Book review: “Japanese Environmental Philosophy”

J. Baird Callicott, James McRae, eds. Japanese Environmental Philosophy. New York Oxford University Press, 2017. xxiii + 310 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-045633-7.

The Oxford University Press website describes Japanese Environmental Philosophy as “an anthology that responds to the environmental problems of the 21st century by drawing from Japanese philosophical traditions to investigate our relationships with other humans, nonhuman animals, and the environment.” This is a fairly accurate description, and if I were to change only one word in it, it would probably be the word “response,” as the book does not offer a unitary “response” to the environmental crisis – there is no red thread connecting the essays to combine them in a single, undivided entity (this is not to say that there should be such a red thread). Instead, I would probably use the word “hints,” or “clues,” as, to my mind, this is what the anthology does in fact: it brings together various thinkers from different periods and different schools of thought in an attempt to offer bits of information, signs and pointers as to where we should look for an alternative approach to the effort to deal with the environmental problems we are facing right now.

The book is structured in five parts (“Nature in the Japanese Tradition of Thought,” “Human Nature and the Environment,” “Environmental Aesthetics,” “Nature and Japanese Culture,” and “Natural Disasters”), preceded by a foreword and an introduction and followed by an afterword. Each part contains three essays, which makes for an extremely well-balanced anthology. The authors are scholars from Japan, the United States, and Europe, most of them involved in research in Japanese philosophy. Before I discuss each of the parts, let me just say that at first sight, the book might look like a very heterogeneous collection of disparate articles unrelated to each other, as it covers topics ranging from Zen Buddhism and Shintō to the Kyōto School and the aesthetics of Japanese gardens; but this is, in my opinion, a powerful testament to the vibrant richness and diversity of Japanese philosophy.

The first part deals with different understandings of nature in Japanese thought and with their relevance for environmental philosophy. In chapter 1, Augustin Berque defines his stance as following what he calls a “historicized Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” and addresses Japanese attitudes toward nature starting from a discussion of the role and status of the subject and of the object in the Japanese language (p. 15). Thus, he argues that the Japanese language does not need a subject, but only a predicate, which is organized and codified “in all sorts of ways” – the absence of the subject entails a different kind of relationship with the environment, in which the focus is on the “ambient” (bamen in Japanese), where “one’s existence is implied by the things themselves” (p. 17). To exemplify how this notion of “ambient” appears in Japanese philosophy, Berque introduces Watsuji’s concept of fūdosei 風土性, which he translates as “mediance” in order to emphasize the fact that it represents an instance of mediation between the singularity of the milieu (fūdo) and the universality of the natural environment (shizen kankyō). He closes his essay with a discussion of Imanishi Kinji’s concept of shizengaku 自然学, for which he proposes the rendering “naturing science” to indicate the fact that science itself is actually part of the general flow of nature and that, therefore, the scientist should be perceived as an integral part of its subjecthood.

In chapter 2, Leah Kalmanson discusses the implications of Pure Land Buddhism for environmental philosophy. She opens her essay with a few considerations on the category of the “supernatural” and suggests that we should reframe our understanding of Pure Land Buddhism beyond the dichotomy transcendence/immanence, as a “supernatural force with the power to intervene in present conditions” (p. 31). She then examines the concepts of “self-power” (jiriki 自力) and “other-power” (tariki 他力) put forth by Pure Land thinker Shinran, suggesting that “other-power” (the compassion of Amida that warrants rebirth in the Pure Land) can be relevant for contemporary environmental philosophy and environmental activism. Kalmanson’s argument is that “other-power” understood as the activity of the Amida culminates in the cessation of selfish action, thus minimizing human beings’ interference with the natural world. In her view, the task of the philosopher is to render the “supernatural” visible “as a philosophical category worthy of sustained engagement” (p. 44).

In chapter 3, James McRae examines the concept of kyōsei 共生 (symbiosis), actively supported by Japanese businesses as a paradigm “to promote harmonious relationships between human beings and nonliving entities such as corporations” (p. 49). He cites Canon chairman Kaku Ryūzaburō, who applied kyōsei to corporate social responsibility, and who traces the origin of the concept back to seventeenth-century Confucian scholar Fujiwara Seika. McRae links kyōsei with other notions such as jita kyōei 自他共栄 (mutual flourishing) and seiryoku zenyō 精力善用 (maximum efficiency), indicating that it can be interpreted as the key philosophical paradigm of “zero-sumness” in the sense that is addresses anthropocentric concerns within an ecocentric framework. He also discusses the notion of  柔 (noninterference) in the context of land ethic, suggesting that it can provide the basis for an ethical and political theory which is not individualistic and atomistic. His conclusion is that kyōsei allows us to see all of our relationships as “creative opportunities for mutualism” whereby we can pursue human goals while simultaneously respecting the integrity of the environment (p. 59).

