Watsuji Tetsuro: human life is a tale of “persons supporting each other, existing in the world” (working draft)

In the early decades of the 20th century, as G. H. Mead’s former students were documenting and organizing his thought to ensure it was passed down to later generations, halfway around the world in Japan, Watsuji Tetsuro was articulating his own vision of what it means to be an individual in a world full of other people. Watsuji was steeped in the ideas of European philosophers such as Keirkegaard, Shopenhaur, Nietzche and Heiddeger, but he drew upon Japanese religious and cultural traditions in his own formulation of the individual as a fundamentally social being.

Watsuji’s initial work might be seen as an exploration of what it meant to be a Japanese individual in a world dominated by Western individualism, but when I view his work from an early 21st century point of view I find much that seems to apply on a fundamental way to people anywhere in the world. With a few adjustments to account for how the world has changed over the past few decades, I believe Watsuji’s analysis of the social self aligns quite nicely with Mead’s “I/me” model. It even fleshes out some of the mechanics through which individuals develop in connection with their peers and world. In this post, I introduce Watsuji’s formulation of the social self and what makes it so attractive as a model for the kind of connected individualism we should consider proactively adopting to make the most of our existence on this complex, connected and diverse planet we call home.

Aidagarashugi – To be a person is to have have relationships

Watsuji and his followers are associated with a line of thinking known as aidagarashugi (間柄主義). Aidagara translates roughly as “relationship(s)” and shugi translates roughly as “ism.” Watsuji argued that people – particularly Japanese people – conceive of themselves as something different from the typical “individual” upon which Western philosophy is based. He maintained that Japanese people see themselves as fundamentally embedded in a larger context of relationships with other individuals, which are in turn embedded in relationships with the greater world and nature. While Heidegger characterized existence as something that unfolds for an individual across time, Watsuji argued that our experience within a space shared with other people might be even more important than our experience as individuals passing through time. He suggested that the specific sociologial and ecological context into which we are born plays a fundamental role in determining who we are.

A few notes on the historical context in which Watsuji lived and worked

Before we dig into Watsuji’s thinking, it may be useful to consider the context in which he was writing. Watsuji did much of his foundational work in the first half of the 20th century, during a period when Japan was modernizing rapidly and establishing itself as the leading industrial and military power in East Asia. For much of the 20th century, many both inside and outside of Japan were fascinated by the rapidity with which Japan had been able to catch up with and in some ways even surpass its Western counterparts.

During the apogee of Western colonialism, most non-European nations had come under the control of one Western power or another. Even great civilizations with much longer histories such as China and India had succombed to the Western colonial powers, leading many in the West to posit that there must be something special about Western civilizations that enabled European nations to dominate the rest of the world. At least until the end of World War II, the exception to this rule was Japan. As the story went, in the second half of the 19th century, Japan had tranformed itself from a feudal, agrarian society into one of the world’s leading industrial and military powers. If there was something special about Western civilization that enabled Western nations to dominate the world, there must also be something special about Japan. Clearly, though, most seemed to agree that whatever made Japan special, it couldn’t be the same things that made the West special because virtually everything about Japan looked and felt different from the West.

Exploring Japan’s place in the modern world

At the beginning of the 20th century, Nitobe Inazo, a Japanese Quaker told a story that captured the imagination of the intelligensia in the West, and to a lesser degree in Japan as well. In Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Nitobe described Japan as having a unique culture based on a combination of warrior ethics and Japanese religious traditions. He proposed that bushido (the way of the warrior) was the foundation of Japan’s unique cultural heritage, and that bushido served as an analog to the Western traditions of Judeo-Christian ethics and chivalry. The book became very popular just after the Russo-Japanese war, which stood out as the first example of an Asian nation defeating a European power in a major military conflict. Nitobe’s exploration of the roots of Japanese ethics was less popular in Japan in the early part of the 20th century; however, the book’s reception improved remarkably in Japan during the 1980s when both Japanese and non-Japanese observers were once again searching for ways to explain Japan’s remarkable economic success.

