How to Keep a Question that was born in Your Childhood: Interview with Hitoshi Nagai


Hitoshi Nagai
He was born in 1951 and is now professor of philosophy at Nihon University. His major Japanese books are, Philosophy for Kids!, 1996, Kodansya, A Secret Battle of Philosophy, 2013, Pneumasha. He is one of well known Japanese philosophers and his essays also frequently appear in major newspapers such as Asashi Shimbun and Nikkei Shimbun. His latest book Tetsu-ojisan and Manabu-kun, has been released by Nikkei Publishing in 2014.

[From the latest volume of Japanese Enjoyable Philosophy]

vol6_hyoushi-en-boxIn 31 March 2015, the latest vol.6 has been released from Kindle stores! As a special issue in this volume, the editorial team discussed about a well-known Japanese philosopher, Hitoshi Nagai and the influence of his philosophy on the wide range of practice fields including psychiatry, Buddhism, and education.

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How to Keep a Question that was born in Your Childhood

Hitoshi Nagai is now teaching philosophy at Nihon University. He is a leading philosopher and very popular among people with a strong bent for philosophy in Japan. Since he released his first book, The Metaphysics of I!, when he was 34 years old, he has published a book per year on average. In Japan, there are not so many Japanese philosophers whose books are constantly on sale at such a high pace. Nagai’s essays also frequently appear in major newspapers such as Asashi Shimbun and Nikkei Shimbun. When his university holds events for high school students and their parents, lots of his fans come.

Photo: Saori Tanaka

One sunny day in April, Nagai visited our editorial office by bicycle for our interview. When he first reflected on the issue of the self, he was 5 years old, and he can still remember the scene that he saw in a classroom; “the third one from back and the second one from right, it is me, but why is it? ” His class teacher, who was Mr. Jujiro Iwatani, working also as a researcher of Spanish history, took care of him from first grade to the six grade. Nagai didn’t tell Mr. Iwatani about his questions that would develop into a big philosophical problem later in his life, but whenever he made an absurd statement, Mr. Iwatani nodded his head saying “I see your point” and “you are a good boy to think like that”. Nagai at that time was a “passive” character from the view of his parents, and his mother used to give him the task of asking people on the street for directions.

“Well, people sometimes try to overkill feelings of inferiority”, Nagai said as he recalled this episode. “One keeps trying to do something one doesn’t like, so that it doesn’t bother one anymore and one even begins to like it. Despite the quiet character I had, trying again and again to ask people for directions helped me overcome my shyness and even made me wiling to do that. I have different sides to myself even now, and sometimes I don’t know which is the real me, but this might be developed by this task!”

Having these different sides to his character from his childhood gives him “double eyes” when he does his philosophy. Probably precisely because he had an ability to “role-play” as any kind of person, he wonders who is himself. When I asked that question, he noded his head, thought a while, and answered with a smile; “Yes, it may be true. I might not have an original personality”.

Soon after he arrived at the editorial office by bicycle, he thought our staff how to do meditation, which currently he is working on, as the leaves of cherry trees were visible through the window. Closing his eyes, breathing slowly, counting his breaths one by one, he said “If you hear the sound of birds and the voices of children, then try to focus on your breath again.” Now his philosophy of self may be returning to where it started, rather than developing philosophically in some new directions.



A question of childhood

(N: Hitoshi Nagai, T: Saori Tanaka)

T: Before we start the interview, there is one thing that I’ve asked Prof. Nagai. Please read some parts from the first page of Secret Battle of Philosophy, published by Pneumasha in 2013.

N: All right. “As human beings are animals, they are born for the biological reasons.  The brain, which is one of the organs of animate beings, produces consciousness, so if there is a brain, it realizes mental and psychological events. Therefore, it is no wonder that there are many people in this world and many brains producing consciousness. This situation can be explained scientifically, however, there is one strange thing. Somehow, I don’t know why, the one person among all these human beings having each consciousness is me. There are many human beings and there are varied types of minds, but there is one, and only one, human being having an exceptional character, i.e. being me. Why is such a exceptional human being existing.”

T: One more part from A Metaphysis of I!, which is your debut work written 30 years ago.

