HIRATA ATSUTANE (1776–1843) was a prominent Japanese thinker and ardent nationalist who vigorously argued for the superiority of Shintō and native Japanese institutions over all imported traditions. Atsutane was the fourth son of Ōwada Tsugutane, a member of the warrior class. As an adolescent he was trained in the reading of Chinese texts and in practical medicine. At twenty years of age he left his home province and came to live in Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa government. There, he encountered great difficulty making a living, and was finally forced to do manual labor until he was adopted by Hirata Tōbei, also a member of the warrior class. Thereafter, he went by the name Hirata Atsutane.
In spite of his difficult financial situation Atsutane continued his studies. His first book, entitled Kamōsho (Scoldings to a fool), was a criticism of Bendōsho (A discourse on the way), a work by the famous Confucianist Dazai Jun. In it, Atsutane accused Dazai of misunderstanding the ancient "way" of Japan. Taking along a handwritten draft of this book, he made a trip to see Motoori Norinaga at his home in Matsuzaka in the hope of being accepted as a disciple. However, it was only in 1803, two years after Norinaga's death, that his discipleship was formally acknowledged by the son of Norinaga. The next year he opened a small private academy in Edo and began to devote himself to writing. He produced two important works during this early period: Shinkishinron (A new discourse on Kami ), a criticism of the Chinese understanding of the fate of the soul and an outline of his own conviction that the soul continues to exist after death, and Honkyōgaihen (Additional teachings of the central tradition), a description of ideas regarding the imperial kami and life after death, which reveals the influence of Christian texts Atsutane had read in Chinese translation. These works embody the basic attitudes and principles that guided his life thereafter: that truth is one, that Japan is the country in which the original kami was born, and that therefore all religions should be interpreted in accordance with Japanese mythology. Hirata also believed that the world of kami is the primary, eternal one that controls this world and for which one must prepare during this lifetime.
In 1808 he was certified by the Shirakawa family to teach Shintō priests. This gave him a source of income and made it possible for him to concentrate on teaching and writing. His writings consist of lectures on ancient Shintō, popular Shintō, Confucianism, Buddhism, waka poetry, and so forth. Some of his most important works were written in the period beginning in 1811. Typically, Atsutane would append several commentaries to his text in order to avoid mistakes of interpretation. For example, to Koshi (Ancient history) are appended two works, Koshicho (References to ancient history) and Koshiden (Commentaries on ancient history). In 1812, the year his first wife died, he wrote another important work entitled Tama no mahashira (The real pillar of the spirit), in which he interpreted the Japanese myth of the creation of the universe in accordance with the principles of astronomy. This methodology had first been attempted by Hattori Nakatsune in Sandaikō (A study of the three planets), a discussion of the relationship between mythological deities and the sun, the earth, and the moon, based on knowledge drawn from books imported from Holland. Atsutane's work was influenced by the same line of thought, a major reason why many of his followers lost influence among intellectuals in the early Meiji period.
In the early 1820s, having established an academic reputation in a somewhat narrow sense, Atsutane became interested in ancient Japanese letters and the field of demonology. His work on the latter subject is regarded today as the model that inspired contemporary studies of folk beliefs. In the late 1820s his studies turned to India and China in an attempt to identify Japan as the ideal country mentioned in the ancient texts of those countries. During this period he also tried to make himself known to certain daimyo in order to secure official patronage. In 1830 he was granted a small stipend from the Owari domain of one of the three collateral Tokugawa families.
Toward the end of his life Atsutane explored the fields of divination and metrology. He published Kōkoku doseikō (Japanese Metrology) in 1834, much to the consternation of the government, which wanted to maintain strict control over such matters. As a result, his stipend from the daimyo of Owari was canceled. In spite of this, Atsutane began to publish a study of the calendar in 1837, and in 1840 was again questioned by government officials. On the first day of the following year he was ordered to stop writing. He returned to his home province shortly thereafter, all efforts he had made for the freedom to move and to write having come to naught. In the years of social change that followed his death, however, his disciples increased and contributed to the establishment of the new government in the Meiji restoration a quarter century later.
Hirata Atsutane's complete works are found in the twenty-one-volume Hirata Atsutane zenshu (Tokyo, 1977–1981). Studies of his life and thought include Miki Shotaro's Hirata Atsutane no kenkyū (Kyoto, 1969), Muraoka Tsunetsugu's Norinaga to Atsutane (Tokyo, 1957), and Watanabe Kinzō's Hirata Atsutane kenkyu (Tokyo, 1942).
Ueda Kenji (1987)