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National Communion: Watsuji Tetsuro's Conception of Ethics, Power, and the Japanese Imperial State

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 56, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 84-105 | 10.1353/pew.2006.0004

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National Communion:
Watsuji Tetsurō's Conception of Ethics, Power, and the Japanese Imperial State

Watsuji Tetsurō defined ethics as being generated by a double negation: the individual's negation of the community and the self-negation of the individual who returns to the community. Thus, ethics for him is based on the individual's sacrifice for the collectivity. This position results in the conception of the community as an absolute. I contend that there is a congruence between Watsuji's conception of ethics as self-sacrifice and the way he perceived the Japanese political system. To him, the imperial system in Japan is based on the organic unity of the Japanese people, represented by the emperor, who embodies the general will of, and is therefore coterminous with, the Japanese nation.

The relationship between power and individual freedom is basic to any definition of morals or ethics.1 Ethics, after all, are culturally defined rules of conduct—although most elaborations of ethics are based on so-called universal principles, rooted in a sort of absolute, be it God, the cosmos, or nature—that are imposed one way or another upon individuals who have the capacity to choose between various modes of action. This definition of ethics implies, on the one hand, in Foucault's words, the presence in all societies of a "mode of subjection" (mode d'assujettissement) (Foucault 1982, p. 239), which, through various normalizing practices, leads to the fact that "people ... recognize their moral obligations" (ibid., p. 239; Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982, p. 258). The rules of conduct that constitute the mode of subjection can be implicit or explicit, depending on the way they are imposed (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1992, p. 22). On the other hand, this definition implies a choice of conduct by individuals, which in turn supposes a certain measure of freedom of action (Foucault 1982, pp. 218-221). It is this relationship between power and freedom that I wish to examine here in the works of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960), as it relates to his conception of ethics and of the Japanese imperial state. To be more precise, the object of this article is to analyze the relation between the disappearance of power in Watsuji's treatment of the Japanese political organization and his ethical positions, whereby the individual's only truly moral choice is self-sacrifice for the community. My contention is that Watsuji's universalist philosophical positions, presented in the first section below, are similar to his conception of Japan's polity, which is the object of the second section, and can be explained only through his treatment of what he saw as Japan's particular political system and values.2

The second part and the conclusion of this article are an elaboration on Sakai Naoki's position that the relation between the whole (the Japanese imperial state as representative of the nation) and the individual in Watsuji's philosophy is a sort of "immanentism" (Nancy 1990, p. 16),3 a relation whereby the whole is immanent in the individual and the individual immanent in the whole (Sakai 1997, pp. 10l-113). As Sakai shows, this type of relation between the whole and the individual implies a rejection of coercion, or violence, of the whole (the state) on the parts (the individuals), that is, it implies "a state that 'leads' but does not 'dominate'" (Sakai 1997, p. 112). These propositions of Sakai's can be elaborated on through an analysis of Watsuji's writings, and this is what is attempted here.4 [End Page 84]

Watsuji defined his ethical system by borrowing both from traditional Oriental philosophy and religion and from Western philosophy. His position is indeed constructed in good part by using Buddhism against, or in counterpoint to, various Western philosophical writings, ranging from Kant and Hegel to Husserl and Heidegger (Bernier 1998). One of his major works, Fūdo (Watsuji 1935a), starts with an explanation of how he became aware of the importance of "climaticity"5 in human relations after reading Sein und Zeitby Heidegger in Berlin in 1927 (Watsuji 1935a, pp. 1-2):

I found myself intrigued by the attempt to treat the structure...