Issue #50 March 2022

In The Depths We Sing: Psyche and depth in Motoori Norinaga

Andrew Wyeth - "Roaring Reef" - (ca.1951)

The thinker in question is Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長, 1730-1801): a doctor, poet, literary theorist, philologist, theologist, nationalist in 18th century Japan. The concept in question is that of “depth” (深みfukami), extracted from his treatise on Japanese poetry, Isonokami Sasamegoto (石上私淑言, Personal Views on Poetry), with some references to his commentaries on Genji Monogatari, Shibun Yōryō (紫文要領, The Essential of the Tale of Genji). The two texts are read most often with an emphasis on the poetics of the “aware of things” (物のあはれ mono no aware) Norinaga developed, but I am singularly concerned here with inventing; this is a small hour of wakefulness from academic sleep.

I use “depth” here in the colloquial sense “deep” (深いfukai) is used in Japanese. For one, when we encounter something of particular interest to us, we might refer to this thing as a thing which is “deeply interesting” (興味深いkyōmibukai). “Depth” is nothing other than this “deepness” of the interest we find in things. In every passage I shall quote where the word “deep” makes its appearance, Norinaga, arguably, used the word “deep” in a similar sense. For one,

“…when nothing can be done but allow yourself to feel deep emotions, the person tries to keep the feelings tied to his thoughts, but he or she cannot suppress the emotions at this level.”1placeholder


Preliminarily put, “depth” might be understood as referring to the “degree” of our interests in certain things, the sentiments we feel towards certain things, etc. There are three types of “depth” found in Norinaga’s treatise, corresponding to three interrelated processes of the human psyche: depth of emotion (あはれ深み awarefukami), depth of understanding (弁への深みwakimae no fukami), depth of repression (抑圧の深みyokuatsu no fukami).


Depth of emotion (あはれ深み awarefukami),

I cannot endure; therefore, I sing (あはれにたへずうたひぬ aware ni taezu utainu)

The “deepness” of emotions, within Norinaga’s theory of the “aware of things”, is not the mere property of a thing isolated from other things: it is the “depth” of emotions which provokes subsequent actions. One such action is singing.

“…when nothing can be done but allow yourself to feel deep emotions, the person tries to keep the feelings tied to his thoughts, but he or she cannot suppress the emotions at this level…And when one cannot endure these feelings, the thoughts naturally increase and then issue forth as words. Being unable to suppress these feelings, the words that slip out are always stretched out into beautiful form. This is [song]3placeholder.”4placeholder


I would like to extract the following from this passage: that deep emotions are emotions which we find difficult to endure; and that, whenever we fail to endure said emotions, they issue forth as words doubling as song. In other words, the “depth” of emotions pertains to the unendurability of emotions, as well as to the possibility of our bursting into song whenever emotions prove too “deep” to be endured.


Matching depth at the three thousand pavilions (三千楼の深みくらべ sanzenrō no fukamikurabe)

Why is it that we wish to endure our emotions in the first place? There is, to my understanding, no definitive answer provided within Isonokami Sasamegoto, but Norinaga did provide us with one example which sheds some light on the sources of our resistance to deep emotions. The example in question is found in Norinaga’s discussion of songs of adulterous or otherwise illicit love and why there were so many such songs in classical Japanese poetic anthologies. Norinaga located the cause for this in the nature of love itself,

“There are many examples of people, wise men as well as simple ones, who, once their heart begins to go astray with…love, act against reason…Everyone understands very well that this kind of action is regrettable, and that one should pay special attention and exercise prudence with regard to illicit love. However…love is hardly kept in check even if one forces himself to control it. Love is not something that follows one’s will. There are many examples in this world of people who could not withstand their [emotions]6placeholder, even when they knew it was wrong.”7placeholder


In other words, love or, rather, those emotions springing from our love for another are difficult to withstand or, to impose some manner of uniformity, difficult to endure. Now, since songs emerge “when one cannot endure [deep] feelings”10placeholder and “thoughts naturally increase and then issue forth as words”11placeholder, it is only natural that “in love [songs] we always find many examples of illicit and improper love”12placeholder (されば恋の歌には、道ならぬみだりがはしき事の常におほかるぞ)13placeholder.

Other than merely repeating the formula of “whenever we cannot endure deep emotions, we sing” though, the quoted passage also highlights why we endure, in the first place, those emotions springing from illicit love. We wish to do so because we know our longing for another’s spouse to be “bad” or, even, “evil” (悪しき事)14placeholder.

