Research continuum

An Asian Humanities, for the future


Study of the humanities and social sciences of Asia is nothing new. But whereas such inquiry has typically been based on Western principals of thought and analysis, is it not possible to begin anew, from an Asian perspective, to identify and define a study of HSS of Asia, for Asia?

Answering with an emphatic ‘yes’ is Yasuo Deguchi, center, professor of philosophy, and his colleagues of the Unit of Kyoto Initiatives for the Humanities and Social Sciences. A cross-disciplinary project designed as one of the pillars of the University’s Designated National University (DNU) framework, UKIHSS draws on the breadth of the fields of inquiry on campus, coupled with the depth of tradition in philosophy and pan-Asian history and field study spanning KyotoU’s nearly 125-year long history. Also pictured below are (on the left) professor of philosophy Mayuko Uehara and unit associate professor Takuro Onishi, representing the over two-dozen scholars active in promoting the unit’s endeavors.

Thomas Kasulis deconstructing ‘nothingness’ in the style of the Kyoto School

A winding path

Making such a strong statement in favor of HSS has not been easy. Merely three years previous, the mood at the ministry level — with backing from industry, facing crises in manufacturing and a predicted decline in national scientific prowess — was leaning toward reduction of investment in HSS research and education.

But a backlash among the academic community ensued, led in part by strong opposition from KyotoU scholars, who pointed to the nation’s long history and deep traditions in literature and the arts as clear examples of the core of Japan’s cultural strength, which have contributed to the enrichment of human civilization across the globe.

So in 2017 when KyotoU’s DNU proposal was approved by the education ministry MEXT, containing a statement of unequivocal support for HSS, a watershed was reached.

From the grassroots

Fast-forward to the winter of 2019. In his office lined with bookshelves stacked with volumes ranging from the study of optics to Buddhist thought, philosopher Deguchi huddles with Onishi, his deputy-in-command of HSS unit affairs, as they make final plans for the coming school year’s double symposia.

(For more on Deguchi’s book collection see

This ambitious start befits the high expectations surrounding the unit as it seeks to understand the roots of HSS in Kyoto, untangle the branches that have split into myriad directions in the decades since, and project a clear and unified vision for these disciplines moving forward.

“One important mission is the transmission of knowledge,” explains Onishi, “brining the fruits of what we have learned to the public.” Big symposia are a start, he elaborates, but smaller meetings, seminars, outreach to schools and local communities, and other grassroots endeavors, will be necessary as well.

Ultimately, individual unit members representing a spectrum of HSS fields will conduct these activities on a person-to-person level. The team shares a vision of not merely pooling knowledge, but of learning together with a wider community extending far beyond the bounds of the campus.

Understanding others

“Mutual understanding will be a key feature of our inquiry,” says Deguchi.

The role of HSS, he says, is dynamic: to live in other cultures, be steeped in other ideas, believe other faiths, and experience other lives. By then bringing these back into our comfortable, everyday existence, and going through the process of transmission described by Onishi, we can begin to realize the potential of HSS.

And where will this lead? Deguchi answers without hesitation: “To world peace.”

A foundation of meaning

KyotoU’s president Juichi Yamagiwa sees other connections as well. Himself a natural scientist and Japan’s foremost gorilla expert, he has come to see HSS as being a basis — and providing a moral framework — for the natural sciences. Lacking such a foundation, science and technology might simply run amok, ending in the destruction of the very humanity we seek to preserve.

It is a darker, more cautionary corollary to Deguchi’s vision, starkly illustrating the high stakes these academic endeavors entail. Yamagiwa, who has made a strong push nationally for forbidding the use of military funds in university labs, sees the fork in the path ahead as representing a clear moral difference.

Two down, more to come

As 2019 turns to autumn and the unit begins planning for its second year, Deguchi is optimistic. Dispelling earlier fears that their audacity might be met with skepticism or — even worse — indifference, the positive academic and public response to the meetings in April and August have renewed his enthusiasm and eagerness to continue and to expand.

