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Discussion Paper 6 in 2006
First published in ejcjs on 27 July 2006

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The Fascist Next Door?

Nishitani Keiji and the Chūōkōron Discussions in Perspective


Xiaofei Tu

PhD Candidate
Department of Religion
Syracuse University

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Something logically plausible may be psychologically uncongenial. Something theoretically defensible may be historically indefensible.

Joseph R. Levenson



In this paper I address the alleged nationalistic, even fascistic, tendencies in the thought of the Kyoto School philosophers, focusing on Nishitani's views expressed in the now notorious Chūōkōron discussions. This topic has generated some hot debate in the scholarly circles both in Japan and in the West, with much vehemence and rhetoric from both the defenders and detractors of the Kyoto School. In this paper, I intend not to reiterate the accusations and defenses on the two sides; rather, I hope to move the debate to a new direction with a two-fold effort. First, I place Nishitani back in the historical, cultural and political ethos of his time by drawing comparison to Yan Fu, a Chinese thinker who was active shortly after the Opium War. Attempting a sympathetic understanding from the perspective of a Chinese, I believe I am able to shed new light on Nishitani's wartime remarks and his thinking behind them. Geographically, historically, and culturally, Japan is a close neighbor to China, hence the title of this essay. Second, I proceed to question some presumptions of the critics of Nishitani.

The Chūōkōron Discussions

From November 1941 to November 1942 the widely respected journal in Japan Chūōkōron held a series of three round table discussions with four young scholars from Kyoto Imperial University: Nishitani Keiji, Kosaka Masaaki, Suzuki Shigetaka, and Koyama Iwao, and published the transcripts. The topics of this series of discussions were 'The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan,' 'The Ethics and Historicity of the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,' and finally 'The Philosophy of All-Out War.' Clearly, these purportedly scholarly discussions were inspired by current events, i.e., the eventually mischievous war effort of Japan against China and the Allied Forces. After the war an aura of infamy came to surround this event and the discussants involved, which were denounced as symbols of the intelligentsia's cooperation with the wartime Japanese regime. The critics saw the act of the aforementioned scholars as a thinly disguised attempt to glorify the war, and to provide the philosophical underpinnings for Japanese fascism. In their contribution to The Cambridge History of Japan, Tetsuo Najita and H. D. Harootunian have the following to say about Nishitani and his discussion partners:

[The] group's central purpose was to construct what they called a "philosophy of world history" that could both account for Japan's current position and disclose the course of future action. But a closer examination of this "philosophy of world history" reveals a thinly disguised justification, written in the language of Hegelian metaphysics, for Japanese aggression and continuing imperialism. In prewar Japan, no group helped defend the state more consistently and enthusiastically than did the philosophers of the Kyoto faction, and none came closer than they did to defining the philosophic contours of Japanese fascism.1

Similar sentiments and opinions are found in the works of other prominent scholars such as Bernard Faure.2 Such sweeping generalizations and accusations seem to be unfounded when we look at the relevant historical and intra-textual evidence. In the wartime Japanese political climate, many Japanese intellectuals found themselves divided into either the camp of the ultra rightwing nationalists or the ranks of the Marxists and anarchists. The Kyoto School philosophers were viewed by their contemporaries as the 'middle-of-the-roaders'.3 And by virtue of their philosophical and political positions, they were assaulted by their enemies on the two opposite ends of the political/ideological spectrum. After the war, Nishitani remarked, 'During the war we were struck on the cheek from the right; after the war we were struck on the cheek from the left.' Indeed, at the time of their original publication, the Chūōkōron discussions were extremely popular with young intellectuals facing military service precisely because of their free thinking outlook and refusal to conform to the state ideology. The intellectual independence and moral courage in these discussions spurred anger among the extreme right demagogues, who charged, rightly we have to say, that these were 'disinterested analysis of bystanders,' both 'seditious' and anti-war. Well known is the comment of a Japanese military officer that the Kyoto School philosophers should, together with American and British war prisoners, be rounded up and bayoneted.4

