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The Jeweled Broom and the Dust of the World: Keichū, Motoori Norinaga, and Kokugaku in Early Modern Japan


This dissertation seeks to reconsider the eighteenth-century kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga’s (1730-1801) conceptions of language, and in doing so also reformulate the manner in which we understand early modern kokugaku and its role in Japanese history. Previous studies have interpreted kokugaku as a linguistically constituted communitarian movement that paved the way for the makings of Japanese national identity. My analysis demonstrates, however, that Norinaga--by far the most well-known kokugaku thinker--was more interested in pulling a fundamental ontology out from language than tying a politics of identity into it: grammatical codes, prosodic rhythms, and sounds and their attendant sensations were taken not as tools for interpersonal communication but as themselves visible and/or audible threads in the fabric of the cosmos. Norinaga’s work was thus undergirded by a positive understanding of language as ontologically grounded within the cosmos, a framework he borrowed implicitly from the seventeenth-century Shingon monk Keichū (1640-1701) and esoteric Buddhist (mikkyō) theories of language. Through philological investigation into ancient texts, both Norinaga and Keichū believed, the profane dust that clouded (sacred, cosmic) truth could be swept away, as if by a jeweled broom.

The dissertation is divided into four chapters. The first chapter takes a historiographical look at the study of kokugaku and Norinaga’s central role therein. It also sets out the thesis that the remaining three chapters of the dissertation attempt to substantiate: that kokugaku, at least up to Norinaga’s time, ought to be considered as a form of philology, traditionally conceived. It was, in other words, an attempt to uncover cosmological truth from the language of ancient texts. In the second chapter, I present a genealogy of Norinaga’s kokugaku, tracing Norinaga’s thought back to Keichū. This chapter attempts to demonstrate that Keichū’s empirical methodology was a direct result of his esoteric Buddhist training and background and, indeed, was grounded firmly within an esoteric Buddhist doctrinal system. It then goes on to argue that Norinaga’s philology and positive valuation of language, too, is predicated on a Buddhological framework that stresses the immanence of the truth in the world known by ordinary people. The third and fourth chapters explore Norinaga’s conception of language and its role in the world, looking specifically at his studies of teniwoha and his much celebrated theory of mono no aware. In these final two chapters, I demonstrate that mono no aware and teniwoha lie at the foundation of both Norinaga’s epistemology and ontology, offering a means for knowing and apprehending the cosmos as well as a model for how that cosmos itself exists.

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