The second part deals with the relationship between human beings and their environment (social, political, or natural). In chapter 4, Graham Parkes discusses the issue of ecological engagement starting from the observation that the passive attitude toward global warming (which he calls “pathological behavior”) stems from the anthropocentric tradition in the West, which tends to view the human being “as separate from, and superior to, all other beings in the natural world” (p. 65). He then examines the human-nature relationship in the writings of Kūkai and Dōgen, focusing on the centrality of somatic practices in their philosophies. He analyzes Kūkai’s ideas of sokushin jōbutsu 即身成仏 and hosshin seppō 法身説法 to suggest that all natural phenomena, since they deliver “sermons and scriptures” in a primordial language (p. 71), should be worthy of our attention. In Dōgen’s case, he cites the idea of jū hō i 住法位, the “dharma-position” of each phenomenon which, while occupying a unique position in the world, construes it at the same time from that particular vantage point. Parkes’s conclusion is that even though Kūkai’s and Dōgen’s philosophies do not constitute environmental ethics in themselves, they advocate a way of life that involves active participation in the dynamic functioning of the world.

In chapter 5, Inutsuka Yū examines Watsuji Tetsurō’s concept of fūdo to suggest that the natural environment should be understood as something intrinsic to and within human existence. Inutsuka first introduces Watsuji’s notion of “sensational interaction” (which he develops in his critique of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time), suggesting that it should be seen as a key factor in the self-understanding of Dasein since it underlies all interactions between human beings – “my act of seeing you is already determined by your act of seeing me” (p. 96). Inutsuka then discusses Watsuji’s adage that fūdo, through its repetitive phenomena, implies a rhythmic aspect of all human activities; therefore, the environment is not an entity external to human existence, but it is rather realized in in-betweenness, the dynamic interplay between the individual and social dimensions of the human being. She concludes by hinting at the fact that Watsuji’s understanding of the rhythmic nature of human existence integrates the environment into human ethics.

In chapter 6, Steve Bein starts from the assumption that climate change represents an existentialist threat in the sense that it challenges “our very mode of being-in-the-world” (p. 105). In order to better understand this threat, Bein proposes to use a model which combines Watsuji’s philosophical notions of “human existence” (ningen sonzai 人間存在) and “climate” (fūdo 風土) with semiotician Algirdas Greimas’s conceptual tool of the semantic square. In Bein’s demonstration, the two aspects of the human being in Watsuji’s philosophy – nin (the person) and gen (the in-betweenness) – are seen as existing dialectically, engaged in creative tension. However, the relationship between them is extremely fragile, as focusing on nin and disregarding gen may result in radical egoism, while indulging gen and disregarding nin may result in the totalitarian state. Bein suggests that, for this relationship to work, the two aspects “ought to be held in proper balance” and that, extrapolating, human beings and climate should also be held in proper balance p. 115). His conclusion is that in order to properly understand and deal with the environmental crisis we need to go through a cultural change which also implies an individual change, of our place in the world.

The third part is dedicated to environmental aesthetics, a subdiscipline (or, transdiscipline) at the crossing between environmental philosophy and aesthetics. In chapter 7, Steve Odin focuses on Alfred Whitehead’s process metaphysics, particularly on the idea that nature is an organization of perspectives. The author draws a parallel between this notion and the Buddhist image of Indra’s Net – a metaphor for nature as a multitude of perspectives reflecting totality from a point of view – and also refers to the Confucian principle of shu 恕 (putting oneself in another’s place). After discussing the various reformulations of Whitehead’s perspectivism put forth by George Herbert Mead, Lawrence Kohlberg and Jürgen Habermas, Odin proposes that theories of “perspective-taking” can be used as a basis for what he calls a “Japanese-Whiteheadian process model of environmental ethics and ecological aesthetics” (p. 123). His argument is that human beings can acquire the capacity to put themselves into the multiple perspectives of the others in the whole biotic community; thus, the procedure of perspective-taking is developed into a higher state of moral consciousness which can represent the foundation of a new transcultural paradigm of land aesthetics and ethics.

