A scholar-physician who
loved cherry blossoms
School education became popular in Japan in the eighteenth century.
The Tokugawa Shogunate promoted education, and daimyos established schools
one after another in the last half of the eighteenth century. Of the 278
schools established in the Edo Period (1603-1867), eighty date from the
latter half of the eighteenth century, while only forty were founded in
the 150 years before 1750.
Most of those schools were established by daimyos to prepare the children
of vassals for domainal bureaucracies. But the Shoheizaka Gakumonsho, the
school founded by the Shogunate, was open to townsmen as well as Tokugawa
vassals and their families. The Shogunate gave financial assistance to private
schools and raised them to quasinational status. Thus higher education,
which had been the sole prerogative of samurai and Buddhist priests, was
made available to middle and upper-class townsmen in the eighteenth century.
In consequence there appeared scholars with roots in the merchant class.
Some even surpassed samurai scholars in intellectual creativity.
Motoori Norinaga was the greatest of the scholars who emerged from the merchant
class in the eighteenth century. He was born in Matsusaka in Ise Province
(now part of Mie Prefecture) .
Japanese education had been centered on the Chinese classics or Buddhist
literature for centuries.
Even in the Edo Period, Confucianism was the main subject of study. The
Tokugawa government encouraged the study of Confucianism, and local governments
followed suit. But Norinaga turned his back on the mainstream. He was devoted
to kokugaku (national learning). He deserves credit for illuminating the
spiritual world of the Japanese and for peeling away Confucian and Buddhist
influence to reveal the identity of Japanese civilization.
MOTOORI Norinaga was born in the fifteenth year
of Kyoho (1730) in Matsusaka, Ise. Matsusaka is the site of Ise Shrine,
dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun-Goddess, and in Norinaga's
day there was a steady stream of pilgrims to the shrine. Ise was also
famous for its merchants, whose principal competitors were the merchants
of Omi (Shiga Prefecture). Both Ise and Omi merchants expanded their
businesses, opening shops in cities across the country. Ise merchants
established many shops along the streets of O-tenma-cho, Edo. These
shops sold a wide range of cotton products from Matsusaka. The merchants
often left their shops to managers and passed carefree days in Matsusaka.
Norinaga's father, Sadatoshi, was one of those Ise merchants who entrusted
their Edo shops to managers. But Sadatoshi was ruined by the misconduct
of his manager. He died of sickness when Norinaga was eleven years old.
Sadatoshi's shop in Edo was closed, and the family moved to another place
in Matsusaka. His mother, Katsu, raised and supported Norinaga, his younger
brother, and his two sisters. Katsu hoped that Norinaga would grow up to
be a merchant like his father and reopen the shop. She ensured that Norinaga,
Like the sons of other wealthy merchants in Matsusaka, received a broad
education ranging from the study of calligraphy, Noh songs, and the Chinese
classics to archery and the tea ceremony. Norinaga was apprenticed to a
merchant. But later Katsu realized that her son was not cut out for business.
Since reading was his passion, she decided to steer him toward a medical
career. Although physicians did not enjoy as much prestige in the Edo Period
as they do today, they could earn a decent living and they had the opportunity
to study. Norinaga agreed to become a physician, but his real intention
was to become a scholar. In his memoirs he wrote, "To earn a living
by practicing medicine is mean and despicable. It is not a vocation for
a man." But being diligent and realistic, Norinaga followed a vocation
that provided him with the time to pursue his avocations. It was what many
intellectuals of his day did.
In 1752 Norinaga went to Kyoto to study. He was twentytwo. He lived in the
home of he Confucian scholar Hori Keizan and studied under him during his
first year in Kyoto. Then he began to study medicine. During his five and
a half years in Kyoto, he spent as much time having fun as he did studying.
He often saw Noh and Kabuki plays. He learned the narration of The Tale
of the Heike. He rode horses, smoked, and quaffed sake. When Katsu,
who had to support Norinaga in Kyoto and her children in Matsusaka on a
meager income, learned of his overindulgence in sak6, she admonished him
in a letter not to drink more than three cups a day.
During his sojourn in Kyoto Norinaga showed more interest in Japanese literature
than in medicine. While there he wrote Ashiwake Obune, an exposition of
his concept of waka. A poem, he argued, should be a verbal work of art that
expresses the poet's emotion; it should be independent of moral and political
purposes. Words must be chosen carefully, otherwise a poem is vulgar. Beautiful
language can make a shallow idea profound; vulgar language can debase profundity.
