Uchimura Kanzō: “A Story of Denmark” / “Historien om landet Danmark”

Follow this link to read a translation of Uchimura Kanzō’s 1911 lecture/article “A Story of Denmark” デンマルク国の話. The Japanese text and its English translation are on pages 1-19. Pages 20 to 25 are a Danish introduction and commentary followed by a Danish translation on pages 26 to 33.

Klik her for at læse en indledning og kommentar efterfulgt af en dansk oversættelse af Uchimura Kanzōs forelæsning/artikel “Historien om landet Danmark”, som afholdtes i oktober 1911.

Trailer for NHK programme on Miki Kiyoshi’s Notes on Life

April 2017 was dedicated to Miki Kiyoshi’s Notes on Life 人生論ノート on the NHK’s excellent “A Masterpiece in 100 minutes” 100分で名著 series. Each month, a major work by one thinker or an idea, such as pacifism or happiness, is examined by the two studio hosts and an invited specialist. Every episode since 2011 is available to view on NHK On Demand.

While Notes on Life may not be Miki’s philosophically most significant work, it is by far the most read. It was written for non-specialists during Showa Japan’s “dark valley” of war and repression. As of this year, it has been reprinted 108 times. And – as is pointed out in the programme – interest in it has increased in recent years.

I will eventually subtitle all four episodes, but for now the trailer will give you a foretaste of what is to come:


The Jesuits and the Universal Empire: New book by Nii Yōko

An interesting work of intellectual history by NII Yōko 新居 洋子 of the University of Tokyo has just been published by Nagoya University Press. Its title is The Jesuits and the Universal Empire: The Translation of Civilisation by Missionaries in China. イエズス会士と普遍の帝国 – 在華宣教師による文明の翻訳. In my translation, Dr. Nii’s presentation of her book on the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia website reads:Nii_Yoko_Book

“There was an exchange of ideas between China and Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. In this period, it was Jesuit missionaries working in China who took on the role of translators between the two sides. This book focuses on the latter half of the 18th century, which was the last stage of the Jesuit mission in China and the time when Sinology began to be established as a formal field of study in Europe. It does so by examining the Jesuit Jean Joseph Amiot, who served the Qianlong Emperor. Amiot took on the challenge of translating the enormous Chinese civilisation, not only from his own observations but by consulting the length and breadth of a variety of both European and Chinese intellectual sources. The Chine that emerges from his translations was in itself a product constructed from 18th century intellectual interaction between East and West.”

Missionary scholarship, especially by members of the Society of Jesus, has been tremendously important in the historical reception of East Asian thought in the West. To this day, Christian missionaries are among the most influential transmitters and interpreters of East Asian thought and research on Japanese philosophy, for instance, is more often than not .carried out in religious studies departments and in church-affiliated universities rather than in philosophy departments. And as this book shows, the first sustained intellectual engagement and attempts to think by drawing on both the East Asian and European traditions were by missionaries like Amiot. For better and worse, this historical legacy continues to influence the way Western scholars approach East Asia and its intellectual traditions. Studying the origins of what today travels under the name of comparative philosophy, as Dr Nii has done with this book, is therefore important and she has to be congratulated on her achievement.

For more details, including a table of contents, please visit University of Nagoya Press.

How to Serve a Sacred Cow: Talk at Japanese studies symposium, Dublin 2nd December 2017

How to Serve a Sacred Cow: Reflections on Japanese-English Philosophical Translation in an “Anglobalising” World

 International Japanese Studies Symposium. Trinity College Dublin, 2nd December 2017