Elsewhere on this page, details about both symposia can be seen in flyers from the meetings — depicted in manga form for the first event — as well as in excerpted remarks from the organizers.

The HSS unit plans more meetings and events in Kyoto and beyond as it continues its inquiry into an Asian Humanities, a field as diverse and dynamic as Asia itself. Updates (primarily in Japanese) are posted regularly on the unit’s website and social media, which can be found via a search for “ukihss”.

Panel discussion at the second symposium

Heisook Kim

Miho Mitsunari

Emiko Ochiai

Minako Saigo

Yasuo DeguchiProfessor of Philosophy

Excerpted closing remarks from the First HSS Symposium, “The Future of an Asian Humanities”, Saturday 27 April 2019

As we bring this meeting to a close, you might wonder how it would be possible to tie together all of the threads of thought we’ve heard today, but since that is my job as a philosopher, I’ve succeeded in tying them up (laughter).

The common theme throughout today’s talks is the physical body. In the discussion of Nishida’s Kyoto School teachings, we heard of the physical actions of sitting and of meeting face-to-face with others; in the history discussion we heard of gathering in departmental offices and buildings and of traveling to other countries to conduct research; and in the case of field work, we learned of the most physical sort of experience of all, where a researcher travels to remote places to live and work.

The humanities and social sciences are a compendium of these physical experiences, beginning with the individual conducting research, expanding to modes of thought centered in departments, and finally encompassing the university as a whole.

Looking back at the Kyoto School, physicality has always played a key role in their thinking. But in the current age, where everything we think we need to know can be gleaned from smartphones in the palms of our hands, are we not losing touch with physicality? Is this not a crisis of our existence?

If the past is a signpost to the future, then surely these numerous patters of thought — sharing as they do the common element of physical existence — together mean that our studies in Kyoto of the humanities and social sciences will point the way forward through this crisis, lending meaning to our very existence.

Juichi YamagiwaPresident

Excerpted closing remarks from the First HSS Symposium

No one today has mentioned what became of the Kyoto School: its unspoken shame of the war years. But in spite of this past, the day has surely come when we must look back to the core ideas of the School, and to what these meant for the original group of thinkers in the early years of the 20th century.

Philosophy was overtaken by biological science, which in turn was overtaken by information technology. The discovery of DNA’s double-helix in mid-century ushered in an era where we can begin to understand life’s deepest secrets, without the aid of philosophy.

Human society has evolved to the point that we live less in reality than in a fictionalized version of reality; our cities increasingly reflect this fictional vision rather than their true origins in nature. Is this really the future in which we wish to live?

One of the key themes to emerge from this symposium is the physical body; the physicality of our existence is the key to our humanity, giving meaning to our endeavors. It is for this reason that we look to the study of the humanities and social sciences to understand what we truly are.

Mayuko UeharaProfessor of Philosophy

Excerpted introductory remarks from the Second HSS Symposium, “Women Creating an Asian Humanities”, Friday 23 August 2019

The impetus for holding this second symposium stems from two purposes: that it builds on the achievements of the first symposium, and that it is being held in tandem with the second conference of the Asian Association for Women Philosophers, AAWP.

The first HSS symposium, held in April, presented a broad overview of what we are attempting to achieve with our study of an Asian Humanities. History, philosophy, and field study were examined in the context of the past, present, and future of Kyoto University and Asia.

Meanwhile the three-day AAWP conference, of which this symposium represents the afternoon of the second day, continues to break new ground in explorations of philosophical study by women in Asia, this time under the general theme of “Gender, Power, and Dignity in Theory and Practice”.

In keeping with this theme, today’s symposium seeks practical solutions to problems faced by women in Asia, looking beyond philosophy to draw upon the wisdom of gender studies, sociology, and education, in particular featuring Heisook Kim, President of Ewha Womans University in South Korea — and a colleague in philosophy — as well as Vice-President Miho Mitsunari of Nara Women’s University, Professor Emiko Ochiai of sociology, and doctoral candidate in education Minako Saigo.

Each speaker brings a uniquely personal perspective to her studies, both as women conducting research, and in the use of personal experiences as a subject of inquiry.