No writer should be indifferent to beautiful language.
Still, no one was as particular about diction and rhetoric as Norinaga.
In Ashiwake Obune he repeatedly stressed the importance of rhetoric
in writing poetry. He insisted on proper diction and graceful syntax.
"In view of human nature it is no wonder that a person can compose
poems of goodness and virtue, though his heart is full of badness and vice,"
he said. "Rhetoric is the soul of verse, as it is the core of human
AT age twenty-eight Norinaga returned to Matsusaka to
Though busy examining patients, making house calls, and preparing medicinal
candies for children, he studied the Japanese classics on his own. His study
was a room of only four tatami (about eight square meters). Since he loved
bells, he named his study Suzu-no-ya (Room of Bells). It was an old tea
room that had been remodeled and attached to the second floor of his home.
He always pulled up the ladder to Suzu-no-ya so that he could study without
In the five years after he returned from Kyoto to Matsusaka, attended Norinaga
biweekly poetry gatherings at Reishoin temple, and gave lectures on The
Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari) , theMan'ydshl7, and other Japanese
classics at his residence. He greatly admired The Tale of Genji.
He studied it enthusiastically, and interpreted it in the light of a literary
concept he called mono no aware. The concept is at the center of his philosophy
Norinaga said that people desire to express their feelings when they see,
hear, or touch something, Mono of mono no aware means "things, "
and aware means "deep feeling." So mono no aware means "a
deep feeling over things." In other words, it was an emotion deriving
from all sensitive men under given circumstances.
"A11 waka are composed through knowledge of mono no aware," Norinaga
said. ",The Tales of Ise The Tale of Genji, and other tales
are expressions of mono no aware, and they transmit mono no aware to the
reader. They have no other purpose.
In the medieval age there were people who claimed that tales and poems were
mendacious figures of speech. They believed that the author and readers
of The Tale of Genji might be cast into Hell, and that the "Genji
mass" should be held to save their souls. Even defenders of literature
conceded that it was word play. But they also thought that literature could
lead people to the truth of Buddhism. In the Edo Period, when Confucianism
was at the peak of its influence in Japan, many people saw Buddhism as an
instrument for promoting morality.
Norinaga condemned the idea that literature should be morally uplifting.
He argued that however hard they tried, people could not contain their emotions
when deeply moved. That was human nature, he said. Literature is inspired
and produced by human feelings. So it is foolish to ask what are the benefits
of reading or writing literature, he said
Norinaga admired Kamo no Mabuchi's exegeses of the ancient Japanese classics.
Mabuchi, already a scholar of repute, taught the classics in Edo (now Tokyo).
Norinaga would have visited Mabuchi if Edo had not been so far from Matsusaka.
Norinaga married Murata Mika, of Matsusaka, in 1760, when he was twenty-nine. But he divorced her three months later. In 1762 he married Kusabuka Tami, who was from Tsu (now in Mie Prefecture). Their first son, Haruniwa, was born in the following year.
In May 1763, a big change came over Norinaga. When he stopped at a secondhand bookstore he frequented, the proprietor remarked that it was a pity he hadn't come earlier, because Kamo no Mabuchi, about whom he often spoke, had come but already left for Ise Shrine.
Excited by the news, Norinaga set off after Mabuchi. He went as far as the outskirts of Matsusaka, but could not find Mabuchi or any of the members of his party.
Then he visited an inn called Shinjo-ya, where he heard Mabuchi and his party had stayed. He asked the innkeeper to notify him if Mabuchi stopped there after visiting Ise Shrine.
As Norinaga expected, Mabuchi and his students stopped at the inn a few days later on the way back from the shrine. That day Norinaga was attending a poetry gathering, but as soon as he returned home and learned that the person whom he had longed to meet was at Shinjo-ya, he hurried to the inn.
We don't know in detail what the two scholars discussed that evening, but
we can get some idea from Tamakatsuma, a collection of autobiographical
essays Norinaga wrote in his spare time. He told Mabuchi that he intended
to annotate the Kojiki, Japan's oldest book of myths, compiled in
710. Mabuchi said that he, too, desired to explicate the Kojiki and other
ancient classics. But for the study of the classics, he added, it is important
to understand the spiritual world of the ancient Japanese. Eschew Chinese
ways of thinking, he advised, and learn the language of the ancient Japanese
if you would like to know their spiritual world. To learn ancient Japanese
thoroughly study the Man'yoshu. Mabuchi said that he had for that
reason concentrated on the Man'yoshu, but had grown old before his
research had yielded any major achievements. He encouraged Norinaga to diligently
study the Man'yoshu because he was still young enough to make a significant
contribution to scholar-ship.