James Heisig has argued for “desacralizing” translation, against “perfect translation” and for “thick translation”. He advocates “a radical liberalization of the standards of philosophical translation” where translators of philosophical texts are “set free to err on the side of creativity and rhetorical elegance”. Heisig prioritizes broad appeal and readability over accuracy, bringing the translated philosopher into the reader’s space and facilitating an encounter on the latter’s terms by slaughtering “the sacred cow of fidelity to the original text”. In this presentation, I discuss Heisig’s programmatic statements on translation strategy in the context of the global dominance of English, declining language capabilities and unequal distribution of translation capabilities among Anglophone philosophers, the tendentially conservative and “domesticating” Anglospheric regime of translation, and the “foreignizing” alternatives found in Japanese translation history, in Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and more recent translation theorists. I suggest that learning from professional practices in the translation industry could help translating philosophers strike a suitable balance between domestication and foreignization and that the latter is the ethically and intellectually sounder strategy. If some degree of butchery is inevitable, the question becomes one of how to serve the meat – as a thickly cut, well-done steak or as thinly sliced beef sashimi.

From “Far East” to “East Asia” – Public lecture at Trinity Asian Studies Centre 6th November 2017

From “Far East” to “East Asia” in Global English Academic and Societal Discourse: German and Japanese “hidden sources”

 Public lecture at Trinity Asian Studies Centre, Dublin 6th November 2017


The dominant use in English of the words “East Asia” as a collective designation for Greater China, the two Koreas, Japan, and sometimes Vietnam is a relatively recent outgrowth of cold war era US scholarship. The previously dominant term “Far East” reflects a Eurocentric worldview, which was politically problematic in Japan and expedient for lesser 19th century European powers and post-war America to avoid. Through the influence of Karl Ritter, the German-speaking world and Scandinavia, like Japan, tended to conceive of the region as “East Asia”, whereas Britain and France thought, spoke and wrote in terms of “Far East”. “East Asia” was thus a counter-hegemonic concept developed on the margins of the colonial world order, which arguably entered post-war Anglograph scholarship through Japanese. Just as Heidegger hinted that his philosophy had Japanese “hidden sources”, the proliferating East Asia discourses today conceptually originated as part of Japan’s modernisation process and rise as the first non-Western great power. It was a disruptive resignification attaching new and positive meanings to the European idea of Asia, rejecting the externally ascribed and objectivating identity of “Far East”, asserting subjectivity and agency. This presentation traces the genealogy of the contemporary idea of East Asia through Karl Ritter’s Ost-Asien, his student Élisée Reclus’ politicised use of Asie orientale, the migration of the Japanese ideas of East Asia (Tō-A 東亜 from the 1880s and Higashi Ajia 東アジア after 1945) from meteorology and geography to political discourse, and from there to the dreaming spires of Harvard.

Yijiang Zhong on the “underside of Japan”: Public lecture at Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, 18th September 2017

My good friend and colleague from Tokyo, the historian Yijiang Zhong, gave a fascinating presentation of his current book project on “Capitalism, Empire, and the Production of Space in Modern East Asia”.

He was the first speaker in this academic year’s Asian studies lecture series, the turnout in the Long Room Hub was great, and the topic was highly relevant for my developing interest in the modern geo-spatial-political imagination in Japan. Our converging interests ensure that Yijiang and I will not run out of conversation topics the next few years!

The lecture traced the development of the now outdated designation of the Sea of Japan coastal areas as ura-Nihon 裏日本 and the Pacific coast as omote-Nihon 表日本, from descriptive geographical terms to a politically loaded oppositional pairing. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the “underside” of Japan “came to be identified, in spatial proximity and ideological association with the Asian continent, as bleak, stagnant, and backward in contradistinction to the bright and progressing Upper-side, the embodiment of Japan’s modernity.” Ura-Nihon thus came to stand for tradition, backwardness, and the Asian past, but ambiguously also for authenticity, populist resentment against the urban and internationalised elites, and as a “lake” uniting the Japanese islands with the continent and an essential element in continental imperial expansion.

This was a very successful presentation, addressing important historical and conceptual questions about “the historical experience of Japan as both a nation-state and an empire, and as both an Asian and a Western(ized) country.”

I am happy to have facilitated Yijiang’s visit to Dublin, which I hope will be the first of many.

