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"Japanese Philosophy between Eurocentrism and World Philosophy": Leon Krings & Francesca Greco review "The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy" by Bret W. Davis (ed.)

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From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy is an impressive compendium of scholarship on Japanese philosophy consisting of 36 chapters and covering more than 750 pages. 37 international researchers contributed chapters under the direction of Bret W. Davis (Loyola University Maryland). The chapters are divided into five thematic sections, mostly organized according to different intellectual and spiritual traditions: “Shintō and the Synthetic Nature of Japanese Philosophical Thought” (about 140 pages), “Philosophies of Japanese Buddhism” (about 140 pages), “Philosophies of Japanese Confucianism and Bushidō” (about 60 pages), “Modern Japanese Philosophies” (more than 300 pages), and the thematically diverse section “Pervasive Topics in Japanese Philosophical Thoughts” (about 120 pages) which covers questions of language, freedom, ethics, aesthetics, and cultural identity.

The book was first conceived by its editor Bret W. Davis as a complement to Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, published in 2011 by James Heisig, Thomas Kasulis, and John Maraldo. In contrast to the Sourcebook, the Handbook does not consist of translations of primary sources, but of articles by scholars – from the U.S., Europe, and Japan – who comment on these sources and connect them to the broader field of philosophy and other related disciplines. In the same vein as the Sourcebook, the chapters of the Handbook can be read independently of each other, but the explicit intention of the Handbook is above all to provide the reader with a wider overview of the intertwined history of Japanese philosophy. By bringing together articles by some of the most prominent scholars in the field on a wide range of topics and thinkers, the Handbook succeeds in presenting one of the best overviews of Japanese Philosophy so far, thereby establishing itself as a very valuable research compendium for both new students and experts.

Nevertheless, despite the comprehensiveness of the volume, the Handbook covers fewer currents of thought compared with the Sourcebook. One can discern the editor’s preferences, especially in the prominence given to Zen Buddhism and the Kyoto School, and there are some blind spots regarding other strands of thought which are represented only marginally or left out altogether. As far as Zen is concerned, this particular current of Japanese Buddhism alone takes up more space than the entire sections on Shintoism and Confucianism. Moreover, Zen is also represented in the section on “Modern Japanese Philosophy,” featured in some chapters on Kyoto school philosophers, in a on the feminist philosophy of Hiratsuka Raichō (Ch. 29), and once more in the final section of the book regarding the issue of natural freedom (Ch. 33). A particular focus on Dōgen can be discerned, with two entire chapters devoted to his thought alone (Chs. 8 and 9), while Neo-Confucianism, the dominant strand of Japanese Philosophy in the entire early modern period with a plentitude of different schools and thinkers, is summarized in less than 20 pages. Zen takes up four of the eight chapters of the section on Buddhism, thus marginalizing other traditions such as Shingon and Tendai, and leaving out others such as the Kegon and Hossō schools which are only briefly mentioned as sources of critical feedback in chapters on other sects. The section on Buddhism also overrides the general temporal scheme of the Handbook by integrating the “modern” Japanese philosophers D. T. Suzuki, Hisamatsu Shin’ichi, and Masao Abe.

Marginalization can also be observed in relation to less well-known philosophers who are treated only in relation to the dominant strands of Neo-Confucianism, such as thinkers from the so called “townspeople” (chōnin町人) merchant class who criticized the dominant Neo-Confucianism of the Samurai class, or renegades like Andō Shōeki who developed their own individual philosophies.

In the section on “Modern Japanese Philosophies,” other blind spots are also apparent, even though this part is the largest and the most complex of the volume. It is the only section in the volume divided into two sub-sections, one specific to the Kyoto School (7 chapters) and one about other modern thinkers (9 chapters), thus drawing a line of demarcation within this specific current of thought. A general focus on the Kyoto School – and particularly on Nishida Kitarō, the only philosopher, apart from Dōgen, to whom two chapters are devoted – represents a typical, and arguably stereotypical, emphasis in the Western reception of Japanese philosophy.