We might also understand this resistance in terms of what I have established in the previous section. The depth of emotions pertains not only to the unendurability of said emotions, but also to the capacity of said emotions to actualize certain actions such as singing a love song and sneaking off to make love to another’s spouse. To endure deep emotions then is also to resist the possibility of said emotions wrenching out of us certain actions we deem “bad” or “evil”.

This resistance mustered before deep emotions, however, fails in the case of love songs. “[L]ove is hardly kept in check even if one forces himself to control it”15placeholder; it is almost as if “[l]ove is not something that follows one’s will”16placeholder. This should not be understood as a case where a person has been proven weak of will, nor as an excuse for weakness of the will. To the contrary, it should be understood as a triumph of emotions: emotions have proven themselves to have such depth that they cannot be endured. That is, they have overcome the resistance to their actualization of such actions as our singing love songs. In other words, there has been a match between emotions and our senses of good and evil from which emotions emerge the victor, by virtue of their depths.

Now, it goes without saying that we do not always endure emotions because we recognize those actions said emotions would wrench out of us to be good or evil. That said, we can say for certain that, whenever we cannot endure deep emotions, our failure is due to the depth of those emotions we mean to endure. This depth, in turn and to sum up, refers to the unendurability of emotions and the capacity of emotions to actualize certain actions as soon upon overcoming the resistance posed them.


That shallow stream yet crossed (いまだ渡らぬ浅川をば imada wataranu asagawa oba)

Why, in the first place, sing? From the passages we have quoted so far, we might gather that we sing because we cannot endure certain deep emotions. This, however, is not the full picture. Shortly after contending that we sang because we could not endure deep emotions, Norinaga also remarked the following,

“[W]hen [those words which issue forth] have a literary quality, and the syllables are verbally lengthened, those feelings that have built up, becoming entangled in one’s chest, are now given vent; after this, the person feels refreshed.”17placeholder


If we look a little further into the treatise, we also find the following passage,

“When a person is feeling very deep emotions, it is not enough to just compose a poem. As regrets linger when produced alone, one needs to let someone else hear the poem in order to feel consolation. When someone hears the [song] and feels emotion, it greatly enhances the effect of putting one’s mind to rest.”19placeholder


The phrase to be emphasized upon here is “heart clearing up”21placeholder (情はるる、心のはるる kokoro no haruru) which has been variously translated as “given vent”, “feels refreshed” and “putting one’s mind to rest”. At first glance, it appears to denote something like catharsis and, if we consult a Japanese dictionary, we would find that the phrase is defined as that event where “anxieties and doubts disappear and we move towards a more light-hearted mood”. There is nothing of note in this phrase until  we consider the implications of this “heart clearing up” in relation to the depth of emotions.

“Heart clearing up” refers to an event where emotions formerly difficult to endure or, even, unendurable cease to be so. That is to say, an event where emotions lose their depths and, therefore, lose also their capacity to overcome the resistance posed them by such things as our senses of good and evil, and bring about actions. and bring about actions. Singing, in turn, must be conceived not only as an action actualized by emotions of especial depths, but also as an action which depletes said depths. Singing reduces emotions to husks incapable of overcoming the resistance posed them by such things as our senses of good and evil. Singing strips emotions of their powers to stir forth any other action. Other than songs, we might also say that any other action actualized by emotions which “clears the heart” also does the same thing.

Thus it is that we arrive at a partial portrait of emotions as well as the human psyche. Emotions have depth and depth means the unendurability of emotions. Unendurability, in turn, means the capacity of emotions to overcome the resistance to their actualizations of such actions as singing. In simultaneity though, in actualizing certain actions, depth becomes also depleted, thereby leaving behind only “shallow” emotions incapable of overcoming any resistance; incapable of actualizing any action.

Andrew Wyeth - "November First" - (1950)

Depth of understanding (弁への深み wakimae no fukami)

What determines, in the first place, the depth proper to each emotion and set for each its proximity to its depletion? Norinaga provided the following enigmatic formula,

“When we encountered a thing about which we should be happy and feel happy, this is because we understand the heart of that thing about which we should feel happy and, therefore, feel happy”22placeholder


The eccentricity of this formula would become apparent if we take into account also the following two translations by, respectively, John Bentley and Michael Marra,

“…when one encounters something delightful, he feels happy. He is happy because he is able to differentiate between happiness and sadness.”24placeholder

“When one encounters something for which he should be happy and has happy thoughts, his happiness derives from the understanding of the essence of that very thing about which he should feel happy.”25placeholder

What has been translated as “understand” or “understanding” (わきまへしる wakimaeshiru) in my and Marra’s translations is interpreted as “differentiate” in Bentley’s; “heart” and “essence” (心 kokoro) in mine and Marra’s have either been omitted or converted to “[the difference] between happiness and sadness” in Bentley’s translation. This, however, has nothing to do with the quality of the translations: the original words are simply so rich in meaning that they can, indeed, be understood in the ways I, Bentley, and Marra have understood them26placeholder. In any case, I have no interest in undertaking any philological study here. It suffices for us only to note that Norinaga understood emotions as dependent upon some prior understanding of things.