N: “The Problem of Other Minds is usually set up as follows: the mental and psychological events that I can experience are almost exclusively mine, and I cannot experience another’s mental and psychological events. The only things I can experience are such things as his gestures, facial expressions, voice and utterances. Therefore, whether mental and psychological events are realized behind those external expressions or not will always be a mystery and moreover, whether they have mentality and a mind or not (which means whether they are an ‘I’ the same as me) should always be a mystery for me. Nevertheless, usually I can understand which psychological events should be behind those kinds of external expressions. Sometimes I suspect he/she is pretending, but I’m not always like this. I never doubt whether he/she has a mind or not. Why is it? What kind of mechanism is working here?”

T: Thank you very much. The reason why we asked to read these parts from your books is that the two questions seem to overlap to me. You have published more than 21 books in nearly 30 years but you have always been concerned with the same question in this whole period, and it looks like a major characteristic of your philosophy. In Japanese culture and in the academic field of philosophy, I think it should be difficult in double meanings when you ask questions that was born in your childhood. Could you tell us why you can do that?

N: What do you mean by “difficult in double meanings”?

T: In Japan, culturally we don’t usually get involved in “philosophical discussion” in ordinary conversations; so one difficulty is to keep having your questions from childhood. After a student enters the department of philosophy at a university, he/she has to read a lot of literature written by a wide range of philosophers; so the second difficulty is to keep questioning your own question. So you may have faced two types of difficulties before and after entering the department of philosophy.

N: Well, it was not so difficult for me before learning philosophy — the question just came to me —, so I didn’t do anything special by myself. I just felt the question arise and couldn’t help it. It was all by chance.

T: Had you ever written something before entering university?

N: Yeah, in a sense, like writing assignments or something at junior high to express that I’m thinking like this. Basically, Japanese language teachers cannot understand this kind of issue. Rather than them, science teachers tend to understand. If I try to classify subjects, students only express these kinds of issues to teachers of literature and the Japanese language, but as far as I know, these types of teacher never understand such issues at all, which is almost a law. It’s really interesting.

T: Your science teacher?

N: Yes, my math teacher.

T: Did he understand that your question was about this type of issue?

N: He understood and he said this type of issue exists.

T: Exists!

N: Exists.

T: Was this your first time to meet a person who understood your question?

N: Yes…

T: Regarding the writings.

N: Yes that’s true.

T: Did you try to express the issue in ordinary conversations before that?

N: Maybe yes and maybe no. The question was not so clear in my childhood. If I tried to say it, I could not say it as clearly as I now can in my books. Kids cannot communicate such kinds of philosophical issue with others because they cannot express them clearly. Even to the person who can understand this type of book, it should be difficult to understand a kid’s words.

T: Do you remember when the question arose in your mind at first?

N: When I was a small kid, which means about the time of kinder garden.

T: Really?

N: Yes, may be ever since I was old enough to talk… But if I say I could talk from 2 or 3, it should be later, like when I was 5 years old.

T: 5 years old!

N: I think I had the vague sense of it from the age of 5. It is not based on the direct memory of this occasion, but on the memory trying to recall the memory when I was at elementary school.

T: Do you remember any specific circumstances at kinder garden or elementary school?

N: Circumstances?

T: For example, something like many friends being there but you were different from them.

N: Ah, I often thought “among the many kids, why is this me”, when all the students were siting in rows in the classroom. Something like “The third one from back and the second one from right, it is me, but why is that?”. I felt puzzled like that in the classroom when I was in third or forth grade at elementary school.

T: Did you say that to your class teacher?

N: No, I didn’t tell that to the class teacher and didn’t express it in writing assignments either, while I was an elementary school student.

T: So, was that a silent time?

N: Well, I didn’t know how I could discuss this kind of thing with others, as I could not express it clearly. It’s difficult to express that, actually.

T: That’s true.

N: There is no way to say that. You have to be trained to say this kind of thing and a philosophical training is exactly the training required for this. You can use philosophical expertise to express this type of issue. There is no other way to do it without learning philosophy. I would not have had any other way to express what I’d felt without having done philosophy, that’s actually true.

T: Now some researchers are trying to make time for philosophical dialogue in the classroom, with the method of “Philosophy For Children”. If you had that kind of opportunity in your time, would it have enabled you to express your issue?

N: Yes, I think so. If I had that kind of class.


