Watsuji Tetsuro

From New World Encyclopedia

Tetsuro Watsuji (和辻 哲郎 Watsuji Tetsurō) (March 1, 1889 - December 26, 1960) was a Japanese moral philosopher who was a cultural and intellectual historian. He studied and wrote about both Western and Eastern philosophy, and was instrumental in reawakening an interest in ancient Buddhist art and sculpture among Japanese intellectuals. As a scholar of Asian philosophy he was dissatisfied with the individualism of Martin Heidegger and other European philosophers, and proposed the concept of 'aidagara,' the view of human existence in relation to countless social, cultural and natural influences.


Watsuji Tetsuro was born in 1889 in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, the second son of a physician named Mizutaro. He practiced medicine not for the income it brought, but as a service to humanity. Tetsuro Watsuji grew up observing his father responding to any emergency regardless of the time of day, bad weather, distance, or even the patient's ability to pay for his services. Everyday Tetsuro walked six kilometers to school, but he could not ask his father for a bicycle because of his father’s example of self-discipline and simplicity. After graduating from Himeji Middle School, Tetsuro entered the First Higher School in Tokyo, a dignified and prestigious school. Under Principal Nitobe Inazo, an influential educator, Watsji began to expand his knowledge of art, literature and ethics. In 1912 he graduated from the Tokyo Imperial University with a degree in philosophy. For his graduation thesis he first chose Friedrich Nietzsche, but because his faculty did not approve, had to write about Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimism. He entered a postgraduate course and married Takase Teruko; a daughter, Kyoko, was born in 1914.

During his teens and early twenties his works were mainly literature and literary criticism. He displayed an interest in Western literature, especially in the poet Lord Byron. He participated in the literary coterie magazine, “Shinshicho” with his friend Tanizaki Jyunichiro, who later became a famous writer. At that time the brilliant novelist Natsume Soseki was very influential in the Japanese literary scene. Watsuji met Soseki in 1913 and joined his study group. Between 1913 and 1915 he introduced the work of Søren Kierkegaard to Japan, as well as working on Friedrich Nietzsche, but in 1918 he turned against this earlier position and began criticizing Western philosophical individualism and attacking its influence on Japanese thought and life. This led to a study of the roots of Japanese culture, including Japanese Buddhist art, and notably the work of the medieval Zen Buddhist Dogen.

In 1920 Watsuji became a lecturer at Tokyo University. He became professor at Hosei University in 1922, at Keio University in 1922-23, and at Tsuda Eigaku-jiku in 1922-24. The famous philosophical group (Kyoto School of Philosopy), centered on Nishida Kitaro, asked him to teach, and Watsuji reached a crucial juncture in his life. In 1925 Watsuji became an assistant professor of ethics at Kyoto University, joining the other leading philosophers of the time, Nishida Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime.

In 1927 Watsuji went to Germany to study, and this experience became the inspiration for his later masterpiece, Fudo. Next year he returned to Japan because of his father’s death, and 1931 he became professor at Kyoto University. The next year he earned his doctorate degree with a thesis on The Practical Philosophy of Primitive (Early) Buddhism. He also taught at Otani University. In 1933 he became a professor of ethics at Tokyo Imperial University. He held the university's chair in ethics from 1934 until 1949. During World War II his ethical theories (which claimed the superiority of Japanese approaches to and understanding of human nature and ethics, and argued for the negation of self) provided support for certain nationalistic military factions, for which he later expressed his regret.

Watsuji died at the age of 71, but his philosophical influence in Japan continues long after his death.

Thoughts and Works

“Koji Junrei”: A pilgrimage to the old temples

In 1919, at the age of 30, Watsuji published his highly-acclaimed Koji Junrei. It was not the exquisite prose or the unusually sensitive descriptions of the old temples and statues of Buddha that made the book a sensation; it was Watsuji’s viewpoint as a young modern philosopher who saw the ancient Buddhist temples and statues in a new light. The book was a simple record of his thoughts and feelings as he walked through the ancient capital of Nara. Watsuji’s book led many intellectuals to begin studying ancient Buddhist art and statues from the viewpoints of Western culture and modernity.

Until the American “Black Ships” under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into the bay of Edo (present-day Tokyo) on July 8, 1853, and demanded that certain Japanese ports be opened to foreign trade, Japan had been closed to the world for more than two hundred years. From that moment Japan was suddenly deluged with Western culture. Japanese intellectuals began to struggle with the contradictions between Western and Eastern culture. They were captivated by Western values, especially Western materialism, technology and industrialism. Japan began to lose its own identity and began to hold ancient Japanese culture in contempt. Watsuji’s book was published just after the Meiji era in 1919. Intellectuals of the Taisho era (1911-1925) welcomed Watsuji’s book and his rediscovery of the beauty and values of ancient Japan. Watsuji testified that through the appreciation of ancient art, especially Buddhist art and sculpture, one could clarify and rediscover the special characteristics of Japanese culture. He became, in a sense, the pathfinder of “the theory of Japanese.”

The research of ancient Japanese art and art history which Watsuji carried out while writing “Koji Junrei” eventually led to his famous books “Ethics” and “Fudo.”

