Issue #52 May 2022

By the shores of the inverted sea: Resistance, Contentment, and Extinction in Motoori Norinaga

Robert Hudson - "After Wood" - (1990)

The reading of Norinaga presented here makes use of concepts developed in In The Depths We Sing: Psyche and depth in Motoori Norinaga.


I am now convinced that this world is a globule of sea: the sea of aware (あはれの海 aware no umi). It was discovered and so named in 1978 by Sagara Tōru after the one-word prayer repeated by aristocrats and the like hedonists sentenced to live at its borders. Aware! Aware! Aware! is the tremor that rips through the bodies and lives of any whose “heart is deeply moved and impressed by things seen, heard, and acted upon”1placeholder (見る物、聞く物、なすわざにふれて、情の深く感ずる事)2placeholder; and if the words of the doll emissary are to be believed, it denotes, broadly, “everything that is emotional, joy, pleasure, interest, sorrow, and love”3placeholder (すべてうれし共、おかし共、たのし共、恋し共、情に感ずる事)4placeholder. Now, Sagara who devoted but a few years of his life to the study of this great sea, tells us that “those things which make up this world contain the aware of things. All those things we encounter in our lives contain rich aware. This world is the sea of the aware of things”5placeholder (この世を成り立たしめるこの世のあらゆる「事」に「物のあはれ」は内在するのである。われわれが、”生”の中で出会ったあらゆる「事」はみな、それぞれが豊かな「あはれ」を内包しているのである)6placeholder. Not one sea then but a modular sea; a modular sea but not one of solid objects but of encounters, understandings, emotions, and repressions. But I know now that something has also escaped Sagara’s study. It did not occur to him at all that the sea of aware is, in fact, enclosed on all sides by the inverted sea. Enclosed but never sealed off. The sea of aware maintains itself only ever by the constant movement of its dissolution into the inverted sea. This is why every module which makes up the sea of aware has its depth measured not with reference to the bottom of the sea of aware but that of the inverted sea. To be without depth or to have exhausted your depth is always to sink to the bottom of the sea of aware and touch the surface of the inverted sea.

· · ·

We begin with the portrait of the human psyche painted for us by Motoori Norinaga and we begin from outside the frame. There is, in the first place, an encounter; a body which breathes and bleeds coming into contact with another thing. This encounter is what sets off within the body that trinity of psychical processes sketched out on the canvas: understanding (弁へ wakiame), emotions (思ふ事 omou koto), and repression (抑圧 yokuatsu). Each contributes towards the other and this contribution is determined by the degree of each process or, as I would call it, its depth (深み fukami). That thing we have encountered is always understood in a certain way: we find it morally good or evil, and, more importantly, we also understand it to be joyous or sorrowful, that is to say, a thing we should feel joy or sorrow before. Because we understand that thing we encountered, we also feel certain emotions about it. Here Norinaga would also remark enigmatically that the degree at which we understand things7placeholder determines also the degree of those emotions we feel; or, in my terminologies, the depth of understanding determines the depth of emotions. What depth of understanding means here is left unclarified by Norinaga but, since what depth of emotions means is quite clear, we may understand this depth of understanding strictly through its determination of the depth of emotions. More specifically, that deep understanding equals deep emotions.

Now, the depth of emotions refers to the unendurability of said emotions and this unendurability pertains to more than the possibility of us failing to endure our emotions: whenever we fail to endure our emotions, that is to say, when we fail to contain our emotions which thusly burst forth, our bodies spring into motion; we act. The depth of emotions then doubles always as the capacity of emotions to actualize certain actions8placeholder. This actualization, however, is also always met with opposition. If anything, this is already implied when we identify the depth of emotions with unendurability. That emotions must be endured and a failure to endure culminates in the actualization of actions suggests already that the actualization of actions must be won—against what? Against repression.

“Repression” refers, broadly, to any form of opposition to the actualization of actions by emotions. The two main forms of repression we find in Norinaga are repression derived from our senses of good and evil and repression derived from our submission to local customs. The exact nature of the latter remains, again, unclear but the former, we know for certain, is really our understanding of those things we have encountered, that is to say, when we understand a thing to be a morally good or evil thing. One instance of the latter at work is in the production of a poem of illicit love: we understand those emotions we harbor for another’s spouse to be wrong and, even, evil and, therefore, would repress with all our efforts our urge to vent our pining in a poem. Like understanding and emotions, repression, we may also add, always has a certain depth; that we repress our urges at various degrees, some more than others. Our opposition to the actualization of actions by emotions is also always a matching of depth: emotions which are especially deep can never be contained unless we repress those urges derived from these emotions with equal, if not greater, depth and, if the depths of emotions still prove superior, they would burst through regardless. The human psyche is, in this regard, nothing short of a battlefield.

A battlefield complete with its corpse heaps, but not any corpse heap: the corpse heap of the victors and the victors alone. Whenever emotions win through repression to actualize an action, their depths also become exhausted. This to say that those emotions which were once unendurable and, in whose unendurability, have coerced actions out of us become endurable. Norinaga referred to this as our “heart clearing up” (心のはるる kokoro no haruru) which is translated also as us “feeling refreshed”. Whichever translation we go with, we should also note that becoming endurable or, more formally put, exhausted of depth also means also losing the capacity to actualize any more action. Hence, every action actualized by emotions is always their first and last; its actualization marks always the beginning of a stillness passed off as the mind put to ease, the heart cleared up.