Moreover, according to the report of Horio Tsutomu, there was another layer of political intrigue in the background of the event. The Kyoto School philosophers were contacted by the Japanese Navy, the moderate force in the war machine, at a crucial point of time, – six months before the outbreak of the hostilities between the United Sates and Japan – in a desperate attempt at enlisting public opinion to check the belligerent Land Army in the midst of the nation's militaristic craze. Indeed, the original topic for the first discussion was supposed to be 'how to avoid war (with the United Sates).' However, under the governmental censorship routine to that time, any hint of criticism of the Land Army was expunged and the impression left was a total support of the war effort.5 Given the emerging evidence and full insights we have gained in hindsight, the simplistic verdict that the Kyoto School was nothing more than a handmaid to the ultra-militant forces becomes even more indefensible.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that certain content in these discussions is nonetheless incompatible with the political sensibilities of the majority of today's readers. The omnipresent government censors (along with self-censorship of the publisher under political pressure) undoubtedly distorted the ways the discussants had wanted to present their ideas, but this fact alone does not seem able to explain the whole problem away. The argument that the discussants only interpreted the public opinions at the time rather than expressing their own thought is flimsy too. By and large, some of Nishitani's most 'problematic' remarks have not been sufficiently treated in counter critiques of Nishitani's critics.6 In the following I will focus on a portion of Nishitani's contribution to the discussions which has been under scrutiny, and which, according to his critics, are supposed to reveal his nationalistic and pro-war attitudes.

First, there are revelations from Nishitani's belief in the superiority of the East Asian and in particular Japanese culture. For example, he argues that even the ancient Japanese culture was 'advanced' and blithely asserts; 'It is true that those who really study the culture of East Asia admit that the only cultures that can rival those of Europe are the East Asian cultures.'7 Next, Nishitani glorifies Japan's medieval cultural achievements and nostalgically laments modern Japan's urbanization and reliance on technology, following the suit of the West. While some over-sensitive critics may see these 'anti-modern' and 'culturally nostalgic' tendencies to be fascist-prone, these remarks are probably not the most damaging in the eyes of the average reader. But then, we encounter real tests on our tolerance of haughty nationalistic tones.

Nishtani's discussion of 'world history' begins with neighboring Asian countries. Speaking about the relation between Japan and China, Nishitani says:

The most basic issue is the 'China consciousness' of the Chinese, the consciousness of always being the center of East Asia, and of Japan as having been educated through the grace of Chinese culture. In such a situation, the main thing is somehow to make them see and to realize that Japan is now the leader in the construction of the Greater East Asia of today, and must be the leader as a matter of historical necessity.8

These comments in part reflect the long standing Japanese resentment toward the outside attitude that regards Japan as a second fiddle player to the former political and cultural giant China, and as a nation that is good at copying but short of creativity and originality.9 However, if the above opinion could be excusable for this reason, many people would find it hard to come to the defense of Nishitani when he adopts an even more patronizing tone regarding the Filipinos.10 More disturbing to the contemporary political sensitivity, Nishitani invokes the idea that the Japanese play the role of a Herrenvolk (master race), because of their possession of 'moral energy.'11

For most readers, these utterances of Nishitani's have crossed certain boundaries. Even a balanced scholar like James Heisig makes the judgment that these comments 'are unreflected bias pure and simple.'12 Quoting Ienaga Saburo, Jan van Bragt calls the same comments the 'tall talk of drunkards.'13

Nishitani continues to justify the war with China by saying:

The treatment of China up until now, seen from the outside has taken a form that can be mistaken to some degree for imperialism … There was a kind of opacity. But in some sense that was unavoidable given the extraordinary world situation and the stage of historical development. But conduct that was interpreted from the outside as imperialistic, when viewed from the present and its continuity with the present, has another, deeper significance.14

Conceding the ostensible blood-shedding and human sufferings of both nations, Nishitani nevertheless insists that the war with China is an inevitable 'historical necessity,' because he sees it as part of the role that Japan has to play in leading East Asia against Western imperialism. He actually thinks Japan's military action has been protecting China from being partitioned by the covetous Western powers. Not surprisingly, Nishitani blames Britain and the United States for their colonialist adventures: 'There is no denying that along with the banner of democracy, America parades a standpoint of ‘freedom' and the pursuit of self-interest.'15 Whether or not there may be a touch of truth in this exposé of the West's ulterior intentions, Nishitani's criticism of Western colonialism seems too conveniently in concert with the Japanese government's propaganda against its war enemies.

Now I discuss two touchy questions arising from Nishitani's remarks: First, what is Nishitani's attitude to race? Second, what is his attitude to war? These questions have to be answered based on an understanding of the Nishitanian jargons 'moral energy' and 'world history.'

Innocence by Association?