“Fudo”: Climate and Culture

In 1927 Watsuji went to Germany and returned the next year much influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Watsuji could not agree with Heidegger’s theories about human existence, so he wrote a book named Fudo, translated into English as “Climate and Culture.” Watsuji explained Fudo as “the natural environment of a given land.” Watsuji thought that Heidegger placed too much influence on the individual and overlooked the importance of social and geographical factors that affect the individual.

Heidegger’s emphasis on the individual was an outcome of centuries of European thought. Descartes said, “cogito, ergo sum,” (I think, therefore I am). Watsuji, however, saw the human being as a product of a “climate” including not only natural surroundings but also the social environment of family, society and history. For example, Watsuji explains that “cold” is not a specific temperature, but also the sensation of “cold” which we actually experience in our daily lives. In other words, is the feeling of “cold” a subjective, conscious feeling? Or does the feeling of “cold” come from the independent existence of “cold”? Watsuji says that neither is a satisfactory answer because both explanations make a distinction between subject and object, or human and nature. A human being recognizes coldness before any division is made between “subjective” and “objective.” For Watsuji, the relationship between a human and his environment, called aidagara, already exists before any other concepts are understood. This idea is similar to the “pure experience” of Nishida Kitaro.

Watsuji’s philosophical uniqueness is the explanation of human existence, aidagara, in terms of social and geographical phenomena. French scholar Augustin Berque was influenced by Watsuji’s way of thought and understood that Watsuji does not regard nature and nature-human as dual existences. Berque suggests the term trajet to include the subject simultaneously with object, nature with artificiality. In French the term trajet usually means distance of travel, or route. Berque sought to change the fixed meaning of subject and object, nature and culture, individual and society, to include the possibility of inter-changeable relationships.


Watsuji's three main works were his two-volume 1954 History of Japanese Ethical Thought, his three-volume Rinrigaku (“Ethics”), published in 1937, 1942, and 1949, and his 1935 Fudo.

Watsuji insisted that a human being is not regarded solely as an individual being, but as a relational existence between man and man, man and family, man and society, and man and nature, and he called this relational existence aidagara. Watsuji illustrates this concept with his analysis of the Japanese word for human being, ningen, derived from Buddhist ideology. The Buddhist cosmology includes six realms of existence, or cycles of reincarnation: devata (“celestial heaven”), ningen (human being), bloodshed, animal-like, hungry ghost, and Naraka (hell). Ningen consists of two Chinese characters, nin and gen. In Chinese, nin means two men who are maintaining each other, and gen means between. Watsuji says that ningen signifies “men, who are supporting each other, exist in the world.”

Watsuji asserted that it was difficult to think of a human being as completely an individual. He used as an example the novel by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, about a man who spends 28 years isolated on an island. Even on the island Robinson Crusoe continues to maintain a relationship with language, shelter, food, clothing and past social relationships. He also gave the example of renga poetry, in which each verse of a poem is written by a different individual but links to the verse before and after it, and all the verses adhere to the theme of the whole.

Watsuji wrote:

Neither self nor other originally are themselves. Self and other appear as the result of the negation of negation. They are no longer united: Self is not other, but self itself; other is not self, but other itself. Yet, self and other originally are united so that they are related unparallelly. The 'unparallel' means the negation of self and other. Aidagara exists only because the union separates itself and at the same time 'unparallels' itself. Aidagara as the practical and active relationality is the relationship among union, separation and connection. (Watsuji, Ningen no gaku to shite no rinrigaku, 213)

Watsuji concluded that the foundation of aidagara in the movement of negation is ku, which is the same as the Buddhist term “void.” The concept of ku (empty, sunya) is central to Nagarjuna, an Indian philosopher, the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Path) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the most influential Indian Buddhist thinker after the Gautama Buddha. However, Gautama Buddha himself never elucidated this concept. When his disciples inquired Buddha about the meaning of life, unchanging or transient self and world, limitation or infinity of self and world, Buddha only kept silent. Watsuji researched several sutras trying to discover why Buddha never responded to questions about human existence and the world. Finally Watsuji concluded that Buddha’s silence went beyond the metaphysical and was a revolutionary solution to the problem of human existence.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees


  • Watsuji, Tetsuro. Watsuji Tetsurō Zenshū (Complete Works of Tetsuro Watsuji). 20 volumes. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1961-1963.

English translations

  • Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study trans. from Fudo by Geoffrey Bownas. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
  • Watsuji Tetsurō's Rinrigaku: Ethics in Japan trans. from Ririgaku by Seisaku Yamamoto & Robert Carter. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Secondary Literature

  • Bernier, Bernard. “National communion: Watsuji Tetsuro's conception of ethics, power, and the Japanese Imperial State.” Philosophy East and West 56 (1): Thomson Gale, 2006.
  • Maraldo, John C. "Watsuji" in Robert L. Arrington (ed.). A Companion to the Philosophers. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. ISBN 0631229671
  • Mayeda, Graham. Time, Space and Ethics in the Philosophy of Watsuji Tetsuro, Kuki Shuzo, and Martin Heidegger (Studies in Philosophy). Routledge, 2006.

External Links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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