Japan Glossary

Kokugaku: Japanese Studies, Native Studies


Ancient Japan
Shinto

Japan Glossary
Tennoism
   The difficulty in studying Japanese culture is it's hard to distinguish precisely what it is. When Japan enters history, that is, when the Japanese begin to write about their experience, the Japanese had already adopted Chinese ways of thinking. In fact, when the Japanese begin writing, they write in Chinese. What Japanese culture was like before Chinese culture began to influence it is almost impossible to determine, even though the Japanese adapt and change Chinese and Indian culture to their own purposes. For instance, the Chinese political theory of the emperor gets infused with Shinto ideas to produce the doctrines of Tennoism.


Ancient Japan
The Heian Period

Tokugawa Japan
Tokugawa Japan
   During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), the Japanese experienced one of the longest respites from civil war (or war in general) in their history. Japan remained relatively isolated from the world, so Japanese culture developed internally with very little outside influence. One of the major cultural movements of the Tokugawa was the institution of a branch of scholarship called kokugaku, which means "Native Studies," or "Nativism." "Japanese Studies," which is the common translation of the word, really does not convey the sense of the spirit of kokugaku . It does convey the literal meaning of the kanji used to spell out the word, as below. In the two characters used, the first, "koku," means "country" or "nation." The second, "gaku," means "studies" or "school." So the literal definition of "kokugaku" is "National Studies." In practice, kokugaku was far more complex than this definition suggests. The kokugakushu , or "Nativists," labored at the task of distinguishing between what was genuine Japanese culture from what was Chinese or Indian or European culture. In large part, they turned primarily to Shinto, the earliest poets in Japan (the poets represented in the earliest collection of Japanese poetry, the Manyoshu ), and the inventors of Japanese culture in the Heian court, such as Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagon.



Kokugaku in Kanji


Buddhism
Buddhism
   Above everything else, it was Shinto which embodied the spirit and character of the Japanese. However, almost nothing was known about Shinto before the arrival of Chinese culture, and after the arrival, Shinto was integrated into Buddhism in practice and ideology. So the kokugakushu set about recovering the original form of Shinto in order to "purify" Japanese culture. Most of what we know as Shinto and most of what we consider to be uniquely "Japanese" was largely an invention of the kokugakushu . This invention of Shinto and Japanese culture as well as its motivation, the "purification" of Japanese culture, still remain at the heart of the Japanese self-definition in the twentieth-century.

Richard Hooker



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1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 7-2-97