Academic Post #3
A Brief History of Shinto (part 3): Shinto Is the Greatest but Jesus Was Bad at Learning It
Where we last left off, there were a whole bunch of conflicting theories of Shinto, but one of the last ones to emerge was that Shinto had been “polluted” by foreign ideas.
So now we reach 国学 (Kokugaku). There are actually a lot of names for this school of thought, both in English and Japanese. Some Japanese names I’ve seen include 国学、古道、and 復古神道, and some English ones include National Learning, National Studies, and Ancient Studies. I’m going to use 国学 and National Learning, because a) that’s what I used in my thesis and b) that’s what I’ve seen used most commonly in English-language literature. (More conservative studies in Japanese seem to favor 復古神道, though.)
But first, a little bit of background on what was happening at this point in time.
Japan was in its era of isolation; with very few exceptions, there were no foreigners or foreign goods coming to . Leaving Japan (and then coming back) was also strictly prohibited, so there really wasn’t much exchange of ideas going on. Meanwhile, the Tokugawa shogunate had basically seized control of the government, completely cutting the emperor out of any decision-making. The imperial court and the shogunate even had different capitals; the imperial court was in Japan Kyoto while the shogun was in . The shogunate was becoming more and more corrupt/complacent/generally bad at handling things, and increased pressure was coming from the West for Tokyo to reopen its ports to trade. Many people saw The Really Bad Stuff Happening in China (like the Opium War) when the Chinese government refused to cooperate with Western trade-related demands, and were afraid that Japan, which at this point was severely militarily behind the West, would be the next target. So at this point in history you have an intense fear of Western conquest, general discontentment with the government, and an intense urge to discover where China went so horribly wrong. Japan
National Learning sprang out of this miasma of fear and discontentment, which explains a lot about some of its more…ah…interesting ideas. The general concept behind most National Learning writings is that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong in
Japan; ancient had been a place of peace, where the emperor ruled over the whole land and no one dared question him. But what could have gone wrong, and how could whatever it was be fixed? What the National Learning scholars did was go back to the oldest written works in Japanese—the Nihon Shoki (a “history” of Japan , stretching from the beginning of time to about the 8th century), the Manyoushuu (a book of ancient poetry), and, of course, the Kojiki. These scholars proposed that the main issue with Japan Japan was that the “ancient way of the gods” (also known as Shinto) had been horribly polluted by “foreign doctrines,” namely those from . They insisted that if the government were to “reclaim the ancient way,” and separate “pure” Shinto from the foreign pollutants, the land would once again be in a state of harmony. China
With me so far? Here’s where it gets interesting.
First off, the National Learning guys (yes, they were all guys) believed that Shinto was was “enacted by the ruler” and so “subjects should not privately interpret and carry it out.” Shinto was described by Motoori Norinaga, one of the main National Learning guys, as “the just and public Way with which the emperor governs the world.” He thought funerals, festivals, memorial services, and, in fact, most of the major rites that were commonly performed at shrines by priests as well as the general populace as “unorthodox rites.” Rather than being “ceremonies of the Way of the Gods,” they were imitations of Confucian and Buddhist rites merely disguised to appear as Shinto, and “by no means the genuine ancient practices of our imperial land.” Basically, he thought that Shinto was a way of governance, not a religion. He, and many other National Learning thinkers, wanted to see Shinto used practically.
But wait, there’s more! The following are some of the other arguments National Learning scholars came up with:
…I hope you are all noticing the foreshadowing going on here.
When you die, you are dead. Motoori Norinaga, after his wife’s death, became so depressed by the prospect of her going to Yomi* that he spent a good deal of the rest of his life arguing that Yomi didn’t actually exist. What happens after you die? Well, you’re dead. There is NOTHING. (If he admitted that the Buddhist paradises or reincarnation existed, he would have kind of negated all his previous arguments.)
If you haven’t noticed the foreshadowing, lemme make it a teensy bit clearer:
IT’S FORESHADOWING STATE SHINTO AND THE START OF THE PACIFIC WAR.
…which we’ll save for next time.
*The Shinto underworld. It’s a pretty depressing place, to be honest. As far as anyone can really tell, all that happens is that it’s pretty dark, your body rots, and you’re surrounded by impurity. YAY.