A related question created in department of philosophy

N: As for the question why I’ve kept doing same thing after entering the department of philosophy, the answer is very simple. Because I have no interest in anything else, period. I just learned the words of philosophy, which is the way of discussing things and the way of expressing things, only to acquire a technique to express my question, and there was nothing more important than that. While I’d thought about my question deeply every single day, I reached a conviction that my question was actually related the other philosophical issues. The second one I read was the related issue and the first one was my primary question. The first one from Secret Fights on Philosophy is my question which I thought at kindergarten and elementary school. The other one: “we cannot know that others have minds” was arose secondarily afterward. The second one already exists in philosophical discussion, doesn’t it?

T: Yes, I see. That’s how your question is related…

N: Yes. I thought that the existing philosophical issue shouldn’t mean anything without connecting it to the issue that I faced when I was at kindergarten and elementary school. I was convinced that this was such a big issue and that many philosophers that people had admired, like Shozo Omori in Japan, weren’t so great. He didn’t capture the point really. The Problem of Other Minds looks similar to my question, but I thought the other issues also have to be connected to my question, otherwise, they didn’t seem to mean anything.

T: But you published the first book when you were 34 years old.


N: Yes.

T: Was it very challenging, as you were so young?

N: Although I published A Metaphysis of I!, when I was 34 years old, it was a compromise. I wrote what I really wanted to say only at the last part in first chapter, and I didn’t express it as a whole. I formed the book as a way of exploring the Problem of Other Minds as people usually thought of it, and other ethical issues, so I didn’t express my real question openly. Rather than in the first book, I have more openly written about it in more recent books.

T: Was it because you were struggling to write straightforward as you had to connect your issue to other philosophical issues when you published your first book as a philosophy book?

N: Rather than that, I didn’t capture my question correctly. I didn’t see the whole picture enough to express the issues from my perspective. Instead, all I could do is show my question just little bit like “you may see this kind of issue, don’t you?”

T: Was it because you didn’t have the confidence in doing so?

N: It was because my ability was not enough. I was confident in a sense, but I didn’t have enough ability to do so.

T: Looking from the eyes in your 60’s?

N: Yes.

T: How did you feel when you read that part from your first book? Do you think the investigation was not good enough?

N: No, it’s all true as I read it, but I think that the Problem of Other Minds isn’t the type of issue that exists independently from other issues. It should be seen as being derived from my issue: “somehow there is one, and only one, human being who is unique in that he is me”.  Generally speaking, the skepticism such as “I can not understand another’s mind” or “there may be no mind in others” are not so important themselves or fundamental questions at all.

T: Was the Problem of Other Minds one of the hot topics at that time?

N: Wittgenstein is the one who really made this issue really popular. So Wittgenstein investigated this issue but his exponents actually misread what he really wanted to say; nevertheless he must have felt the same puzzlement as I did.

T: I see. I think the situation with Japanese philosophy is bit unique, so I would like to get some background details so that people outside of Japan will understand better. When did Japanese philosophy students start to read the translations of Wittgenstein’s books after his original books came to Japan?

N: Wittgenstein’s collected editions started to be translated into Japanese, when I was a university student in 1970’s. Until then, there were some translations such as Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and the first number of Philosophical Investigation, they were published from Hosei University Press. The middle works like The Blue Book were published in Japanese more recently when I was a graduate student, so people didn’t understand Wittgenstein’s philosophy correctly as a whole.

T: At the first time when his works were published in Japanese?

N: Yes. To me the most interesting work was The Blue Book. Most people thought the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus and Philosophical Investigation were his main works so not many people focused on The Blue Book, but I think this book and Notes for Lectures on “Private Experience” and “Sense Data” were overwhelmingly the best ones.

T: So that means when you were doing your doctoral programme, you thought your question from childhood, “why is this person me?”,  overlapped with the issues from Wittgenstein?

N: No, that was when I was in my master programme. I thought those issues completely overlapped and it encouraged me to do my research in philosophy. I was wondering whether I should go ahead with it, but after entering the masters programme, I thought “that’s is!” This is why I owe Wittgenstein.

T: That is a bit of a moving story, isn’t it?

N: Exactly. People at that time thought Wittgenstein is a great philosopher. So I could express my question through research papers as a form of Wittgenstein interpretation.

T: I see.

