Motoori Norinaga

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  • Born: 1730
  • Died: 1801
  • Japanese: 本居宣長 (Motoori Norinaga)

Motoori Norinaga was perhaps the most influential of the kokugaku scholars of the Edo period, writing extensively on the essence of Japaneseness, or Japanese culture, and disparaging Chinese culture and influence.

Like Kamo no Mabuchi before him, he contrasted Chinese argumentation by rationality with a Japanese sense of the natural flow and essence of things, citing the example of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware. Based on Motoori's descriptions, one modern scholar has suggested a translation or explanation of the term as "a sensitivity [for] things." What is being demonstrated, or celebrated, in the genre of writing which embraces mono no aware, this interpretation suggests, is an awareness of, and appreciation for, various sights and sounds and feelings, particularly of the garden and of the seasons. This aesthetic relates to a poet's heightened sensitivity for the world around him (or her), and a certain hint of sadness that comes as a result.[1] Norinaga differed from Mabuchi, however, in several important ways. Where Mabuchi sought the true Japanese Way only in a return to ancient times, Norinaga asserted that the Way had been bequeathed to the Japanese nation through the unbroken line of divine emperors, and that as a result, this ancient Way continued to live on in the emperors, and could thus be regained - more directly than in Mabuchi's account - within contemporary times. Norinaga also focused extensively on the Kojiki, where Mabuchi had focused his attentions on analyzing the Man'yôshû. One of Norinaga's most significant contributions was in a line-by-line, word-by-word analysis of the Kojiki, a massive undertaking which ultimately resulted in his 44-volume Kojikiden.

Outside of a brief period from 1752 to 1757, when he studied in Kyoto, Norinaga spent the remainder of his life in Matsuzaka in Ise province, establishing his own kokugaku academy, the Suzunoya, a short distance from Ise Shrine. He hosted some five hundred students there over the years.[2]

His 1771 work Naobi no mitama was but one in which Norinaga wrote of China as a land of chaos, disorder, decline, and deceit. He advocated that since the supposed "Sages" of Chinese classical learning were fundamentally misleading and deceitful, one should be sure to have a firm grounding in Japanese values and traditions before one could attempt to extract anything useful from their teachings, lest one be corrupted, and in order to attain the clearest impression of the errors of Chinese ways.[3]


  • Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 233-234.
  1. “The Vocabulary of Japanese Aesthetics I,” in William Theodore de Bary et al eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia U. Press, 2001), pp. 197-204.
  2. de Bary, et al, 484.
  3. Marius Jansen, China in Tokugawa Japan, Harvard University Press (1992), 82.