If we must clarify the meaning of this “understanding”, we might refer to Norinaga’s commentaries on Genji Monogatari, Shibun Yōryō, which he referenced now and again in the treatise under study here.

“…to know the hearts of things and events means to know a good thing to be a good thing, an evil thing an evil one, to find a sorrowful thing sorrowful, a profound thing profound, to know the taste of things”27placeholder


If we now return to the main work by Norinaga under study here, Isonokami Sasamegoto, and look a little further past the passage where his enigmatic formula made its appearance, we would also find the following,

“Among these creatures that have the ability [to understand the hearts of things], there are variations in ability, some shallow, some deep; the ability of animals to feel emotion is shallow. When their ability is compared with human ability, it appears as if they have no feeling at all…Among people…there are those who have limited ability, and those who are very sensitive. When we compare people with limited ability to very sensitive people, it appears as if people with limited ability lack [any feeling whatsoever]…”29placeholder


From this passage I would like to gather the following: that our understanding of things, like emotions, likewise has a certain depth; the depth of understanding is determined by the species one belongs to or, if we do not wish to use such concepts as “species”, the body one is born into31placeholder; and that the depth of our understanding of things determines the depth of our emotions. The first two are stated outright in the passage, but the third requires some conceptual footwork to be made clear; and that the depth of our understanding of things determines the depth of our emotions. Shortly after the quoted passage, Norinaga also elaborated upon what he meant by “appearing as if one has no feeling at all”,

“This does not mean that they know nothing about it; it is just a way of showing the difference in depth of emotion.”32placeholder


Now, since those beings with a limited understanding of things nevertheless do have some understanding, it follows, by Norinaga’s reasoning, that they must likewise feel some emotions. That said, to “appear as if one has no feeling at all” would require those emotions thus felt to be either extremely shallow or well-concealed. If we also take into account now what has been established concerning the depth of emotions, what we have here is no longer an either/or but a both/and. There is no barring any deep emotion from surfacing, so to speak, in such actions as singing. Hence, any emotion which can be concealed must be shallow. That is to say, lacking depth and, therefore, incapable of overcoming resistances posed them by such things as our senses of good and evil. Hence, we may now safely say that the depth of our understanding of things determines the depth of those emotions we feel before said things.


Depth of repression (抑圧の深み yokuatsu no fukami)

There is little to be said concerning repression which does not require us to examine Norinaga’s unsavoury remarks concerning China. We may say, for one, as I have already established earlier, that, whenever we feel deep emotions before things which we also understand to be “bad” or “evil”, our senses of good and evil step in. We begin to conscientiously resist the actualization of certain actions deep emotions would wrench out of us. The same goes for when we recognize the actions about to be actualized to be “bad” or “evil”.

We might also say that there is always a degree to this resistance we muster, a degree at which we endure deep emotions, a degree which is sometimes outmatched by the depth of emotions and sometimes outmatches the depth of emotions; a degree or, rather, a “depth”. We find Norinaga speaking of this “depth” in his discussions of love songs: that “one should pay special attention and exercise prudence [deeply] with regard to illicit love”34placeholder (ことに心から深くいましめつつしむべき事)35placeholder. This depth is what determines whether we can endure deep emotions and resist the actualization of those actions said emotions would wrench out of us: to inflict upon ourselves a constipation or to run through the streets to sleep tonight in another’s bed.

We might even note that our senses of good and evil, which would have us muster a resistance to “bad” things, emotions, and actions, is, strictly speaking, a understanding of things. If we follow the definition of “understanding of the hearts of things” provided in Shibun Yōryō, understanding refers as much to our understanding of sorrowful things as sorrowful, profound things as profound as to our understanding of good things as good, bad as bad.