N: Otherwise, I couldn’t. It’s all by chance that a great philosopher had a same kind of philosophical puzzlement as mine and the other people didn’t notice it, therefore I could discover a method by which I could express my question.

T: And there were not so many Japanese philosophers who touched on Wittgenstein’s works, as that was right after a few translations came out.

N: Yes, that’s also true. Additionally, The Blue Book was translated by Shozo Omori, who was already an authority at that time, and he really evaluated the book itself. At least in Japan, there was an foundation to create something new after Wittgenstein, and this base enabled me to connect my research with the interpretations and discussions of Wittgenstein. I think I was lucky in that sense.

T: There must be many graduate students who are seeking their own research theme but is that one possible way to ride a wave?

N: Yes, but it’s actually all by chance in my case. It just happened to work terrifically. There must be many possibilities in which my research  wouldn’t have worked in such a good way if I couldn’t find such a philosopher, Wittgenstein. I think there could be an opposite case, in which someone thinks of something original, but can’t express it because he/she can’t find any famous philosophers having such a similar issue in their history. Even if there was such a philosopher, it would be very hard to propose the new idea if people didn’t know anything about the issue.

T: That’s so true.

N: Yes, it must be very hard. A student could not start his/her story if there weren’t any crucial and outstanding people in the world. I think it’s a terrible thing in a sense. Students should be able to propose a new questioin at least in Philosophy, but they can’t!

T: Is that something that only applies in Japan?

N: I think it’s all same everywhere. Especially in the academic field of philosophy, the common system is that researchers can produce their works only by following the existing works. I think it’s totally wrong! I think philosophers should be able to say something new by completely ignoring all the existing works. I think that’s how philosophy should be, so the system itself is wrong.

T: But in your case, your timing was…

N: Yes I was lucky.

T: That means you got a book of an authorized philosopher translated by an authorized Japanese philosopher, and that made you to produce presentations at academic conferences and also a first book.

N: Yes.


How to Keep a Question that was born in Your Childhood

T: Thank you very much. I would like to get back to an older story, but were there any episodes where you had discussions with your parents about your first philosophical question?

N: I didn’t tell it to my parents.

T: Nor to your teacher, right?

N: No I didn’t tell it neither to my parents nor my teachers at elementary school. Even at junior high school, I didn’t speak to my teacher about it,  I only wrote about it.

T: I heard that your teacher at elementary school was really unique. Did he have any influence on your philosophical question?

N: Well, I didn’t tell the question itself to him, but I was telling him whatever I felt even though I was just an elementary student and he basically agreed with my opinions. What I remember is when we went to Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture for a school trip, where the stories of Shosuke Ohara and Byakkotai [wite tiger troop] are famous. There is a song about Shosuke Ohara, “Why did he lose all his money? He loved oversleeping, being drunk and taking a long baths in the morning, this is how he lost his money”. He was a really silly guy, and people now admire the Byakkotai in other hands, as all teenagers killed themselves after seeing their castle was on fire as they misunderstood that they lost the war against the enemy. But I told my teacher “I think the more admirable person is Shosuke Ohara” and what surprised me was that he really respected my opinion. Looking back, I think this teacher was great. Actually it depends on the viewpoints to evaluate what is great, but Byakkotai died like a dog. They believed their castle was on fire and stabbed each other to kill themselves, when they were all teenagers. It counts for nothing. Rather than that, I said that Shosuke Ohara was an admirable guy to my teacher and expected he would scold me or wouldn’t agree with me but what he said to me was “you are a good boy to think like that” ! He gave me positive reinforcement that made me confident to think for myself.

T: I see. If you have such a teacher you would try to say anything you want.

N: Yes, so the teacher was great in that sense.

T: Even if your opinion went against common sense?

N: Yes, basically even if it was very stupid, he was a really thoughtful teacher to say, “I see your point”. He had an ability to see the good in every sort of opinion.

T: Was he same with all students?

N: Yes, he didn’t look like a teacher’s teacher. He was more like a scholar. He didn’t teach us all various subjects but he taught history in his special field to elementary students!

T: That was Mr. Jujiro iwatani.

N: Yes, he didn’t teach us geography, but all history!

T: And Spanish history, which was his major?

N: He didn’t go into Spanish history so much, but he did Japanese Christians’ history.

