Motoori Norinaga

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 feelings. "


AT age twenty-eight Norinaga returned to Matsusaka to practice pediatrics.
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 interruption.

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 of literature.

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, his lifework.


Shikishima no
Yamato gokoro wo
Hito towaba
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 he exalted.

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 Kojiki-den.
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:

Furugoto no
Fumi wo ra yomeba
Inishie no
Te-buri koto-toi
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 of it."

The cherry tree was planted, and every spring it blooms beautifully over his grave.

* 2.1 meters square

from THE EAST, Vol. XXVI No, 1