As the Japanese themselves are a 'colored people,' it is small wonder that the members of the Chūōkōron discussions unanimously refuse the racist theory of Aryan supremacy. For Nishitani, the purity of blood is not the first concern for a nation, rather, the mixing of blood could be 'a good thing.'16 The criteria in judging the worthiness of a nation are its creativity and 'moral energy.' The Pacific war is justified as part of the effort of Japan, as a nation of moral energy, to take the leadership role and forming a united front of the East Asian countries against the invading West.

The idea of moral energy comes from Leopold Von Ranke, referring to not individual morality or purity of blood, but power concentrated in the people culturally and politically. It is a concept which, for today's readers, is almost endlessly elusive even woefully mysterious. How is one supposed to identify it in a nation or culture and why is it important? The answer may come from an unexpected direction. Here I would like to take a detour to look briefly at the life and thought of a Chinese thinker, Yan Fu.

Yan Fu was a Chinese thinker and translator who lived at the turn of the 19th century. According to his biographer Benjamin I. Schwartz, Yan was the first Chinese to systematically study Western thought. Vividly feeling the military, social, cultural, and psychological impacts that the encounter with the West had on China, Yan was obsessed with a single question: what was the root cause of the Western might and China's weakness? Through a thorough study of 18th and 19th century European thought, he came to the conclusion that there were two sides of the secret of European success that were necessary to bring China out of its backwardness. One was the manifestation of energy, the other is the public spirit which discipline energy to collective ends. Western individualism for him is only a tool to facilitate the gigantic cultural drive leading to collective strength. At first blush, this seems to be a simplistic generalization, or even a gross misunderstanding. However, at least some Western scholars have been intrigued by Yan's interpretation. Louis Hartz remarks,

It is the genius of the foreign critic to bring to the surface aspects of thought implicit in the life of the nation he studies but explicit for him because of the contrast supplied by his own culture. It is a shock of self discovery which makes Halevy interesting to the English, Tocqueville to the Americans. Yan Fu, from the angle of a culture which has not yet experienced modernity, seizes in their work on a theme of collective energy which apart from anything they said about 'individualism' and 'laissez faire,' reflected the movement of Europe into the modern world.17

It seems not too far-fetched to view Nishitani's concept of moral energy as a similar attempt to seek the secret of nations' success in their cultures. The difference is, with Japan's expedient modernization and rise to power in the world arena at that time, Nishitani believed that he could make a claim for the presence of such a cultural spirit in the Japanese people while Yan had to call for the discovery of it in his fellow Chinese.18

In light of the above comparison, I wish to argue that Nishitani's seemingly excessive and self -congratulatory cultural pride belongs to the attempt of Japanese intellectuals to come to terms with its own modern history and all its contradictions, and is, in a sense, a psychological compensation for an unconscious underdog self-identity. Nishitani bitterly complains about the non- reciprocal relation between Japan/Asia and Europe in which the former has no significance for the latter while the latter's impact on the former is formidable. However, for him, things had begun to turn around with an emerging new consciousness of 'world history:' a gigantic Hegelian historical progress with unmistakable necessity. This 'world history' begins in the twentieth century, ushering in the collapse of the colonial systems, and at least the formal, if not real, equality among nations.19 Closely related is Nishitani's theory of 'moral energy' which opens the possibility of viewing peoples on the basis of their cultural merits instead of external, physical characteristics. For Nishitani, the awakening of the 'colored races' should be an awakening to their own cultures. In reality, other Asian countries might not live up to this 'historical task,' and Japan must assume a leadership role as a 'historical necessity.' Theoretically however, Japan claims to be exemplary not because other Asian countries are different and lower, but because it identifies a common plane of victimization and a common destiny, so that the Japanese path should meet the needs of others. A point worth making is that Nishitani sees the nation as an organic entity with a soul-like culture or national spirit, not as the Weberian Herrschaftsverband: a dominating organization that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.20 Nishitani's romanticizing of nation, obsolete as it might well be, is not to be mistaken for the statist worship for the nation as the cold power machine.

Neither are Nishitani's seemingly war-happy remarks about the impossibility of perpetual peace21 as hideous as they appear. After all, 'enrich the country, strengthen the military,' was the universal rallying cry of the Asian countries at his time (it was Yan Fu's slogan too). Philosophically, Nishitani adopts a brutally realistic view of humans and the world, which arguably comes from a mixture of Zen and the Hegelian philosophy of history. According to this view, it might be said that ontological defections are embedded in the structure of human existence. Violence and sufferings are an innate part of human life, and the progress of 'world history' also has to be in the company of vices. The ethical implications of such a worldview is certainly open to discussion. However, the alternative view that all human suffering can once and for all be remedied by certain social and political arrangements seems not to be corroborated by historical evidence. The moral high road claimed by such political ideologies often proves to be self-righteousness and self-deception.