T: Such a great scholar!

N: Yes, a scholar taught me at elementary school.

T. Again, we can say that you were lucky, weren’t you?

N: Maybe I was.

T: You could express anything, even if you hesitated to say it at first, as a form of question to your teacher and he allowed you to do so.

N: Yes.

T: How about the situation at your home? When you came home from school, could you express what you thought?

N: My parents were not so strict in that sense. They didn’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. Although they were not like people who always discuss philosophical issues, they just let me do whatever I wanted.

T: Didn’t they say things like “you have to do your homework”?

N: No they didn’t . At that time, they said that I was a passive person. I still remember the word “passive”. They told me I should be more positive. That means I was really shy. My mother gave me a strange task…

T: Task?



N: Yes, It was a strange training like “why don’t you ask people on the street for directions” ! What’s most interesting for me was that I came to enjoy asking people for directions. They kindly taught me the directions as obviously a small kid was asking. That made me love to ask people more and more! Well, people sometimes try to overkill feelings of inferiority. One keeps trying to do something one doesn’t like, so that it doesn’t bother one anymore and one even begins to like it. In my case, despite the quiet character I had, trying again and again to ask people for directions helped me overcome my shyness and even made me wiling to do that. I have different sides to myself even now, and sometimes I don’t know which is the real me, but this might be developed by this task!

T: Well, now it’s not so common that parents tell their kids to ask people for directions, is it?

N: No, now people don’t.

T: I see, that’s how you were at elementary school. When you were at Junior high, you wrote about your idea on a writing assignment. Do you remember how you were at high school?

N: At high school, the situation was not so different, but I became committed to a students movement…

T: Really?

N: There was such a social atmosphere at that time, when I was a high school student in 1969 and as I entered university in 1970. Many movements were getting popular at that time, and this incited waves of activity. I was not fascinated by these movements themselves, but I felt like I had to do something, like take part in something unusual. Looking back, it seems that many people were involved in these movements as it was so popular, but actually not so many people were there, like a few people from my high school out of more than 1000 people. In total, there were about 10 people consisting of 3 or 4 people per grade.

T: Were you like a leader among them?

N: Yes relatively. I was in third grade. It depends on your grade,  doesn’t it? A leader has to be a theoretical one…

T: Theoretical?

N: Yes, theoretically, I was a leader to describe what the issue was, to say, “This isn’t like a political issue but a movement to pursue what the real purpose of study is”.

T: Cool.

N: We held various meetings and we asked teachers to tell us what actually students were studying for, saying things like “Answer it”! But it was not so extreme as a kangaroo court. But actually nobody couldn’t answer it. Students didn’t know what they were studying for, but it was the same with the teachers. Nobody knew why the educational system was in the current style and why they needed to teach the subjects the taught and what was the purpose of it. I expected that nobody would know the answer, but I thanked the fact that they actually didn’t know! Things were as I expected and nobody understood the situation. They were actually just teaching subjects along the curriculum out of habit and they didn’t even think why they had to teach such subjects and what’s the useful purpose or meaning of these.

T: How many teachers did you bring to these meetings?

N: Among them there were head teachers, like a manager or a chief. These kinds of teacher came to the meeting but actually nobody even touched on the essential points.

T: So were you one of the questioners?

N: I was pursuing rather than questioning. But it was a kind of movement similar to political movements happening at that time, so there were other kids who wanted to do more political things. Then I tried to raise more essential issues rather than doing such kinds of political things, as I was one of the theoretical leaders. I think what we did was a little bit different from other schools.

T: What kinds of political events were happening at that time?

N: Well, for example in the 70’s, we had the issue of revising the Japan-US Security Treaty and other political tasks. Students tried to think how their school should respond to these issues. At that time, even for high school students, we had several groups like the Hard-Core Faction or the Revolutionary Marxist Faction. We had some policies proposed by each group.

T: In the present context, students would have tried to discuss how their school should react to leaking water from the nuclear power plants in Fukushima.

N: Exactly. All the policies came from the leaders of each faction. I said more existentially something like “we have to think from where I am” and “we shouldn’t just read out the political tasks that the top people have decided”. I think my opinions were compelling.

T: Did you feel that you succeeded?

