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Kokugaku (Kyūjitai: 國學/Shinjitai: 国学; lit. National study or Japanology) was an ethnocentric school of Japanese philology and philosophy originating during the Tokugawa period (1603–1868 C.E.). The word 'Kokugaku' has been translated as 'Native Studies' or 'Nativism' and was a response to Sinocentric Neo-Confucian theories that were adopted as the state philosophy by the Tokugawa shogunate.

Drawing heavily from Shinto tradition and Japan's ancient literature, the Kokugaku scholars sought a return to a perceived golden age of Japanese culture and society. They used ancient Japanese poetry, which predated the rise of the feudal orders in the mid-twelfth century, and other cultural achievements, to illustrate the 'glory' of Japan. Kokugaku thinkers were to some degree subversive of Tokugawa authority as they supported a restoration of direct imperial rule which had been absent since the rise of the Minamoto clan and the foundation of the Kamakura shogunate. These philosophers were mostly anti-Sinocentric and many saw Japan as a divine nation superior to other nations. Many referred to Japan as Chūgoku, or the Central Country - the name that had traditionally been given to China. Interestingly, the anti-Sinocentric Kokugaku theory itself is based upon the methodology of Sinocentric Neo-Confucianism.

Eventually Kokugaku thinkers gained power and influence through the Sonnō jōi (“Revere the emperor and expel the barbarians”) movement. This ideology contributed to the eventual collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 and the subsequent Meiji Restoration. State Shinto and state socialism developed from Kokugaku thought and indirectly led to Japanese nationalism during the late nineteenth and early- to-mid twentieth centuries.

The Rise of Kokugaku

From its earliest existence, Japan was exposed to Chinese culture. During the centuries when the nation of Japan was being formed, several Japanese delegations traveled to China to present tribute to the Emperor. In the fourth century C.E. The Analects of Confucius had already been brought through the Korean peninsula to Japan, supposedly by a scholar known as Wani. The level of development that had been reached by Chinese culture amazed the Japanese. In the sixth century C.E., Chinese Buddhism entered Japan through the Paekche nation of Korea. The ancient Japanese religion of Shintoism, centered on the emperor, had already existed for several centuries. Emperor Kimmei asked his advisors how to deal with this new foreign influence. A disagreement arose between two clans, the Soga clan which supported Buddhism and the Mononobe clan which supported Shintoism. The Soga clan got complete victory, and the defeated Mononobe clan gradually vanished. With the support of the Soga clan, Prince Shotoku founded a Buddhist nation. To organize the new nation (Asuka), Prince Shotoku borrowed the political system of the Chinese Sui and Tang dynasties, which was mostly based on the Confucian legal code, or ritsuryo. Shintoism continued to coexist with Buddhism and Confucianism. Unlike Europe, where monotheistic Christianity completely absorbed native religions, Japan developed a polytheistic system where several religions existed side-by-side. Since Confucian principles strengthened the authority of the government, Confucianism dominated the Japanese political world. Chinese language and literature were officially held in high esteem. When the Samurai age began in the thirteenth century, Neo-Confucianism (the thought of the great Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi) took over. During the Tokugawa age (1603–1868 C.E.), a Neo-Confucianist scholar named Hayashi Razan (1583–1657 C.E.) established Confucianism as the official religion. Neo-Confucianist ideas reinforced feudalism and helped the rulers to maintain strict control of the people.

In 1665, one of Razan’s students, Yamaga Soko, wrote a book criticizing official Neo-Confucianism as being shallow and unrealistic, and called for a return to traditional Confucian teachings. The Tokoguwa shogunate branded him a dissident and exiled him to Akou. In exile he wrote two more books praising Japanese history and culture as being superior to Chinese culture, and gathered a group of disciples. In Kyoto, another scholar named Itō Jinsai (1627-1705) also criticized Neo-Confucianism and gathered about three thousand followers who were committed to studying the original Confucian texts without the use of commentaries or interpretations. In Tokyo, a third scholar, Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728), criticized Neo-Confucianism and Itō Jinsai, and began a movement to revive the Nine Chinese Classics (the words and teachings of the ancient Chinese sages including The Analects of Confucius). He not only suggested that the Shogun should rule according to the teachings of the sages, but he liberated tanka poetry as a form of natural human expression separate from Confucian ethics. The atmosphere of criticism and re-examination created by these three scholars gave rise to the Kokugaku movement. Their methodology was adopted by the founders of Kokugaku and then used to criticize them.

Many Kokugaku scholars were poets, artists, and writers of literature who felt that creativity and artistic impulse had been stifled by the rigid tenets of Neo-Confucianism. Keichu, a Buddhist monk who studied the Japanese classics, is considered one of the instigators of the Kokugaku movement. At that time, Tokugawa Mistukuni, governor of Mito and grandson of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of Tokugawa shogunate), had given shelter to a Chinese dissident named Zhu Shun Shui. Upon listening to this man’s views that China was the center of the universe, Tokugawa Mitsukuni concluded that Japan was superior to China because China had been conquered several times by foreign tribes, while Japan had never been invaded by foreigners and the Japanese imperial succession had continued unbroken. Tokugawa Mitsukuni became very nationalistic. Hayashi Razan had written a history of Japan declaring that the Japanese were descended from China. This history angered Tokugawa Mitsukuni, and he commissioned a group of scholars in Mito to write the monumental work, Dainihon-shi (History of Great Japan). This history was begun according to a Chinese model, but as it was being written the Kokugaku movement flowered, with its emphasis on purging all foreign influences from Japanese culture. The nationalism of these Mito scholars was one of the important elements of Kokugaku. Tokugawa Mitsukuni became a patron of Keichu, and under his protection Keichu studied and wrote commentaries on Manyoshu (ancient Japanese poetry). It is said that Keichu gave to the poor all the money that he received from Tokugawa Mistsukuni for this work.

Keichu’s commentaries on Manyoshu inspired three major figures of the Kokugaku movement, Kada No Azumamaro, his disciple Kamo no Mabuchi, and Mabuchi’s disciple Motoori Norinaga, by giving them an appreciation for the beauty and sensitivity or ancient Japanese poetry and language. At the end of the Edo age a fourth major figure, Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), inspired by the writings of Motoori Norinaga, began to study Kokugaku. He wrote numerous books and expanded his studies to include Dutch culture, Christianity, Hinduism, military strategy, Buddhism and Confucianism and many other topics. He brought about a revival of Shintoism among the general population of Japan, including the belief that there is an afterlife, which is determined by the conduct of each person while on this earth. This new ideology eventually led to the turbulent end of the Tokugawa era and the beginning of the Meiji restoration.

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.


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