What made Japan different from its Asian and European peers?

Watsuji was certainly influenced by Nitobe, who was the Headmaster of the First Higher School, a preparatory school for the Tokyo Imperial University when Watsuji was studying there. He was also influenced by Natsume Soseki, who like Nitobe was concerned with making sense of what it meant to be Japanese in a modern world dominated by Western ideas. Soseki was particularly concerned with how to make sense of Western individualism in a Japanese context. He was concerned that the Japanese might be losing something of great value by giving up the connections that characterized pre-modern Japan.  As a member of the highly-educated Japanese early 20th century elite – exposed to the great ideas of both the Western and Japanese traditions – Watsuji also came to ponder what it meant to be Japanese in a world dominated by the West.

While Watsuji shared Nitobe and Soseki’s curiosity about Japanese history and identy, as a student of Western philosophical traditions, Watsuji looked for universal principles to explain human behavior. He set about to account for the diversity of cultures around the world. What was it that led Japan to be Japan, Germany to be Germany or England to be England? How was being Japanese different from being German or English?

Fudo – Who we are depends a lot on where we are and where we come from

Watsuji, who might be described as an anthropological philosopher, proposed the Japanese concept fudo (often translated as ‘climate’) as an explanation for the the patterns underlying the variability across cultures and identities. While European philosophers such as Heiddegger explored the central role that time plays in human existance, Watsuji argued that we should give more attention to the significance of place. We become who we are as an outgrowth of the places where our civilizations have developed. Watsuji was particularly interested in how place influenced relationships among people. He posited that the social relationships that bind us together are shaped by physical environments in which we and our ancestors live. Our culture emerges in a place and we emerge in our cultures; our individual selves are a product of the cultures and environments we inhabit.

The entry on Watsuji on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explicates Watsuji’s idea of climate (fudo) as follows:

“When we add to our sense of climate as including not only the natural geographic setting of a people and the region’s weather patterns, but also the social environment of family, community, society at large, lifestyle, and even the technological apparatus that supports community survival and interaction, then we begin to glimpse what Watsuji had in mind by climate, and how there exists a mutuality of influence from human to environment, and environment to human being which allows for the continued evolution of both. Climate is the entire interconnected network of influences that together create an entire people’s attitudes and values.”

Culture emerges in the evolution of human relationships, and human relationships are fundamentally embedded in physical spaces with specific characteristics. Our relationships are influenced by the physical environment, and the ways we relate to each other become imprinted in the physical environments we occupy. To Watsuji, the patterns of how we think as individuals and behave in groups is not an accident, but rather an outgrowth of many generations of continued existence in a specific place. 

Like the phenomenologists and existentialists of the West, Watsuji saw subjective experience as fundamental to human experience. The objective world is something we extrapolate from our subjective experience of it. (The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Hussurl actually tried to establish an objective foundation underlying our subjective experience, but the phenomenologists in general have tended to be seen as making peace with the primacy of subjective experience.) Those who live in a common place share common subjective experiences of that place leading to shared language, culture and traditions that are re-constituted each time a child is born and raised in that place. This shared subjective experience is what binds us to each other. It is also what separates us from those who are born and raised in spaces that are different from our own.

This emphasis on the primacy of place makes it much easier to explain how the Japan of today became the Japan of today and the Japanese of today became the Japanese of today. It also becomes easier to explain how the Japanese of today came to be different from the Germans or British of today. The people in each place carry forward the residue of the relationships their forebears developed with each other embedded in the specific characteristics of the place those forbears occupied.

Ningen Sonzai:  How we are and how we should be

Watsuji’s fudo serves as the backdrop for one of the primary ways he contrasted the essence of Japaneseness with that of Germanness or Englishness. According to Watsuji, the Japanese conception of self was fundamentally different. While Western philosophy posited a self flowing in isolation through time, Watsuji’s philosophy embedded the individual in physical and social space.

