Kamo no Mabuchi

From New World Encyclopedia

Kamo no Mabuchi Japanese: 賀茂真淵 (April 24, 1697 – November 1769) was a Japanese poet, philosopher, and philologist of the Edo period. Mabuchi conducted research into the spirit of ancient Japan through his studies of the Manyoshu and other works of ancient literature. A disciple of Kada no Azumamaro, Mabuchi is regarded as one of the four greats of Kokugaku (the other three are Motoori Norinaga, Hirata Atsutane, and Kadano Azumamaro).

Mabuchi concluded that the indigenous Japanese spirit had been obscured by the influences of Confucianism and Buddhism. He suggested that ancient literature and tanka poetry should be interpreted using natural emotions instead of reason, and not following prevailing Confucian interpretations. This revival of traditional Japanese culture penetrated even the Tokugawa Shogunate. Mabuchi was hired by the government to resolve disagreements that had arisen surrounding the Kokugaku movement. He served for 15 years and had an enormous impact on the Kokugaku movement, not only because of his scholarship but because of his natural goodness and humility. A one-night encounter with a young country doctor named Motoori Norinaga led Norinaga to become the most famous Kokugaku scholar.


Mabuchi was born in 1697, the third son of the Hamamatsu Shinto priest Okabe Masanobu. The Okabe were a lower branch of the famous Kamo Shrine in Kyoto. In 1722 Mabuchi joined a poetry reading party at the Sugiura and met Kada no Azumamaro, who was an eminent scholar of Japanese classical culture and a tanka poet.

In 1728 Mabuchi attended a lecture “Hyakunin Isshu" ("The Hundred Poems by One Hundred") by Sugiura Kuniakira, a disciple of Kada no Azumamaro. Shortly afterwards, Mabuchi moved to Kyoto and became an earnest disciple of Kada no Azumamaro. Mabuchi devoted himself to his studies and became a teacher of “Hyakunin Isshu.” Following the master’s death in 1736, Mabuchi moved to Edo (now known as Tokyo). Kada no Arimaro, a nephew and adopted son of Kada no Azumamaro, took care of Mabuchi. In those days, Kada no Arimaro was an important scholar for the Tokugawa Shogunate, serving under Tayasu Munetake, the 8th Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s second son. Tayasu had his own theories about classical literature and wanted to revive the Japanese classics. However, Tayasu and Kada no Arimaro argued about the theory of Kokugaku. They could not resolve the argument, and finally Tayasu asked Mabuchi to give his opinion. Tayasu hired Mabuchi to replace Kada no Arimaro and Mabuchi remained in this post for 15 years.

In 1760 Mabuchi, now 64 years old, retired from his post in the government. As an independent Kokugaku scholar and Japanese poet, he taught numerous disciples. In 1763 Mabuchi made a pilgrimage to Ise Shrine in Mie prefecture. On the way to Ise he spent the night at a hotel, where the young scholar Motoori Norinaga sought him out. Their encounter, which lasted only a few hours, marked a turning point for the Kokugaku movement. Though Mabuchi was a famous and high-ranking scholar, he was very humble. He sensed a spark of genius in this country youth. This was the only occasion on which Norinaga was taught directly by Mabuchi, and this single night of discussion later became known as “the night in Matsuzaka.” (Matsuzaka was Norinaga’s hometown.) Norinaga became a disciple of Mabuchi and one of the leading scholars of the Kokugaku movement.

A commemorative marker stands at the site of Mabuchi’s residence in Edo (Hisamatsu-cho, Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo). His grave can be found in the Tokaiji cemetery in Shinagawa Ward. A museum stands beside the house where he was born in Hamamatsu (Higashi-Iba, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka).

Thought and Works

Kada no Azumamaro, Mabuchi’s teacher, was an eminent scholar of the Kokugaku movement, which emphasized seeking the original Japanese context in classical studies. He was also a famous tanka poet, and a proponent for the revival of Shintoism, the traditional Japanese religion. He was influenced by Keichu’s writings on Manyo, the most ancient form of tanka poetry. Arimaro, Kada no Azumamaro’s nephew and adopted son, held a government post as a scholar (through this nephew, Kada no Azumamaro proposed the establishment of a School of Kokugaku in 1728). Tayasu Munetake, the Shogun Tokugawa’s second son, had his own theories about classical literature and wanted to revive the Japanese classics. He sought Mabuchi’s opinion to settle an argument between himself and Arimaro. Mabuchi replied that Tayasu was correct in thinking that ancient poetry and ancient language were important. However, Tayasu was still under the influence of Neo-Confucianism. He was using ri (reason) and ethics to analyze poetry which sprang from human emotion and feeling. Mabuchi believed that tanka poetry, as a form of art, could not be interpreted using the rigid structure of Neo-Confucianism. He felt that poetry must be experienced through natural human emotion. Tanka poetry was a form of warinaki, "something which cannot be dissected by human logic."

Tayasu hired Mabuchi to replace Arimaro and he served in the government for the next 15 years. After retiring, he wrote his most famous work, “Koku I Ko” in 1765. This book criticized the strict formality of Confucian thinking, which had been imported from China. He emphasized the uniqueness of Japanese heritage. He felt that Confucianism was used by rulers to control and dominate their people. In ancient Japan, he said, people had natural, unstructured interactions. The strict morality of Confucianism had become oppressive, and it was necessary to liberate natural feeling and emotion. Mabuchi proposed a new method of study called aware, meaning “straight from the heart.” In his opinion, the greatest obstacle to this was Karagokoro, or “Chinese way of thinking.” He transmitted his ideas to a young scholar, Motoori Norinaga, during an encounter in 1763, the “night in Matsuzaka.” Norinaga, a young country doctor, told him, “I want to study Kokugaku.” Norinaga explained that he wanted to understand how the Japanese lived before the arrival of Buddhism and Confucianism. The best way to achieve this, he thought, was to study Kojiki, (“Record of Ancient Matters”). Mabuchi encouraged him, saying that he had discovered the true Japanese spirit while studying Manyoshu, the most ancient Japanese poetry, and had also realized that a deep examination of Kojiki was necessary in order to study Kokugaku. Mabuchi felt he was already too old to complete this task and bequeathed it to Norinaga, who spent 35 years on Kojiki-den ("Commentaries on the Kojiki").

Mabuchi’s works include commentaries on the Manyoshu, Norito (Shinto prayers), Kagura (Shinto dances), the Tale of Genji, the meaning of poems, and other ancient works and their themes.

His disciples included Motoori Norinaga, Arakida Hisaoyu, Kato Chikage, Murata Harumi, Katori Tahiko, Hanawa Hokiichi, Uchiyama Matatsu, and Kurita Hijimaro.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Burns, Suzan L. Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan, Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Dumoulin, Heinrich. Kamo Mabuchi,: 1797 [i.e. 1697]-1769; ein Beitrag zur japanischen Religions- und Geistesgeschichte (Monumenta Nipponica monographs) (Monumenta Nipponica monographs) Tokyo: Sophia University, 1943.


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