A Brief History of Japanese Philosophy: 日本の哲学の歴史

The nation of Japan is a fascinating place and has been the focus of the majority of my research interests (Zen Buddhism, gagaku/nogaku music, aesthetics, Shingon Buddhist chant, and so on). Thus, when discussing Japanese aesthetic influence on creativity, it is important to consider the larger view of Japanese thought throughout time as it led up to the (Meiji Era) national discussion of what is “Japanese.” Thus, the following is a general timeline of Japanese philosophy beginning with Prince Shotoku’s 6th century creation of a (rudimentary) National Constitution – and the subsequent promotion of Buddhism as a national faith – as a shorthand guide for students of Asian Studies and/or Eastern philosophy. Each entry is simplified with the intent of encouraging you to look into their lives further, and come to know these amazing people.

PRECURSORS (India/China)

Vedas (c.1500–500 BCE): set of ancient Indian hymns by unknown authors, which eventually became the basis of Hinduism.

The I – Ching (c.1000 BCE): Chinese Divination manual; the individual hexagrams represent the various influences and relevant movements of the cosmos.

The Upanishads (c. 600 BCE): Indian theoretical texts that form the foundation of Hinduism: Salvation is attained by knowledge of/union with the Absolute (that which is beyond space, time, causality, and categories) principle of the Universe (brahman) rather than through the rituals of the Vedas.

Carvaka (c. 500 BCE); School of Indian thought that posited consciousness was a result of the materials coming together to create the body, thus no afterlife or gods. The Vedic scriptures were incoherent hymns written by idiots.

Siddartha Gautama (563 – 483 BCE): known as “the” Buddha, created Fourfold Path to Enlightenment (life living without suffering, which is different from the concept of pain).

The Bhagavad Gita (c. 500 BCE): authored by Vyasa, part of the epic Mahabharata Epic. Dialogue between Arjuna the Warrior and Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu; Man achieves his highest good by doing his duty (dharma) for its own sake, not for personal gain.

Confucius (551 – 479 BCE): Human nature is neither good nor bad at birth. Human heartedness – “Ren” = the highest virtue and ultimate goal of education. The path to ren is the practice of virtuous social norms – “li”, thus education is a preparation of the individual to create and sustain a peaceful, ordered society.

Lao Tzu (c. 500 BCE): Everything in the Universe follows certain indefinable patterns and processes (Dao, the universal “Way”. “Te” (virtue) emerges when one follows the Dao naturally (wu-wei).

Mencius (371 – 289 BCE): Human nature is originally good; righteousness (yi) and human-heartedness (ren) are the utmost virtues. Everyone can become an actual sage with the proper training.

Kung-sun Lung (320 – 250 BCE): philosopher of language, “a white horse is not a horse, since horse denotes form/white denotes color – ergo – what denotes color does not denote form”, “one and one cannot become two since neither becomes two.”

Patanjali (c. 150 BCE – p. 400 CE): Formulated the main teachings of the Yogic tradition(s) of mind/breath/body cultivation.

Nāgārjuna (c.100 – 200CE): Buddhist logician: creator of the Tetralemma Argument – “rational” thought is demonstrably incoherent and irrational, as language is self-referential.

Vasubandhu (c. 400 CE): Indian Buddhist philosopher; external objects do not exist, all phenomena occur within consciousness.

Bodhidharma (c.500 CE): legendary (fictitious) Indian Buddhist monk that brought the dyana (meditationtradition to China that eventually evolved into Zen Buddhism. The First “Patriarch” of Zen Buddhism.

Hui-neng (638 – 715 CE): Last patriarch of Chinese Zen, his Platform Sutra a major influence on later Japanese Zen. No-mind (mushin)/Emptiness is our original state, meditation reveals this state.


Shotoku Taishi (574 – 622 CE): Japanese Crown Prince; promoted Buddhism (Chinese Mahayana).

Kūkai (774 – 835 CE): Founder of (esoteric Vajrayana) Shingon Buddhism in Japan at Mt. Koyasan.

Genshin (942 – 1017 CE): Tendai monk; meditation on Amida along with recitation of his name (nembutsu) ensures birth into the Pure Land.

Honen (1133 – 1212 CE): Founder of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect.

Jichin (1155 – 1225 CE): Tendai poet/monk; History can be understood by reference to the Buddhist notion of the (declining) Latter Days Of The Law (mappō) and fixed by the intervention of the Shinto gods.

Myōe (1173 – 1232 CE): Kegon/Shingon monk. Moral action is a means for gaining enlightenment, as meditation is too hard for the layperson.

Shinran (1173 – 1263 CE): Once one not only says the nembutsu BUT entrusts oneself to the salvation of Amida (shinjin) as well, birth in the Pure Land is guaranteed.

Dōgen (1200 – 1253 CE): Founder of the Sōtō Zen sect. The practice of meditation (zazen) and Enlightenment are one and the same thing.

Nichiren (1222 – 1282 CE): The Lotus Sutra contains the highest truth of the Buddha, and the mere recitation of its title is sufficient religious practice.

