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  • Kokugaku in Meiji-period Japan: The Modern Transformation of ‘National Learning’ and the Formation of Scholarly Societies by Michael Wachutka
  • Anne Walthall
Kokugaku in Meiji-period Japan: The Modern Transformation of ‘National Learning’ and the Formation of Scholarly Societies by Michael Wachutka. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Pp. vx + 313. $160.00.

With the revival of the Bureau of Divinity (Jingikan 神祇官) in 1868 and the establishment of first the College of Higher Learning (Daigakkō 大学校) and then the University (Daigaku 大学) to propagate national learning (kokugaku 国学) by early 1870, it appeared that the nativists’ dream of reviving the form and content of the ancient Japanese state had become a reality. At the ceremony for the deity of learning that replaced the traditional Confucian rites performed at educational institutions, Hirata Kanetane 平田銕胤 stood out for his flowing white hair and joyful expression. Alas, as students of modern Japanese history know well, the triumphal return to the past was shortlived. Demoted to the status of a ministry in 1871, the Jingikan was abolished in 1872, its functions divided between the Imperial Household Ministry, the Education Ministry, and the Home Ministry. The University existed for barely eight months.

Michael Wachutka argues that the loss of central government support for national learning did not bring it to an end. Even before the conservative resurgence in the late 1880s to 1890s, the men who had spent their early years under the Tokugawa shogunate in the study of [End Page 192] ancient texts continued their endeavors regardless of or in reaction to what they perceived as a pernicious tide of Westernization that threatened Japan’s essence. In this pathbreaking study, Wachutka provides detailed documentation on their activities, from creating new educational institutions to forming scholarly associations to promote the study of Japan. His goal is to demonstrate the enduring presence of national learning throughout the Meiji period and hence to explain why national learning continues to have a place in Japan today.

Wachutka makes a number of arguments in the course of this study. First, by focusing on the personnel in the Jingikan and the impact they had on policy as well as their efforts at proselytization, he sheds new light on their activities undertaken in the name of the Meiji state. In his view, the aim to create a new national consciousness, a national identity centered on the emperor and drawing on the nativist kokugaku ideology, was there from the beginning. Second, in the course of the Meiji period, the content of national learning changed from mysticism and theology to morals and academic disciplines. Along the way, national learning branched out into several specialties―national history, national literature, national language―that continue to define academic departments today (I was once a research student in the National History Department [kokushi kenkyū shitsu 国史研究室] at the University of Tokyo). Although national learning as a category of knowledge fragmented into disciplines, the men who pursued them overcame the factionalism that had characterized late Edo nativism to cooperate in new associations. They “paved the way for most of the later research on traditional Japanese subject-matter” (p. 228). Ultimately their contribution to prewar ideology mattered less than the editing and publishing of classical texts.

To support these arguments, Wachutka provides an enormous mass of detailed information. The first chapter examines a range of topics: the terms used by Edo-period scholars to define what they studied; an elucidation of the concept of kannagara no michi 惟神の道 (now and forever the way of the gods), to which the people must conform in their daily lives and worship, and which was centered on the emperor as a direct descendant of the sun goddess; and the uncomfortable fit between kannagara no michi, beloved of the more mystically inclined adherents of Hirata Atsutane’s 平田篤胤 teachings, and the concept of national essence (kokutai 国体), what Wachutka calls a more [End Page 193] “pragmatic” response to the impact of Western culture. Along the way he explains Sakamoto Koremaru’s 坂本是丸 thesis that national learning played an intrinsic role in defining and building the Meiji state, in particular in insisting on a unity of worship and rule (saisei itchi 祭政一致) that remained a defining characteristic of the imperial state to 1945 and even beyond...


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pp. 192-198
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