contemporary Japan, I cannot help but generate a new set of questions for these contributors. For instance, can the I-Thou relation be extended to the relation of humans and nature? As Tosaka Jun once asked during his lectures on contemporary philosophy in the 1930s and James Heisig more recently did with the term “missing basho,” can the field of emptiness be found on the side of nature as the noema rather than the self-thinking noesis of the subject? Finally, how do we account for the natural disaster that seems to rob us of the I-Thou relation? Cheung refers to an incidence where an altruistic deed of a couple for an elderly neighbor robbed the husband of his wife and the neighbor during the tsunami. How can we reconcile this cold destruction at the end of a compassionate act as a “celebration of complementary diversity by way of playful competition” or Hakuin’s beautiful image, “flowers competing with their reds and purples in the spring warmth” (242)? I am aware that these questions are not a fair criticism of these chapters, but the authors will have to answer them in the future if they claim their arguments to be right in reference to historical reality. Given that a reader is left with more questions than answers, this is an excellent philosophical book. I highly recommend it and hope that more readers will join our constructive discussions in the field of Japanese philosophy. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Takeshi Morisato is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Centre for East Asian Studies at Universitè libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michiko Yusa is professor of Japanese thought and intercultural philosophy, department of modern & classical languages & the Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University.



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