If someone inquires
about the Japanese soul
of these Blessed Isles,
say mountain cherry blossoms,
radiant in morning sun.


- Motoori Norinaga

本居 宣長

Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was a Japanese literary scholar, philologist, and poet during Japan's Edo Period.

Born the son of a merchant in Matsusaka in Ise province, he studied medicine from 1752 in Kyoto, where he also took up poetic and literary studies. By 1757 he was an established physician back in Matsusaka, and sometime around this time began to lecture informally on Japanese Literature, soon acquiring a large following.

At first Norinaga was devoted to The Tale of Genji and other great works of the Heian Era, but eventually he turned his attentions to the Kojiki and the Manyoshu which, as the earliest known example of Japanese writing and the earliest collection of Japanese poetry respectively, he considered to be more truly Japanese, because they lacked the pervasive Chinese influence found in most later works.

Indeed, Norinaga was one of the central scholars in the Edo Era kokugaku (or "National Studies") movement, which focused on purifying Japanese culture of foreign influences. Norinaga's major contribution to the movement was his attempts to "recover" the original Japanese language. To Norinaga language was best experienced as directly as possible, in order to understand things in the world in an unmediated fashion. For Norinaga, this was best accomplished using the everyday vernacular of the "ordinary Japanese" rather than the language of literary elites which was laden with Chinese character readings and compounds, because Chinese writing got in the way of understanding everyday speech, and moreover Norinaga felt the Chinese themselves were generally "murky" in their use of language to begin with.

To achieve his end of recovering the true Japanese language, Morinaga turned to the Kojiki and the Manyoshu to discover what was truly Japanese, both in language and sensibility. Along the way, he developed several advanced philological techniques in order to better understand the ancient texts, and became the first modern scholar to realize that the Kojiki was originally intended to be read with Japanese pronunciation, even though it was written with Chinese writing.

As for his quest for true Japanese sensibility, Norinaga made one of his most lasting contributions to Japanese culture with his invention of the idea that the Japanese had a unique trait known as mono no aware, "a sensitivity to things." Essentially, Norinaga strove to show that the Japanese had a special capacity to experience the objective world in a direct fashion, to profoundly understand the objects and the natural world around them without having to resort to language or other intervening mediators. Moreover, not only could the Japanese uniquely understand the world in this direct way, but their language was also uniquely suited to express this direct connection to the world. Much would be made of this idea in the centuries to come, especially by nationalists and Japanese exceptionalists.

As for Norinaga's political beliefs, they were revealed in his extensive writings on antiquity, in which he expounded his view that the Japanese society was an ideal community divinely descended from the Shinto gods. This quasi-religious political philosophy supported his literary and philological endeavors by allowing him to argue that any foreign (and especially Chinese) influence could not have originated from Amaterasu and thus should be expunged to purify Japanese culture.

Norinaga's output was truly prodigious. By the time of his death in 1801, he had produced 90 works spanning more than 260 volumes. His monumental study of the Kojiki alone, completed in 1798, totaled 44 volumes by itself. Along the way, Norinaga achieved a lasting influence on the study of Japanese literature, especially with regard to the Kojiki, and to a lesser extent the Manyoshu, laying the foundation that later scholarship has been built upon. Less beneficial was they way his arguments served Japanese nationalism. Although he himself was a peaceable and retiring scholar, Norinaga's words and ideas would be used to support the nationalist ideology that would foment Japan's brutal 20th century imperialism.


Translation of waka poem by yours truly.

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