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Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism

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Reviewed by Brian Ruppert

Rude Awakenings is a work that addresses the concerns of European and North American scholars who have for at least a decade longed for a well-balanced consideration of the relationships between Zen Buddhists, the philosophical proponents of Zen in the so-called “Kyoto school,” and nationalistic trends in pre-World War II Japan. Most scholars recognize that many figures who called themselves Zen Buddhists or Zen “philosophers” were closely connected with the rising forms of nationalism of the era. However, not many scholars, until the writing of this book, had an understanding of these connections, their ideological character, and their historical context.

The editors divide the book into four parts which total fifteen chapters. Part One addresses the question regarding the involvement of Zen Buddhist figures in Japanese nationalism. The chapters all concern the conflict between Zen Buddhists’ emphasis on the absolute and their active involvement in support of Japan during the war. However, the conclusions of these chapters vary dramatically on occasion—differences that can be useful in the classroom. For example, Robert Sharf argues that the Zen of figures such as D. T. Suzuki is a twentieth century construct that is both ahistorical and nationalistic in character. Kirita Kiyohide, based on an extensive examination of Suzuki’s letters and writings, comes to the conclusion that, given the times, Suzuki did what he was capable of to undermine Japanese militarism and its activist ideology. Sharf’s study gives teachers an occasion to illustrate the Western underpinnings of some of the notions emphasized in popular Zen. At the same time, Kirita gives teachers as well as students an opportunity to explore the immediate context within which Suzuki wrote; it is clear that Suzuki had nationalistic leanings, but what was the ideological position of Suzuki vis-à-vis the constrained political and intellectual atmosphere of prewar Japan? Knowledge of Suzuki’s praise of Japanese spirituality, on the one hand, and of his veiled criticisms of the military establishment and State Shinto, on the other, will help to problematize the figure of Suzuki for everyone in the classroom.

Parts Two to Four analyze questions concerning the connection between the thought of Kyoto school philosophers and nationalism but also their association of the war with the effort to overcome Western modernity. It is in these sections that the difficulties of disentangling Japanese nationalism from the effort to overcome Western imperialism become most apparent. Indeed, we might say that Parts Two to Four constitute the real core of the book, and offer the most grist for the classroom mill, because they present with both intellectual rigor and candor the variety of opinions regarding the nationalistic leanings of the Kyoto school. Part Two explores the variety of views on the connections between Nishida Kitaro, father of the Kyoto school of philosophy, and Japanese nationalism.

Part Three raises the book to a new level of cross-cultural and historical complexity by exploring the processes by which Japanese intellectuals of the early twentieth century attempted to articulate an East Asian alternative to Occidental views of the world and statehood. Given the ongoing debates about the problem of post-modernism, the idea that the Japanese attempted to resist the hegemony of Western ideas of modernity should prove a source of lively discussion; so should the apparent ease with which many of them reformulated such ideas to justify their belief in Japanese uniqueness and supremacy.

The final part of the book highlights case studies that pursue in even greater depth the specific character of the nationalistic concerns of members of the Kyoto school of philosophy. The chapter by John C. Maraldo that concludes the book is arguably its best, drawing our attention to what he argues are distinctions between the forms of nationalism in the thought of D. T. Suzuki, Abe Masao, and Nishitani Keiji. Indeed, as he claims, the rhetorical impact of their anti-government texts reveals their nationalism irrespective of their authorial intention: “Criticisms of nationalism, even with the best of intentions, can display a nationalistic side of their own when considered in the context of the effects they produce” (361). Suzuki and Abe with their “cultural nationalism,” Nishitani with his “globalist nationalism”: each of these figures in his own way criticized what he saw as the wrong form of nationalism, not its inherent evil.

This book, ideal for use in courses in politics, religion, philosophy, and cultural studies, constitutes an invaluable source of knowledge for at least two groups of people—the lines between which are often blurred. On the one hand, there are those who have found in Zen or Kyoto school philosophy a kind of personal liberation from the confines of the peculiar world of the Cold War era and from disillusion at American involvement in Vietnam. This book challenges them to examine not only the heights of Zen realization but also its ideological and historical connections with Japanese nationalism. On the other hand, there are those who have investigated the works of Zen or the Kyoto school in their respective academic disciplines. This book offers them the most sophisticated study to date on intellectual life in prewar Japan, and beckons them to interpret these works with critical rigor and historical perspective.