Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2017, from

7. Native studies: religio-aesthetic foundation of the Shintō state

The school of Ancient Learning’s return to the original classics of Chinese Confucianism was mirrored in a movement to return to the early texts of Japan, the school of ‘Native Studies’ or ‘National Studies’ (kokugaku). Originally a literary and philological group, Native Studies scholars like Keichū (1640–1701), Kada no Azumamaro (1669–1736) and Kamo no Mabuchi (1697–1769) analysed the language and worldview of Nara and Heian poetry and prose. The school expanded beyond these literary goals, however, as it turned to questions of religion and national identity. In this development the philosophy of Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) played a pivotal role.

The major shift in Native Studies began with Motoori’s decision as a philologist to decode the antiquated writing system of the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters). An eighth-century text, the Kojiki was supposedly the written version of what had formerly been an oral tradition. Mixing myth and history, it discussed the origins of the world, the formation of Japan and the succession of Japanese emperors from the beginning of time up to its present. There was a twin work in Chinese written at the same time, Nihon shoki (The Chronicle of Japan). Because the orthography of the Kojiki died out as a writing system for Japanese shortly after the Nara period, the Nihon shoki became the more used text, supposedly containing the same information. The Kojiki had in fact become virtually unintelligible even to the educated Japanese of Motoori’s time. By decoding the text, therefore, Motoori hoped to bring to light the original Japanese worldview.

A devout follower of Shintō, Motoori’s task assumed a profoundly religious dimension as well. He believed the Kojiki was a written account of what had been orally transmitted word for word from the time of creation. The Kojiki contained the very words of the deities who had created the world. Furthermore, since the text was written in an orthography that had soon fallen into disuse, Motoori believed the written text was uncorrupted by later interpreters, making it superior to the adulterated cosmogonies of other cultures. This firm belief sustained Motoori’s lifelong devotion to the enormously complex task of decoding the text.

Based on his readings of Japanese classics, Motoori also developed a philosophy of poetic or religious expression: his theory of ‘heart’ (kokoro). As a technical term, kokoro designates the seat of thinking and feeling; it is the basis of sensitivity (see Kokoro). Heart is not, however, limited to people; things and words also have heart. If poets have ‘genuine heart,’ they will be touched by the heart of things and the heart of words. The poetically or religiously expressive act, therefore, is an act of the heart, something shared by the things, the person and the words. Since the genuine heart is also a goal of Shintō purification, Motoori saw in this theory the basis of religious language as well. This in turn influenced his understanding of the significance of the Kojiki.

If the Kojiki represents the original words of the deities at the time of creation, to read or study the text is virtually a ritualistic re-enactment of creation. The implication for Motoori was that the ancient Japanese language of the text is not only the language of the deities, but also the most pure intimation of the heart of things. By this line of reasoning, Motoori made the Kojiki into the sacred scripture of Shintō. Based on his reading of the text, Motoori founded a philosophy of Shintō supposedly free of Buddhist influence. For virtually the first time, Shintō could develop a formal doctrinal system of its own (see Shintō).

This line of thought readily supported a nationalist ideology. If the ancient Japanese language was the protolanguage of all languages, if that language were most purely resonant with the heart of things and if the Japanese emperor was the special link between the deities and humanity, obviously Japan would have a special place in the world. This sense of national superiority became especially strong in the next generation of Native Studies scholars such as Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843) and helped contribute to the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and restore the emperor as the true leader of Japan. In this effort, it found an intellectual ally in the Mito School, a Shintō–Confucian synthesis, that argued for the centrality of the emperor as the ‘body of the state’. The restoration of the emperor was completed in 1868, the beginning of Japan’s modern era.

In summary, the introduction of neo-Confucianism from China and the establishment of a stable state under Tokugawa rule created a new fertile environment for Japanese philosophy. Ultimately, neo-Confucianism itself did not become a dominant philosophy in Japan, but its presence challenged the dominant Buddhist philosophies. In this new context Japanese philosophy grew more concerned with social ethics, the study of the natural world and cultural identity. In this period developed the idea of the warrior-turned-bureaucrat, as fiercely loyal to the organization as formerly to the lord. As there was more interest in studying and classifying the physical processes of nature, there was also a newly defined aesthetic of sensitivity and poetic expression (see Aesthetics, Japanese). For the first time, Shintō became a major intellectual force in Japanese thought and there was an attendant sense of the uniqueness and superior quality of Japanese culture. All these factors became the intellectual background for the emergence of the modern era after 1868, and its related philosophies.

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. Native studies: religio-aesthetic foundation of the Shintō state. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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