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KOKUGAKU . The Japanese intellectual movement known as Kokugaku (Native Learning) includes the Shintō revival that began in the middle of the Edo period (16031867). Inspired by the spirit of nationalism, Kokugaku thinkers deplored the lack of scholarship on Japanese history and literature and attacked the wholesale adoption of such foreign influences as Confucianism and Buddhism. According to Kokugaku thinkers, Japanese history can be divided into three periods: antiquity, during which Japan's indigenous, original spirit emerged and was manifest in its purest form; the Middle Ages, when this spirit became "contaminated" and was suppressed by the introduction of Chinese culture, in particular Confucianism and Buddhism; and the modern age, when Japan's ancient, original spirit was revived and rediscovered. Although the Kokugaku movement encompassed various fields of study, among them literature and philology, this discussion is limited to its concern with religion.

In the Genroku period (16881704), which marks the rise of the Kokugaku movement, the Buddhist priest Keichū (16401701) proposed that the poetic conventions popular during the Middle Ages in Japan be abolished so as to allow free composition of the Japanese waka poems. Keichū applied philological analysis to the Man'yōshū, but said only that Shintō differed from both Confucianism and Buddhism and that the kami were beyond the understanding of people. Kada Azumamaro (16691736), a Shintō priest at Inari Shrine in Kyoto, opposed the synthesis of Confucianism and Shintō in which Confucian terms and conceptsfor example, the principles of yin and yang and the Five Elements (wu xing )were used to interpret Shintō. Although he also advocated the founding of a college for "Native Learning" to combat the influence of Confucianism, he did not engage in the study of ancient Shintō himself.

The men considered the most representative thinkers of the movementKamo no Mabuchi (16971769) and Motoori Norinaga (17301801) among the second generation of Kokugaku scholars and Hirata Atsutane (17761843) among the third generationwere also the most prominent of the advocates of Native Learning to focus their attention on religious issues. Kamo no Mabuchi founded the school of Kogaku (Ancient Learning) Shintō, which sought a reawakening of and a return to ancient Shintō. That is, he called for a revival of Shintō as expressed and practiced prior to the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism. His main ideas are presented in his Kokuikō (On the spirit of the nation).

Motoori Norinaga further clarified and developed Ancient Learning Shintō. He established the Kojiki, the earliest recorded Japanese history, as the scriptural authority for the movement and wrote a commentary on it, the Kojikiden. Others of his works include Naobi no mitama (Straightening kami ) and Tamaboko hyakushu (One hundred poems on the way). Hirata Atsutane argued even further the religiosity of Ancient Learning Shintō and asserted that Shintō was superior to other religions. His works include Tama no mihashira (The pillar of the soul), Tamadasuki (The jeweled sash), and Honkyō gaihen (Supplement to my theory of Shintō).

Whereas they called for an end to the influence of all foreign ideas and for a revival of Shintō in its original form, in reality these three men found certain foreign ideas conducive to the advancement of Kokugaku ideology. Both Mabuchi and Norinaga turned to the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi, with Mabuchi borrowing from the former and Norinaga from the latter. Atsutane, however, made use of the teachings of Christianity, a religion that had been proscribed during the Tokugawa era (16001868). Their purpose in doing so was to eradicate the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism and to clarify the identity of Shintō and establish its supremacy. For example, believing that the teachings of the Buddhists and Confucians were "unnatural," that is, products of mere human artifice, Mabuchi used Laozi's notion of ziran wu-wei (Japanese, shizen mui, "spontaneity and nonactivity") to reject their interpretations of Shintō. He argued that Shintō, or the way of life of the ancient Japanese, was completely in accord with the nature of heaven and earth and thus did not give rise to the artificial systems found in China.

Accepting Mabuchi's basic thesis, Norinaga applied the knowledge gained through his research of the Japanese classics to criticize even more fervently than Mabuchi the precepts and doctrines of neo-Confucianism. Norinaga borrowed Zhuangzi's philosophy of nature (the philosophically exclusive principle of causality whereby there is no cause for an occurrence other than from the self) to reject the synthesis of neo-Confucianism and Shintō that had been popular in the previous century. As a physician, Norinaga refused to accept the complex neo-Confucian methodology that used the metaphysical theories of yin and yang and the Five Elements to determine the causes of diseases and their cures. He devoted himself to the task of reviving the ancient practices of medicine (koihō) that limited medicine to the sphere of empiricism. Accordingly, he asserted that all existence and phenomena arise from the self through divine will and that both the cause and the reason for the occurrence of things cannot be fathomed by peopledaring to inquire into such causes showed disrespect for the kami. Thus Norinaga sought absolute obedience to the kami. He maintained that since the activities of the kami recorded in the Kojiki had actually been witnessed by the people of that early era, they should be accepted as fact and should be studied with the same empiricist method as that used for koiho. According to the Mito scholar Aizawa Yasushi (17811863), Norinaga's concept of the creator and sovereign kami was influenced by Christianity. Norinaga did read Christian doctrine, but one can also see in his work an adaptation of the neo-Confucian concept of tai chi (Japanese, taikyoku, meaning "ultimate principle" or "great ultimate").

