Environmental Philosophy in Japan

In Japan, environmental philosophy widely conceived includes three trends: traditional, practical and westernized. The traditional trend approaches environmental philosophy from the perspective of Japanese traditions of thought, such as Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. For centuries, thinkers such as the Zen Buddhist monk Dōgen (1200-1253) discussed and engaged in spiritual and religious practices as tools to uncover the relation between the human self and the world, including the natural world. Since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Japanese scholars such as Testurō Watsuji (1889-1960) and Kumagusu Minakata (1867-1941) have developed theories that explore the closely intertwined relations between human beings, cultural and social identity and the local environment and climate.

The practical trend is driven by grassroots environmental social movements. Japanese environmentalism began with Shōzō Tanaka (1841-1913)’s fight against the pollution from the Ashio Copper Mine in the late 19th Century. In the 1960s, the environmental movement gained wider public support in response to several cases of severe industrial pollution including the Minamata case of mercury poisoning. Artists and researchers played a central role. For example, Kazuko Tsurumi (1918-2006) and Iwao Munakata (1920-2007) conducted interviews with patients suffering from the Minamata disease and showed that many held animist beliefs rooted in their traditional ways of life close to nature as fishermen and farmers.  Later, in the 1980s, groups of housewives who witnessed first-hand the consequences of environmental degradation became the frontrunners of grassroots environmental movements, winning court cases and raising awareness on environmental issues such as the purification of rivers poisoned by synthetic detergent. At the same period, female writers such as Yayoi Aoki (1927-2009) and Reiko Watanuki (1928-2012) developed an ecofeminist critique in the Japanese context.

Finally, the westernized trend is the importation and discussion of Western environmental philosophy by Japanese scholars such as Hisatake Kato. By the 1990s, many works written by Western scholars were translated into Japanese and discussed by Japanese scholars working within Western-originated philosophical traditions.  The work of the German philosopher Hans Jonas was particularly influential. Still now, academic environmental philosophy in Japan is centred Western literature and philosophical tradition.

These three trends (traditional, practical and westernized) tend to mutually support and feed each other. For example, Takeshi Umehara (1925-2019) argued that the animist ideas of coexistence with nature that appeared in interviews with farmers and fishermen could be traced back to pre-Buddhist Jomon and Ainu cultures. Another example is the founder of The Society for the Study of Environmental Thought and Education (環境思想・教育研究会), the Western philosophy scholar Shuji Ozeki who conducts research in collaboration with grassroots environmental activists.

Recommended readings

  • Japanese Environmental Philosophy, edited by J. Baird Callicott and James McRae, Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Timothy S. George, Minamata: Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan, Harvard University Asia Center, 2002.
  • Lam Peng-Er, Green Politics in Japan, Routledge, 2005.
  • Shoko Yoneyama, Animism in Contemporary Japan: Voices for the Anthropocene from post-Fukushima Japan, Routledge, 2018.

By Orika Komatsubara and Laÿna Droz

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