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Philosopher Umehara leaves legacy of broad-minded study of Japan

Takeshi Umehara is seen in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on Jan. 13, 2015. (Mainichi/Michiko Morizono)

TOKYO -- Philosopher Takeshi Umehara, who passed away on Jan. 12 at age 93, transcended disciplinary boundaries through his enormous accumulation of scholarship in Japanese culture and modern civilization, establishing what later became known as "Umehara Japanology."

His love of study extended throughout his life, while he distanced himself from ideological approaches.

Umehara's encounter with philosophy dates back to his days as a student at what is now Nagoya University in central Japan. While immersing himself in works by Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, a young Umehara also developed an interest in the so-called Kyoto School of philosophers, including Kitaro Nishida, Hajime Tanabe and Tetsuro Watsuji. This motivated him to advance to the department of philosophy at Kyoto University in western Japan.

At the foundation of his observations of "being" as contrasted with death were his wartime experiences, such as surviving a major bombing raid on Nagoya and being drafted into military service.

"The air raid shelter that I was supposed to go to (during the December 1944 Nagoya Air Raid) was hit by a bomb, killing many junior high school students right where they sat. Bodies hit by the blast were hanging from the steel roof beams. I hated war from the bottom of my heart," he told the Mainichi Shimbun in 2008.

He later deepened his quest into Japanese culture and modern civilization, and further expanded the realm of his studies.

"The study of Japan thus far has lacked a comprehensive perspective. There has been criticism from left wingers that studying about Japan is reactionary," Umehara once noted.

When student activism thrived across Japan in the 1960s through the 1970s he kept his distance, but continued to level scathing criticism at those in power. Umehara felt deeply indebted to then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone for the establishment of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto's Nishikyo Ward, but the scholar clearly stated, "Mr. Nakasone and I have different political creeds. I am against amending the Constitution. At this research center, politics serves culture."

With regard to present Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's narrative of a "beautiful Japan," Umehara questioned, "Japan surely is beautiful. But who are beautiful Japanese? Are they (former prime ministers) Hideki Tojo or Junichiro Koizumi? No, they are not. The beautiful Japanese are (scholar and statesman) Sugawara Michizane, (Noh actor and playwright) Zeami, and (tea master) Sen no Rikyu. They were all eliminated by authority."

In 2004, Umehara became part of the driving force behind the establishment of the "Article 9 Association" to promote the principle of the Constitution's war-renouncing article.

"I wanted to demonstrate the need to protect Article 9 as a brake on politics leaning far to the right. I believe the Constitution of Japan and its Article 9 include the 'hypermodern' ideal that overcomes absolutism," he told the Mainichi Shimbun in 2004.

Throughout his career, Umehara was also known for a discourse bursting with humor. When Nichibunken celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007, Umehara said in his speech, "When I was young, I wrote various books as I was possessed by the spirits of (poet Kakinomoto no) Hitomaro and (Imperial regent and author) Shotoku Taishi. Right now, I've been possessed by the spirit of Zeami," provoking a round of laughter.

"It took me 80 years to find learning really fun. I don't know if I can live until 100, but I'd like to try (so I can study more)," he said.


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