N: In that limited sense, yes, but there was no possibility to make the movement succeed, as this was not like  a labor movement campaigning for a salary rise.

T: That’s true.

N: It was an essential argument, so it shouldn’t achieve any result. Well, the things is, it was a kind of philosophy for me.

T: Oh, it had already started!

N: It was a movement, but I am a person who cannot do anything without being philosophical. Every activity turned out a philosophy, even this movement!

T: Interesting. So at some point, you thought you would enter a philosophy department at university.

N: Yes, I’d been thinking about that from the beginning.

T: From the first year of high school?

N: Yes.

T: At that time, were you reading any philosophy books?

N: Yes, I was reading introductory books after entering junior high school, and when I was at high school, I read many books that were kind of Marxist.

T: Was it for the student movement?

N: Yes, that was one purpose, and I read all books written by Wataru Hiromatsu, who is already famous now but his first books were just published at that time. Also, Takaaki Yoshimoto. He was popular at that time.

T: You read through all those books by yourself.

N: Yes. I might have read all the books written by them.

T: Did you have a chance to discuss  these books with your friends?

N: Yes, sometimes. I also read Marx’s books like Economy-Philosophy Manuscript that was really famous and popular. I read through that  book seriously.

T: I think you were wondering how you could express your question from childhood in such a context. Were you confident to do that after entering a philosophy department?

N: No, I wasn’t, but I didn’t have any other choice. Sometimes, I thought it might be better to go to an economics department, but it was not so difficult to choose one. I just thought I have to do philosophy.

T: You were all about philosophy?

N: Yes, I was.


A Breakthrough in the Golden Days of Marxism

T: Do you remember which classes you took at the university?

N: No I don’t remember very well what kind of philosophy I was doing at university. Actually they just instilled various type of knowledge, and now these things have been getting useful for me little by little. Medieval Philosophy was the one that I wasn’t so interested in learning at that time; it was all about angels and God and Thomas Aquinas.  He described angels as  “forma separate”, which means existence apart from matter, just having a form, but the teacher said angels should need at least a small amount of matter. I thought that’s bullshit! People wouldn’t know whether angels have matter or not as angels don’t exist. I couldn’t understand what the purpose of these kinds of discussions was, but now I think these are actually important. That means people sometimes notice only decades later that there is an importance to discuss on these kinds of issues in philosophy. So I think it’s important to just teach this sort of stuff in the curriculum. At first, I wasn’t so interested in the subject, but there was a “metaphysis” class where I heard this sort of stuff and I thought that people in medieval times were discussing such foolish things. Looking back, such cultivation is useful sometimes.

T: It was in the 1970’s. Was there any popular philosophy at that time?

N: Wataru Hiromatsu, who I mentioned earlier, was popular as many people were still reading Marxist literatures at that time. Hiromatsu is an epistemologist but he was famous as a Marxist, because he made some theories for the revolutionary movement.

T: Were ordinary people reading his books?

N: Yes, they were. In that sense, the situation was totally different from the one nowadays. At that time, philosophy was thought to be connected with social movements to a deeper degree compared to now.

T: So philosophy was useful at that time.

N: In a sense, yes, but I don’t know whether philosophy was useful or not in a real sense. Looking back, I don’t know what kind of meaning philosophy at that time had.

T: Meanwhile, you were thinking about the Problem of Other Minds that you focused on in the book you wrote at 34 years of age, weren’t you?


N: Yes, I’d been thinking about that kind of issue. Oh, as for the Problem of Other Minds, Hiromatsu was discussing it, wasn’t he?  “Intersubjectivity” was his key subject. Here I can say that one of my breakthroughs was criticism for Hiromatsu. I said that his idea of Intersubjectivity, in which the minds of others are connected, is totally wrong, as the real issue is why one of these people is me and it has nothing to do with whether another’s mind is connected to me or not. Even if I could see another’s minds clearly and they were totally readable, fine, still the real issue wouldn’t be solved.  What I said was that the way of solving the Problem of Other Minds should still leave this problem unsolved, and I think it appealed to people who had been reading Hiromatsu. What Hiromatsu and also Merleau-Ponty were saying was not wrong, but rather than that, it was missing a point. I said that the more important issue remained and it became a part of history in Japanese philosophy.

T: I see. I guess the existentialism of Sartre was also popular at that time.