Mabuchi was sixty-six and Norinaga was thirty-three. The two scholars with a common passion are said to have talked through the night.
Mabuchi encouraged Norinaga to pursue the study of the Kojiki and
suggested that his own research on the Man'yoshu would provide Norinaga
with a firm foundation for his studies. He handed Norinaga an annotated
copy of the Kojiki. Norinaga decided to follow Mabuchi's advice.
Norinaga officially became Mabuchi's student in October. They sent letters
to each other from Edo and Matsusaka. The meeting was truly fateful in that
Norinaga devoted himself to the study of the Kojiki over the next
thirty years. The fruit of that study was the forty-four-volume Kojiki-den,
Yamato gokoro wo
Asahi ni niou
Asked about the soul of Japan,
I would say
That it is
Like wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun.
The above wellknown waka was brushed on a self-portrait Norinaga painted
when he was sixty-one years old. Norinaga loved waka. But he did not compose
them for their own sake; he wrote them as a way of understanding the ancient
world. He wrote about ten thousand waka. As many as three hundred are
on the theme of cherry trees. He preferred wild cherry trees, although
they are less gorgeous than regular ones. He loved the simple gracefulness
of wild cherry trees. In his waka he seemed to use the cherry tree to
symbolize his life. The cherry tree also symbolized Norinaga's attitude
toward study. The following poem was brushed on a self-portrait he painted
at the age of forty:
Koma Morokoshi no
Hana yori mo
Akanu iroka wa sakura nari keri
It is not a novel
flower From Korea or China
But the cherry blossom
That possesses a color and perfume
Of which I never tire.
The Kojiki is written in Chinese characters. What Norinaga attempted
was to exclude Chinese influence and concepts --- which are, ofcourse,
inherent in the characters --- from the methodology of his study of the
ancient world. His efforts resulted in the famous Kojiki-den, in
which he explored the thinking and emotions of the ancient Japanese, whom
For Norinaga, deity symbolized everything mysterious. He never thought
of a deity as an absolute being that was transcendental.
In June 1798, after thirty-four years ofstudy, he completed the forty-four-volume
He had begun writing it at the age of thirty-four and fmished it at the
age of sixty-eight. He sent letters to friends so that they could share
the joy of his achievement. And he held a party, to which he invited his
friends and students. His students numbered about frve hundred then. He
composed this waka at the party:
Fumi wo ra yomeba
Kiki miru gotoshi
Reading the Kojiki,
I feel as if I were
Observing the ancients
And listening to their conversation.
It seems he flattered himself that he was able to understand the spiritual
world of the ancient Japanese. He began his study of the Kojiki
because he was curious about the ancient world, and he came to exalt the
ancient Japanese, because he thought that they were just as they were
--- that they were natural men and women. Norinaga said that the ancient
Japanese were not intellectual, but lived according to their natural feelings.
Later, however, the Japanese became corrupt. People ceased to be sincere,
and their lives were rife with lies.
Like the ancient Japanese, the modern Japanese are emotional. Generally
speaking, the Japanese have difficulty in thi.nking logically. Of course,
the ancient Japanese might have been more emotional than the modern Japanese.
Anyway, Norinaga considered them ideal. Norinaga was perhaps the frrst
Japanese scholar to point out the characteristics of the Japanese. That
Norinaga regarded the Japanese as the ideal nation shows that he was typical
of the sentiment of which he spoke.
In his later years Norinaga served the lord of Kii Province (now Wakayama
Prefecture). He traveled frequently to Kyoto to give lectures. He had
two sons and three daughters. His first son. Haruniwa, succeeded him as
a scholar of the Japanese classics.
Norinaga died on September 29, 1801. He was seventy-one. Publication of
the Kojiki-den, which began sixteen years earlier, was still in
progress. Twenty-one years more would elapse before the publication of
the forty-fourth volume.
Norinaga was buried on top of Mt. Yamamuro, eight kilo-meters from the
center of Matsu-saka, in accordance with the will he had written the year
before. Also in the will he requested a Buddhist funeral, but a Shintoist
grave. "The grave should be seven shaku square.* Make a mound
slightly behind the center of the square, and plant a cherry tree on top
The cherry tree was planted, and every spring it blooms beautifully over
* 2.1 meters square
from THE EAST, Vol. XXVI No, 1