Ippen (1239 – 1289 CE): Rebirth into the Pure Land is experienced not only in the afterlife, but also in this life for the duration of every recitation of the nembutsu.

Kenkō Yoshida (1283 – 1350 CE): Buddhist monk who wrote the free form work (zuihitsu) the Tsurezuregusa (“Essays in Idleness”).

Chikafusa Kitabake (1293 – 1354 CE): The ideal government is an oligarchy of courtiers ruling in the name of a non-acting Emperor.

Seika Fujiwara (1561 – 1619 CE): Scholar of Kyoto Zhu Xi School of Neo-Confucianism: Buddhism is false, contrary to the daily concerns of the Japanese, and must be rejected.

Shōsan Suzuki (1579 – 1655 CE): Samurai-turned-Zen monk. Daily work is a type of religious practice leading to Salvation.

Razan Hayashi (1583 – 1657 CE): Advisor to the Shōguns, scholar of Kyoto School of Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism; Divine retribution (tembatsu) occurs when the Neo-Confucian principles are transgressed.

Tōju Nakae (1608 – 1648 CE): Founder of Wang yang-ming Neo-Confucian School in Japan. Innate knowledge is the key to wisdom and virtue.

Ansai Yamazaki (1618 – 1682 CE): Founder of the Shikoku School of Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism – Reverence (and practicing virtues) is the central value of all human relationships and activities.

Sokō Yamaga (1622 – 1685 CE): The purpose of the warrior is to exemplify the virtue of duty to the rest of society.

Jinsai Itō (1627 – 1705 CE): The correct Way is the moral cultivation of the individual, the Way of Man (not Heaven or Nature). Humanity is worked out through social action, not character development.

Ekken Kaibara (1630 – 1713 CE): Confucian scholar; Benevolence is the Cardinal Virtue, and filial piety should be extended to the whole of Nature.

Sorai Ogyū (1666 – 1728 CE): The proper Way is the Way of the ancient Sage-Kings of China (government), and has nothing to do with the Dao. To realize one’s full human potential is to assist in the proper government of the land based on one’s talents and place in society.

Norinaga Motoori (1730 – 1801 CE): National Learning scholar (Kokugaku), which reclaimed Japan’s spiritual past from the interpretive frames of Buddhism and Confucian. Authentic human life is in feeling and expressing mono no aware (the melancholy of understanding the impermanence of life).

Atsutane Hirata (1776 – 1843 CE): Kokugaku scholar; led the “Return to Antiquity” Shinto School (Fukko Shintō) which sought to rid Shinto of Buddhist and Confucian influence. Family duty and daily work is the proper expression of the ancient way, not mono no aware.

Amane Nishi (1829 – 1897 CE): The Father of Western Philosophy in Japan. Introduced Western philosophy and especially, the idea of ‘aesthetics’ to Japan via a lecture series entitled Bimyōgaku Setsu (The Theory of Aesthetics, 1877).

Kitarō Nishida (1870 – 1945 CE): Zen practitioner who tried to reconcile Zen with Western philosophy. “Pure” experience equals knowing facts as they are.

D.T.  Suzuki (1870 – 1966 CE):  Buddhist scholar and member of the Kyoto School of philosophy who lectured on Buddhism in the West, and was highly influential in the (mis) interpretation of Zen in Western philosophy and aesthetics. His work, once considered canonical to Buddhist studies in the West has come under great scrutiny in the 21st century and has been proven to be controversial, if not in error.

Hajime Tanabe (1885 – 1962 CE): Philosophy has no essential social/moral responsibility; rather it is a process of relating to our deepest state of being.

Junichirō Tanizaki (1886 – 1965 CE): In Praise of Shadows (1933), modernism is bright and garish, whereas the aesthetics of Japan are of shadows and subtlety, the patina of age vs. the Western model of newness. Critique of Western values through aesthetics; Western Modernism is bright and ugly.

Kuki Shūzō (1888 – 1941 CE):    Philosopher (and Catholic), author of The Structure of Iki (1930) which analyzed social chic in the Tokugawa Era. Iki (chic); a more direct manner of behavior and taste that contrasted the ethereal transcendence and ephemerality of Zen/warrior class aesthetics.

Sōetsu Yanagi (1889 – 1961 CE): Founder of the Mingei (folk crafts) Movement, discovering beauty in ordinary, utilitarian folk objects, especially Korean. Yanagi’s theories were criticized as a form of Japanese nationalism that posited a (racial) Korean “primitivism” to be curated/cultivated by (read: superior) Japanese scholars and aesthetes.

Senroku Uehara (1899 – 1975 CE): Religious experience of the Transcendental is achieved in one’s engagement with their time and place in society.

Keiji Nishitani (1900 – 1990 CE): Nihilism is the central problem of the 20th century, and science has contributed heavily to it. Buddhist ‘Emptiness’ is key in understanding Japanese philosophy, overcoming nihilism, and the study of emptiness offers a challenge to hegemonic Western notions of God, time, the self, and history.



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