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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]

Kyūjitai Traditional form of kanji used before 1946

Kyūjitai, are the traditional forms of kanji, Chinese written characters used in Japanese. Their simplified counterparts are shinjitai (新字体), "new character forms". Some of the simplified characters arose centuries ago and were in everyday use in both China and Japan, but they were considered inelegant, even uncouth. After World War II, simplified character forms were made official in both these countries. However, in Japan fewer and less drastic simplifications were made: e.g. "electric" is still written as 電 in Japan, as it is also written in Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Taiwan, which continue to use traditional Chinese characters, but has been simplified to 电 in mainland China. Prior to the promulgation of the Tōyō kanji list in 1946, kyūjitai were known as seiji or seijitai (正字體). Even after kyūjitai were officially marked for discontinuation with the promulgation of the Tōyō kanji list, they were used in print frequently into the 1950s due to logistical delays in changing over typesetting equipment. Kyūjitai continue in use to the present day because when the Japanese government adopted the simplified forms, it did not ban the traditional forms. Thus traditional forms are used when an author wishes to use traditional forms and the publisher agrees.

Shinjitai Modern forms of kanji used in Japan after 1946

Shinjitai are the simplified forms of kanji used in Japan since the promulgation of the Tōyō Kanji List in 1946. Some of the new forms found in shinjitai are also found in Simplified Chinese characters, but shinjitai is generally not as extensive in the scope of its modification.

Japan Country in East Asia

Japan is an island country in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent and stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea in the south.



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'.

Japanese studies or Japan studies, is a sub-field of area studies or East Asian studies involved in social sciences and humanities research on Japan. It incorporates fields such as the study of Japanese language, culture, history, literature, art, music and science. Its roots may be traced back to the Dutch at Dejima, Nagasaki in the Edo period. The foundation of the Asiatic Society of Japan at Yokohama in 1872 by men such as Ernest Satow and Frederick Victor Dickins was an important event in the development of Japanese studies as an academic discipline.

Motoori Norinaga Japanese philosopher

Motoori Norinaga 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.

Shinto Ethnic religion of Japan

Shinto or kami-no-michi is the ethnic 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.

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.

Hirata Atsutane conventionally ranked as one of the four great men of kokugaku studies, and one of the most significant theologians of the Shintō religion

Hirata Atsutane 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.

Sinocentrism refers to the ideology that China is the cultural, political or economic center of the world.

Neo-Confucianism Chinese philosophy

Neo-Confucianism is a moral, ethical, and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism, and originated with Han Yu and Li Ao (772–841) in the Tang Dynasty, and became prominent during the Song and Ming dynasties.

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.

<i>Sonnō jōi</i>

Sonnō jōi was a Japanese and Chinese political philosophy and a social movement derived from Neo-Confucianism; it became a political slogan in the 1850s and 1860s in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate during the Bakumatsu period. It is a yojijukugo phrase.

Tokugawa shogunate Last feudal Japanese military government which existed between 1600 and 1868

The Tokugawa Shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa Bakufu (徳川幕府) and the Edo Bakufu (江戸幕府), was the last feudal Japanese military government, which existed between 1600 and 1868. The head of government was the shōgun, and each was a member of the Tokugawa clan. The Tokugawa shogunate ruled from Edo Castle and the years of the shogunate became known as the Edo period. This time is also called the Tokugawa period or pre-modern.

Meiji Restoration restoration of imperial rule in Japan

The Meiji Restoration, also known as the Meiji Renovation, Revolution, Reform, or Renewal, was an event that restored practical imperial rule to the Empire of Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. Although there were ruling emperors before the Meiji Restoration, the events restored practical abilities and consolidated the political system under the emperor of Japan.


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]

Astronomy Universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It uses mathematics, physics, and chemistry to try and explain their origin and evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets. Relevant phenomena include supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, astronomy studies everything that originates outside Earth's atmosphere. Cosmology is a branch of astronomy. It studies the Universe as a whole.


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

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Edo period period of Japanese history

The Edo period or Tokugawa period (徳川時代) is the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country's 300 regional daimyō. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, "no more wars", and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. The shogunate was officially established in Edo on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.

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Shinbutsu bunri

The Japanese term shinbutsu bunri (神仏分離) indicates the separation of Shinto from Buddhism, introduced after the Meiji Restoration which separated Shinto kami from buddhas, and also Buddhist temples from Shinto shrines, which were originally amalgamated. It is a yojijukugo phrase.

Hayashi Razan Japanese philosopher

Hayashi Razan, also known as Hayashi Dōshun, was a Japanese Neo-Confucian philosopher, serving as a tutor and an advisor to the first four shōguns of the Tokugawa bakufu. He is also attributed with first listing the Three Views of Japan. Razan was the founder of the Hayashi clan of Confucian scholars.

State Shinto Empire of Japans use of traditional Shinto religion

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Kamo no Mabuchi Japanese philosopher

Kamo no Mabuchi was a Japanese poet and philologist of the Edo period.

Keichū Buddhist priest and scholar

Keichū (契沖) 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 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.

Kada no Azumamaro

Kada no Azumamaro 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.

Hagiwara Hiromichi was a scholar of literature, philology, and nativist studies (Kokugaku) as well as an author, translator, and poet active in late-Edo period Japan. He is best known for the innovative commentary and literary analysis of The Tale of Genji found in his work titled Genji monogatari hyōshaku published in two installments in 1854 and 1861.

Haibutsu kishaku

Haibutsu kishaku (廃仏毀釈) is a term that indicates a current of thought continuous in Japan's history which advocates the expulsion of Buddhism from Japan. More narrowly, it also indicates a particular historic movement and specific historic events based on that ideology which, during the Meiji Restoration, produced the destruction of Buddhist temples, images and texts, and the forced return to secular life of Buddhist monks. It is a yojijukugo phrase.

Amenominakanushi is, according to the Kojiki, the first kami and the source of the universe according to Shinto. In Japanese mythology, they are described as a "god who came into being alone" (hitorigami), the first of the zōka sanshin, and one of the five kotoamatsukami.

Edo neo-Confucianism philosophy in Edo-period Japan

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Kaozheng 考證, also kaoju xue 考據學 – 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. 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.

Harry D. Harootunian is an American historian of early modern and modern Japan with an interest in historical theory. He is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies, New York University, and Max Palevsky Professor of History and Civilizations, Emeritus, University of Chicago.

The Four Great Men of Kokugaku are a group of Edo-period Japanese scholars recognized as the most significant figures in the Kokugaku tradition of Japanese philology, religious studies, and philosophy. They are traditionally enumerated as:

The Kojiki-den (古事記伝) is a 44-volume commentary on the Kojiki written by the kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga.


  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. Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. pp 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

Notable Kokugaku scholars