Shinto Texts Course — The Kojiki and National Learning

Yesterday we had the second lecture in the Shinto texts course, and it was also about the Kojiki, this time from the perspective of National Learning, and more specifically from the perspective of Norinaga Motoori. Norinaga Motoori was one of the four great scholars of National Learning, a scholarly movement in the Edo period that aimed to recover genuinely Japanese ways of thinking from behind the accumulation of foreign influences, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. Obviously, their basic project is treated with significant suspicion these days, given that most scholars no longer believe that any country has a “genuine way of thinking” uncontaminated by foreign influences, but their scholarship is still respected, particularly in philology. National Learning had a very strong influence on the structure of the post-Meiji Japanese state, and an even stronger influence on post-Meiji Shinto. Indeed, it is thanks to National Learning, and Norinaga in particular, that the Kojiki is now important enough to get two of the ten lectures on this course.

Incidentally, Norinaga is normally referred to by that name. It’s not quite as straightforward as saying that this was his personal name, because Edo period Japanese naming conventions were complicated, and I don’t fully understand them, but it seems to be generally agreed that, if you want a short version, “Norinaga” is it.

Norinaga lived from 1730 to 1801, near Ise, in what is now Mie Prefecture. His father was a merchant, but Norinaga had no talent for that, so his mother sent him to Kyoto to learn to be a doctor. He did become a doctor, and that’s how he made much of his living, but he also discovered National Learning. Another National Learning scholar encouraged him to make a thorough study of the Kojiki, and Norinaga made it his life’s work, the 44-volume commentary finally being published in full after his death.

The Kojiki is the oldest surviving substantial work of Japanese literature. It is a history of Japan, from the beginning to the early seventh century, and it was completed in 712. It is actually written in Japanese, using unique conventions to write it in kanji; in contrast, the Nihonshoki, a similar history of Japan completed in 720, is basically written in Chinese. (The Japanese wrote in a form called “kanbun”, which, I believe, is almost Chinese but not quite; I don’t know the details, however.) The Kojiki’s age, concern with Japanese beliefs about the world and their place in it, and language all made it very interesting to National Learning scholars, and Norinaga made it interesting to everyone else.

Most of the lecture was taken up with discussing Norinaga’s interpretation of the Kojiki. The lecturer, Professor Nishioka, pointed out that, although Norinaga thought he was discovering the worldview of the ancient Japanese, modern scholarship is much more sceptical about that, so it is better to see Norinaga’s interpretation as just that. Since Norinaga wanted to promote a return to “true Japanese” thinking, he generally agreed with the positions he found in the Kojiki. Incidentally, if Norinaga’s philosophy sounds a bit racial supremacist, that’s because it was. As far as I’m aware, he wasn’t particularly aggressive in his belief that the Japanese were superior; it seems to have been similar to the beliefs about American superiority held today by the typical American. However, that strand in his thought did get amplified by his successors, and was one of the legacies of National Learning for modern Japan.

Professor Nishioka drew attention to two points in Norinaga’s interpretation that were quite distinctive. First, Norinaga did have a theory about life after death. However, his theory was that, after death, everyone’s body remained on earth, while everyone’s soul went to Yomi. It didn’t matter whether you were good or evil, rich or poor, emperor or slave; everyone went to Yomi, and that was it. In addition, Yomi was not a pleasant place, so you really didn’t want to go there any earlier than necessary, and death was, according to Norinaga, the saddest thing that could happen, so it was entirely proper to cry when someone close to you died. Thus, although he thought there was an afterlife, he didn’t think that your behaviour in this life had any influence on what happened to you afterwards, and he thought that avoiding going to the afterlife was the best plan. The end result, then, was a very strong emphasis on the current life, something that seems to have been a characteristic of Shinto throughout much of its history.

The second point was Norinaga’s view of the kami. Norinaga’s definition of “kami”, found early in his commentary on the Kojiki, is extremely famous, and is the standard definition used these days. Paraphrased into English, it is this. “Kami refers not only to the kami who appear in the ancient legends, but also, of course, to the kami venerated at shrines, but also to people, animals and plants, and other natural phenomena that are seen to have some sort of power or attainment that goes beyond the norm. It does not matter whether the kami are worthy of respect or not, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are good or evil. They are all kami, and all venerated.”

It is obvious from this that “god” is a really bad translation of “kami”, as something “evil, weak, and not worthy of respect” is not a god. This is, of course, why I don’t translate “kami”. (Some people use “spirit”, which is better, but on Norinaga’s definition Mount Fuji, the actual mountain, counts as a kami, and Mount Fuji is not a spirit. Most people these days insist that the mountain itself is not the kami, but I think that’s a debatable point within Shinto, so I don’t want to prejudge it by my translation.) Norinaga also claimed that there were no kami that were purely good, and equally none that were entirely evil.

For example, when discussing the birth of the Three Great Children from Izanagi’s purification, he said that Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, being born from the clean eyes, were good kami, and that Susano-o, born from the dirty nose, was an evil kami. Certainly, in the legends, Susano-o goes to Takamagahara and causes a lot of trouble, but then, after he is thrown out of heaven, he kills the Yamata no Orochi, a great eight-headed serpent, and saves the life of Kushinada. Thus, the earlier interpretation was that the purification Susano-o received when he was thrown out of heaven turned him into a good kami. Norinaga disagreed, pointing out that in a later legend Susano-o tries several times to murder Okuninushi. Norinaga insisted that Susano-o was always an evil kami, but that the defeat of the Yamata no Orochi was indeed a good act, showing that even evil kami do the right thing sometimes.

Professor Nishioka pointed out an interesting consequence of that. Amaterasu’s son, the ancestor of the imperial line, was born when Susano-o crushed Amaterasu’s jewellery to prove that he wasn’t trying to conquer Takamagahara (it’s complicated), which means that the imperial line was born from both a good kami and an evil kami. This particular aspect of Norinaga’s philosophy was not so influential on State Shinto.

Going beyond the kami, Norinaga said that there was always good and evil in the world. Right at the beginning, things were good, as Izanagi and Izanami had sex so that Izananmi could give birth to the islands and kami of Japan. Even then, though, they made a mistake when Izanami addressed Izanagi first, and had to do it again. The birth of the fire kami and Izanami’s death marked a decline into an evil situation, which began to recover when Izanagi purified himself after his return from Yomi. Norinaga thought that this sort of cycle would continue, although he also said that good would ultimately win. That doesn’t strike me as particularly consistent with everything else he said, so maybe his students were getting a bit too depressed by his approach.

Because Norinaga believed that good and evil were irrevocably mixed in the world, he thought that you could never guarantee a good reaction. Even if you behaved perfectly virtuously, other people might still behave badly to you. Thus, there would always be tragedies in the world. According to Professor Nishioka, this was an important source of Norinaga’s belief in “mono no aware”, often translated as “the pity of things”, as a central part of the Japanese worldview.

One final point, mentioned in passing. Norinaga did not believe that stoicism, and hiding your emotions, was the true Japanese way. Real Japanese men, he thought, cried when they thought their fathers didn’t love them (Yamato Takeru no Mikoto does this in the Kojiki), and expressed their love and hate openly. This is one aspect of his interpretation of the Kojiki that seems to have had approximately zero influence on modern Japan, which is a shame. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more positive influence than his belief in the inherent superiority of the Yamato race.






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