Since the sheer number of texts assembled in this volume does not allow us to address all of the articles of the volume in the manner they would deserve, we will confine ourselves to giving a general overview and focusing only on those sections and chapters that seem programmatic, are objects of possible criticism, or show innovative implications of Japanese philosophy for current discourses.


In his introduction to the volume, editor Bret W. Davis convincingly argues that for traditions such as Japanese philosophy to take part in a global process of philosophical reflection, we need a thorough dismantling of the philosophical “Euromonopolism” (18) prevalent not only in the West, but also in Japan itself, and a “robust philosophical pluralism” (20). This does not necessarily mean that any form of Japanese thought can be labeled as “philosophy,” but rather that we can and should “include a wide range of ‘sources of philosophy’ without committing to or referring to all these sources as themselves philosophy” (21), thus avoiding “a hardened relativism that precludes … any meaningful dialogue and mutual exchange” (23).

Davis goes through a range of possible interpretations of what Japanese Philosophy is and can be in order to justify his own selection of themes for the Handbook. In an interesting sub-section of the introduction (42–45), Davis refers to a controversy between John C. Maraldo and Thomas Kasulis, two of the three editors of the Sourcebook, to show how there is an ongoing debate, even among established scholars of Japanese philosophy, on whether premodern Japanese traditions should be understood as philosophies in their own right, or as mere reconstructions or projections based on Western philosophy. Regarding this question, Maraldo proposes four possible senses of “Japanese philosophy”: (1) Western philosophy as it happens to be practiced by Japanese scholars; (2) traditional Japanese thought (Confucian, Nativist, Buddhist, etc.) as it was formulated prior to the introduction of Western philosophy; (3) a form of inquiry which has methods and themes that are Western in origin but which can be applied to pre-modern and pre-Westernized Japanese thinking; and (4) a kind of thought that has “a distinctive eastern or Japanese originality or character.”

Davis agrees with Maraldo in that the first two definitions, understood in isolation of the others, are unduly restrictive and that the fourth tends to enable an inverted Orientalism which hypostasizes an essence of Japanese thinking and thereby spawns so-called “theories of Japanese uniqueness” (nihonjin-ron 日本人論). Yet Davis seems to be cautious in affirming Maraldo’s claim that the third definition is the most viable option because he sees some merit in the second and fourth definitions. In reference to the fourth definition, for example, Davis argues that an assumption of uniqueness in connection to Japanese philosophy is not necessarily problematic in itself, but only if it is presented with an imperialistic or orientalist attitude. Asserting the uniqueness of Japanese philosophy, and thus putting it into a dialogue (or better: polylogue) with other equally unique local philosophies, seems to be a valuable approach for Davis, making it desirable “to have at least some artists, authors, and philosophers cultivate and contribute the best of what their respective traditions have to offer, just as we want others to cross borders, facilitate dialogue, and creatively cross-pollinate” (44–45).

The critical dialogue with Maraldo prompts Davis to present his own stance on the philosophical significance of pre-modern Japanese thought, and maybe even non-Western philosophy in general:

[W]hile Maraldo is certainly right to point out that to speak of pre-Meiji discourses as ‘philosophy’ or ‘tetsugaku’ is to bring them into an originally Occidental framework, it is possible to do so in such a way that those discourses are allowed to exert a counter-effect (what Nishida would call a ‘counter-determination,’ gyaku-gentei 逆限定) on the framework itself. A properly hermeneutical encounter is always, after all, a two-way street. (45)

Davis’ approach seems to be especially useful if put into the dynamic framework of an intercultural polylogue with a multitude of cross-pollinating local philosophies, each with their own respective forms of unique thought patterns and creative possibilities. In this way, the assumption of “a distinctive eastern or Japanese originality or character” of Japanese philosophy could avoid an essentialist Orientalism and actually have a positive, fertilizing effect on the broader landscape of cross-cultural philosophizing.

