The power of texts
KeichūOne of the great scholars of the period was Keichū (1640-1701), a Buddhist priest of the Shingon sect. In many ways, his scholarly approach was perfectly suited to the age. Keichū’s magnum opus is the Man’yōshū daishōki (Fig.1), a commentary to the Nara-period poetry collection Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, mid-8th c.). Fig.1. Man’yōshū daishōki (A Stand-in’s Account of the Man’yōshū ), Keichū,
Click to take a closer lookKeichū’s aim in writing this work was to reconstruct as closely as possible the original meaning of the text by looking at a wide range of contemporary and near-contemporary sources. Within the work, Keichū discusses the basic principles of his approach to the study of the past, which can be summarized as follows:
- Reconstruct the contemporary meaning of the work and avoid at all costs any interference from the modern reader’s expectations and beliefs.
- Make use only of sources from the same time period or thereabouts.
- Do not take for granted the theories contained in later commentaries, including traditionally authoritative ones, because they may not be accurate or not apply directly to the age of the Man’yōshū.
Want to keep
Keio University online course,
Japanese Culture Through Rare Books
Click to take a closer look
Motoori NorinagaAfter Keichū, many scholars of so-called Nativist Studies (kokugaku or wagaku) adopted his philological method and produced groundbreaking studies and reinterpretations of the Japanese classics. Kada no Azumamaro（1669-1736), Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769), and Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) are some notable examples. Motoori Norinaga in particular was the one who made the most of the new opportunities provided by publishing.Norinaga came from a family of merchants from Matsusaka in Ise province. Having realized early that trade was not his vocation, he established himself as a physician and at the same time began to study the classics, especially the Nara-period Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 710), to the study of which he made an immense contribution. His Ashiwake obune (A Small Boat Through the Reeds) takes the form of a dialogue and contains the following exchange:
It is hard to believe that Norinaga was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this book. He shows a clear grasp of the limitations of earlier waka scholarship and of the power of books to overcome them. Norinaga was perhaps even more aware than Keichū of the power of the printed word. To begin with, he actively sought to publish his works. Before him, it was uncommon for scholars to publish their works during their lifetime. Keichū only published two of his works, so did Kamo no Mabuchi, and Kada no Azumamaro published none at all. By contrast, Norinaga published a staggering total of about 30 works during his lifetime.Besides Norinaga’s personal interest in publishing, his prolific output shows just how popular the study of antiquity was in the second half of the 18th century. The reputation of Keichū, Mabuchi, and Azumamaro’s scholarship grew after their death, and their works were published regularly between the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Fig.3. Suzunoya-shū, Motoori Norinaga常縁何故に古今伝授と云ふことを作りたるや。答へて云はく。本朝に昔は、書物に板本と云ふことはなかりしなり。板本はいと近き世になりてのことなり。昔はみな写本にて行はれしなり。しかるに足利将軍家の末に至り、天下大きに乱れて世の中騒がしかりしゆゑに、昔の書物ども多く失せて世に稀なりしに、この常縁多く古書を所持して、世になき書物どももありしなり。その中に定家卿の顕注密勘などその外もあるをみて、それに本づきてさまざまのことを作り加へて、古今伝授と云へるなり。その比は世に書物少くして、古書をみること稀なれば、常縁が云ふことを珍らしく思ひ、まことに貫之より相伝のむねと心得たるなり。今の世には古書もあまねく世に広まりて、古へを考ふるに暗きことなければ、かの作りごとも書物をみれば弁へらるることなれども、そこへ心を付けてみる人少くして、なほかの偽物に欺かれてゐるなり。[English translation] “Why did Tōno Tsunenori [late-medieval warlord and poet] create the “Secret Transmission of the Kokinshū” (Kokin denju)?” “Here is the answer: at the time, the Japanese classics had never been published. It is only in recent times that they have been published. Up to that point, they were only available as manuscripts. With the turmoil of the late Muromachi period, a lot of books were lost to fire. Tōno Tsunenori had a rich collection of books, which included works unknown to the public, such as Kokinshū commentaries like Teika’s Kenchū mikkan. He used these works to fabricate a set of theories which were known as the Kokin denju. At the time there were few books and ancient works were especially rare, so Tsunenori’s theories sounded authoritative and were believed to reflect the teachings of Kokinshū compiler Ki no Tsurayuki himself. But today the classics are readily available in printed version and it is very easy to research the past if one wishes to do so. It is obvious to anyone who reads the classics that these so-called “teachings” are nothing but later fabrications. And yet, somehow, few seem to care much about this and the “Kokin denju” is still considered authoritative.
Click to take a closer lookNorinaga’s successful publishing career, which was aided by his numerous disciples, must be seen as part of this larger phenomenon (Fig.3). His publications earned him even more disciples, as many were drawn to study with him by the ideas expressed in his books. He kept a list of the students regularly studying at his school and the total is in excess of 500. Norinaga’s students formed a nationwide network and his published works provided the connecting tissue among them.
Japanese Culture Through Rare Books
Our purpose is to transform access to education.
We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.
We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.