Bridging Civilizations through Nothingness: Manchuria as Nishida Kitaro's "Place"

By Shih, Chi-Yu; Huang, Chiung-chiu | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Bridging Civilizations through Nothingness: Manchuria as Nishida Kitaro's "Place"


Shih, Chi-Yu, Huang, Chiung-chiu, Comparative Civilizations Review


This paper examines the notion of bridging civilizations in Asia, especially in preWar Japan. While the bridge is intended to bring together the East and the West, it inevitably shares an ontological assumption that leads to a confrontational understanding of civilization politics: the East and the West have to be ontologically distinctive from each other, on opposite sides of the bridge. The momentum of confrontation comes not only from the believed distinction between the two, but also from the attempt to integrate the "East" into one single action unit to defend against the intrusion of the West.

This paper is a conceptual exercise to explain how in the modern Japanese mind, the distinctive notions of bridging civilizations, Manchukuo, and China could have all been connected to Western imperialism in Asia, pointing out that Manchukuo has been an ideal place for Japan to demonstrate its role as a bridge between civilizations, other than just nationalism or colonialism familiar in the literature.1 This paper will also discern how and why the quest for transcendence, presupposed by the bridge analogy, could come from a retrospective discourse, as opposed to future-oriented mutual learning and mingling. Under the peculiar narrative framework of the Japanese bridge, "Japan" existed even before the birth of civilizations.

Japan belonged within the scope of Oriental despotism designated for all Eastern polities by Friedrich Hegel (1770- 183 1).2 Japan's practice of bridging in Manchuria, through the establishment of Manchukuo (1932-1945) united all narrators involved in the debate on Asia in general and China in particular. Few, if any, were opposed to the annexation of Manchuria despite the great differences in deriving philosophical justifications of the act.3 Manchukuo served as a promise of "the Princely Way and the Happy Land," where East and West were allegedly harmonized.4 The epistemological speculation of this paper is that Manchuria served two functions in the construction of Japanese modernity: Manchuria could transcend the ontological distinction between East and West by finding a higher ontology in nothingness; and Manchuria could demonstrate the absolute inclusiveness of the Japanese nation as a collective bridge of civilizations.

To appreciate the philosophical value of Manchukuo, this paper closely examines Nishida Kitaro's (1870-1945) views. This is not because Nishida had spoken on Manchuria but because Manchuria, as reification, made his philosophy of nothingness practically relevant. Most existing notes on Manchukuo attests to the ardent support provided by Oriental (toyo) Studies, which was in association with the Tokyo school indebted to Shiratori Kurakichi (1865-1942). Few ever tried to trace Manchukuo in the thoughts of the contending Kyoto School, of which Nishida was the founder. A possible explanation for the absence of Nishida in the literature on Manchukuo is the Kyoto school's strong relationship with the navy; Manchukuo was the result of efforts by the army, which was allied to the Tokyo School. The following discussion links the notion of bridging civilizations to Japanese modernity, then to Nishida' s philosophy of nothingness, and finally to Manchuria and Manchukuo.

Bridging Civilizations: The Meanings

A bridge of civilizations exists wherever different civilizations meet. Theoretically, this rendezvous point could exist at any level of civilization - say, a matchmaker between two family traditions. However, to justify one's own community as a bridge of civilizations requires conscious conceptualization of a self-role as a two-way meeting point. Colonies often witness the adoption of the notion of the bridge, especially among indigenous intellectuals trained in the 'motherland'. In the following discussion, "bridging civilizations" refers to those thinkers, places, themes, mechanisms and other factors that provide routes allowing mutual influence between different civilizations, as defined by any narrators on civilizations. …

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