Community and Spirits in Nineteenth-Century Japan: An Exploration of Grassroots Ethnographic and Japan Studies

By Gideon Fujiwara

The school of kokugaku or Japan studies emerged in seventeenth-century Japan as the study of classical Japanese texts with the aim of elucidating an ancient Japanese Way. Rooted in earlier precedents of Japanese studies more generally, kokugaku developed partly in reaction to Neo-Confucianism, the school officially sponsored by the Tokugawa shogunate, as well as to the Ancient School of Confucianism, whose methods of returning directly to the original Confucian classics served as a model for kokugaku scholars. Studies to date have examined the relationship between kokugaku and the Japanese nation. Among them, Susan Burns’ monograph showed how kokugaku scholars of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) imagined Japan through their readings of ancient mytho-histories, prior to the rise of the modern nation.[1] Michael Wachutka chronicled how kokugaku scholars contributed to the formation of scholarly societies in Meiji Japan (1868-1912), as well as the national studies of literature, history, and language.[2] While such works have informed us on various dimensions of kokugaku, their focus on community has been limited primarily to the singular entity of Japan, without elaborating on the local communities and identities in which many practitioners were actively based.  

From Country to Nation: Ethnographic Studies, Kokugaku, and Spirits in Nineteenth-Century Japan offers a fresh new look at Tokugawa-to-Meiji history including the Meiji Restoration of 1868 from the perspective of northeastern Japan, exploring community on multiple levels from the domain consisting of the local landscape and castle town to the nation. It looks at the diversity found within “grassroots” kokugaku (Japan studies), providing new examples of how kokugaku scholars were active in various areas of scholarship, art, poetry composition, military combat, religious ritual, and religious reforms. My monograph examines the dynamics between ethnographic studies and kokugaku, while offering a window into kokugaku scholarship after Japan had been “opened” by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry. It also presents commoners’ voices to their experiences and struggles with modernity through multi-leveled community.

The book examines these topics through a unique group of 18 intellectuals who lived in northeastern Japan. They imagined a dual identity because they saw themselves as residents of their “Country of Tsugaru” (Tsugaru no kuni), while they increasingly imagined themselves a part of a larger nation of Imperial Japan (mikuni). This circle of intellectuals was socially diverse: they consisted of merchant-class poets and painters, Shinto priests, samurai, and one female painter-poet.

The central figure in this book is Hirao Rosen (1808-1880), born into the merchant class, who later became a professional painter that engaged in ethnographic research and kokugaku. Rosen engaged in ethnographic studies, learning about the peoples of Tsugaru. After U.S. Commodore Perry’s incursion into Edo Bay, Japan “opened” its ports to Western vessels, and in 1855, Rosen traveled to the northern island of Ezo, seeing the port city of Hakodate. There, he observed Europeans, Americans, and Qing Chinese. He came to see the realities of Japan, situated in a global community that included industrially advanced and militarily superior Western countries, as well as Qing Chinese whose empire had been defeated in the Opium War just over a decade earlier. This realization of Japan’s status in the world made Rosen focus inward, in pursuit of his ethnographic studies of Tsugaru and other “countries” within a larger Japan.

Two years later in 1857, Rosen’s close friend and fellow scholar, Tsuruya Ariyo (1808-1871), became the first person from Tsugaru to officially register in the Hirata Academy as a disciple of the late kokugaku scholar, Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843). By that point, Ariyo was already an established poet and a leading figure within a circle of poets based in Hirosaki castle town. Ariyo’s fellows followed his lead, and this Tsugaru group of disciples studied the Ancient Way of Japan. In particular, they were interested in Hirata kokugaku teachings on spirits, the spiritual realm, and the afterlife. In kokugaku teachings on spirits and the afterlife, Hirao Rosen and his fellows discovered theories that explained the spiritual mysteries they had observed in their own locale of Hirosaki castle town and Tsugaru (or Hirosaki) domain. For Rosen, this culminated in his magnum opusNew Treatise on the Spirit Realm, or Yūfu shinron, completed in 1865, in which he asserts the reality of the spirit realm and of the deities that affect the realm of the living. 

Ariyo continued to compose poetry in both the waka and haiku styles, and now he composed verses expressing reverence to the deities of the Japanese tradition that protected Mount Iwaki and the surrounding Tsugaru region. In 1867, Ariyo completed his seminal work, Enjoyment Visible and Invisible or Ken’yū rakuron, wherein he urges people to revere and worship the deities, as well as to uphold a positive outlook in life in this world and beyond death in the spirit realm. 