Alfred Whitehead put it well: A traveler, who has lost his way, should not ask, 'Where am I?' What he really wants to know is; where are the other places? In all the political and social unrest ensuing from opening the door to the West, Japan was the lost traveler; hence the need for defining the world in order to redefine itself. Indeed, the very openness to Western ideas requires the counterbalance of its own heritage. All this 'tall talk' about world history and the aggressiveness in Nishitani's esteem of Japanese culture is a search for cultural self-identity in a time of discontinuity and confusion.


Nishitani claims that Western democracy is profoundly self-contradictory, and that it is a disguise for the West to expand its self-interests in the world. Time and again, we have seen such charges reissued from radically different political quarters and they are well received or at least tolerated in our public discourses (for example, some anti-war views of the current Iraqi situation). What makes us uncomfortable is the fact that Nishitani formulates this criticism in terms of a conflict between the West and the 'colored races.' On a different note, due to our sensitivities to cultural diversity, we want to reject out of hand Nishitani's pejorative comments about the Chinese and the Filipinos. However, for myself as Chinese, it seems hard to deny that in the past fifty years, Japan has, so far, been more productive than China, certainly economically and perhaps culturally also. Are Nishitani's remarks dishonorable or prophetic?

The problem lies less with Nishitani than with the drastic changes in the norms of our political and moral discussions. Nowadays people criticize US foreign policies in terms of 'the politicians' submission to corporate interests' and 'America's economic and ideological hegemony;' while the less than satisfactory situation in China is said to have its causes in the shortcomings of the political system and economical policies. In either case, any talk that hints at 'race' and ethnically specific 'culture,' – conflicts between races and religions, culturally facilitated economic growth, etc. – becomes suspect and unpopular. That is why we find that Nishitani offends our taste. However, the problem is of course Nishitani could not have predicted this cultural climate change and accommodated himself to our contemporary sensitivities.

To place the debate in a broad perspective, we notice that the Kyoto School emphasizes the central place of religious experience in its philosophy, the basic principles of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism are spiritualized and put in Western religious-philosophical terminology, while the institutional and practicing sides of Buddhism are downplayed. For their critics, this is an 'ahistorical' reading of East Asian Buddhism, a religion that has its roots in ancient feudalism.22 The presumptions of the critics include a positivistic functionalism and a Marxist ideological analysis, which exclusively see religion as weapons used by different social groups in order to legitimize or contest the distribution of social, economic, and political privileges. It is in this context that the Kyoto philosophers' political past is scrutinized. What is questionable is that there has emerged a pattern in the works of these critics that promulgate a dichotomy between agricultural/industrial, tradition/modernity, religion/reason, nostalgic/forward looking, Fascism/democracy, and a homology among the former and latter groups of values. It seems to me that these critics are mirroring the characteristics of their target. Are these Marxism influenced authors not guilty of an ahistorical reading of Marxism? That is, a historical, European originated political movement with a tainted track record has been presented as a purely idealistic indignation against social injustice, and a universally valid spirit of critique. The result is that the decontextualized Marxism of Western academics is hardly recognizable by any ‘practicing' Marxist around the world, just as the lofty Buddhism of the Kyoto School may not resonate with many Buddhists.

In the last analysis, I wish to argue that what we have had in the debate around the Chūōkōron incident is a clash of categories, while what matter are those people, thoughts, and events that remain uncategorized. To quote Russell McCutcheon's words in another context, and to turn them around; the detailed investigations into the chronology of Nishitani's publications and actions, the frenzied interpretative disputes over the key sentences in Nishitani's war-time writings about Imperial Japan, cannot obscure the fact that ultimately our answer to this question will be less a matter of fact than a matter of narrative, of the kind of story we choose to tell. To have begun to ask questions such as these is in a sense to have answered them already. It is in the assignment of context that one assigns meaning. To ascribe personal innocence or culpabilities presupposes some sort of objective, trans-historical ethical standard that they did or did not live up to. Ironically, such critics of Nishitani themselves border on being totalitarian by forcing a single vision on us and not allowing alternatives.


1. Tetsuo Najita and H. D. Harootunian, 'Japanese Revolt against the West: Political and Cultural Criticism in the Twentieth Century,' in Peter Duus, ed., The Cambridge History of Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 6: 711-774: 741-742.