As an ethicist, Watsuji was not only concerned with defining what we are, but also how we should be. If we are fundamentally anchored to places and people, the fundamental question we must face is “How should we be?” in relation to those places and people. While he accepted that we were in some sense separate from others, he was not satisfied with the implications of radical individualism as the foundation of a way of life and he didn’t feel that it accurately described the way Japanese viewed their own existence.

Watsuji illustrated his concept of the Japanese self with the Japanese terms ningen andningen sonzai. In an article in Asian Philosophy, James M. Shields describes Watsuji’s ningen sonzai concept as follows:

“The term ningen, and the compound ningen sonzai are crucial to Watsuji’s thesis: Western ethics, he argues, has been unable to come to terms with human relationships precisely because it conceives of individuals in an atomistic way – in which any meeting of persons is something of a ‘fall’ from the self-realized unity or preservation of unitive individual being. Watsuji notes that, in contrast to the English term ‘human being’, ningen already implies sociality or relationship. The Sino-Japanese character nin (or hito) signifies two men supporting each other, while gen (or aida) implies ‘between’ or ‘among’. Thus Watsuji’s gloss on ningen is a kind of ontological-ethical credo: ‘men, who are supporting each other, exist in the world.”

According to Shields, Watsuji did not reject the existence of the individual so much as the ethics of individuals prioritizing their individuality over their sociality. He saw the conscious choice to reject the independent self as ethically superior to the choice to privilege it. Shields describes Watsuji’s thinking as follows:

“As an ethical being, that is, a truly human being, one negates individualism by abandoning one’s (already acquired) independence from others, and by ‘realizing’ (both in the sense of coming to see and making real or actualizing) the mutual interrelatedness of persons.”

The controversial nature of Watsuji’s advocacy of abandoning the individual self in devotion to something greater than the self

This negation of the self is one of the more controversial aspects of Watsuji’s thinking, particularly because of the time when Watsuji was writing. The nation of Japan had gone from being a successful resistor of Western colonialism to a promulgator of its own form of imperialism. Japan’s imperial ambitions required a large military and one can see how encouraging individuals to annihilate their individual selves in service of a greater good or higher authority could make those individuals vulnerable to authoritarian tendencies. During the pre-war period, Watsuji combined the choice to negate the self with the choice to sublimate oneself into the state. He drew on Japanese traditions such as a history of devotion to the emperor to justify this sublimation and though he acknowledged in the post-war period that Japan’s imperial activities had led to an unmitigated disaster for Japan, he never publicly renounced many of his pre-war positions. After World War II, many commentators found the political implications of a Japanese individual who negates or annihilates the self highly problematic. Partially because of the association of Watsuji’s thought with the totalitarian tendencies of the pre-war Japanese government, Watsuji’s thought fell out of fashion for many decades.

Interest in Watsuji’s ideas increased again in from the latter half of the 1970s as it became easier to consider them in a new context. During the post-war period, Watsuji had expanded on this thinking to clarify that while the fudo of Japan was what made Japan unique, that uniqueness should not be conflated with superiority or dominance. He argued rather that each nation or culture emerges from its own fudo and that this diversity should be protected and respected. He went so far as to blame Japan’s disasterous pre-war adventures on the fact that those who led Japan had isolated the nation and themselves from the world. Having lost curiosity about the outside world – which Watsuji saw as a fundamental trait of the Japanese character across history – they had also lost respect for the value of the diversity that existed around the world. Watsuji argued that Japanese nationalism must itself be sublimated into a large world with diverse variations emerging from a diversity of fudo.

Recent applications of Watsuji’s ideas

As the world evolves, so evolve ideas. As places import ideas and people from other places, those places also change. At the time when Nitobe Inazo married American Mary Elkinton, inter-cultural and inter-racial marriages were exceedingly rare. Until the latter part of the 20th century, such mixing was not only frowned upon but literally illegal in many places. When I lived in Hawaii around the year 2000, I was told that the majority of the children born in Hawaii were of mixed heritage. Hawaii is still an outlier in this respect, but if anything it seems to be on the leading edge of a fundamental change in the meaning of place. To what place does one belong when one’s heritage includes parents and ancestors from a diverse set of places?

