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Professor Tzvetana Kristeva (ICU): Waka as a Major Philosophic Media in Ancient Japan

16. April 2015

Japan has neither Socrates nor Plato, neither Confucius nor Lao Zi. But does it mean that ancient Japan had no metaphysical views of its own?

The logocentric approach to the history of thought in Japan characterizes modern scholarship even within Japan itself: the focus is on Buddhist ideas developed mainly since the Kamakura period (1185-1133), and philosophic thoughts proper propounded by the Edo period (1603-1867) scholars. This poses several questions: was there no development of philosophic thought before the spread of Buddhism; did Taoism, which according to different written sources was propagated prior to the spread of Buddhism, have no impact whatsoever? 

In his famous Preface to the I Ching (The Book of Changes) C.G. Jung makes the following apt remark which could serve as a clue to these questions:

“Confucius is said to have received only one inappropriate answer, i.e. hexagram 22, GRACE - a thoroughly aesthetic hexagram. This is reminiscent of the advice given to Socrates by his daemon - ‘You ought to make more music’ - whereupon Socrates took to playing the flute. Confucius and Socrates compete for the first place as far as reasonableness and a pedagogic attitude to life are concerned (…). Unfortunately, reason and pedagogy often lack charm and grace, and so the oracle may not have been wrong after all.”

It is exactly “charm and grace” which characterize the early development of thought in Japan, since the major media of the philosophic discourse was the classical poetry waka. Although this role of waka seems to be quite obvious we fail to acknowledge it, because it deviates from the stereotype and transgresses our limits of thinking. 

The lecture will dwell upon some of the reasons for the establishment of waka poetry as a major media of communication in ancient Japan, will characterize its rhetoric in terms of the basic patterns of classical Chinese philosophy, and will discuss some concrete examples of the “philopoesophic” discourse.

Zur Person:

Tzvetana Kristeva ist Professorin für Japanische Literatur und Programmdirektorin der Graduate School of Comparative Culture Studies an der International Christian University, Tokyo.