Following the Shintō theories of Norinaga, Atsutane continued to develop Kokugaku Shintō, giving it a theological foundation. Although he showed it to no one, Atsutane's most important work is Honkyō gaihen, which he subtitled Honkyō jibensaku (Flagellation of my theory of Shintō). All of his theologically important works were written after this. Muraoka Tsunetsugu (18841946) has verified that this work is composed of adaptations or selected translations of books on Christian doctrine that had been written by missionaries in Chinese during the Ming dynasty (12681644). Atsutane was impressed by such missionaries as Matteo Ricci (15521610), whose works presented arguments in support of Christianity, particularly in the face of Confucian opposition. Atsutane adapted these arguments to elevate Shintō over both Confucianism and Buddhism. He reasoned that the three kam Ame no Minakanushi, Takamimusubi, and Kamimusubiwere a "Trinity," which he identified as Musubi no Okami (great creator kami). He also advanced the notion that the human soul receives final judgment by Okuninushi no Mikoto in the netherworld and that one's eternal happiness or hardship was based on one's deeds during life.

Atsutane held that ancestor worship was central to Shintō practice. Unlike Chinese ancestor worship, which was limited to consanguineous relationships, Shintō ancestor worship especially revered the creator and sovereign kami as the ancestral kami of the entire nation, the head of which was the imperial family. Atsutane institutionalized the religious observances celebrating the ancestral kami, the writing of prayers, and the promotion of Shintō practices.

The legacy of Atsutane's ideas lay in their political implications. In asserting that the imperial system, in which the emperor (tennō) was supreme ruler over all the people, was the original form of the Japanese polity, he held that system as the purest and most natural structure of government. In his view the (Tokugawa) shogunate was a later accretion that was not in accordance with Shintō and was thus disrespectful of the divine origins of the imperial family. Atsutane's criticisms provided a religious foundation for the nineteenth-century political movement that resulted in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Kokugaku was largely responsible for the construction of collective identity and "Japaneseness" that occurred during the second half of the Tokugawa period. Later, during the Meiji period (18681912), ideas rooted in the Kokugaku tradition similarly contributed to those ideological constructions that supported the emergent nation-state. These ideas included the proposition that Japanese monarchs had traditionally constituted the heart of the polityand the polity construed as extended familyas well as the articulation of a privileged place and destiny for Japan and Japanese people within Asia the world beyond. These same ideas of course also contributed substantially to Japan's international excesses, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century.

Subsequent to Japan's defeat in the Pacific War, expressions of the traditional essentialism became virtually taboo for several decades, and in their place there arose what were generally deemed to be less-offensive expressions of a Japanese national character, said to include:

  • an emphasis on harmony and industriousness;
  • a tradition of group decision making and subordinating one's own interests to those of the group;
  • a distinctive affinity for nature and seasonal change;
  • and an unusually refined aesthetic sense juxtaposed against a distinguished martial tradition.

These were inevitably represented as being both natural (and hence inescapable) and of great antiquity. It is likewise clear that these virtues also served the interests of national reconstruction and economic development.

By the 1980s, many of the earlier Kokugaku expressions of distinctiveness and superiority were once again recast under the rubric of Nihonjinron, or "theories of Japaneseness." They acquired a genuinely popular character in this guise.

See Also

Hirata Atsutane; Kamo no Mabuchi; Motoori Norinaga.


Selected writings of Kokugaku thinkers are in Ryūsaku Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, vol. 2 (New York, 1958). Three quite different studies of Kokugaku are Susan L. Burns, Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan (Durham, N.C., 2003); Harry D. Harootunian, Things Seen and Unseen: Discourse and Ideology in Tokugawa Nativism (Chicago, 1988); and Peter Nosco, Remembering Paradise: Nativism and Nostalgia in Eighteenth-Century Japan (Cambridge, Mass., 1990). See also Muraoka Tsunetsugu's Studies in Shinto Thought (Tokyo, 1964) and Masao Maruyama's Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan (Tokyo, 1974).

Ishida IchirŌ (1987)

Peter Nosco (2005)