Keiji Nishitani

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2036

Article abstract: By synthesizing modern Western philosophy and Zen Buddhist thought, Nishitani sought to overcome the nihilism of the twentieth century and forge connections between Eastern and Western philosophy and religion.

Early Life

Keiji Nishitani was born in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. When he was seven years old, Nishitani’s family moved to Tokyo, where Nishitani remained until he graduated from college. When he was sixteen, his father died of tuberculosis, and soon after, Nishitani also fell ill from a similar disease. This no doubt had a strong impact on the young Nishitani; it is reported that, from an early age, Nishitani was afflicted by profound feelings of despair. These experiences brought him face to face with the possibility of his own demise and gave him a general sense of life’s impermanence and uncertainty. Nishitani would later call this condition of life “nihility.” His personal sense of nihility, what the Zen Buddhist tradition terms the “Great Doubt,” instilled in him during his boyhood, ultimately led him to a serious study of Buddhist philosophy, particularly Zen.

Nishitani was born during the years of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), a period marked by Japan’s push to modernize. In the course of this modernization and industrialization, the country experienced drastic changes in its political system, social structures, military organization and agricultural technologies. These changes were implemented so that Japan could advance to the level of and compete with the industrialized countries, especially Europe. Along with this drive toward modernization was an attempt to instill a sense of nationalism in the Japanese people. This took the form of an ideology of emperor worship and the adoption of Shintoism as a state religion. The term “restoration” was used to propagate the view that Japan was actually returning to its traditional heritage while undergoing the process of industrialization. However, these drastic changes brought untold suffering to many Japanese whose traditional ways of livelihood no longer had a place in this new era. A part of the impetus for the intellectual endeavors of the Kyoto School, a group of philosophers at Kyoto University, was the insight that a coherent and workable worldview had to include an understanding of the ways modernization affected culture; a people had to transcend the tendency toward simple ideology while in the process of industrialization.

The push toward modernization also meant a need to Westernize many aspects of Japanese culture. During this period, Japan modified its educational system according to Western models; this change, along with numerous required courses in Western culture and ideas, cultivated in many Japanese an appreciation for and understanding of Western philosophy, literature, and religion. This meant that students of Nishitani’s generation were exposed to a wide range of literary, philosophical, and religious works from the West. Among the most influential for Nishitani were the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Russian author Fyodor Dostoevski; the works of Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Saint Francis of Assisi; and the Bible.

Life’s Work

The intellectual influences on the young Nishitani encompassed a wide range of Western philosophical, existential, and religious literature. Though highly influenced by the modernization in the Meiji period, Nishitani also found a deep appreciation for one of Japan’s traditional religions, Zen Buddhism. Most important for Nishitani was Zen’s direct confrontation with the uncertainty and impermanence of life; what seemed to resonate for him was the Zen notion of the Great Doubt. This Great Doubt challenged humans to face up to their finitude and death and thereby overcome the sense of meaninglessness that accompanied these facts of human existence.

Nishitani found both the push toward modernization and the return to a traditional religious outlook in one of his teachers at Kyoto University, Japanese philosopher Kitarō Nishida, considered Japan’s first modern philosopher and the founder of the Kyoto School. Though Nishida was steeped in the traditions of Western (primarily German) philosophy, his thinking also reflected a confrontation with the sense of the loss of tradition brought by the Meiji period. He attempted to modernize Zen Buddhist thought while retaining the traditional concept of ultimate reality, “absolute nothingness.” In his works, Nishida analyzed, developed, and communicated Japanese thought in the language of Western philosophy, so much so that he explicitly discussed very few Buddhist ideas. He worked in this way because of his belief in the universal applicability of the notion of absolute nothingness. Nishida’s philosophy was motivated, in part, by a twofold agenda: restoring a Japanese rootedness (via Buddhism) and developing a transcultural philosophy that would assist humans in realizing their true nature.

Though explicitly Western in its style, analysis, and expressions, Nishida’s philosophy always functioned in the context of a Buddhist, specifically Zen, outlook. He took seriously the Zen admonition of “directly seeing into one’s true nature” and always directed his philosophizing toward expressing the “pure” or “direct” experience of reality. This pure experience for Nishida was the nondualistic perception of absolute nothingness (“emptiness” in traditional Buddhist terminology). His notion of absolute nothingness was one of the central ideas underlying Nishitani’s philosophy and became the ethos of the Kyoto School. In fact, one of the assumptions of the Kyoto School is that this emptiness is the only authentic ground where the philosophical, religious, and cultural foundations of both the East and West can become unified. As a student, Nishitani was surrounded by this spirit of synthesis and universality in the Kyoto School’s philosophy.

Between the years of 1924, the date of his graduation from Kyoto University, and 1935, Nishitani began his academic career at a number of Japanese colleges and universities, teaching courses in ethics, German, Western philosophy, and Buddhist thought. These institutions included Buddhist Ōtani University and Kyoto Imperial College. In 1935, Nishitani took a professorship in the Department of Religion at Kyoto University. It was during his professorship in Kyoto that Nishitani had the opportunity to study philosophy in Freiburg with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Nearly ten years after studying German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with Heidegger, Nishitani gave a series of lectures on Nietzsche in Japan, portraying him as a radical thinker who overcame Western metaphysics and ushered in a new era of philosophizing. These lectures made up a large portion of one of Nishitani’s early major works on Western nihilism, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism.

