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A nation is not just a territory. It’s a spirit. It raises and answers fundamental questions. How did the world begin? With divine creation in the Western tradition; with divine birth in Japan’s — a god and goddess loved, and the archipelago was born.

Fervor: Inspired by the poets of ages past, peasant-poet and ardent nationalist, Matsuo Taseko made the arduous journey to the capital at age 51. | WIKICOMMONS
Fervor: Inspired by the poets of ages past, peasant-poet and ardent nationalist, Matsuo Taseko made the arduous journey to the capital at age 51. | WIKICOMMONS

Why, then, is there evil? Nativist scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), ancestor of 19th- and 20th-century nationalism, in a 1771 essay titled “The Spirit of the Gods,” offers this explanation:

“Among the gods there are good ones and bad ones. Their actions are in accordance with their different natures, so they cannot be understood with ordinary reason. … It is entirely due to the august will of these gods” — two in particular, born of pollution from the world of the dead — “that there is harm in the world, that everything cannot be proper and in accordance with reason, and that there are many wicked things.”

Evil, to Norinaga, is no less divine than good. The fitting human response is not rebellion or defiance; not submission either, but rather the cultivation of deep feeling, a deep awareness of mono no aware — “the pathos of things.”

Last month’s column introduced ultranationalist peasant-poetess Matsuo Taseko (1811-94). Her native Ina Valley in today’s Nagano Prefecture was prosperous enough to afford some leisure for diversions such as poetry. It was fertile soil for wandering scholar-poets who came bearing to eager listeners the words of a Norinaga disciple named Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843).

Japan, Hirata taught, was the land of the gods, its pure native ways corrupted 1,000 years ago by false Buddhist and Confucian teachings from China. Poetry was the road back; in particular the eighth-century “Manyoshu” anthology, whose 4,500-odd poems breathed (though written mostly in archaic Chinese) Japanese spirit — yamatodamashii.

It was an idea whose time had come. Myth and reality had parted company. Myth shone, reality grated. Mythically, the divine emperor in Kyoto ruled while the shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo) executed his will. In reality, the emperor was marginal and the shogun supreme. In theory Japan was closed to foreigners. The shoguns of the 1850s admitted them regardless; opened Japanese ports to them; granted them exemption from Japanese law. What choice did they have? Japanese swords symbolizing indomitable yamatodamashii flash in vain against Western cannon.

Emperor Komei (reigned 1846-67) seethed. He spoke of “unparalleled national dishonor,” and ordered the shogun to efface it. How? With what? Cutthroat swordsmen converged on Kyoto — the emperor’s loyal servants, as they saw themselves, cutting down with virtual impunity “treacherous” shogunal officials.

A Hirata disciple, cited by Anne Walthall in “The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration,” wrote, “Atsutane’s teachings have gradually spread throughout (Japan), and his lessons on the great way of revering what is inside the country and despising what is outside are being understood and taken to heart” — by Taseko among many, many others.

In 1861, she joined the Hirata school, inducted by Hirata Kanetane (1799-1880), the founder’s son-in-law. The pledge she signed reads in part, “I earnestly beg to receive the guidance of this teacher along the road to the ancient days of our imperial country.” In the fall of 1862, she laid down her farm tools, parted from her family and set out for Kyoto. She was 51.

Raising silkworms, her most absorbing occupation, was key to the family economy; also to Japan’s. Japanese silk was in demand worldwide. It meant prosperity — and prosperity’s degrading consequences. “For people such as Taseko, who wanted to revere the emperor and expel the barbarians from Japan’s sacred soil,” Walthall explains, “selling the country’s treasures to the barbarians was no better than selling them the country.”

Disgust fueled her poetry: “Ever since the (foreign) ships … / came for the jeweled / silkworm cocoons / to the land of the gods and the emperor, / people’s hearts are … consumed by rage… / Even I, who am not / a brave warrior / from the land of the rising sun, / I do not want their (foreigners’) money, / I would rather be poor.”

And so, writes Walthall, “she borrowed a servant from her son to serve as her escort, because the roads were considered too dangerous for a woman to travel alone,” and trudged, through rain and steep mountain passes, 150 kilometers in six days.

In Kyoto, she found herself notorious. A peasant — a woman to boot — and yet so inflamed with poetry, with yamatodamashii. Nobles courted her, swordsmen confided in her, she was a welcome guest at imperial palace poetry meets. In verse she cheered the assassins on: “The warriors / shout and shout, / enflaming the true Japanese spirit / of these myriad islands.”

What would Norinaga, half a century dead, have thought of all this? For all his nationalism (Japan, he wrote, is “superior to all other countries”), his teaching was gentle, even tender — certainly not bellicose.

Mono no aware, a deep and cultivated awareness of life’s sadness, is the crux of it: “When discovering the beauty of (cherry) blossoms, we are moved by their beauty. This is mono no aware. … When encountering the deep grief of another … and to be moved in our own heart by the realization of how sad something must be is mono no aware.”

Nurture mono no aware, he taught. How? By studying the ancient poets. Ancient poetry breathes mono no aware, which deepens the emotions. The emotions, cleansed of foreign learning, make us good.

Taseko spent three tumultuous months in Kyoto. Then she went home, back to her family, her silkworms, her peasant toil. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 overthrew the despised shogunate, but betrayed her deepest hopes. Far from a return to a mythical pristine past, it was a pell-mell rush to Western industrial capitalism. In 1869, she wrote,” When will it be possible / to purify this realm / by cutting down and expelling / these noxious barbarian weeds?”

This is the second of two installments on Matsuo Taseko and early Japanese nationalism. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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