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  • Reasons for the Rubble:Watsuji Tetsurō's Position in Japan'S Postwar Debate about Rationality
  • William R. LaFleur

The postwar shape and direction of the thought of Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960) was, according to Furukawa Tetsushi, adumbrated already during the final months of the Pacific War. This is made clear by the topic that Watsuji proposed for a study group he organized at that time, a group that had its first meeting on March 7, 1945, approximately five months before the end of the war. The theme of the discussions was "An Attempt to Rethink the Tokugawa Period [1600–1868]."1 The group met in a Shinjuku restaurant, but because of the heavy bombing of Tokyo, did so during a period when much of Japan's capital was being reduced to rubble.

In terms of Watsuji's own writing, the most obvious result of the study group's pursuit was his Sakoku: Nihon no higeki (Closed nation: Japan's tragedy),2 published in 1950, although Uzumoreta Nihon (Buried Japan),3 a collection of essays published in 1951, also shows the direct influence of the same considerations. Sakoku was subtitled "Japan's Tragedy," although critics of Watsuji dubbed it a misnomer; some who read that work as a flawed attempt by Watsuji to explain the war wagged that its subtitle should really have been "Watsuji's Tragedy."4

Sakoku, as one of Watsuji's better known works, is also one of the most controversial. During 1984 and 1985, while interviewing former colleagues and associates of Watsuji, I discovered that even some who otherwise usually find themselves in agreement with what he wrote are often fairly critical of Sakoku. The Kyoto School philosopher Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990), for instance, told me in conversation that, although he greatly admired Watsuji and agreed with him, Sakoku was a work he himself had not much appreciated when it appeared.

My interest here lies in exploring in what ways Sakoku tells us something significant about Watsuji's position as a philosopher in the postwar period. In some ways the taking up of this question may seem to fly in the face of what seems to be the clearly nonphilosophical character of that work. In it Watsuji seems on the surface to be more than ever preoccupied with history. That is, on an initial reading Sakoku may seem thin in terms of explicitly philosophical content. This objection, however, overlooks the fact that in the postwar context Watsuji became very much concerned with articulating his view of the relationship between philosophy and history. I will try here to show that, especially if Sakoku is read in close conjunction with other of his writings roughly contemporaneous with it, Watsuji arrived at a point of view that is both interesting and instructive. In particular I suggest here that his changing view of the significance of Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is worthy of [End Page 1] very serious attention—a matter that, at least to my knowledge, has not been noted to date. I will then explore what this may imply for an understanding of Watsuji's views on the question of "rationality" in Japanese life, a problem that was much mooted throughout most of what we now identify as Japan's "postwar" period. Finally, inasmuch as Bacon figures importantly in some recent reformations of the history of modern philosophy in the West, a nexus between these and our interpretation of Watsuji will be suggested. At that point I will try especially to draw out the significance of comments by Richard Rorty on the debate between Jürgen Habermas and Jean-François Lyotard concerning "postmodernity," since this, too, I suggest, may help to assist in a reassessment of Watsuji Tetsurō specifically and some aspects of modern Japanese philosophy more generally.


The starting point here is with the hypothesis that Watsuji's philosophical point ought not to be lost in the welter of detail and fascinating historical narrative that constitute the bulk of Sakoku. Nevertheless, the argument he makes from history also needs to be recalled. In this work, published only five years after the end of the Pacific War, Watsuji's basic intention was to trace the etiology of...