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  • Kokugaku in Meiji-period Japan: The Modern Transformation of ‘National Learning’ and the Formation of Scholarly Societies by Michael Wachutka
  • Helen Hardacre
Kokugaku in Meiji-period Japan: The Modern Transformation of ‘National Learning’ and the Formation of Scholarly Societies. By Michael Wachutka. Leiden: Global Oriental, 2012. 307pages. Hardcover €115.00/$160.00.

This meticulous study bridges the gap in existing scholarship between studies of the formation of Kokugaku (national, or nativist, learning) during the Edo period and the invocation of Kokugaku in Japanese nationalist rhetoric from the 1890s through the end of the Pacific War. In the volume under review, Wachutka shows how Kokugaku sustained itself in the Meiji period by projecting its key concepts into higher education. He aims to be “very ‘people-focused’” (p. xiii), as a corrective to research focusing on government policies with no reference to their origins and authorship. One very useful feature of the book is the set of extensive appendices of biographical details concerning the individuals who made up the nativist tradition in the Meiji period.

Chapter 1 begins with the several strains of Kokugaku that were prominent at the end of the Edo period: scholarly studies of poetics tracing back to Kamo no Mabuchi [End Page 296] (1697–1769), evidentiary scholarship particularly associated with Ban Nobutomo (1773–1846), a Shinto-theological strain associated with Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843), and a strain showing strong Confucian influence, Mito learning. While groups of people associated with these strains contended among themselves, they shared a desire to revive the ancient Jingikan (Bureau of Divinity). Wachutka emphasizes the influence of Yano Harumichi (1823–1887; also known as Gendō), who was both a follower of Hirata Atsutane and an instructor for the school operated by the Shirakawa house, an aristocratic family in Edo that traditionally had held the headship of the Jingikan.

Wachutka discusses Yano’s 1868 manifesto titled Kenkin sengo (Humble Petition of a Fool), which illustrates key Kokugaku concepts and ideals as they were applied at the beginning of the Meiji period. Exponents spoke of their studies not as Kokugaku but as hongaku, and of the application of their scholarship in government as kannagara no michi, which Wachutka glosses as “Japan’s pure and characteristic way that has been handed down since the gods according to divine will” (p. 5). This slippery notion elided with the idea of Japan having had an unchanging “structure”—the kokutai—since ancient times. The term kannagara no michi served as the linchpin for the idea that Japan had originally been governed through a unity of ritual and politics (saisei itchi) and a unity of politics and religious doctrine (seikyō itchi). Yano and other Kokugaku figures idealized the legendary first emperor, Jinmu, elevating him as a symbol of the “restoration”; devising a calendrical system based on his putative ascension to the throne in 660 bce; and establishing his purported birthday on 11 February as the first among national holidays, to be called Kigensetsu (National Foundation Day). Looking for a servicable historical model for an imperial “restoration,” Yano proposed invoking the Taika Reform of 645, rather than the failed Kenmu Restoration of Emperor Go-Daigo, casting the Ritsuryō era as a utopian age of direct imperial rule over a happy populace united in reverence for the sovereign.

In chapter 2, Wachutka chronicles the reinstitution of the Jingikan and its almost immediate demotion in status, followed by dismemberment and assignment of its several functions—overseeing imperial rites, operating as a seminary for national instructors charged to promote Shinto as a de facto state religion, and edification of the populace—to other branches of government. Wachutka provides careful documentation of the Jingikan’s many officers, their intellectual affiliations, and their shrine connections. While acknowledging that the inclusion of diverse Kokugaku factions in the Jingikan contributed to its instability (and, one might add, its ineffectiveness), Wachutka sees the Jingikan, during its short history, as having been “a stage for opposing national-learning factions to combine” (p. 37).

Following the failure of the Jingikan to promote Shinto as a state religion, as of 1872, “the broader credo of the ‘Imperal Way’ (kōdō shugi), roughly based on a combination of ideas and ethics, was...


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pp. 296-301
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