On the battlefield, in Shinto rituals, and across society, other members of the Tsugaru group were also active, showing the variety of roles kokugaku scholars fulfilled in the nineteenth century. After Tsugaru domain transferred its political allegiance from the Tokugawa government to the New government forces, a young samurai in the group, Yamada Yōnoshin, served to fight as a soldier of the Hirosaki army against neighboring Morioka domain. Yōnoshin fought and died for the emperor in the ninth month of 1868 in the Boshin civil war. Thereafter, Shinto priests from the group, Osari Nakaakira and Ono Wakasa, led the shōkonsai funerary ritual in 1869 to venerate the spirit of Yōnoshin alongside the spirit of other fallen soldiers. 

Members of the Tsugaru group celebrated the Meiji Restoration and the restoration of rule by the emperor. Like other Hirata disciples across Japan, they too dreamed of a “New Dawn” for a Japan that would be shaped by Shinto and kokugaku ideas. Shinto priests of the group contributed to the Meiji state’s efforts in Shinbutsu bunri, the Separation of Shinto and Buddhism, which forcibly removed Buddhist elements in an attempt to re-create a new and “pure” Shinto in local Tsugaru society. However, while the Meiji state and local Hirosaki society increasingly embraced Western Learning and Western ideas and institutions for modern reform, Hirao Rosen resisted this Western influence and modernity, which resulted not in the community he had imagined, but in his own disorientation and estrangement. 

When relying on the “canon” of kokugaku, and the lineages of their famous “Great Men,” one can trace the ideas of a few select teachers of this school such as Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769), Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), and Hirata Atsutane, who attracted hundreds to thousands of disciples from across Japan. However, by turning our attention to the writings of these disciples across the provinces and domains of Tokugawa to Meiji societies, then exchanged with the head academies, we can chronicle the reception of ideas at the local level, based on local needs, as well as how they in turn influenced the scholarly centers. My study shows how the Tsugaru Group gravitated toward the spiritual, religious, and ethnographic teachings of the Hirata school, while their members pursued scholarship and composed poetry. These local intellectuals contributed to the Meiji Restoration through warfare and ritual, and to modern society through religious reforms, service to the authorities, and continued scholarly inquiry and poetic composition. 

This book bridges different bodies of scholarship on such topics as community and nation, kokugaku, the Meiji Restoration, and local history. I build on past studies of multi-level communities by highlighting how “kuni” in nineteenth-century Japan represented “countries”—local and foreign—as well as the “nation” of Japan. The early sections of the book explain how Tsugaru political leaders and scholars continually endeavored to secure a place for themselves within a larger Japan. Politically, the Tsugaru lords made efforts to ingratiate themselves to the ruler of the realm: Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Tokugawa shogun, and the Meiji government and Emperor. Hirao Rosen, Tsuruya Ariyo, and the Tsugaru group engaged the theories of Hirata kokugaku to reaffirm Tsugaru’s place within the nation of Japan. Whereas past studies discuss kokugaku scholarship primarily within the context of a singular community of Japan, I provide evidence to show how members of the Tsugaru group engaged multiple levels of community including their castle town of Hirosaki, the country of Tsugaru, the foreign countries of the West and China, and the nation of Japan. 

Gideon Fujiwara is an associate professor of the History Department and member of the Asian Studies Program at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. He holds a PhD in Asian Studies from the University of British Columbia (2013) and an MA in Japanese Intellectual History from Tohoku University. He studies the social and intellectual histories of Japan in the Tokugawa (1600-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. Gideon’s first book, From Country to Nation: Ethnographic Studies, Kokugaku, and Spirits in Nineteenth-Century Japan, was published by Cornell East Asia Series of Cornell University Press in May 2021. His current research examines the history of the New Year Poetry Ceremony hosted by Japan’s Imperial Court. Gideon teaches courses on the histories of the World, East Asia, China, Japan, Japan-Canada relations, Nation and Nationalism, and Modernity, as well as Asian Studies. 

Title Image: Tsugaru Customs Painting Scroll (Tsugaru fūzokuga maki) by Satō Senshi. Private Collection.


[1] Susan Burns, Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[2] Michael Wachutka, Kokugaku in Meiji-Period Japan: The Modern Transformation of ‘National Learning’ and the Formation of Scholarly Societies (Boston & Leiden: Brill, 2013).

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