As words are translated for uses by new people in new places, their meanings change. Watsuji wrote in a specific time and place for a specific audience, but his ideas have continued to be available to many who do not share that context. The process of international mixing and matching that Watsuji himself participated in has accelerated and intensified in ways that bring out new potentialities in the application of concepts like fudo and ningen sonzai.

Some of the more fascinating applications of Watsuji’s thinking to modern conexts come from Bruce Janz. Janz has suggested that Watsuji’s thinking can open up new ways of thinking about subjects as diverse as African philosophy and climate change. In a chapter of The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, titled The Geography of African Philosophy, Jans suggests that with some modification Watsuji’s fudoprovides an intellectual foundation for exploring the thinking of places that have traditionally been excluded from the Western philosophical tradition, such as Africa. According to Jans: 

“African philosophy, I will argue, has led the way in taking seriously the places and spaces in which philosophy happens and the constituencies and communities in which it matters. Philosophy in Africa analyzes (its) place as an object of inquiry, and also exists in that place in a wide variety of ways.” 

Jans extracts Watsuji’s concept of fudo from the context in which it was originally formulated and inserts it into a new context with a new sense of the meaning of “place.” Jans starts with Watsuji’s fudo as the foundation of a kind of philosophy that he calls “philosophy-in-place.” Then, drawing on the thinking of Gilles Deleuze, he re-frames “place” as something that emerges and evolves through the passage of time. While Watsuji’s concept of place feels static, Jans’s concept of place is emergent and dynamic. Jans aruges that giving place a proper position in our exploration of philosophy opens up our thinking to forms of philosophy that emerged in places that might be fundamentally different from the places where Western philosophy emerged. Watsuji argued that to understand a Japanese self you must understand a place called Japan. Jans builds on this thinking to argue that to understand African philosophy, you must first learn more about the emergent place known as Africa.

In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Global Ethics, Jans suggests that Watsuji’s concept of fudo might also open up new ways of thinking about our obligations to each other and the planet.

“When viewed through the lens of thinkers such as Deleuze and Heidegger, there is ethical insight in Watsuji’s approach. Watsuji’s major work in ethics, Rinrigaku, provides concepts such as between-ness and trust that enable his philosophy of climate to move from a theory of national characters (as Fudo is often seen to be) to an approach to living well within one’s milieu.”

Jans argues that concepts such as fudo and ningen sonzai allow for ways of viewing the world in a connected fashion that allows for ethical concern for an ever-expanding range of people and things. Once again, though, in order to get the full value of Watsuji’s thinking, Jans argues that we need to adapt this thinking to a new sense of what place means. Jans suggests that in combination with the thinking of Gilles Deleuze, Watsuji’s concept of fudo can take on a new set of meanings that enable us to realize that our relationships with each other and are mediated through a place called the Earth.

“If we start with Watsuji’s position, that there is a kind of philosophy-in-place which correlates with particular kinds of concepts and patterns of life, we can move to thinking about another kind of philosophy-in-place, one in which continual stressors and points of tension have given rise to concepts and patterns of life.”  

On it’s own Watsuji’s concept of place feels conservative and static, but when we consider the nature of fudo in the context of Deleuze’s sense that the world is essentially emergent, we can re-imagine our relationship with each other and with our shared place as creative as well as conservative. As people move around and mix together, we are becoming increasingly aware that we share different parts of the same place, that we are playing a very active role in shaping both the greater place and each other’s parts of it. Moreover, the changes we are causing in this place are likely to have profound implications for how long and even whether we’ll be able to continue to live together in this place known as Earth at all. Applying the concepts of fudo and ningen to a rapidly-evolving global climate provides a philosophical foundation for thinking about the global climate as something that we share in common as an essential element of what each of us is as an individual.

