Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan

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Duke University Press, Dec 2, 2003 - History - 282 pages
Exploring the emergence and evolution of theories of nationhood that continue to be evoked in present-day Japan, Susan L. Burns provides a close examination of the late-eighteenth-century intellectual movement kokugaku, which means "the study of our country.” Departing from earlier studies of kokugaku that focused on intellectuals whose work has been valorized by modern scholars, Burns seeks to recover the multiple ways "Japan" as social and cultural identity began to be imagined before modernity.

Central to Burns's analysis is Motoori Norinaga’s Kojikiden, arguably the most important intellectual work of Japan's early modern period. Burns situates the Kojikiden as one in a series of attempts to analyze and interpret the mythohistories dating from the early eighth century, the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Norinaga saw these texts as keys to an original, authentic, and idyllic Japan that existed before being tainted by "flawed" foreign influences, notably Confucianism and Buddhism. Hailed in the nineteenth century as the begetter of a new national consciousness, Norinaga's Kojikiden was later condemned by some as a source of Japan's twentieth-century descent into militarism, war, and defeat. Burns looks in depth at three kokugaku writers—Ueda Akinari, Fujitani Mitsue, and Tachibana Moribe—who contested Norinaga's interpretations and produced competing readings of the mythohistories that offered new theories of community as the basis for Japanese social and cultural identity. Though relegated to the footnotes by a later generation of scholars, these writers were quite influential in their day, and by recovering their arguments, Burns reveals kokugaku as a complex debate—involving history, language, and subjectivity—with repercussions extending well into the modern era.


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Late Tokugawa Society and the Crisis of Community
Before the Kojikiden The Divine Age Narrative in Early Tokugawa Japan
Motoori Norinaga Discovering Japan
Ueda Akinari History and Community
Fujitani Mitsue The Poetics of Community
Tachibana Moribe Cosmology and Community
National Literature Intellectual History and the New Kokugaku
Imagined Japans
Reading the Kojiki
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Page 3 - Every social community reproduced by the functioning of institutions is imaginary, that is to say, it is based on the projection of individual existence into the weft of a collective narrative, on the recognition of a common name and on traditions lived as the trace of an immemorial past (even when they have been fabricated and inculcated in the recent past).
Page 7 - A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.
Page 9 - ... young nations" were prefigured in the apparatuses of the colonial period, so the European Middle Ages saw the outlines of the modern state emerge within the framework of "Sicily," "Catalonia," or "Burgundy"). And they do not even belong by nature to the history of the nation-state, but to other rival forms (for example the "imperial" form). It is not a line of necessary evolution but a series of conjunctural relations which has inscribed them after the event into the prehistory of the nation...
Page 9 - We can therefore acknowledge the fact that the national formation is the product of a long 'pre-history'. This pre-history, however, differs in essential features from the nationalist myth of a linear destiny. First, it consists of a multiplicity of qualitatively distinct events spread out over time, none of which implies any subsequent event. Second, these events do not of their nature belong to the history of one determinate nation. They have occurred within the framework of political units other...
Page 12 - nothing is more common to the members of a community, in principle, than a myth, or a group of myths

About the author (2003)

Susan L. Burns is Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

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