It is important to note that Nishitani was, by studying in Germany with the important philosophers of the time, continuing a tradition of sorts of the Kyoto School. His mentor, Nishida, studied in Germany with the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. Nishitani was also not the first Japanese to study under Heidegger; Nishitani’s senior contemporary and fellow Kyoto School philosopher, Hajime Tanabe, was the first to study with Heidegger in Freiburg during the 1920’s.

Apart from his strictly philosophical works, Nishitani also attempted to think and write critically about the role of Japan during and after World War II. The various articles and transcripts of Nishitani’s thought and discussions during these periods have given rise to heated debate among scholars of Japanese intellectual history, specifically on the topics of the nationalism and military complicity of the Kyoto School philosophers. Although many of the conclusions suggest that philosophers such as Nishitani did not directly contribute to the militarism of Japan during the war, some have claimed that the Kyoto School is intrinsically nationalistic. It should be noted, however, that thus far on this topic, more questions than answers have been generated.

In 1949, the publication of Nishitani’s The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism presented the first substantive treatment of Western nihilism in Japan, and for a long time, the work was widely read by those interested in Western philosophy, nihilism, and Nietzsche. According to the introduction of the English translation of The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, this publication coincided with the rising interest in nihilism in Europe during the late 1940’s and 1950’s and is an example of the seriousness with which Japanese scholars have treated Western thought.

After the publication of The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, Nishitani wrote a number of works (mostly articles) continuing his thoughts on nihilism and investigating themes in Christian mysticism and traditional Buddhist thought. It was the publication of Religion and Nothingness in 1961, however, that exposed audiences to Nishitani’s mature thought on the Buddhist response to what he believed was the human situation of the twentieth century. The 1982 English translation of Religion and Nothingness was, for the most part, warmly received by American and European theologians and philosophers. The last two chapters, on time and history, were considered the most important because they provided a critique of Western views on these subjects.

In 1955, Nishitani left his post in the Department of Religion for the chair in modern philosophy at Kyoto University, retiring from this position in 1963. According to the introduction to the English translation of Religion and Nothingness, from his retirement until his death, Nishitani continued his philosophical work in various capacities, including professor of philosophy and religion at Ōtani University and president of both the Eastern Buddhist Society and the Conference on Religion in Modern Society. Nishitani also continued his interreligious activities, in part by becoming president of the International Institute for Japan Studies at the Christian Kansei Gakuin University.


Nishitani found it necessary to confront the pervasive nihilism in society, not only in Japan but also in the world at large. The thoroughgoing criticism of modernism that he found in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger pointed to a way of thinking that sought to understand and finally overcome the problems of the meaninglessness and dehumanization of the twentieth century. This overcoming of nihilism marked for Nishitani the possibility of revitalizing human religiousness and articulating a new, more all-embracing worldview. These strands are reflected in all of Nishitani’s work.

Nishitani is considered one of the foremost philosophers of Japan. His intellectual and religious commitment to the absolute nothingness of Zen thought coupled with his strong familiarity with Western philosophy and theology have made him one of the most influential comparative philosophers in the twentieth century. Furthermore, his works have laid the foundation for serious interfaith dialogue, in part by articulating the necessity to confront and finally overcome the nihilism of modernity.

Additional Reading

Bowers, Russell H. Someone or Nothing? Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness as a Foundation for Christian-Buddhist Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. An important treatment of Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness, in which Bowers addresses a connection between Christianity and Buddhism.

Dallmayr, Fred. “Nothingness and Shūnyatā: A Comparison of Heidegger and Nishitani.” Philosophy East and West 42, no. 1 (January, 1992): 37-48. This article presents a comparison of the basic philosophical ideas of Martin Heidegger and Keiji Nishitani. Dallmayr also develops a critique of Nishitani’s understanding of Heidegger’s thought.

Heine, Steven. “History, Transhistory, and Narrative.” Philosophy East and West 44, no. 2 (April, 1994): 251-278. In this article, Heine discusses Nishitani’s critique of Western understandings of history and provides a critique of Nishitani’s view of history from the standpoint of literary and historical criticism.

Heisig, James W., and John C. Maraldo, eds. Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A collection of articles that addresses the issue of the relation between the leading intellectuals of the Kyoto School and Japanese nationalism. Although previous works on the Kyoto School have focused on theology and philosophy, this is the first book-length study in English on the political, social, and historical context of the Kyoto School.

Unno, Taitetsu, ed. The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1989. A volume of a collection of papers presented at or connected to the symposium on Religion and Nothingness held at Smith and Amherst Colleges in 1984. The contributors, many of whom are well-known theologians, philosophers, and Buddhist scholars, explain, analyze, and debate the issues and implications set forth in Religion and Nothingness. The volume is divided into five parts: God, Science, Ethics, History, and Buddhism.

Waldenfels, Hans. Absolute Nothingness: Foundations for a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue. New York: Paulist Press, 1980. The first substantive and extended treatment in English of the philosophy of Nishitani, his work’s context in the history of Buddhist thought, and its significance in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

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