Approaching the question of what the specificity and uniqueness of Japanese philosophy might consist in, Davis summarizes some of the generalizations of Japanese philosophy found in the Sourcebook:

[A] preference for internal rather than external relations; a tendency to think in terms of a holographic relation of whole and parts; argument by “relegation” (i.e., “opposing positions are treated not by refuting them, but by accepting them as true, but only true as part of the full picture”); and a preference for philosophizing in media res, that is, by beginning “in the gaps left by abstract concepts about reality” and seeking to uncover an “experiential ground out of which the abstractions of philosophy emerge and to which they must answer.” (46)

Davis adds his own list of generalizations:

Expanding on and adding to these generalizations, we could say that many Japanese philosophies criticize and/or provide alternatives to ontological and epistemological subject-object dualisms, view human beings as intimately related with one another and with the natural world, and espouse process rather than substance ontologies. Many are suspicious of the reifying and dichotomizing effects of certain kinds or uses of language, if not of language as such, and many are informed by and/ or articulate a metaphysical or religious sensibility that inclines toward what Nishida calls “immanent transcendence” (naizai-teki chōetsu 内在的超越), as distinct from both a dualistic transcendence and a reductive immanence. (46)

One could argue that some of the characterizations given by Davis and in the Sourcebook – like the tendency towards relational, processual, and concrete modes of thought – tend to be brought up not only by scholars of Japanese philosophy, but also by those of other non-Western traditions like African, South-American, or Amerindian philosophies. They tend to construct non-Western modes of thought as the mere “Other” of Western philosophy, as a mere negation of everything characteristic of dominant Western modes of thought. This othering of everything non-Western under a common umbrella tends to make us blind to the multi-polar spectrum of differences between the infinitely diverse ways of philosophizing practiced in a global perspective. Other characterizations, like that of Nishida’s “immanent transcendence,” seem to be at least integrative of Western thought patterns and therefore point towards the possibility of more comprehensive frameworks beyond East-West and South-North dichotomies. This serves to highlight the need for more detailed, more pluralistic forms of dialogue, not only between East and West or South and North, but also between South and South, North and North, East and East, West and North, South and East, etc., and all the manifold regionalities in-between which fall through the cracks of any attempt at a global taxonomy.

Davis defines Japanese philosophy as “any rigorous reflection on fundamental questions that draws sufficiently and significantly on the intellectual, linguistic, cultural, religious, literary, and artistic sources of the Japanese tradition” (60), and contrasts it with “philosophy in Japan,” a concept that tends to ignore distinctively Japanese modes of thought and confine itself to a merely geographical understanding of Japan and a Western conception of philosophy. The latter conflates “philosophy” with “Western philosophy” and interprets it as a more or less universal mode of thought that merely happens to be done in Japan, without any major contribution from culturally and linguistically specific contexts. Davis criticizes Steineck, Lange, and Kaufmann, the editors of the German anthology Begriff und Bild der modernen japanischen Philosophie (2014), for painting “all such ‘Japanese philosophies’ with the broad polemical brush of ethnocentric Japanism” (59, footnote) and for underestimating the creative and critical possibilities of culturally specific perspectives in search of cross-cultural and universal conceptions.

Steineck, Lange, and Kaufmann accuse the editors of the Sourcebook and other anthologies of reducing modern Japanese philosophy to streams of thought associated with the Kyoto school. Davis’ counter-critique rightly points out that Begriff und Bild itself suffers from misconceptions and simplifications, particularly in reducing the political complexity of Kyoto school thought and the controversy surrounding it. Their own approach to “modern Japanese philosophy,” Davis points out, seems indeed to reduce its object to “(Western) philosophy in modern Japan,” or rather “the reception of currents of modern Western philosophy in modern Japan,” a criticism which seems to be more or less correct with regard to the section “Philosophical Currents in Japan” in Begriff und Bild, the titles of which exclusively employ Western notions (Empiricism, German Idealism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Analytic Philosophy) to characterize the tendencies of modern Japanese philosophy.