Like Jans, I find something very attractive in Watsuji’s thinking on humans as contextual beings.  Also, like Jans, I am less attracted to the implications of framing fudo and ningen sonzai as static or monolithic. Watsuji was writing at a time when the world was dominated by nation-states competing for survival and or dominance over each other. In this context, national identity might be seen as something not only ontologically descriptive but also politically desirable. Perhaps due to the time and place in which it was formulated, Watsuji’s characterization of the Japanese self as a ningen seems to have veered away from ontology in ways that made it vulnerable to co-option for political and ideological purposes.

As an American how has spent the past 35 years crossing cultural and geographical boundaries as I raise a family that inherits much from the fudo of both the United States and Japan, I can only assume that my experience of what it means to be a ningen is probably different from Watsuji’s. Nontheless, I feel very comfortable using the term ningen to describe what it feels like to be human.

Watsuji’s sense of people as ‘men, who are supporting each other, exist in the world” is attractive in many ways. It works not only as an image for what it means to be a Japanese self, but also as an image of what it means to be a human self in the highly dynamic, intertwined world in which we currently live. Robert Carter and Erin McCarthy conclude their entry on Watsuji in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as follows:

“His analysis of ‘betweenness’ shows it to be communality, and communality as a mutuality wherein each individual may affect every other individual and thereby affect the community or communities; and the community, as an historical expression of the whole may affect each individual. Ideally, what would result would be an enlightened sense of our interconnectedness with all human beings, regardless of race, color, religion, or creed, and a selfless, compassionate capacity to identify with others as though they were oneself. By reintroducing a vivial sense of our communitarian interconnectedness, and our spatial and bodily place in the betweenness between us, where we meet, love, and strive to live ethical lives together, Watsuji provides an ethical and political theory which might well prove to be helpful both to non-Japanese societies, and to a modern Japan itself which is torn between what it was, and what it is becoming.”

I find much of value for humanity as a whole in in Watsuji’s formulation of the social self. When applied to a dynamic, evolving world populated by diverse people emerging from diverse and inter-mingling climates, concepts like ningen sonzai, fudo and aidagarashugi add structure to Mead’s “I/me” concept, making it easier to see not only how each individual emerges in the context of places and people, but also how each individual might integrate him or herself with all those other people in the greater world. While we may not need to negate ourselves in order to connect with others, we may need to acknowledge the role that others have played in enabling us to be our current selves. Moreover, embracing our fundamentally-connected nature may help us to see all the ways we can create more for ourselves and others through those connections.

In the second half of the 20th century named Hamaguchi Eishun continued to build on the ningen concept. Much as Jans re-formulates the concept of fudo Jans, Hamguchi reconstructs the concept of ningen to make sense of the fundamental tension between the individual as separate versus the individual as connected. Hamaguchi starts with the concept of ningen, but he inverts the characters nin (人)and gen (間) to coin the neologism kanjin (間人). I’ll introduce Hamaguchi’s thinking in a later post.

Sources and Resources:

Robert Carter and Erin McCarthy, Watsuji Tetsuro entry on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy @ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/watsuji-tetsuro/

Bruce B Janz, “Watsuji Tetsuro, Fudo, and climate change.” Journal of Global Ethics, Vol. 7, No. 2, August 2011, 173-184, Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group)

Bruce B Janz, “The Geography of African Philosophy.” Chapter 11 of The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy, 2017, Palgrave McMillan

Steve Odin, 1996. The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism.  Albany:  State University of New York Press

James M. Shields, “The Art of Aidagara: Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Quest for an Ontology of Social Existence in Watsuji Tetsuro’s Rinrigaku.” Asian Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 3, November 2009, pp. 265-283, Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group)

Hamaguchi, Eshun, 1997. “A Methodological Basis for Japanese Studies – With Regard to ‘Relatum’ and its Foundation.”  Japan Review  9: 41-63.

This article builds on a paper I wrote as part of a graduate course in Anthropology of Japan taught by Takei Lebra at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1998. I’m happy to share the paper with those who are curious about the topic:

Dana Cogan, The Social Self: How is it constructed and what does it mean?, 1998



© Dana Cogan, 2022, all rights reserved.

Leave a Reply