In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Japanese Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Philosophy Japanese Philosophy
Tomomi Asakura
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0370


Japanese philosophy can be viewed, in a very simple way, as consisting of three historical phases: the classical thought, modern philosophy, and contemporary philosophy. In the first and classical phase, theoretical speculation in Japan is usually seen as a variation of East Asian intellectual tradition. Japanese thinkers from the seventh century to the eighteenth century used to work in this cultural sphere, which basically consists of Confucianism and Sinicized Buddhism, using classical Chinese for formal writing; they are by no means blind followers of Chinese thinkers, contributing to the development of philosophical speculation in the East Asian framework. During the Edo period (1603–1868), however, some thinkers started to depart from this framework by drawing either on the indigenous culture or on the knowledge of occidental civilization, which eventually led to the modernization, or Westernization, of Japanese society. The second, or modern, phase of Japanese philosophy began with the full-fledged introduction of Western philosophy during the Meiji period (1868–1912). As a result, there arose a theoretical task to synthesize Eastern and Western frameworks, and many pioneering works were produced in the first half of the twentieth century. The best-known modern Japanese philosopher is Nishida Kitarō (b. 1870–d. 1945). The Kyoto school of philosophy was formed through his influence, which shares the ambition to make “contributions to philosophy” with the Eastern tradition—especially Mahayana Buddhism—in the background. However, the Kyoto school had fallen into disrepute in the mid-twentieth century when Japan underwent a tremendous social and cultural change. The third and contemporary phase of Japanese philosophy spans from the postwar reconstruction of Japan to the present, when eminent researchers gather in the University of Tokyo and lead philosophical studies under the framework either of analytic or continental context, mostly refraining from mentioning the Eastern tradition. Recent philosophical research in Japan is increasingly getting free from such academic frameworks, producing some remarkable results; however, most of these contemporary works remain little known overseas.

General Overviews

These works give the overview of Japanese philosophy from a historical perspective that is more or less focused either on premodern or modern times. Davis 2020 gives a balanced presentation of Japanese philosophy throughout its history, covering both the classic thoughts and modern philosophies. Heisig, et al. 2011 also covers the whole history and presents various primary-source materials in English translation. Fujita 2018, on the other hand, is focused on modern philosophy, presenting a comprehensive account of modern Japanese philosophy from a perspective that is somewhat typical to the Kyoto school. Krummel 2019 gives an anthology of Japanese philosophy after 1945, and Yusa 2017 discusses the contemporary situation of philosophy in Japan. Kopf 2019 gives a penetrating account of Japan’s Buddhist-oriented philosophy, mostly focused on classic thinkers and their theories. Kasulis 2017 chooses several historical figures and gives a readable account of their theories. Ienaga, et al. 1970–1982 is the major collection of premodern theoretical and religious texts in original languages. (For the East Asian tradition in general, see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Philosophy Chinese Philosophy.)

  • Davis, Bret W., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    A well-balanced and authoritative overview of Japanese intellectual history with a particular focus on the question what Japanese philosophy has been and should be, covering the whole history of Japanese intellectual history. Although most chapters are historical in perspective, relevant philosophical questions are also discussed by renowned researchers of Japanese philosophies. One of the best scholarly introductions to Japanese philosophy currently available in English.

  • Fujita, Masakatsu. Nihon Tetsugakushi (日本哲学史). Kyoto: Shōwadō, 2018.

    (A History of Japanese Philosophy.)Widely regarded as the most authoritative narrative of modern Japanese philosophy, it covers a wide range of modern philosophical endeavor in Japan. Because the term tetsugaku (philosophy) is usually considered to be “occidental” in origin, historical figures considered by the author are restricted to the “modern” philosophers after the Meiji restoration. Yet, this book perhaps gives the best overview of modern Japanese philosophy in general.

  • Kasulis, Thomas. Engaging Japanese Philosophy: A Short History. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780824873837

    A highly readable historical account of Japan’s classic thinkers and modern philosophers that covers a span of 1,400 years and various styles of thinking, focusing on several outstanding figures. Those figures include medieval Buddhist monks such as Kūkai, Shinran, and Dōgen, an Edo-period Confucian thinker Ogyū Sorai, an Edo-period nationalist scholar Motoori Norinaga, and modern philosophers, such as Nishida Kitarō and Watsuji Tetsurō.

  • Kopf, Gereon, ed. The Dao Companion to Japanese Buddhist Philosophy. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Nature, 2019.

    Gives an overview of Japanese philosophy with a particular focus on the Buddhist tradition, covering some Buddhism-related philosophical topics in Part 1 and discussing individual thinkers from the medieval to the present Japanese Buddhist-inspired thinkers in Part 2. This book contains some in-depth examinations of historical as well as contemporary philosophical topics from a Buddhist perspective.

  • Heisig, James, Thomas Kasulis, and John Maraldo, eds. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011.

    An anthology of Japanese philosophical texts throughout its history, available in English and with excellent introductory notes that offer an excellent overview of Japanese philosophy.

  • Ienaga Saburō, Ishimoda Tadashi, Inoue Mitsusada, et al., eds. Nihon shisō taikei (日本思想大系). 67 vols. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1970–1982.

    (Collection of Japanese Thought.) A major collection of premodern philosophical texts in its original language, with scholarly introductions and useful commentaries—an indispensable tool for the advanced readers.

  • Krummel, John W. M., ed. Contemporary Japanese Philosophy: A Reader. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

    A collection of selected essays by postwar Japanese philosophers that offers a general overview of Japanese philosophy after the Kyoto school. Contains important texts by such figures as Ohmori, Hiromatsu, and Sakabe, among others; also includes a few recent philosophical discussions.

  • Yusa, Michiko, ed. The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

    A collection of surveys that offers an account of modern Japanese philosophy and current intellectual trends that include political thought, aesthetics, and feminist philosophy.

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