A philosophical argument or mode of thought can draw on a set of culturally specific ideas while at the same time aiming at cross-cultural or universal insights

While Davis’ approach in the Handbook seems to lean towards the other extreme, namely, by excluding disciplines shaped by Western discourse from the overall structure of the volume (phenomenology is the only “Western” discipline explicitly covered in a standalone chapter, again with a focus on specifically Japanese contributions), the focus on modes of thought intrinsically shaped by certain Japanese specificities appears to be more productive than a Eurocentric approach. As Davis convincingly argues, a philosophical argument or mode of thought can draw on a set of culturally specific ideas while at the same time aiming at cross-cultural or universal insights. As long as we remain critical of essentialist, nationalist, and orientalist tendencies, culturally specific modes of thought can (and should) be integrated as valid and fruitful sources into non-Ameri-Eurocentric modes of philosophizing. This seems to be ever more relevant in regard to our contemporary situation in which various cultures and sub-cultures intertwine in the concrete lives of the embodied (and often multilingual) subjects that philosophize. As Davis states in a terminology reminiscent of Nishida’s “logic of place”:

Cultures, language[s], and traditions both shape (determine) and are shaped (counter-determined) by the expressive acts of individuals. Individuals also shape and are shaped by subcultures within a culture, and those subcultures have various relations – some complementary and some antagonistic – with one another. Individuals can and, today more than ever, many do take part in two or more cultures, language, and traditions – being bilingual usually also means being bicultural – such that cross-cultural dialogue is for them an intra- as well as interpersonal affair.

One could add that rather than merely moving from monocultural to bicultural settings, we are living in a globalized landscape that has led to multi-, cross-, and inter-cultural environments with an ever-increasing and pluralized set of interacting sub-cultures, sub-languages, and sub-traditions. Japanese philosophy can be one of the many centers of a philosophizing taking place in the midst of this situation of pluralized cross- and counter-determination, with more and more scholars outside of Japan using the (already cross-culturally formed) traditions of Japanese thought as sources for their own philosophies. Japanese philosophy already transcends its limitations as a mere sub-set of philosophy in Japan, “since it can, has been, and is being done by philosophers living outside Japan” and by those that are “ethnically non-Japanese” (62). It is precisely this openness to the non-Japanese that might enable Japanese philosophy to become a fruitful participant in contemporary and future philosophizing by “making an original contribution to the nascent dialogue [or rather: polylogue] of worldwide philosophy” (62), including – to rephrase Davis’ concluding remark – a polylogue about the very nature of philosophical polylogue.


The first three parts of the Handbook are dedicated to modes of thought anchored in the pre-modern and early modern (近世 kinsei) traditions – although not always addressed in these terms – of Shintō, Buddhism, (Neo-)Confucianism, and Bushidō.

The first part of the volume is dedicated to Shintō, covered in three chapters which emphasize the appropriative reaction of Japanese culture and its intellectuals to foreign traditions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and – later – Hegelian idealism. Thomas P. Kasulis (Ch. 1) uses the digestive metaphor of “consumption” to describe the process of assimilation of foreign ideas by Japanese thinkers (83–84). Prince Shotoku’s Seventeen-Article Constitution is identified as a first example of multilayered assimilation. Kasulis begins his chapter by comparing prince Shotoku’s work to ideas that Aristotle attributes to Thales, thus aligning the origin of Japanese philosophy with that of Western philosophy under the authority of Aristotle, a possibly problematic move. Kasulis writes: “Shotoku developed innovative theories by analyzing, assimilating, and transforming newly introduced foreign ideas and, in so doing, set a pattern that most subsequent Japanese philosophers have followed” (84). Kasulis identifies three assimilation strategies in particular: allocation, hybridization, and relegation. In allocation, theories or ideas are maintained as they are and as they complement each other; in hybridization, theories or ideas are merged to create a completely new idea; in  relegation, some theories or ideas are accepted into one main theory, but usually only as partial and inferior fractions of that theory, as, for Kasulis, is the case with the Tendai school’s assimilation of other Buddhist traditions, or with Nishida Kitarō’s philosophy in relation to empiricist or idealist  philosophies (84–86). One can detect a tendency towards an uncritical presentation of various histories of traditional Japanese cosmogony, for example, in Isawa Tomoko’s chapter on the “Philosophical Implication of Shintō” (Ch. 2), while Peter Flueckiger (Ch. 3) focuses on the revival of traditions considered distinctly Japanese – as opposed to foreign cultures and Chinese culture in particular – during the Tokugawa period, represented by the tradition of “National Learning” (kokugaku 国学).

