Motoori Norinaga

Japan Glossary
   As a young scholar, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) concentrated on linguistic studies; the particular branch of kokugaku that he made his own was the recovery of the Japanese language. If one can sum up his attitude towards language it would be thus: Motoori believed that human beings should experience language directly, to understand the idea or thing in the word in an unmediated fashion. Ordinary Japanese (aohitogusa ) speaking their ordinary language use language in this direct way. Chinese writing gets in the way of this direct understanding of speech and the Chinese in general tend to be "murky" in their use of language. As a result, the use of language in Japan should take its model from the living, changing language of the ordinary people.

Ancient Japan
The Flowering of Japanese Literature

Japan Glossary
Mono no aware
   In the middle of his life, he turned to historical and literary studies when he shifted his concentration to the Kojiki , which was the oldest history of Japan written in Japanese. He first turned to the Kojiki in order to translate it into "living" Japanese; he was the first to "discover" that the work was meant to be read in Japanese even though it was written in Chinese writing. From the Kojiki , he turned to the first collection of Japanese poems, the Manyoshu , to discover what is truly Japanese both in language and in sensibility. It is from this latter study that he derived his most famous concept, one that would greatly define Japanese culture in later centuries: mono no aware , "the sensitivity to things." Motoori wanted to show that the unique character of Japanese culture (and he considered Japanese culture to be the "head" of the world; other nations were the "body") was the capacity to experience the objective world in a direct and unmediated fashion, to understand sympathetically the objects and the natural world around one without resorting to language or other mediators. The Japanese could understand the world directly in identifying themselves with that world; the Japanese could use language to directly express that connection to the world. This, for Motoori, is the aesthetic which lies behind the poetry of the Manyoshu ; this certainly was the aesthetic that lay behind the haiku (17 syllable poems) revival of the Tokugawa period. The poetic and historical texts present the "whole of life," which has meaning because all of nature and life is animated by the "intentions" of the gods. People experienced this wholeness of life by encountering things (mono); these encounters "moved" or "touched" them—hence the unique Japanese character: "sensitivity to things" (mono no aware ).

Richard Hooker


World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999