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Japanese Philosophy

Introduction | History and Major Schools | Modern Era
Introduction Back to Top

Japanese Philosophy has historically been a fusion of both foreign (particularly Chinese and Western) and uniquely Japanese elements.

In its literary forms, Japanese philosophy began about fourteen centuries ago. Confucianism entered Japan from China around the 5th Century A.D., as did Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism became most prominent in Japan in the 16th Century. Also since the 16th Century, certain indigenous ideas of loyalty and honor developed within the Japanese samurai or warrior class were integrated. Western philosophy has had its major impact in Japan only since the middle of the 19th Century.

However, in all of these cases, the philosophies were not imported wholesale; rather, they were adapted, and selectively adopted.

History and Major Schools Back to Top

Shinto is the native religion of Japan and, up until the Second World War, its state religion. It is a type of polytheistic animism, and involves the worship of kami (or spirits). It can be traced back to the earliest natives of Japan, although it was significantly modified by the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th Century. Shinto has no binding set of dogma, and the most important elements are a great love and reverence for nature in all its forms, respect for tradition and the family, physical cleanliness and matsuri (or festivals dedicated to the kami). Shinto is not a philosophy as such, but has greatly influenced all other philosophies in their Japanese interpretations.

Buddhism definitively entered Japan (from its native India, via China and Korea) in A.D. 550. Each major period after that - the Nara period (up to 784), the Heian period (7941185) and the post-Heian period (1185 onwards) - saw the introduction of new doctrines and upheavals in existing schools. The three main schools of Japanese Buddhism are:

  • Zen Buddhism:
    Zen, as a distinct school of Buddhism, was first documented in China in the 7th Century A.D., where it was established as an amalgamation of various currents in Indian Mahayana Buddhist thought. It subsequently spread southwards to Vietnam and eastwards to Korea and then Japan. Although the Japanese had known Zen-like practices for centuries (Taoism and Shinto), it was not introduced as a separate school until the 12th Century. It asserts that all sentient beings possess a Buddha-nature, a nature of inherent wisdom and virtue, which lies hidden in the depths of their minds. Zen practitioners attempt to discover this Buddha-nature within themselves, through meditation and mindfulness of daily experiences. Zen sitting meditation, (such as the lotus, half-lotus, Burmese or seiza postures) is known as zazen. The schools of Zen that currently exist in Japan are Soto (largest), Rinzai (split into several sub-schools) and Obaku (smallest).
  • Pure Land (or Amidist) Buddhism:
    Pure Land is a broad branch of Mahayana Buddhism and currently one of the most popular schools of Buddhism in East Asia, along with Zen. It is a devotional or "faith"-oriented branch of Buddhism focused on Amitabha Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that through devotion to just Amitabha, one will be reborn in the Pure Land in which enlightenment is guaranteed. In medieval Japan it was also popular among those on the outskirts of society, such as prostitutes and social outcasts, who were often denied spiritual services by society but could still find some form of religious practice through worshipping Amitabha.
  • Nichiren Buddhism:
    Nichiren Buddhism is a branch of Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th Century Japanese monk Nichiren (12221282). It focuses on the Lotus Sutra and an attendant belief that all people have an innate Buddha-nature and are therefore inherently capable of attaining enlightenment in their current form and present lifetime. It was particularly popular among the merchants of Kyoto in Japan's Middle Ages, and among some ultranationalists during the pre-World War II era, and has something of a reputation for missionary zeal and strident pushes to convert others.

Two other religions that were brought into Japan from mainland China are Confucianism and Taoism. According to early Japanese writings, Confucianism was introduced to Japan via Korea in the year 285 A.D. Some of the most important Confucian principles are humanity, loyalty, morality and consideration on an individual and political level. Taoism spread to Japan in the 7th century. For more than 1,000 years, these religions have had a significant impact on Japan's society. The rules of Confucianism in particular have had major influence on ethical and political philosophy, especially during the 6th to 9th Centuries and later after Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Modern Era Back to Top

Later, Chinese Neo-Confucianism also made its way into Japan, where it became ascendant during the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603 - 1868). Japanese Neo-Confucians such as Hayashi Razan and Arai Hakuseki were instrumental in the formulation of Japan's dominant early modern political philosophy.

Kokugaku was a school of Japanese philology (the study of ancient literature and the origins of language) and philosophy originating during the Edo period. Kokugaku scholars tended to relativize the study of Chinese and Buddhist texts and favored philological research into the early Japanese classics.

Mitogaku refers to a 17th Century school of Japanese historical and Shinto studies, originally commissioned to compile the History of Great Japan in a Neo-Confucianist context, based on the view that historical development followed moral laws. Around the end of the 18th Century, Mitogaku expanded its remit to address contemporary social and political issues, based on Confucianist and kokugaku thought, and eventually became one of the driving forces behind the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The Kyoto School is the name given to a 20th Century Japanese philosophical movement centered at Kyoto University that assimilated Western philosophy and religious ideas and used them to reformulate religious and moral insights unique to the East Asian cultural tradition.

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