N: At that time, Sartre’s popularity had slowed down. He was more popular earlier, in the 60’s, so older people than me had read Sartre.

T: After Sartre decreased in popularity, Hiromatsu and Merleau-Ponty began getting popular.

N: Exactly. Sartre was also a Marxist, but Hiromatsu was younger than him.

T: I see. And Nagai’s criticism was following Hiromatsu.

N: Right. In that sense, my work was not related directly to Sartre.

T: That means that people received your criticism for Hiromatsu as a new philosophy?

N: Yes, I think so.

Giving Interjections to Philosophical Questions from Children at Cram School

T: After you finish graduate school, you didn’t get a post in academia, but you were working as a teacher at a cram school. At that time, were you still thinking about the same issue?

N: Of course, I was thinking about the same thing at that time. At the same time I was working as a teacher at a cram school, I was teaching at some technical colleges as a part time lecturer. At first, I taught for students wanted to be clinical laboratory technicians at Kitasato Junior College of Health and Hygienic Science and also at Sacred Heart Professional Training College.

T: I guess life at that time was not so easy to manage.

N: But I was getting a salary that was enough to survive.

T: Did you feel confident about continuing your philosophy?

N: I have to admit that I was having a common problem.  The more I worked, the more my own time was reduced, but otherwise, there were no special problems in my life. Most of the kids at cram school were junior high students, but they were all cute and interesting.

T: Did you have a chance to discuss your philosophical issue with the kids?

N: When a kid said something similar…

T: Did you think like “Oh”?

N: Yes, like “you see the issue don’t you?”. In that case, I didn’t say anything about what I was thinking but all I did was show my admiration for the kid by saying “what you said was absolutely great!” and “that’s so true”. Whenever a kid says something philosophical, I just admire him/her just because it’s philosophical!

T: Even if what the student thinks was different from you?

N: Yes, if she/he made a philosophical question or point, I just wanted to say that it’s something really wonderful. I know it’s just my favoritism and I just wanted to invite those kids to my side, but sometimes kids bring up these kinds of philosophical things. In that moment, I wouldn’t nip the bud, but would cultivate it!

T: Did some kids encouraged by your reaction come to you to talk about philosophical topics?

N: Not really, but I just expected that the bud would live in their minds potentially, even if they would not express that to anymore.

T: You just made a wish?

N: Yes, but things are more simple. I just wanted to say something naturally. Without thinking, I couldn’t stop cheering kids by saying things like “Yooo”!

T: You just gave an interjection.

N: Yes, by saying fabulous!

The First Book Encouraged by Masaru Tomioka

T: I see. Around this time, you published your first book A Metaphysis of I!, which I asked you to read a part of it at the beginning of our interview. As this book was your debut work, you were not famous yet at that time.

N: Yes, of course.

T: How did you get the chance?

N: Well, a great editor, Masaru Tomioka at Keiso Shobo had been working on releasing most of the popular academic books at that time. The most famous book was Structure et force written by Akira Asada who was in his 20’s at that time, which was much younger than me. Tomioka discovered other famous writers like Daizaburo Hashizume, Masachi Osawa and other people by just saying, “Hey you, write a book”. Surprisingly, he read what I had wrote at that time, which was only two academic papers in journals; about the construction of <I> living as <person>[〈人〉として生きる〈私〉の成り立ちについて], published in the Annals of Ethics and Philosophy, and the Grammar of Feeling and its Privacy [感じられるものの文法とその「私秘性」], published in the Annual Review of the Philosophical Association.

T: You must have been surprised.

N: Yes I was. I think no one is doing such things now, reading academic journals and asking the authors to write a book. Tomioka was the editor who would scout for young and unknown authors.

T: Sounds like he is great.

N: Yes.

T: In that sense, he had foresight to discover you.

N: Well, but my book may not be so good.

T: I don’t think so!


Philosophy Helps Vipassana Meditation

T: Recently, you have become very interested in Vipassana Meditation. Was there any trigger in the context of “philosophy of I!” ?

N: It’s very simple to describe the relationship between philosophy and meditation, but meditation is just a way to feel the existence of “I!” directly. I can throw away being this person, Hitoshi Nagai, by feeling the “I!” directly. Rather than throwing him away, I can airbrush out all the things related to this person. Theoretically, it would be possible, but it wouldn’t be possible in ordinary life. When I am speaking like this now, I am speaking as Hitoshi Nagai, so the way of airbrushing it while keeping conscious is meditation or zazen. This is how these are related to philosophy.

