Kokugaku (Kyūjitai: 國學, Shinjitai: 国学; literally "national study") was an academic movement, a school of Japanese philology and philosophy originating during the Tokugawa period. Kokugaku scholars worked to refocus Japanese scholarship away from the then-dominant study of Chinese, Confucian, and Buddhist texts in favor of research into the early Japanese classics.[1]


What later became known as the kokugaku tradition began in the 17th and 18th centuries as kogaku ("ancient studies"), wagaku ("Japanese studies") or inishie manabi, a term favored by Motoori Norinaga and his school. Drawing heavily from Shinto and Japan's ancient literature, the school looked back to a golden age of culture and society. They drew upon ancient Japanese poetry, predating the rise of medieval Japan's feudal orders in the mid-twelfth century, and other cultural achievements to show the emotion of Japan. One famous emotion appealed to by the kokugakusha is 'mono no aware'.

The word kokugaku, coined to distinguish this school from kangaku ("Chinese studies"), was popularized by Hirata Atsutane in the 19th century. It has been translated as 'Native Studies' and represented a response to Sinocentric Neo-Confucian theories. Kokugaku scholars criticized the repressive moralizing of Confucian thinkers, and tried to re-establish Japanese culture before the influx of foreign modes of thought and behaviour.

Eventually, the thinking of kokugaku scholars influenced the sonnō jōi philosophy and movement. It was this philosophy, amongst other things, that led to the eventual collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 and the subsequent Meiji Restoration.


The Kokugaku school held that the Japanese national character was naturally pure, and would reveal its splendour once the foreign (Chinese) influences were removed. The "Chinese heart" was different from the "true heart" or "Japanese Heart". This true Japanese spirit needed to be revealed by removing a thousand years of Chinese learning.[2] It thus took an interest in philologically identifying the ancient, indigenous meanings of ancient Japanese texts; in turn, these ideas were synthesized with early Shinto and European astronomy.[3]


The term kokugaku was used liberally by early modern Japanese to refer to the "national learning" of each of the world's nations. This usage was adopted into Chinese, where it is still in use today (C: guoxue).[4] The Chinese also adopted the kokugaku term "national essence" (J: kokusui, C: guocui).[5]

According to scholar of religion Jason Ānanda Josephson, Kokugaku played a role in the consolidation of State Shinto in the Meiji era. It promoted a unified, scientifically grounded and politically powerful vision of Shinto against Buddhism, Christianity, and Japanese folk religions, many of which were named "superstitions."[6]

See also


  1. ^ Earl, David Margarey, Emperor and Nation in Japan, Political Thinkers of the Tokugawa Period, University of Washington Press, 1964, pp. 66 ff.
  2. ^ Earl, David Margarey, Emperor and Nation in Japan, Political Thinkers of the Tokugawa Period, University of Washington Press, 1964, pp. 67
  3. ^ Josephson, 110-1.
  4. ^ Fogel, Joshua A. (2004). The role of Japan in Liang Qichao's introduction of modern western civilization to China. Berkeley, Calif: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley, Center for Chinese Studies. p. 182. ISBN 1-55729-080-6. From these citations, we can see that the term "national learning" (J. kokugaku; C. guoxue) originated in Japan.
  5. ^ Center, Susan Daruvala. Publ. by the Harvard University Asia (2000). Zhou Zuoren and an alternative Chinese response to modernity. Cambridge, Massachusetts [u.a.]: Harvard Univ. Press. p. 66. ISBN 0674002385.
  6. ^ Josephson, 108-115.

Further reading

  • Harry Harootunian, Things Seen and Unseen: Discourse and Ideology in Tokugawa Nativism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Mark McNally, Proving the Way: Conflict and Practice in the History of Japanese Nativism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 2005.
  • Peter Nosco, Remembering Paradise. Nativism and Nostalgia in Eighteenth Century Japan. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1990.
  • Michael Wachutka, Kokugaku in Meiji-period Japan: The Modern Transformation of 'National Learning' and the Formation of Scholarly Societies. Leiden, Boston: Global Oriental, 2013.

Notable Kokugaku scholars

External links

Edo neo-Confucianism

Edo Neo-Confucianism, known in Japanese as Shushi-Gaku (朱子学, shushigaku), refers to the schools of Neo-Confucian philosophy that developed in Japan during the Edo period. Neo-Confucianism reached Japan during the Kamakura period. The philosophy can be characterized as humanistic and rationalistic, with the belief that the universe could be understood through human reason, and that it was up to man to create a harmonious relationship between the universe and the individual. The 17th-century Tokugawa shogunate adopted Neo-Confucianism as the principle of controlling people and Confucian philosophy took hold. Neo-Confucians such as Hayashi Razan and Arai Hakuseki were instrumental in the formulation of Japan's dominant early modern political philosophy.