We are living in a globalized landscape that has led to multi-, cross-, and inter-cultural environments with an ever-increasing and pluralized set of interacting sub-cultures, sub-languages, and sub-traditions

The third section on Confucianism contains only three chapters, two of which – on “Japanese Neo-Confucian Philosophy” (Ch. 12) and “The Japanese Revival of Classical Confucianism” (Ch. 13) – are written by John A. Tucker. Tucker gives a concise and well-structured overview, but considering that Confucianism is the leading intellectual tradition in early modern Japan, one might be disappointed by the lack of space allocated to this section and the  absence of detailed engagement with certain authors and topics, especially when compared with the eighteen authors presented in the Sourcebook for this period. The third chapter by Chris Goto-Jones is dedicated to Bushidō and Japanese national ethics in the Edo, Meji, and Taishō periods (Ch. 14). In the latter chapter, Goto-Jones critically emphasizes the construction of Japanese ideology through the so-called “Way of the Warrior” or “Way of Samurai” (bushidō, 武士道), as well as the romanticization of “Japanese uniqueness,” especially in Europe and North America.

The second section on Buddhism is the richest and most finely structured section after the one on Modern philosophy, and presents a selection of classical philosophers from the major Buddhist schools such as Saichō, Kukai, Shinran, and Dōgen, with special attention given primarily to Zen (Sōtō and Rinzai), but also to the Pure Land school, with an inclusion of modern thinkers such as Kiyozawa Manshi and Soga Ryōjin. The chapters are generally well-structured, clear, and properly contextualized in terms of the period and the historical development of the philosophical currents and lives of the authors covered. Recurring topics of this section are the notion of emptiness, hermeneutical debates around the realization and originality of enlightenment, and the embodiment of ethical precepts. Most of the contributions are historical and descriptive, and only a few aspects of Buddhist philosophy are treated in a new light, as in Davis’ interpretation of Dōgen’s philosophy as “Egoless Perspectivism” (Ch. 8) and in the chapter on the philosophical implications of Zen Kōan by Victor Sōgen Hori (Ch. 10). Davis traces the transition from Buddhism to Zen in Dōgen’s thinking and practice, particularly drawing attention to the non-duality of practice and enlightenment and of the self and the world. Regarding the philosophical implications of Kōan training, Victor Sōgen Hori offers a extensive introduction to this typology of Buddhist practices and shows its performative and experiential approach to language in comparison to Western philosophers.


The fourth part featuring modern Japanese philosophy occupies almost half the space of the Handbook, showing the great importance given to the modern era in the conception of the anthology. John C. Maraldo’s “The Japanese Encounter with and Appropriation of Western Philosophy” (Ch. 15) gives a concise but rich overview of the introduction of Western philosophical terminology to Japan in the period around the Meiji Restoration (1868), featuring thinkers like Fukuzawa Yukichi, Katō Hiroyuki, Inoue Tetsujirō, and Inoue Enryō who paved the way for later philosophers.

The following piece by Ōhashi Ryōsuke and Akitomi Katsuya (Ch. 16), opening the section on the Kyoto School, presents the history of the school over three generations. Starting with a reevaluation of the controversy around the “Overcoming Modernity” and “Chūōkōron” symposia of the early 1940s, which are often taken as proofs for the collaboration of Kyoto school representatives with the ultra-nationalist ideology of wartime Japan. The authors show how the discovery of the so-called “Ōshima Memoranda” suggests that the Kyoto school members were actually trying to counter the aggressive and expansionist agenda of the military regime under the risk of their lives.

