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Motoori Norinaga


MOTOORI NORINAGA (17301801), regarded as the preeminent scholar of the Kokugaku ("national learning") school of premodern Japan. Born Ozu Yoshisada to a merchant-class family in Matsuzaka, Norinaga became interested in literature as a young man. Following the death of his brother-in-law in 1751, Norinaga's mother skillfully juggled the family finances in order to send her son to the capital, Kyoto, to continue his education. In 1752 he became the student of Hori Keizan, a Confucian scholar, with whom he studied Chinese literature. That same year he also discovered a book on Japanese poetry written by the Shingon monk Keichu, the first Kokugaku scholar (kokugakusha ). This experience moved Norinaga to undertake the study of the earliest Japanese documents, an occupation that he complemented with the study of practical medicine. As a result of his reading, which inculcated in him a growing awareness of, and sensitivity to, Japan's long cultural and religious history, he abandoned the name Ozu in favor of his family's ancestral name, Motoori. Later, he took Norinaga as his personal name.

Norinaga returned to Matsuzaka in 1757 and began to practice internal medicine, but his main interest continued to center on "ancient learning" (kogaku ), the literary and historical heritage of the early Japanese state. His early works include Ashiwake obune (A small boat on a reedy river), which discusses the nature of waka poetry; Shibun yōryō (The essence of Genji ), an analysis of the Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji); and Isonokami sasamegoto (Whisperings of Isonokami), in which he developed the celebrated concept of mono no aware. This term, which literally means the sentiments or affections felt immediately after experiencing something, Norinaga considered to be the integrating concept of the Genji monogatari. Using this notion, he attempted to free the analysis of literature from the moralism of contemporary criticism. His emphasis on human experience for its own sake was fundamental to his existential outlook on life; it was from this standpoint that he would later explore his own cultural identity within the Shintō tradition.

Norinaga's major work, the Kojikiden (Commentary on the Kojiki ), was begun in 1763, soon after Norinaga's first and only meeting with Kamo no Mabuchi (16971769), a disciple of Kada Azumamaro (16681736) and a major figure in the Kokugaku movement. Their meeting took place as Mabuchi was passing through Matsuzaka on a pilgrimage to the Grand Shrine at Ise. Prior to this, Norinaga had already begun to read the works of Mabuchi, intending to study the Kojiki with him sometime in the future. After their fortuitous meeting, Mabuchi accepted Norinaga as his student; through a lively correspondence that continued until Mabuchi's death, Norinaga gradually laid claim to the intellectual successorship of the Kokugaku movement. Some thirty-five years elapsed between the time Norinaga began work on the Kojikiden and its completion in 1798. During that time he produced a number of other important works. These include the most representative of his treatises on Shintō, Naobi no mitama (The Spirit of Naobi; 1771); Hihon tamakushige (Special Edition of The Spirit Box; 1787), a discussion of Japanese politics presented to the Kii (one of three collateral Tokugawa families); and Uiyamabumi (Introductory Remarks for Scholastic Beginners; 1798), which marked the end of his scholarly career. In that year he began to draw a pension from the daimyo of Kii in response to an earlier request.

In the year preceding his death Norinaga wrote Shokki rekichō Shōshikai (Commentaries on Imperial Edicts in the Shoku Nihongi ) and his will, which described in detail the procedures to be followed at his funeral. He also purchased land at the top of Mount Yamamuro to be used for his burial plot. Many have interpreted these actions as a rejection of Buddhism and an affirmation of his conviction that his spirit would remain on this earth forever.

In his many works Norinaga combined philological acumen with a keen sense of the primacy of the ancient texts of Japan, providing a basis on which scholars of his generation could forge a new appreciation of Shintō myth. He regarded Shintō as the way of the kami (which he defined as anything possessing awe-inspiring or superior power) and thus essentially the way of the emperor, the direct descendant of the deity Amaterasu. According to Norinaga, it is not our fate after death that should be our concern but rather a spontaneous and natural appreciation of life itself. In this life-affirming ethic he advocated a joyous reliance on the will of the kami, and maintained that each person was possessed of an innate sense of moral rectitude that renders manmade ethical systems unnecessary. For Norinaga, these attitudes were the very essence of the received traditions of antiquity. He himself eschewed the word kokugaku, holding that "learning" could not but refer to the study of the ancient texts and traditions of Japan.

See Also



Motoori Norinaga's complete works are contained in the twenty-two-volume Motoori Norinaga zenshū (Tokyo, 1977). Studies of his life and thought include Kobayashi Hideo's Motoori Norinaga (Tokyo, 1977) and Muraoka Tsunetsugu's work by the same name (Tokyo, 1928). See also Maruyama Masao's Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan, translated by Mikiso Hane (Princeton, 1975).

New Sources

Nosco, Peter. Remembering Paradise: Nativism and Nostalgia in Eighteenth-Century Japan. Cambridge, Mass, 1990.

Ueda Kenji (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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