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  • Nothingness in the Heart of Empire: The Moral and Political Philosophy of the Kyoto School in Imperial Japan by Harumi Osaki
  • Michiko Yusa (bio)
Nothingness in the Heart of Empire: The Moral and Political Philosophy of the Kyoto School in Imperial Japan. By Harumi Osaki. SUNY Press, Albany NY, 2019. xii, 292 pages. $85.00.

The present book, originally written as a doctoral dissertation, is composed of two parts. Part 1 deals with the "philosophy of global history" (sekaishi no tetsugaku) as developed by the four Kyoto School thinkers, Nishitani Keiji, Kōsaka Masaaki, Kōyama Iwao, and Suzuki Shigetaka. This segment focuses on the Sekaishiteki tachiba to Nihon, the published discussions, organized by the publisher Chūōkōron-sha, which took place November 26, 1941, and March 4 and November 24, 1942. These highly publicized discussions came to be known as "the Chūō kōron Discussions" and have been considered by postwar Marxist scholars as exhibiting the existence of shared wartime sentiment among Japanese intellectuals, along with a roundtable discussion on "Overcoming Modernity" (Kindai no chōkoku), sponsored by the literary journal Bungakukai, which took place July 23–24, 1942.

In part 2, Nishida Kitarō's notion of "absolute nothingness" is examined as the pernicious principle that supported the ideology of the superiority of the Japanese race. Nishida's texts "Watakushi no tachiba kara mita Hēgeru no benshōhō" (Hegelian dialectic seen from my standpoint, 1931) and "Kokka riyū no mondai" (The problem of the raison d'état, 1941) are analyzed in this segment.1

Harumi Osaki's argument may be summarized as follows. The four Kyoto School thinkers inherited their mentor Nishida's idea of absolute nothingness, elaborated on it, and made it into an ideology that justified Japan's position as the "leader" of East Asia and supported Japan's imperialistic ambitions and colonialist activities, which escalated into the Pacific War. Osaki argues that these Kyoto School thinkers focused on the idea of subjectivity (shutaisei) and elevated it to "the national subjectivity." They turned this particular Japanese subjectivity into a universal agent by blurring the boundary between "the national and the international." Osaki further argues that this intellectual penchant to universalize Japanese particularity obfuscated the line between a philosophical ideal and actual geopolitical reality. In this way, the Kyoto School thinkers produced an ideology [End Page 210] that supported the Japanese imperialist agenda and the war in question. The author further asserts that this conflation of the particular (i.e., Japan) and the universal had its hotbed in Nishida's notion of "absolute nothingness," which found "its best embodiment" in the nation of Japan and which "concretized itself" into Japan's "primal ethnic society," as "the origin of humanity" (p. 239).

Before we proceed, let me make a textual comment concerning the transcript of the three discussions originally appearing in Chūō kōron. Osaki has adopted these articles as her primary source and refers to each by an abbreviation of its original title provided by the publisher (SN, ST, and TRR).2 These important texts are then listed under "Kōsaka Masaaki et al." in the bibliography (p. 277), and whenever a passage is quoted from these texts, it is followed by the abbreviation (SN, ST, or TRR) and the page number(s). This practice made it extremely difficult for me to find the original Japanese text to check the translation, as well as to trace the chronological order of quoted passages. It was not helpful in terms of understanding how the discussions may have unfolded and in what contexts the individual statements by these four different thinkers should be placed.

This decontextualization reveals Osaki's hermeneutical stance, namely that a statement can be considered outside its context, almost as if the parts don't relate to the whole. (I address the concrete implications of such an approach below.) Indeed, Osaki could have more easily chosen the book edition of the Chūō kōron Discussions.3

Osaki's work comes out of the tradition of scholarship that was mounted by "leftist thinkers" in the wake of Japan's defeat in World War II to rid Japan of the ghost of its past by blaming...

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