2. See, for example, Bernard Faure, Chan Insights and Oversights.

3. Minamoto Ryoen. 'The Symposium on "Overcoming Modernity,"' in James W. Heisig and John C. Marajdo, ed., The Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism: 204.

4. Horio Tsutomu. 'The Chuokoron discussions, Their Background and Meaning,' in ibid.: 289-291.

5. Ibid.

6. Graham Parkes. 'The Putative Fascism of the Kyoto School and the Political Correctness of the Modern Academy,' in Philosophy East & West, July 1997, 47 (3): 305.

7. Nishitani, Keiji, The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan. Trans. by James W. Heisig: 7.

8. Ibid.: 26

9. Nishitani is by no means the only Japanese to express such a sentiment. Another well received spokesperson of East culture, Kakuzo Okakura, has the following observation of China: 'The long woes of his country have robbed him of the zest for the meaning of life. He has become modern, that is to say, old and disenchanted. He has lost that sublime faith in illusions which constitutes the eternal youth and vigour of the poets and ancients. He is an eclectic and politely accepts the traditions of the universe. He toys with Nature, but does not condescend to conquer or worship her.' The Book of Tea (New York: Dover Publications, 1964): 16.

10. The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan: 27.

11. Ibid. 36.

12. James W. Heisig. Philosophers of Nothingness: 206.

13. Jan van Bragt. 'Kyoto Philosophy, Intrinsically Nationalistic?' in Rude Awakenings, 239.

14. The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan: 23.

15. The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan. 45.

16. Ibid. 21.

17. Benjamin I. Schwartz. In Search of Wealth and Power: xi.

18. Another analogy between Yan Fu and Nishitani: Yan Fu expressly favored Taoism against the Confucian absolutization of a determined social and political order. Yan Fu's philosophical Taoism points to an ineffable inconceivable ultimate ground of reality which transcends and relativizes all determinate orders and structures of reality. Nishitani's attraction to Buddhism stemmed from similar aversion to the state sponsored Shintoism. In comparison to Yan's reappropriation of Taoism, we recall the elevated position that the Buddhist notion 'emptiness' enjoyed in Nishitani's philosophical system.

19. The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan: 6.

20. Fred R. Dallmayr. G. W. F. Hegel: Modernity and Politics: 206.

21. The World-Historical Standpoint and Japan: 38.

22. See e.g. Robert Sharf. 'Zen and the Art of Deconstruction.' History of Religions. (Feb 94, Vol. 33 Issue 3,1994.) In current academic and public vocabulary, being 'ahistorical' is a scholarly error and also carries ethical implications. The alleged anti-semitism in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ is said to be the result of Gibson's 'ahistorical' reading of the Bible. The extreme Islam Militarism is reported as rooted in an 'ahistorical' understanding of Islam teachings and history.


Dallmayr, Fred R.. G. W. F. Hegel: Modernity and Politics. London: Sage. 1993.

Duus, Peter, ed.. The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Faure, Bernard. Chan Insights and Oversights : an Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Heisig, James. Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School. University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Heisig, James and John Maraldo, eds. Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Minamoto, Ryoen. 'The Symposium on "Overcoming Modernity",' in James W. Heisig and John C. Marajdo, ed., The Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism.

Najita, Tetsuo and H. D. Harootunian, 'Japanese Revolt against the West: Political and Cultural Criticism in the Twentieth Century,' in Peter Duus, ed., The Cambridge History of Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 6: 711-774.

Nishitani, Keiji.  Interventions in the Chuokoron discussion of The World Historical Standpoint and Japan (Trans. J.W. Heisig). Chūōkōron, 25 March 1943, Accessed: 21 July 2006.

Okakura, Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. New York: Dover Publications, 1964.

Parkes, Graham. 'The Putative Fascism of the Kyoto School,' Philosophy East and West, Vol. 47 No. 3, 1997.

Sharf, Robert. 'Zen and the Art of Deconstruction,' History of Religions. Feb94, Vol. 33 Issue 3,1994.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. In Search of Wealth and Power.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

van Bragt, Jan. 'Kyoto Philosophy, Intrinsically Nationalistic?' in James W. Heisig and John C. Marajdo, ed., The Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism.

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About the author

Xiaofei Tu is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. He is currently a visiting instructor at Hendrix College in Arkansas, USA. His main field of research interest is in 20th century East Asian religions and philosophy.

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Copyright: Xiaofei Tu
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