In chapter 8, Yuriko Saitō discusses the art of improving nature as seen in Japanese gardens, starting from the observation that, even though both Japanese and Western gardens have in common the goal of representing an ideal image of nature, in the former the “voice” of nature is heard more clearly. This, Saitō continues, is achieved in two ways that were originally postulated in the eleventh century by Tachibana-no-Toshitsuna: firstly, through the creation of scenic effect, wherein the representational function of the garden is rather emotive and atmospheric; and secondly, through the principle of “following the request,” which refers to bringing out and enhancing the essential features of an object in several steps: close observation, selection, subtraction et cetera. She also examines the influence of Zen Buddhism, particularly the fundamental belief that all things are Buddha-nature, and then goes on to suggest that, due to these influences, Japanese gardens are designed in such a way as to present nature “as we experience it, rather than as we think of it” (p. 153). Her conclusion is that the aesthetic of the Japanese garden is an embodiment of a respectful attitude toward nature.

In chapter 9, Yamauchi Tomosaburō explores the connection between nature, love, and morality through a comparison of Plato’s and Kuki Shūzō’s philosophical systems. Yamauchi argues that the influence of Plato’s views of humans and social ethics is too important to be neglected, and that if we want to understand the problematic nature of some of the Western environmental views we should look more carefully into Platonic metaphysics; his suggestion is to begin by examining Plato’s theory of love, as it is fundamental in the relationship between human beings and nature. As a counterbalance to Plato, Yamauchi proposes Kuki’s philosophy of contingency – which he calls “a sort of philosophy of nothingness” – because it puts forth a world in which being and nothingness are two sides of the same coin (p. 171). It follows that, since there is no permanence of forms, the perception of the world from the perspective of nothingness may be more valuable. Yamauchi closes by suggesting that, in Kuki’s philosophy, love of nature is the fundamental ground of value and that accepting this idea can facilitate people’s resignation of selfish desires.

The fourth part focuses on the role that nature plays in Japanese culture and the ways in which it influences environmental ethics. In chapter 10, Toyoda Mitsuyo starts from the assumption that local narratives can represent a valuable resource of hints and teachings about how to live in accordance with the environment. She cites Aldo Leopold’s concept of “land ethic” as an attempt to overcome the view of nature as human property, and then moves on to discuss Japanese narratives of the land, which “illustrate an unpredictable spontaneous power of nature that continuously generates life” (p. 184). Toyoda examines an episode from the Kojiki – Susanoo’s fight with the giant serpent – through the lenses of Watsuji’s concept of fūdo and of Kuwako Toshio’s notion of kūkan no rireki 空間の履歴 (spatial resume), emphasizing the idea that nature has been respected in Japan as the source of life. Her conclusion is that, if people lose the connection with the land through their everyday experience, then “land ethic” becomes an abstract notion, and that scientific accounts of nature alone are not sufficient for understanding its richness and its aesthetic value.

In chapter 11, Midori Kagawa-Fox investigates the role that Japanese culture has played in the development of environmental thought. She starts with a brief overview of Japanese philosophy and then discusses three historical examples of catastrophic damage to Japan’s environment: the Ashio copper mine pollution problem, the Minamata disease, and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. She suggests that, in order to understand why these problems occurred and to prevent any future disasters, we should look into the indigenous Shintō religion, paying particular attention to the concept of kami. The cultural belief in kami has contributed to the development of a consciousness of coexistence between human beings and the environment, and thus informs all attitudes toward nature in Japan. The author concludes that the “seeds” for Japanese environmental philosophy are to be found within religious, cultural, and social values.

In chapter 12, Goda Hiroko examines kagura 神楽 folk dance plays from the perspective of environmental mythological studies in an attempt to show how they reflect an environmental philosophy. She presents two case studies of kagura, one from Takachiho in Miyazaki Prefecture and one from Iwami in Shimane Prefecture, analyzing them within the framework of “embodied subjectivity,” the cognition of life as inherent in all things. Thus, kagura plays can be understood as instances where the invisible power of divinity becomes manifest in the environment, as they remind the community where they are performed about “environmental sensitivity.”

The fifth part investigates the notion of “natural disasters”, focusing on the ways in which human beings can understand and prepare for them. In chapter 13, Takahashi Takao discusses the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, putting forth the idea of “co-disaster” to stress the fact that the meltdown in Fukushima affected not only Japan, but the world as a whole. He then goes on to examine the view of nature to be found in old Japanese myths, identifying three main characteristics: ontology, epistemology, and morality, suggesting that ancient Japanese thought is worth considering as a possible framework for environmental ethics. Takahashi proposes that disaster prevention should be added to the list of principles of environmental ethics; in his view, the absence of a debate about prevention from the environmental agenda is in fact due to what he calls “cryptic anthropocentrism,” that is, the idea that we human beings have power of control over nature and that we should therefore strive to conserve and protect it.

