Before the Nation

Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan

Before the Nation

Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society

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Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: Published: December 2003

Author: Susan L Burns

Asian Studies > East Asia, History > Asian History

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.


Before the Nation is a highly original and richly illustrated analysis of how Kojiki was used to promote ideology. It is one of those rare studies that goes beyond simply conveying the magnitude of change associated with the transition from Edo to Meiji….” — Patrick Caddeau , MLQ

“Burns introduces us to a selection of ‘dissident’ Kokugakusha and opens our eyes to the multivocality that this genealogy suppresses.” — Mark Teeuwen , Monumenta Nipponica

"[A] most interesting study of the Kokugaku tradition." — Olivier Ansart , Asian Studies Review

"[A] superb analytical study of the Kokugaku movement before and during the early stages of the Meiji era. . . . [Burns] works from a very broad range of original sources and engages in extensive literary analysis of contemporary texts to support her arguments. Her work is like a brilliant search light that exposes the reader to both the complexity as well as the brilliance of Japanese scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . . Before the Nation is one of those rare feats of scholarship that should become mandatory reading for any student of pre-modern Japanese history and politics." — Daniel A. Metraux, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

"[A] thought-provoking analysis. . . . [A]lthough this is a work of intellectual history, it is one that adroitly makes intellectual issues comprehensible as instances of social and cultural history. . . . [Burns's] study is accessible to those who do not read Japanese. . . . This work will interest not only scholars of the early modern era . . . but will also interest scholars interested in the pre-war era." — Bill Sewell , Canadian Journal of History

"[A] truly scholarly work, providing an abundance of information and insights. . . . [I]mpressive. . . . [B]rilliant. . . . [T]he book is a must for anybody interested in Kokugaku." — Ernst Lokowandt , Asian Folklore Studies

"Burns rightly argues that scholars of Japanese culture and antiquity during the early modern period were not ideologically united. Although the analyses presented in this book are sometimes demanding, they help to further our understanding of an important yet often misunderstood phenomenon." — Mark McNally, American Historical Review

"Susan Burns has produced a fine study of a complex and important subject. . . . [T]he book will be read with great profit by historians, linguists, specialists in literature and anyone trying to untangle the many puzzles of Japanese nationalism." — Sandra Wilson, Intersections

"Susan L. Burns provides an excellent corrective to the impression that kokugaku scholarship of the eighteenth century led almost inevitably to the development of modern Shinto nationalism. . . . Beautifully written for a specialized audience, . . . Before the Nation provides provocative insights into the varied logic and concerns of eighteenth-century kokugaku, with welcome summaries of later, less renowned scholars' work as well." — Sarah Thal, Social Anthropology

Before the Nation is a significant addition to the field of Japanese intellectual history and a very fine book.” — Leslie Pincus, author of Authenticating Culture in Imperial Japan: Kuki Shuzo and the Rise of National Aesthetics

“In Before the Nation Susan L. Burns offers rock-solid research on a crucial topic in the intellectual history of state-formation and nationalism in Japan." — J. Victor Koschmann, author of Revolution and Subjectivity in Postwar Japan


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Between Community and the Nation 1

1 Late Tokugawa Society and the Crisis of Community 16

2 Before the Kojikiden: The Divine Age Narrative in Tokugawa Japan 35

3 Motoori Norinaga: Discovering Japan 68

4 Ueda Akinari: History and Community 102

5 Fujitani Mitsue: The Poetics of Community 131

6 Tachibana Moribe: Cosmology and Community 158

7 National Literature, Intellectual History, and the New Kokugaku 187

Conclusion: Imagined Japan(s) 220

Appendix: "Reading" the Kojiki 227

Notes 231

Works Cited 259

Index 271
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3172-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3183-4
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