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What is it like to be a philosopher in Japan?

This is the twenty-third installment of The Cocoon Goes Global, a series that gives a sense of what the philosophy profession looks like outside of the Anglophone West. 

This guest post is written by Katsunori Miyahara (lecturer at the Center for Human Nature, AI, and Neuroscience at Hokkaido University) and Kengo Miyazono (associate professor of philosophy at Hokkaido University). 

1. General information

Japan is an island country in East Asia with a total population of about 126 million. The country long retained a feudal system before undergoing a rapid modernization process at the end of the 19th century, when a historic event known as Meiji Restoration took place and the Tokugawa Shogunate––the last military government which dictated the country for almost 400 years––was replaced by the new Meiji Government.  A modern education system, heavily influenced by European (especially French) and American systems, was introduced to the country in the same period. This involved the foundation of the oldest modern national university in Japan, The University of Tokyo, in 1877.

Currently, higher education in Japan is provided primarily––though not exclusively––by universities and junior colleges. Unlike many other countries, the Japanese school calendar starts in April and ends in March. Typically, the first semester runs from April to July (or early August), which is followed by the summer holiday, and the second semester resumes in October and ends in February.

There is a winter break between the end of December and the second week of January, which many regard as the New Year’s holiday rather than the Christmas break. In a standard undergraduate program, students have 4 years to graduate from a university and 2 years to graduate from a junior college. For postgraduate education, standard Master programs are designed to be completed in 2 years and Doctoral programs in 3 years. In philosophy, however, it is not uncommon for students to extend their period and spend much longer than this in graduate school (or at least, it was common for students to remain in graduate school for long periods until about 5-10 years ago).

2. Philosophy in Japan

Western philosophy was properly introduced to Japan in the latter half of the 19th century when the country was forced to open its border to foreign countries after adopting the isolationist “closed country” policy for over two centuries.

Although philosophical thinking was not entirely foreign to the Japanese intellectuals before this, the modern term for philosophy, tetsugaku (哲学), which roughly translates as “the learning of the sages” in letter, was a neologism coined during this period by the progressive Enlightenment scholar Nishi Amane (西周, 1829–1877) (Maraldo 2019). Nishi and other scholars of this period also coined new terminologies for a variety of Western philosophical terms, such as kansei (感性, “sensibility”), kinou (帰納, “induction”), en-eki (演繹, “deduction”), kan-nen (観念, “idea”), and gainen (概念, “concept”).

Many of the terms coined during this period are still in use in contemporary philosophical discourse and some have even made their way into the common lexicon. Outgoing from this introductory phase, Japanese philosophy reached its first peak in the beginning of the 20th century as it produced original thinkers such as Nishida Kitaro (西田幾多郎, 1870-1945), Watsuji Tetsuro (和辻哲郎, 1889-1960), and Kuki Shuzo (九鬼周造, 1888-1941). But, instead of presenting the historical development of 20th-century Japanese philosophy––readers interested should look into the SEP entry on Japanese Philosophy (Kasulis 2019) and The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy (Davis 2019)––let us skip a century or so of development and describe the contemporary situation of philosophy in Japan. 


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