The following chapters cover some of the most well-known representatives of the Kyoto school (Nishida Kitarō, Tanabe Hajime, Miki Kiyoshi, Nishitani Keiji, and Ueda Shizuteru), as well as other relatively well-known figures such as Watsuji Tetsurō and Kuki Shuzō. All chapters are written by experts from the field and represent, as expected, some of the finest scholarship on the respective thinkers. In the best cases, the articles not only give a multilayered overview of their philosophies, but also contextualize them in relation to both Asian and Western thought and bring them into dialogue with current debates and topics, showing paths of possible elaboration and for the philosophical advancement of their theories. A second article by Maraldo (Ch. 18) connects Nishida’s dialectics with Robert Sokolowski’s work on distinctions and interprets his notion of absolute nothingness in relation to Zhuangzi’s play with obscurity and vagueness. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley’s article (Ch. 20) shows not only possible critiques of Miki Kiyoshi’s philosophy but also ways of overcoming them by elaborating his notions of embodiment and pathos in relation to Henri Lefebvre’s analyses of everyday life. Erin McCarthy (Ch. 23) shows some possible applications of Watsuji’s notion of fūdo (風土) to environmental ethics. Some of the essays suffer from over-simplifications of Western philosophy, which is sometimes depicted as almost nothing but crude dualism, such as in Shigenori Nagatomo’s account (Ch. 27) of Yuasa Yasuo’s philosophy of self-cultivation (shugyō 修行, embodied spiritual “praxis”).

While each article of the section (and the volume as a whole) would each deserve a separate analysis, in the following we will focus on articles that deal with some of the less well-known philosophers and strands of thought covered in this section, since the Handbook makes the respective scholarship on some of them accessible to a greater audience for the first time.

Terao Kazuyoshi’s overview of “Japanese Christian Philosophies” (Ch. 26) gives a very dense overview according to seven major tendencies of Christian thought in modern and contemporary Japan: the No-Church movement (mukyōkai無教会), Christian philology, Marxist and Socialist Christian philosophy, Christian philosophies of religion, Christian philosophy in a Buddhist key, generative Christian philosophy, and popular Christian philosophy. While the text suffers from a lack of detail due to the great number of thinkers covered in only ten pages, it provides some orientation and possible starting points for readers interested in diving deeper into specifically Japanese developments of Christian thought.

Rikki Kersten’s “Postwar Japanese Political Philosophy: Marxism, Liberalism, and the Quest for Autonomy” (Ch. 28) presents key thinkers and debates in Japanese political philosophy between 1945 and 1970. While Kerstens’ selection appears somewhat selective and incomplete in some parts, with an overly prominent focus on Yoshimoto Takaaki and his respondents in the concluding sections, its depiction of post-war debates is nevertheless a valuable contribution to the field of Japanese political philosophy. The article features debates on shutaisei 主体性 (“autonomy,” or alternatively: “subjectivity”) and tenkō 転向 (“conversion” or “apostasy”). While the former notion was employed by political thinkers as a possible antidote to pre-war deficiencies like the (semi-)feudal attitude of wartime Japanese, the latter, going back to the mass defections of communists from the Japan Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, touches upon questions of individual responsibility and the lack of coordinated wartime resistance. It would have been helpful to contextualize the Japanese debates within a framework of post-war discourse on a global level, or at least compare them to similar debates in the West. This would enable the reader to understand the intricacies of Japanese Marxist and liberalist discourses in comparison to other local developments.

Michiko Yusa’s and Leah Kalmanson’s article (Ch. 29), the only chapter devoted to a female thinker, is comprised of two parts. The first part shows how Hiratsuka Raichō’s feminist philosophy was influenced by her experience with Zen practice, prompting her to develop an account of the sexed body, which is presented according to different phases in Raichō’s thought and in dialogue with the work of Swedish feminist Ellen Key. The second part elaborates the significance of Raichō’s ideas in the larger context of feminist philosophy, both in Japan and the West, showing how Raichō’s philosophy could be brought into a productive dialogue with feminist care ethics and the intersection between Womanism and Buddhism.

Tani Tōru (Ch. 30) and Kobayashi Yasuo (Ch. 31) each focus on a group of four philosophers to narrate specific developments in contemporary Japanese philosophy. Tani presents Japanese phenomenology through the works of Sakabe Megumi, Nitta Yoshihiro, Noé Keiichi, and Washida Kiyokazu, while Kobayashi coins the term “Komaba quartet” (almost a “Tokyo School”) for the philosophers Hiromatsu Wataru, Sakabe Megumi, Ōmori Shōzō and Inoue Tadashi, each of whom taught at the Komaba campus of Tokyo University. As with other articles that have the character of an overview, their accounts are more or less schematic but succeed in showing a limited number of thinkers and theories paradigmatic for their respective fields.