Han school

The han school (藩校, hankō) was an educational institution in the Edo period of Japan, originally established to educate children of daimyōs (feudal lords) and their retainers in the domains outside of the capital. These institutions were also known as hangaku (藩学), hangakkō (藩学校) or hankō (藩黌).

These schools existed until 1871, when the domains were abolished after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The han schools were at first narrowly defined as schools of Confucian studies for the cultivation of the samurai elite, and attendance was both expected of and limited to the children of this class. Late in the period, however, children of other social classes were permitted to attend, and the curriculum was expanded from its core in the Confucian classics to include training in classical Japanese studies (kokugaku), medicine, and the various branches of Western learning, including mathematics, astronomy, military science, and ballistics. Students entered at age 7 or 8 and usually completed their courses of study between the ages of 15 and 20. By the 1860s there were about 255 han schools nationwide.

The han schools, which predominated in provincial regions, were similar to and paralleled the terakoya or "temple-school" system of education which was more prominent in the major urban centers of the capital, Edo, and Osaka and Kyoto. The major difference between two systems was that hanko were state institutions organized by the local domain government, and terakoya were private institutions organized by local Buddhist temples.

Some of the more famous han schools included Nisshinkan (Aizu), Kōdōkan (Mito), Meirindō (Sendai), Meirinkan (Hagi, Yamaguchi) and Jishūkan (Kumamoto).

Hirata Atsutane

Hirata Atsutane (平田 篤胤, 6 October 1776 – 2 November 1843) was a Japanese scholar, conventionally ranked as one of the Four Great Men of Kokugaku (nativist) studies, and one of the most significant theologians of the Shintō religion. His literary name was Ibukinoya.

Hotsuma Tsutae

The Hotsuma Tsutae (also Hotuma Tsutaye, Japanese 秀真伝) is an elaborate epic poem of Japanese legendary history which differs substantially from the mainstream version as recorded in the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. Its antiquity is undetermined.

Although many proponents allege that the Hotsuma predates the mainstream mythology, the first known manuscript was dedicated to a shrine by Waniko Yasutoshi (also known as Yunoshin Ibo) in 1775. Some excerpts were published and translated into modern Japanese in 1884, a printing which was noted by Hirata Atsutane in his work on jindai moji, a Japanese writing system developed prior to the use of Chinese characters, but which otherwise ignored the work. Atsutane's Kokugaku was principally concerned with the Kojiki and the Hotsuma Tsutae would have only muddled his theories. Yasutoshi's manuscript was almost lost, but was discovered and rescued in 1993 following the publication of some popular books on the subject in the mid-20th century by Yoshinosuke Matsumoto.

The Hotsuma Tsutae is known for its text and rhythm. It was written in yamato-kotoba, which only uses a Japanese vocabulary which predates contact with China. Some of the yamato-kotoba used in Hotsuma Tsutae are unattested elsewhere in the Old Japanese corpus but have parallels to old words, meaning that if it is a late medieval hoax it is extremely elaborate. Among other things in its primarily historical and non-mythological record, the text discusses the births, lives, and deaths of kami from Japanese folk shrines and history; in this case, the word kami being used to mean something like royalty and not "gods". In the poem, Amaterasu, the sun kami of Shinto, is male, and not female as is written in the official records. Matsumoto theorizes that Amaterasu was feminized in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki to provide a justification for the reign of Empress Suiko who reigned just before those documents were written.

Although for the most part Japanese academics remain uninterested in this text, some scholars are of the opinion that it may have been written in the Edo period. This is due to claims that the text was written in an original Japanese alphabet - in academic circles, the existence of writing in Japan before the use of Chinese characters is denied, also the alphabet does not reflect the Old Japanese phonology but rather those of later stages of Japanese. The general opinion is that it is a false document. However, no definitive conclusion has yet been reached.

Ishikawa Masamochi

Ishikawa Masamochi (石川 雅望, 1754–1830) was a Japanese kokugaku scholar, kyōka poet and writer of yomihon of the late Edo period.

Japanese philosophy

Japanese philosophy has historically been a fusion of both indigenous Shinto and continental religions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. Formerly heavily influenced by both Chinese philosophy and Indian philosophy, as with Mitogaku and Zen, much modern Japanese philosophy is now also influenced by Western philosophy.

Kada no Azumamaro

Kada no Azumamaro (荷田 春満, February 3, 1669 – August 8, 1736) was a poet and philologist of the early Edo period. His ideas had a germinal impact on the nativist school of National Learning in Japan.

Kamo no Mabuchi

Kamo no Mabuchi (賀茂 真淵, 24 April 1697 – 27 November 1769) was a Japanese poet and philologist of the Edo period.

