Tominaga Nakamoto (1715–1746) has often been included among a diverse group of rationalist or enlightenment (keimō) thinkers who emerged in eighteenth-century Japan. Counted among their numbers are medical doctors, scientists, economists, and others, all of whom shared a critical stance toward traditional religious authority and who believed that reliable knowledge could come only from the rigorous application of reason.
Born into the merchant class in Osaka, Tominaga was educated in a Confucian school, the Kaitokudō or Pavilion of Virtues, that his father and four other merchants had established. Tominaga was a brilliant student and by the age of fifteen he had completed his first study, Setsuhei (Failings of the Classical Philosophers), for which he was expelled from the school. The text is no longer extant, but passing references to it in later works suggest that it was a critical treatment of Confucianism. After his expulsion, he studied with other Confucian teachers, but he may also have read Buddhist texts at Manpukuji, a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where some believe he worked as a proofreader. The monastery was publishing a new edition of the Buddhist canon at the time.
Tominaga died at the early age of thirty-one, but his breadth of knowledge of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintō enabled him to write two works that, after his death, had a revolutionary impact on Japanese religious history. In the short essay "Okina no fumi" ("The Writings of an Old Man," 1738) and in the much longer Shutsujō gōgo (Talks after Emerging from Meditation, 1745), he advanced the view that Japan's traditional religions were so historically and culturally conditioned that their claims to teach ultimate truth were untenable. In Shutsujō gōgo he focused his analysis on Buddhism in particular, contending that the texts of MahĀyĀna Buddhism, the dominant branch in Japan, were so different in language and content from the other sūtras that they could not be the direct teachings of the Buddha. Tominaga was the first person to systematically make this case in Japan. Viewed as a threat to the entire tradition, his position prompted numerous counterarguments from the Buddhist community. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, most Japanese Buddhist scholars accepted Tominaga's assertion about the later origins of Mahāyāna sūtras and embraced the critical historical approach to the study of texts that he had advanced.
Kato, Shuichi. "Okina no fumi: The Writings of an Old Man." Monumenta Nipponica 22, nos. 1–2 (1967): 194–210.
Kato, Shuichi. "Tominaga Nakamoto, 1715–1746: A Tokugawa Iconoclast." Monumenta Nipponica 22, nos. 1–2 (1967): 177–193.
Najita, Tetsuo. Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan: The Kaito-kudō, Merchant Academy of Osaka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Pye, Michael. Emerging from Meditation: Tominaga Nakamoto. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
Paul B. Watt