Jun 212013

norinaga5  Norinaga_self_portrait


Today is the birthday (1730) of Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長) often considered the most influential scholar of Kokugaku (Japanese Studies) in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns.  The Edo period was a time of political stability, national isolation, economic expansion, rigid social control, and artistic development.  What many Westerners think of as “typically Japanese” culture evolved in the Edo period.  The contemporary version of sushi, for example, was created at this time.

Norinaga was born in what is now Matsusaka in Ise Province into a wealthy merchant family.  With the death of his father and elder brother, Norinaga became the head of the family’s merchant house and was expected to run the business.  But he was more inclined to intellectual pursuits and showed little aptitude for business.  So, at age 22, his mother sent him to Kyoto to study medicine which was more suited to his temperament. Although medicine was less prestigious than the life of a merchant, it gave Norinaga time to read and absorb classic literature (as well as partying more than a little, as evidenced by a stern note from his mother advising him to cut back on the sake).  At this time Japanese intellectual life was dominated by Chinese ideologies, and ancient Japanese literature was poorly understood because changes over time in Japanese language had made the classics hard to read.  They needed detailed commentary and careful study to be properly interpreted.  Alongside his medical studies Norinaga was a student of several renowned Kokugaku scholars whilst in Kyoto.

At age 28 Norinaga returned to Matsusaka to practice pediatrics (which he did until 10 days before his death). Although having to devote much of his time to his patients, he was able to read and absorb the Japanese classics on his own.  He had a small study on the second floor of his house which had once been a tea room. Because of his love of bells he called the room, Suzu-no-ya (Room of Bells). He always pulled up the ladder to Suzu-no-ya so that he could study without interruption.

Norinaga was greatly inspired by the works of Kamo no Mabuchi and in 1763 was able to meet him in person for one night – now known romantically as “the night in Matsusaka” because they reputedly talked all night. The two never met again but corresponded frequently. Mabuchi supervised what was to become Norinaga’s greatest work, his annotations of the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). Norinaga took the view that the heritage of ancient Japan, to be admired and emulated, was one of natural spontaneity in feelings and spirit, and that imported Confucianism ran counter to such natural feelings. For Norinaga true Japanese consciousness was embodied in the concept of mono no aware Mono means “things” and aware means “deep feeling.” For Norinaga poetry and literature had no other purpose than to evoke deep feelings (not to instill moral, or religious or intellectual values).

Norinaga’s life work was to strip Japanese culture of outside influences, notably Chinese, and return to what he considered to be a uniquely Japanese way of living.  As such he wrote in the ancient Japanese poetic style known as waka (as opposed to the up and coming haiku form).  He wrote over 10,000 waka, hundreds of which were devoted to cherry trees, his passion.  He brushed the following on a self portrait (pictured).

Shikishima no
Yamato gokoro wo
Hito towaba
Asahi ni niou

Asked about the soul of Japan,
I would say
That it is
Like wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun.

Norinaga died on September 29, 1801 at the age of seventy-one. Publication of his 44 volume commentary on Kojiki had begun 16 years earlier, and took another 21 to complete. It is an unrivalled masterpiece. He was buried on top of Mt. Yamamuro, eight kilometers from the center of Matsusaka, in accordance with the will he had written the year before. Also in the will he requested a Buddhist funeral, but a Shintoist grave. “The grave should be seven shaku (2.1 meters) square. Make a mound slightly behind the center of the square, and plant a cherry tree on top of it.”

There are many sweet confections sold in Matsusaka in honor of Norinaga, some, such as Yamazakura and Suzu Monaka (pictured), in the shape of the bells he loved.  These, however, are best left to professionals.  Instead my recipe for the memory of Norinaga is a simple dish of fried tofu in broth, agedashi tofu, which comes from a cookbook of the Edo period (modified for the modern kitchen). The broth is traditionally made of three parts dashi (made from seaweed and bonito flakes), one part mirin (sweet rice wine), and one part Japanese soy sauce.  You can get all the necessary ingredients in Japanese markets or online.  If you are not up for making dashi, an instant (powdered) version is an acceptable and quick substitute.  Most times when you get agedashi tofu in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and Europe the “broth” has been thickened with sugar and cornstarch.  This recipe is more loyal to Edo period style.

nornaga2  norinaga4

Agedashi tofu


1 block firm tofu
corn starch for dredging
flavorless oil for deep frying
daikon (Japanese white radish) shavings
green onion chopped
1 cup (2.4 dl) dashi
2 tbsp (30 ml) soy sauce
2 tbsp (30 ml) mirin


Heat the dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a small saucepan to just below the boiling point and keep warm.

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350°F (175°C).

Drain the tofu and pat it dry with paper towels.  Cut it into bite sized cubes.

Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl and thoroughly coat all sides of the tofu cubes.

Deep fry the tofu a few at a time until they are golden.  Drain on wire racks.

Divide the broth among 4 bowls and then place 4 to 6 tofu pieces in each.

Top with daikon shavings and chopped green onion.

Serves 4

Ichiban Dashi
(Measurements here are deliberately approximate and can be varied according to taste.)


4 cups (9.6 dl) water
1 strip kombu (dried kelp)
1 handful of loosely packed katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)


Place the water and the kombu in a pot and let the kombu soak for about 15 minutes.

After soaking, heat the water and kombu over medium heat until just below boiling.

Remove the pot from the heat and add the katsuobushi, scattering it over the surface of the water loosely.

When the katsuobushi sinks (3 to 4 minutes) strain the broth using a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth to be sure the resultant liquid is clear.

The dashi can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.