All of these, however, qualify more as “resistance” than “repression”. Why “repression” then? I say “repression” because Norinaga identified another source of our resistance to the actualization of actions by deep emotions which is social, political, and historical. This source can be gleaned from the chauvinistic account he provided of Chinese history and customs,

“…no matter how wise people become, if you peer deep into their hearts, they are no different than women and children. In all aspects, there are many things that are trivial and feminine, and this is the same in China. Perhaps because…many evil people from ancient times…commit[ed] countless acts of ruthlessness…To pacify and govern the land, the rulers worried and pondered, searching for a way to make things better. Naturally wise and intelligent people came to the fore…and they added forced definitions about logic that one cannot see. And they divided even menial things into good and evil, establishing debate about such things as a worth pursuit, and the customs of that land naturally evolved in such a way that everyone over there strives to appear as if they have wisdom.”36placeholder


Norinaga sketched here for us the portrait of two systems: there was first imposed upon the canvas a system of governance by “wise and intelligent people” (presumably the Confucian sages) who privileged such intellectual activities as deciding and debating over the goods and evils of minute things and, generally, held such activities to be “worthy pursuits”. The canvas is thusly wrinkled, torn in places, and, most of all, morphed into the likeness of this system of governance. The land became then one where “everyone…str[ove] to appear as if they ha[d] wisdom”. This holds one consequence for songs of illicit love. Since

“[t]he usual scholars who profess themselves wise disdain and criticize love affairs, writing about them in very hateful and negative terms. In poetry as well they are drawn by local customs. They only express a liking for the manly, heroic spirit; they do not talk about the feminine emotions of love, which they regard as shameful.”38placeholder


No song of illicit love would ever be composed. This, however, does not mean that there is no deep emotion felt about illicit love because, as Norinaga has remarked earlier, “no matter how wise people become, if you peer deep into their hearts, they are no different than women and children…and this is the same in China”; no amount of intellectual activity could elevate the human heart above the “trivial and feminine”; no one is safe from the possibility of one day falling for another’s spouse and feeling deep emotions from this love. That no song of illicit love is ever composed then is not because the human psyche has been lifted out of the red dust, but because there is tremendous resistance to the actualization of the action of singing. Here though we must also note that this resistance is not derived from merely a sense of good and evil, but also from a submission to customs which have made discussions and debates of good and evil a worthy pursuit. These customs, in turn, came to be under a system of governance set in place in response to political instability. In a word, social, political, and historical circumstances contribute towards the creation and sustainment of a system (customs), under which individuals fiercely resist the actualization of such actions as singing by deep emotions springing from illicit love.

If we are to find a word for the relation between a system such as this and the individual in submission to it, it would surely be “repression”.


Understanding – Emotions – Repression (弁へ – 情 – 抑圧 wakimae – aware – yokuatsu)

Here is a portrait of the human psyche: a trinity of understanding, emotions, and repression. If we look a little more closely, we would find that this trinity does not consist of three points bound to one another by annotated arrows, nor are these three points closed off from the rest of the canvas.

Understanding is a function of the body in contact with things: it has depth and this depth is determined by the species or the body one is born into. Understanding feeds into emotions: because there is an understanding of things, there are emotions felt before said things; and, whenever understanding is deep, so too are the emotions felt. Understanding flips over sometimes into repression: whatever thing, emotion, or action is considered bad or evil always runs into some resistance.

Emotions match depth with repression: whichever is deeper wins; and actions are thusly either actualized or stifled (and is action not also always a motion of the body?40placeholder). Repression is never only the other face of understanding: it is social, political, and historical; the playthings and warheads of the ruling class and the intelligentsia and knockoffs peddled among the ruled.

And now that you are standing close enough, you detect a stench; your ears likewise pick up on a groan, two groans, three groans, four—a chorus of groans coming from beneath the trinity. Now squint your eyes and see—a hundred and more eyes peering back at you, white eyes, moon eyes, withering eyes, bone eyes and between every eye golden petals sprouting to flutter in your breaths like hands beckoning towards a life and many lives to come to break in another sigh, another tune, another requiem for the heart. Every emotion depleted goes to die in that meadow spilling into the sea.

Raphael Chim is a PhD candidate in English Literary Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong researching Japanese aesthetics and philosophy.

Works Cited

Motoori Norinaga, “Isonokami Sasamegoto.” In An anthology of kokugaku scholars, 1690-1868, 180-211. Translated by John Bentley. Cornell University East Asian Program, 2017.

— . “Isonokami Sasamegoto.” In Ashiwake obune, Isonokami Sasamegoto, 157-335. Edited by Koyasu Nobuyuki. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2018.

— . “On Love Poems.” In The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: a hermeneutical journey, 194-200. Translated by Michael Marra. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.

— . “On mono no aware.” In The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: a hermeneutical journey, 172-193. Edited by Michael Marra. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007.