In chapter 14, Ishida Masato starts from the premise that humans and environment form a single continuum and examines whether and how we can be continuous with land waste or radioactive waste such as what resulted after the accident at Fukushima. To try and answer these questions, he first analyzes the Buddhist concept of “nondualism,” which implies that things in themselves cannot be intrinsically “good” of “evil,” “dirty” or “clean” – uranium ore is just as much a part of nature as water or air. Ishida then turns to Dōgen’s philosophy, focusing on the distinction he makes between things and acts; thus, he suggests that the cause of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima does not lie in the material used to produce electricity, but in our acts as human beings, which places the moral responsibility upon us. Citing copiously from various passages where Dōgen discusses Buddha-nature or the act of washing, Ishida concludes by stating that, since each of our acts affects its presencing in the world, thus rendering it good or bad, we must take responsibility and “simply commit to cleaning” (p. 261).

In chapter 15, Kuwako Toshio puts forth the idea of planetary philosophy – understood as a new model for human action directed toward the environment – starting from two theoretical and practical notions he developed: “placement of body” and “historical profile of space.” He exemplifies with his own work in applied environmental ethics by discussing the flood control project on the Ohashi River. Kuwako’s stance is that changes in spatial structure change the history and culture of the community concerned and that, therefore, any project should take into account the traditions of the local community and its beliefs about the relationship between humans and nature, and try to solve conflicts by creative consensus-building. Kuwako’s conclusion is that planetary philosophy must maintain a global viewpoint to ascertain the way in which our actions affect nature on the entire planet, while at the same time paying attention to the local scale of human activities.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, definitely, for two main reasons. Firstly, it is, to my knowledge, one of the most (if not the most) comprehensive collections dealing with environmental philosophy in Japan. And even though at times it seems to equate environmental philosophy and environmental ethics, leaving the reader somewhat puzzled, it is abundant in ideas, hints, and clues that can help us develop a new frame of mind to help us deal with contemporary environmental problems. Secondly, it is structured upon the premise that “philosophy” should not be understood in a narrow sense (e.g., the Graeco-European tradition), but broadly as the practice of thinking about the world. The authors of the anthology do not state this anywhere, but it is clear from their inclusion of thinkers as diverse as Dōgen and Kūkai, Watsuji and Imanishi that their stance on philosophy is very open and inclusive. This comes in the wake of efforts made by authors such as John Maraldo and Justin Smith to expand the understanding of philosophy beyond the practices that are coextensive with the term and, as such, a laudable effort.[1]

There are also a few caveats to the book. As I mentioned above, it is not always clear what the difference is between environmental philosophy and environmental ethics; for some authors, they seem to designate the same thing, while for others they are separate disciplines. I felt that a clarification might be necessary. Also, I found that some of the essays in the book were somewhat tributary to an orientalizing discourse that emphasizes the “uniqueness” of Japan and its language, culture, view of nature, et cetera, while others seem to equate modernization and Westernization. I think both these stances are problematic, as they they tend to oversimplify various developments and phenomena where a more complex and nuanced analysis would be required.[2] Last but not least, there were surprisingly many typographical errors: missing prepositions or articles, misspelled words, absent punctuation marks, et cetera – not major mistakes, but still they sometimes affect the reading process. This is all the more surprising as the book is published by Oxford University Press and I, for one, expected higher standards.

In the afterword to the book, J. Baird Callicott notes that “a good environmental philosophy is necessarily a just and honest environmental philosophy” (p. 302). I could not agree more with this adage, but I would also note that this observation perhaps stands (or, should stand) true in relation to philosophy in general, not just to environmental philosophy. At the same time, I found myself wanting more after reading it. The sentence comes at the very end of the book, just before the last one, and it actually made me wonder about what constitutes in fact a “just” and “honest” philosophy. Food for thought.


[1]. John C. Maraldo, “Japanese Philosophy as a Lens on Greco-European Thought,” Journal of Japanese Philosophy 1 (2013): 21-56; and Justin E. H. Smith, The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[2]. See Kaori Okano and Yoshio Sugimoto, eds., Rethinking Japanese Studies: Eurocentrism and the Asia-Pacific Region (London and New York: Routledge, 2017).


Reviewed by Roman Pașca (Kanda University of International Studies)
Published on H-Japan (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin. 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

seventeen + eleven =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.