The fifth and last part of the Handbook is dedicated to “Pervasive Topics in Japanese Philosophy,” with five contributions on recurring issues in Japanese philosophy. Each topic is treated in a creative and innovative way. Rolf Elberfeld (Ch. 32) provides a detailed introduction to the structure of the Japanese language and emphasizes the importance of the predicate relative to the subject, the role of the middle voice, and the philosophical implications of a linguistic deprioritization of an agent or subject. Mara Miller and Yamasaki Kōji (Ch. 35) present a complex overview of Japanese aesthetics over an extensive time period, including the influence of the Ainu, an ethnic group of indigenous peoples native to Northern Japan, and hinting at a feminist aesthetics. Ethics is presented by Robert E. Carter (Ch. 34) with a focus on Watsuji Tetsurō and Japanese arts such as the way of tea, aikidō and kendō. Davis (Ch. 33) tackles the possibility of a “natural freedom” through a non-dual account of the relationship between the human and nature. The section ends with a rich portrayal of the controversial cultural identity of Japanese philosophy by Yoko Arisaka (Ch. 36). The chapter provides a suitable close for the volume by returning to the initial theme of the identity of Japanese philosophy, treating it through the tension between universalism and particularism, and giving an outlook towards a global perspective.


In conclusion, the Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy can be considered as an essential tool both for students new to the field and already established scholars of Japanese philosophy. While omitting a range of less well-known thinkers (as can be seen, for example, in comparison to the Sourcebook), the Handbook succeeds in giving a broad overview of Japanese philosophy in all its diversity and opens up critical and innovative perspectives.

The Handbook shows Japanese philosophy as a striking example of an intellectual tradition developing between its own native heritage and processes of Sinification and Westernization, between self-colonization and self-valorization, between insularity and openness

The Handbook shows how the very concepts of “Japanese philosophy” and “Nihon tetsugaku” are –through the work of both Japanese and non-Japanese scholars – enmeshed in a continuous process of translation and interlingual re-interpretation between East and West, within a highly dynamic, intercultural contextuality operating on a global scale. The Handbook shows Japanese philosophy as a striking example of an intellectual tradition developing between its own native heritage and processes of Sinification and Westernization, between self-colonization and self-valorization, between insularity and openness. Borrowing Yoko Arisaka’s words in the concluding chapter, the Handbook offers hints to “a constructive way to move forward with Japanese philosophy today, […] beyond multiculturalism to a decolonized world order” (771) that allows for a critical and flexible reflection on the fundamental question of what philosophy is and how it can operate in an increasingly globalized landscape. It opens up several possible paths for this kind of reflection by promoting a non-essentialist, cross-disciplinary, critical, innovative and multi-layered approach to Japanese philosophy that for the most part avoids one-sided simplifications and orientalist essentializations.

The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy by Bret W. Davis (ed.) is published by Oxford University Press (2022).

Leon Krings is a lecturer at the Institute of Philosophy, Hildesheim (Germany) and was previously working at the Histories of Philosophy in a Global Perspective project (HiPhi). He is editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy (EJJP) and board-member of the European Network of Japanese Philosophy (ENOJP). His PhD project is a phenomenology of the practice of embodiment patterns (型 kata) in the Japanese “pathway arts” (道 dō). His research areas are the Kyoto School and Japanese Buddhist philosophy, among others.

Francesca Greco is currently a research assistant in the DFG Koselleck-Project “Histories of Philosophy in Global Perspective” (2019-2024) and a PhD student at the University of Hildesheim in the field of intercultural and Japanese philosophy. Her main research interests are negativity, relationality, and the history of philosophy in global perspective. She is the winner of the DAAD-Prize 2022 for the outstanding achievement of a foreign student and several of her video conferences can be found on YouTube.


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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