T: So it helped?

N: Yes, philosophy helps meditation.

T: I see. Does meditation help philosophy?

N: Rather than meditation helps philosophy, philosophy helps meditation, and doing meditation has an independent effect from philosophy; it gets your body and mood into shape. It really creates a radiant mood.

T: That’s good.

N: It makes a cloudy mood turn bright. Human beings often have cloudy and gloomy feelings, but meditation makes the mind totally clear, bright, and radiant.

T: So your mood changes?

N: Body and mind change as well as mood.

T: In general, I think doing philosophy tends to make your mood gloomy.

N: That’s true. Philosophy requires thinking. Usually our mind is not so clear while thinking.

T: Speaking the relevance of happiness, our mind is a little bit unhappy while doing philosophy.

N: Maybe. Thinking is bound to cause a lacking of fullness and dissatisfaction. These lacking of fullness and dissatisfaction are not related to our daily life, as it’s just a pure thinking, so it’s good in a sense, but still we cannot avoid these lacks.  On the other hand, meditation can make those feeling of dissatisfaction disappear, so your mind is totally fulfilled. It’s more than clear and I can say it’s totally transparent.

T: Transparent!

N: Yes, transparent nothingness. If I succeed, I can disappear as if the “I!” is totally transparent, which is really nice. No cloud, no turbidness, and absolutory transparent.

T: I think you need to be a cloud to be transparent.

N: Yes, it really makes me feel better after getting rid of the cloudiness little by little and being transparent.

T: I see. Your first philosophical question of “I!” originally started when you were at kindergarten or elementary school, but the philosophical theory that followed from this first question helps you to do meditation, does it?

N: Yes, it does, but what is mystifying is that this applies only in my case, as nobody is thinking such a question and nobody can’t use it for meditation. I guess everybody is doing different things from me. Surprisingly, meditation is a tradition more than 2000 years old, but what everybody has been doing might be totally different from what I do.

T: I think that is something very lucky.

N: Yes, in a sense.

T: You have a lot of good luck.

N: Luck… But Buddha and Dogen might have been doing same thing as me virtually.

T: So, you’ve started meditation, since you were in your 60’s, right?

N: Yes, I was in my 60’s when I started Vipassana Meditation, which was introduced into Japan recently. Since then, it was popular only in Sri Lanka and Myanmar and we already had the tradition of zazen in Japan, but not one of Vipassana Meditation.

T: Does Vippasana Meditation come from India also?

N: It is originally from India, and then it spread to Sri Lanka and Myanmar and didn’t come to Japan directly from India. Japanese Buddism came from China, which had a form of zen. Vippasana Meditation is easier to understand, as in zazen we have to just sit and people don’t say anything. We don’t know what to do, while the instructor of Vippasana Meditation tells you what to do; feel your breaths, notice each thought in your mind and then release it. Most people who try this can get certain results from this practice.

T: The result is having a clear mind.

N: Yes, if you succeed. Some people said they couldn’t get any good results even if they try it again and again.

T: OK, those people have to read your Metaphysics of I!, first.

N: Right! If they learn my “philosophy of I!”, they will get a good result for sure.

T: If they try the route from your book, they will see the cloudiness in their mind…

N: Yes, they will be able to find their way from cloudiness to a clear mind! I think this is true.

T: Over your life, many intellectual developments took place and impacted Japan through translated works, and you’ve been connected with these things and your philosophy has continued.

N: Yes, I’ve been connected with these developments each time. It’s really amazing.

T: And you discovered Vippassana Meditation in your 60’s!

N: Right.

T: We can write a history of world thought. First was Marx, then Wataru Hiromatsu, and Wittgenstein. Was there anything else you were investigaing before you came across Vipassana Meditaiton?

N: Yes, I could give the details, but we can omit that today, and just say that the latest one was Vipassana Meditation.

T: All right. I would like to translate what you’ve done in this county for the outside world.

N: Thanks!


Related Article

■ A Note on an Experience of Laughter in Zazen

この投稿文は次の言語で読めます: Japanese