Mabuchi conducted research into the spirit of ancient Japan through his studies of the Man'yōshū and other works of ancient literature. A disciple of Kada no Azumamaro, Mabuchi is regarded as one of the four greats of Kokugaku.

Mabuchi’s works include commentaries on the Man'yōshū, 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 Nahiko, Hanawa Hokiichi, Uchiyama Matatsu, and Kurita Hijimaro.


Kaozheng 考證 ("search for evidence"), also kaoju xue 考據學 ("evidential scholarship") – a school and approach to study and research in China from about 1600 to 1850. It was most prominent during the rule of Qianlong and Jiaqing Emperors of the Qing dynasty (hence the alternate name zh:乾嘉學派). For ancient Chinese texts it corresponds to the methods of modern textual criticism and this was sometimes associated with an empirical approach to scientific topics too.


Keichū (契沖) (1640 – April 3, 1701) was a Buddhist priest and a scholar of Kokugaku in the mid Edo period. Keichū's grandfather was a personal retainer of Katō Kiyomasa but his father was a rōnin from the Amagasaki fief. When he was 13, Keichū left home to become an acolyte of the Shingon sect, studying at Kaijō in Myōhōji, Imasato, Osaka. He subsequently attained the post of Ajari (or Azari) at Mount Kōya, and then became chief priest at Mandara-in in Ikutama, Osaka. It was at this time that he became friends with the poet-scholar Shimonokōbe Chōryū (下河辺長流, 1624–1686).

However, he disliked the worldly duties of his work and, after wandering around the Kinki region for a while, made his way back to Mount Kōya. Deeply influenced by the thinking of Kūkai, he also read widely in the Japanese classics under the patronage of Fuseya Shigeta (伏屋重賢), a patron of the arts in Izumi Province. After serving as chief priest at Myōhōji, Keichū spent his last years at Enju’an in Kōzu in the Province of Settsu.

His prolific works set a new standard in the study of the classics, though building on recent revivals of interest in the subject. When the daimyō of Mito, Tokugawa Mitsukuni, decided to sponsor an edition of the Man'yōshū, he commissioned Shimonokōbe Chōryū, heir to the learning of the great poet and Man'yō expert Kinoshita Chōshōshi (木下長嘯子, 1569–1649), to undertake the project. However his dilatory approach, combined with illness, and finally death, impeded his work and the task fell to Keichū, a close friend. The result was the latter’s Man'yō Daishōki (万葉集大匠記, 1687–1690), which had a profound effect on kokugaku scholarship. In particular, applied methods borrowed from Chinese Kaozheng philology with rigid empiricism. He used this hermeneutic to philologically critique Buddhism and instead located Shinto as the indigenous Japanese religion.Similarly his Waji Seiranshō (1693: A Treatise on the Proper way to Write Japanese Words) challenged the standard orthographical conventions set by Fujiwara no Teika and reconstructed distinctions in the old Japanese lexicon based on the earliest texts. In addition to these Keichū wrote the Kōganshō (厚顔抄 1691 A Brazen-faced Treatise, the Kokin Yozaishō, the Seigodan, the Genchū Shūi, and the Hyakunin Isshu Kaikanshō.

Motoori Haruniwa

Motoori Haruniwa (本居 春庭, March 17, 1763 - December 13, 1828) was a scholar of Kokugaku, and student of the Japanese language. He was a first son of Motoori Norinaga. He was called Kenzo (健蔵) in childhood.

Motoori Norinaga

Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長, 21 June 1730 – 5 November 1801) was a Japanese scholar of Kokugaku active during the Edo period. He is probably the best known and most prominent of all scholars in this tradition.

Motoori Ōhira

Motoori Ōhira (本居 大平, March 17, 1756 - October 23, 1833) was a scholar of Kokugaku, and was the successor to Motoori Norinaga's school master. His pen name was Fuji no Kakitsu (藤 垣内).

Rai San'yō

Rai San'yō (Japanese: 頼 山陽; 21 January 1780, Aki Province – 16 October 1832, Kyoto) was a Japanese Confucianist philosopher, historian, artist and poet of the later Edo period. His true name was Rai Noboru.

Shinobu Orikuchi

Shinobu Orikuchi (折口 信夫, Orikuchi Shinobu, 11 February 1887–3 September 1953), also known as Chōkū Shaku (釋 迢空, Shaku Chōkū), was a Japanese ethnologist, linguist, folklorist, novelist, and poet. As a disciple of Kunio Yanagita, he established an original academic field named "Orikuchiism" (折口学, Orikuchigaku), which is a mixture of Japanese folklore, Japanese classics, and Shintō. He produced many works in a diversity of fields covering the history of literature, folkloric performing arts, folklore itself, Japanese language, the classics study, Shintōology, ancient study, and so on. Yukio Mishima once called him the "Japanese Walter Pater".