Language as Thought: New book by Nakajima Takahiro

A new and very interesting book by Nakajima Takahiro of the University of Tokyo Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia has just come out from Iwanami. It deals with philosophy of language in Japan from Kūkai (774–835) to Izutsu Toshihiko (1914-1993). I look forward to reading it when it arrives in the post.

As the announcement from IASA says, “From Kukai to Izutsu Toshihiko, this book runs through the philosophy of language with reference to Japan in a single volume. It sheds light on its subject matter by drawing on Chinese and Western philosophy of language.”

The table of contents, in my translation, looks as follows:

Part 1: Language as thought in Japan
Chapter 1 Kūkai’s philosophy of language
Chapter 2 The “Anthology of ancient and modern Japanese poetry” (Kokin Waka) and the language of the master/s
Chapter 3 The difference between Motoori Norinaga and Natsume Sōseki

Part 2: Language as thought in modern times (1)
Chapter 4 What it takes to draw a line in time
Chapter 5 Japanese Christianity and universality

Part 3: Language as thought in modern times (2)
Chapter 6 Local spirituality and modernity
Chapter 7 On mystery


Further details can be obtained from the publisher’s website (in Japanese).

For those interested in Izutsu, Jean Connell Hoff’s translation of Wakamatsu Eisuki’s Toshihiko Izutsu and the Philosophy of Word: In Search of the Spiritual Orient was published by International House of Japan in 2014.


Meiji Japan in Global History

During a stopover in London on the way back to Dublin from Tokyo, I had the opportunity to sit in on a BAJS workshop on Meiji Japan in Global History held at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the 8th September 2017. Being back in Bloomsbury at my alma mater was a nostalgic feeling, and the event was interesting.

There were papers on Islam in Meiji Japan, female medical education, the adventures of Kawata Masazō, the role of China in the development of Japanese nationality law, historical tourism around the figure of Sakamoto Ryōma in Kyoto, and the fiscal policies of Matsukata Masayoshi. The quality and state of completion of the papers varied, but I did learn a lot both from the presenters and the comments by Barak Kushner and Janet Hunter.


Tokyo workshop on Japanese political thought

The workshop on Japanese political thought I organised with Yijiang Zhong and Nakajima Takahiro went well.

On the 2nd September 2017, we had an enjoyable and stimulating rainy Saturday of discussions on the third floor of the University of Tokyo Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, with a delicious meal at a nearby restaurant. It was an honour and pleasure to have as eminent scholars as Watanabe Hiroshi and David Williams present to discuss ideas with.

The papers ranged from history, philosophy, international relations to political theory, all related to various aspects of political thought in 20th and 21st century Japan. The programme is available on the institute’s website. The plan is to produce an edited volume with the papers presented on the day and more.

As no such forum exists, we may initiate an annual or biannual meeting of scholars with interests in modern Japanese political thought.

Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy is out

After some delay due to change of address and being out of the country, I just received my author’s copy of the Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy. It went to University College Cork by mistake, then An Post tried to deliver it to my home address while I was in Japan before it eventually arrived to the School of Philosophy at UCD. I think it was worth the wait and the chapters I have so far found most interesting are Nakajima Takahiro’s on Confucianism in modern Japan, Steve Bein’s on Watsuji Tetsujirō’s “accidental Buddhism”, and Erin McCarthy’s on Japanese and Western feminisms.

My chapter on “The Political Thought of the Kyoto School” reviews the often fruitless debate between philosophers of religion and historians that James Heisig called “side-steppers and side-swipers” and argues that for Kyoto School political studies to progress requires situating it in new disciplinary fields.Media of The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Philosophy

For the Kyoto School to be taken seriously as political philosophy/theory means that disciplinary specialists in (history of) political thought must join the debate. Although much remains to be done, there are encouraging signs in the general intellectual climate in Japan and abroad and within the political studies subdisciplines, such as the surge of interest in comparative political thought and non-Western IR studies.

To read more about the book and order it, please visit Bloomsbury’s website.