- The War Over the Kyoto School
The political position of Kyoto School philosophers has been controversial ever since they were first identified by Tosaka Jun in 1931 as a group of thinkers who developed or responded to the "bourgeois" philosophy of Nishida Kitarō . Tosaka named Tanabe Hajime , Nishida's younger colleague at the Imperial University of Kyoto, as the prime mover in the development of the school.1 But just who else should be included in what Tosaka termed the Kyōto gakuha is itself an unsettled matter, and one reason is that the political positions of its "members" are so varied.2 Indeed Tosaka himself, as a one-time student of Nishida, is often included as a member despite his Marxist leanings and early distancing from his teacher. For all this variation, the political controversy has tended to focus on a single issue: the alleged support of these thinkers for Japan's war with other nations in the 1930s and 40s. To put the question in one particularly acute form, did the philosophers' application of the idea of an "East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" (Tōa kyōeiken) support the government's war ideology or did it criticize it? The controversy over this single issue, however, has been two-pronged: the matter of what exactly the philosophers' positions were, and the matter of whether these positions were "right" or justified.
Tanabe advocated a kind of social democracy and the need for an ethnic state as early as the 1920s; Nishida began to write specifically on political problems in the mid-1930s; and in the 1940s they and their disciples publicly spoke out on the place of Japan in the world and the rationale for war. Their views managed to rouse the ire of both unquestioning patriots during the war and those who, in [End Page 375] the postwar period, sharply criticized wartime policies. Marxists also criticized Nishida both before and after the war. Nishida died in July 1945; Tanabe retired and retreated into the mountains, and protégés like Nishitani Keiji were banned from their Kyoto University positions until 1952. In the ensuing years the controversy grew alternately louder and softer, issuing in public discussions such as a roundtable in 1965 engaging Ōshima Yasumasa , Furukawa Tesshi , Takeyama Michio , and others,3 and critical analyses such as Takeuchi Yoshimi's in the republication of the text of the forum on "Overcoming Modernity" originally held in 1942.4
Outside Japan, intellectual historians such as Tatsuo Arima, author of The Failure of Freedom: A Portrait of Modern Japanese Intellectuals, occasionally and vicariously put the Kyoto School on trial.5 Controversy flared up again starting in 1987 with allegedly new revelations concerning Heidegger's involvement in Nazism-under the assumption that the mistake of the Kyoto School philosophers was akin to Heidegger's. In 1988 the journal Gendai shisō devoted an issue to fascism that included a nuanced article by Karatani Kōjin on De Man Heidegger, and Nishida, and another by Nakamura Yūjirō on "The Case of Nishida Kitarō." At the same time, a few other scholars proposed that Nishida's and Nishitani's visions of a new international order offer valuable suggestions for Japan's role in the world today.6 The momentum of the controversy propelled it well beyond the confines of academia. In Japan over the years I have met people in many walks of life, both old and young, who refuse even to read Nishida and Kyoto School thinkers because they are associated with the war and its untold suffering.
All the while, as translations of Kyoto School thinkers increased, a group of philosophers and theologians in the Americas and Europe, oblivious of the political controversy, continued to find in Nishida and the Kyoto School profound Buddhist alternatives to perennial philosophical and religious...