Shinto (神道, Shintō) or kami-no-michi (as well as other names) is the traditional religion of Japan that focuses on ritual practices to be carried out diligently to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past.Shinto practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. Still, these earliest Japanese writings do not refer to a unified religion, but rather to a collection of native beliefs and mythology. Shinto today is the religion of public shrines devoted to the worship of a multitude of "spirits", "essences" or "gods" (kami), suited to various purposes such as war memorials and harvest festivals, and applies as well to various sectarian organizations. Practitioners express their diverse beliefs through a standard language and practice, adopting a similar style in dress and ritual, dating from around the time of the Nara and Heian periods (8th–12th centuries).The word Shinto (Way of the Gods) was adopted, originally as Jindō or Shindō, from the written Chinese Shendao (神道, pinyin: shéndào), combining two kanji: shin (神), meaning "spirit" or kami; and michi (道), "path", meaning a philosophical path or study (from the Chinese word dào). The oldest recorded usage of the word Shindo is from the second half of the 6th century. Kami is rendered in English as "spirits", "essences", or "gods", and refers to the energy generating the phenomena. Since the Japanese language does not distinguish between singular and plural, kami also refers to the singular divinity, or sacred essence, that manifests in multiple forms: rocks, trees, rivers, animals, objects, places, and people can be said to possess the nature of kami. Kami and people are not separate; they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity.As much as nearly 80% of the population in Japan participates in Shinto practices or rituals, but only a small percentage of these identify themselves as "Shintoists" in surveys. This is because Shinto has different meanings in Japan. Most of the Japanese attend Shinto shrines and beseech kami without belonging to an institutional Shinto religion. There are no formal rituals to become a practitioner of "folk Shinto". Thus, "Shinto membership" is often estimated counting only those who do join organised Shinto sects. Shinto has about 81,000 shrines and about 85,000 priests in the country. According to surveys carried out in 2006 and 2008, less than 40% of the population of Japan identifies with an organised religion: around 35% are Buddhists, 3% to 4% are members of Shinto sects and derived religions. In 2008, 26% of the participants reported often visiting Shinto shrines, while only 16.2% expressed belief in the existence of a god or gods (神) in general.According to Inoue (2003): "In modern scholarship, the term is often used with reference to kami worship and related theologies, rituals and practices. In these contexts, 'Shinto' takes on the meaning of 'Japan's traditional religion', as opposed to foreign religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and so forth."

Tokugawa Munetake

Tokugawa Munetake (徳川 宗武, January 21, 1716 – July 15, 1771) was a Japanese samurai of the mid-Edo period, also known as Tayasu Munetake (田安 宗武). The first head of the Tayasu branch of the Tokugawa clan, he held daimyō-level income, but was not a daimyō himself, instead having his residence inside the Tayasu gate (Tayasu-mon 田安門) of Edo Castle. His child-hood name was Kojiro (小次郎). When his mother, Okon died in 1722, he was raised by Okume no Kata, one of Yoshimune's concubine.

The second son of the eighth shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune with his concubine, Okon no Kata. Munetake was considered by some as the logical choice for heir, as he was both physically fit and also well-educated. However, Yoshimune preferred the route of primogeniture, instead selecting his son Ieshige as heir. Munetake subsequently turned his attention to writing and scholarship, and set the Tayasu house apart from the other two gosankyō houses by keeping it spartan. He had several sons who were brought up in this spartan environment, one of whom was the famed reformer Matsudaira Sadanobu. His wife was Morihime, daughter of Konoe Iehisa.

As a scholar, Munetake was a student of kokugaku. He studied under Kada Arimaro and Kamō Mabuchi, eventually producing the kokugaku texts Kokka hachiron yogen (国歌八論余言) and Tenkō-gon (天降言). He was also an accomplished poet.

As head of the prestigious Tayasu-Tokugawa house, Munetake held the court title of gon-chūnagon (権中納言) and the junior 3rd court rank (jusanmi 従三).

Ueda Akinari

Ueda Akinari or Ueda Shūsei (上田 秋成, July 25, 1734 in Osaka – August 8, 1809 in Kyoto) was a Japanese author, scholar and waka poet, and a prominent literary figure in 18th-century Japan. He was an early writer in the yomihon genre and his two masterpieces, Ugetsu Monogatari ("Tales of Rain and the Moon") and Harusame Monogatari ("Tales of Spring Rain"), are central to the canon of Japanese literature.

Yokoi Yayū

Yokoi Yayū (横井 也有, October 24, 1702 – July 15, 1783) was a Japanese samurai best known for his haibun, a scholar of Kokugaku, and haikai poet. He was born Yokoi Tokitsura (横井 時般), and took the pseudonym Tatsunojō. His family are believed to be descendants of Hōjō Tokiyuki.

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