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For other meanings of the word Kokugaku, see 国学 (Kokugaku).
  • Japanese: 国学 (kokugaku)

Kokugaku, commonly referred to in English as "national learning" or "nativism," was a prominent school of thought in the Edo period which looked to classical Japanese culture in efforts to discover a purer version of Japanese culture and identity, less marred by elements of Chinese culture. During the Edo period, much kokugaku writing was concerned chiefly with aesthetics, cultural identity, philosophy, and linguistics. They saw the essence of the Japanese spirit as "free, spontaneous, pure, lofty, and honest,"[1] in contrast to Chinese culture, which they saw as stiff, rigid, cramped, and artificial. The school was opposed to both Buddhism and Confucianism, and centered on assertions of Japan's divine origins, uniqueness, and inherent superiority of moral character.

Kokugaku thought was later employed by pro-Imperial (sonnô jôi) factions during the Bakumatsu period, and by Japanese militarists & ultranationalists in the early 20th century, in formulating and justifying their ideologies.

History and Development

Where the study of ancient Chinese and Japanese texts and subjects were traditionally seen as a single field, inseparable parts of studying to become "learned," the emergence of kokugaku represents a significant deviation from that tradition.[2]

Kokugaku began in the philological examination of classical Japanese texts, including the Kojiki (712), Man'yôshû (c. 760s), and Tale of Genji (c. 1000). The Kojiki was taken as a particularly appropriate text, since it is the earliest known written history of Japan, and was written in kana, in a form more closely resembling the recording of earlier oral traditions, in contrast to the Nihon shoki of 720, which was written in kanji (Chinese characters), in a format emulating the official dynastic histories of China.

The school drew particularly upon Shinto, Taoism, and the ideas of China's school of Ancient Learning which sought to uncover the earlier, "truer" meanings of the Chinese classics prior to their supposed corruption by Neo-Confucian reinterpretations.

Kokugaku scholars also revived and emphasized ideologies relating to the divine origins of the Emperor, the notion of an unbroken dynastic line stretching back to Amaterasu herself, and Japan as the "land of the gods" (shinkoku, 神国). Motoori Norinaga suggested that the Japanese people were inherently moral by their very nature, and unlike the Chinese or Europeans, needed no Confucian, Buddhist, or Biblical teachings, nor practices or study for personal cultivation in order to become moral.[3]

The school of thought known as Mitogaku, based in Mito han, drew upon this approach or attitude in its production of the Dai Nihon Shi, an ambitious history of Japan which centered on the succession of emperors.

Selected Kokugaku Scholars & Texts


  • Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 89-90.
  1. Craig, 89.
  2. William Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur Tiedemann (eds.), Sources of Japanese Tradition, Second Edition, vol 2, Columbia University Press (2005), 481-482.
  3. Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 90.

See Also