— , “Shibun Yōryō.” In Motoori Norinaga shū, 13-247. Edited by Hino Tatsuo. Tokyo: Shinchosa, 2003.


Motoori Norinaga, “Isonokami Sasamegoto” (hereafter IS) in An anthology of kokugaku scholars, 1690-1868, trans. John Bentley (Cornell University East Asian Program, 2017), 205, italics my own.


Motoori Norinaga, “Isonokami Sasamegoto” in Ashiwake obune, Isonokami Sasamegoto, ed. Koyasu Nobuyuki (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2018), 192-193. I attach to all of Bentley’s translation the originals and would urge all who could read classical Japanese to translate for themselves, since Bentley’s translation, as with any English translation of Japanese writings, has taken certain interpretative liberties which I would have cause to invert later in this piece.


It is worth noting that “song” refers neither exclusively to human songs. Early in Isonokami Sasamegoto, Norinaga, drawing upon the preface of the 9th-10th century Japanese poetry anthology, Kokinshū, contended that “[a]ll living things ha[d] emotions, and produce[d] sounds of themselves; sounds composed with artful technique from emotions are [songs]” (いける物みな情ありて、みづから声をいだすなれば、其情より出でてあやある声即ち歌也). See Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 182, translation modified and Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 159. It is also worth noting that, as outlandish as his account of singing might come off as, he was not entirely mistaken in identifying singing with “stretching words into beautiful forms”, since the same technique is still used in modern productions.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 205-206, italics my own and translation modified.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 192-193.


In the translation by Michael Marra, the phrase used here was “sexual drive” which, arguably, was a correct one, since the full passage I am quoting from here concerns not only love but also lust. See also note 8. That said, what “people…could not withstand” here needs not necessarily be their sexual drives. This is so because Norinaga argued earlier in the treatise that songs emerged from deep emotions, not desires while also identifying lust as something which sprang forth from desires. Hence, in the case of love songs at least, said songs would have emerged from a failure to withstand deep emotions, not lust or, in Marra’s words, sexual drives. See Motoori, “On Love Poems” in Motoori Norinaga: the Poetics of Motoori Norinaga; a Hermeneutical Journey, trans. Michael Marra (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 195. See also Motoori, “IS”, trans. Koyasu, 269.


Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 196-197. Both Bentley and Marra’s translations are translation of excerpts from Isonokami Sasamegoto.


While Marra translated this phrase as “love”, it translates more literally into “lust”.


Ibid., 271-272.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 206.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 206.


Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 197.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 272.


Marra translated this as “regrettable”, but here I opt for a more literal one.


Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 197.


Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 197.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 206.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 193.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 208.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 198.


As always, I opt here for a more literal translation.


Translation my own.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 178. 


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 196.


Motoori, “On mono no aware”, 172-173.


There is a 2017 study by Mizuno Yūji entitled Motoori Norinaga no Shisō kōzō: sono henshitsu no shosō [The thought structure of Motoori Norinaga: various aspects of the alteration] on Norinaga’s life writings where the first section is dedicated simply to the meanings of mono and koto no kokoro.


Translation my own. My translations of mono and koto as “thing” and “event” are haphazard. Those interested in the distinction between the two concepts should consult Rein Raud’s “Objects and Events: Linguistic and philosophical notions of ‘thingness’” and the chapter “Things and Words” in Michael Marra’s Japan’s Frame of Meaning: A Hermeneutics Reader.


Motoori Norinaga, “Shibun Yōryō” in Motoori Norinaga shū, ed. Hino Tatsuo (Tokyo: Shinchosa, 2003), 64.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 196.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 178-179.


It is not entirely clear what gives rise to the variations in the depth of understanding among human beings, since there is, to my understanding, no account dealing explicitly with this.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 197.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 179.


Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 196. Marra’s translation either removed the word fukaku (深く) or combined it with koto ni (ことに) into the “special” in “special attention”.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 271.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 220-221.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 260-261.


Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 198.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 273.


Norinaga conceived singing as not only a stretching of sounds and syllables, but as a stretching of breath (息を長くする iki o nagaku suru) while also identifying breath ( iki) with life (iki). See Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 216-217.


March 2022


Creative Recollection: Bergson’s Theory of Memory

by Rowan Anderson

In The Depths We Sing: Psyche and depth in Motoori Norinaga

by Raphael Chim

Hegel’s True Infinite – Beyond Immanence and Transcendence

by Andrew Karpinski

Amilcar Cabral and John Dewey: For a Culture of Learning and Liberation

by Trent Portigal