On this note then, the portrait is complete in the sense that everything on the canvas has been put to words, but there is yet more: more to be worked out, more to be copied but with a difference, more to be stretched to a breaking point the portrait never delivered them. One such “more” is an account of those actions actualized by emotions against repression. Another is an account of what the psyche is precisely.


With all my body and life,

I sing and more9placeholder. To sing is to “stretch spoken words just right and in beautiful form”10placeholder (于多布とは…ながむる言の中にて、ほどよく調ひあやあるをいふ也)11placeholder; and to stretch spoken words or sounds, in general, is really to “stretch breath”12placeholder (息を長くする)13placeholder. Breathing, in turn, is an activity essential to life because “life and death are separated from one another by a single breath. To breathe is to live and to not breathe is to die”14placeholder (生と死とは一つの息によりて分かるる物にて、息すれば生く也、せねば死ぬ也)15placeholder. To sing then is a movement of my body and a change to my life activities.

I resist. Any action actualized by emotions is always an act of resistance. An act of resistance against what would repress me from without following from a prior act of resistance against my own repression of myself. The struggle of emotions against internal repression in the name of good and evil and in submission to local customs paving the way to a struggle with my body and life against whatever law, value, moralism, etc. I have internalized which prompt me to repress myself.


Dear whom- and what-soever,

I sing for you to hear because, “[w]hen 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”16placeholder (いたりてあはれの深き時は、みづからよみ出でたるばかりにては、猶心ゆかずあきたらねば、人に聞かせてなぐさむ物也。人のこれを聞きてあはれと思ふ時に、いたく心のはるる物也)17placeholder. I move my body and change my life activities to relate myself to you, though I should understand and feel nothing about you.

By conceiving actions actualized by emotions as actions which can enter us into contact with others, we are confronted with something which does not, at first glance, make sense under Norinaga’s sketch of the human psyche. We must recall here that actions actualized by emotions are actions which “clears up the heart”, allows us to “feel refreshed”, and, as we find in the quoted passage above, “put the mind to rest”. While we have so far understood this to mean the exhaustion of the depth of those emotions we feel or the becoming-endurable of formerly unendurable emotions, we must note now that this exhaustion alone is not enough to console us and put our minds to rest. We exhaust the depths of our emotions and make our emotions endurable through actions which relate us to others but, under Norinaga’s sketch of the human psyche, an encounter with others would always set off within us psychical processes of understanding, emotions, and repression and, more pertinently still, a struggle of emotions against self-repression—heartthrobs difficult to endure and threatening without end to bring about another movement of our bodies, another change to our life activities, and another relation to others. It should follow then that, each time we give vent to one hurdle of emotions, we stand only to welcome in immediately another. Consolation should not be possible.

How then are we to make sense of the fact that we nevertheless do secure for ourselves some measure of contentment? I propose that we conceive of those actions actualized by emotions as a special kind of encounter; an absolutely selfish kind where we do encounter those others we vent to but understand nothing and feel nothing about said others and would, therefore, also have no new action to actualize and nothing new to repress. In other words, an encounter with others where all psychical processes are suspended18placeholder. This is that action; that movement of my body and change to life activities emotions break through repression to actualize.

Robert Hudson - "River" - (1986)

Have a heart,

is what we call those who, “seeing beautiful blossoms, or facing the clear moon…[are] moved to emotion”19placeholder (めでたき花を見、さやかなる月にむかひて、あはれと情の感く)20placeholder, but what does it really mean to “have a heart”?

“Heart” is, first and foremost, not an adequate translation of the original term, nor is “psyche” which I have used so far heuristically. The original term is kokoro which is written alternately throughout the text under study here as 心and 情. The former, translated commonly as “heart” and sometimes “mind”, is found in such phrases as the “heart of things”21placeholder (事の心 koto no kokoro)22placeholder, a person who “has a heart”23placeholder (心ある人 kokoro aru hito)24placeholder, and a “heartless” person25placeholder (心なき人 kokoro naki hito)26placeholder The latter, translated as “emotions” or “feelings”, is used more often by itself almost as a term in its own rights: “bound by emotions” (情あり kokoro ari)28placeholder and “endowed with emotions”29placeholder (情あれば kokoro areba)30placeholder. Difference in Kanji aside, however, these uses of kokoro overlap in at least one regard, from which we can glean the following:

Kokoro is what a being either has or does not have. “We say a person has a heart if he is sensitive to [aware], and is heartless if he is insensitive”31placeholder (物のあはれをしるを心ある人といひ、しらぬを心なき人といふなり)32placeholder and aware, “sensitivity” to aware, or, in its most common form, knowing aware means

“…the ability of one’s heart to discern the significance in emotion33placeholder of the moon and blossoms [and, therefore, feel emotions before this moon and these blossoms]. The person who cannot discern the sensitivity of the situation is not touched, no matter how beautiful the blossoms, nor how clear the moon.”34placeholder


In other words, a being which has kokoro and knows aware is a being which understands something (“discern significance in emotion”, “discern the sensitivity of the situation”) of those things it has encountered. Because it understands something, it also feels emotions about those things. The litmus test for whether a being has kokoro or does not is the presence of the psychical processes of understanding and emotions or lack thereof. We might also add too here that, if a being has unfolding within it understanding and emotions, it stands to reason that it must also repress: emotions, in their depths and unendurability, would always attempt to actualize certain movements of the body and changes to life activities; and this actualization, arguably, runs almost always into opposition—into repression from without and within; repression under moralism, codes of decency, laws, and the likes, and my repression of myself in the name of what has repressed me from without. A being which has kokoro is then one which understands, feels, and represses something whenever it encounters another thing.

A being without kokoro, on the other hand, is one which encounters other things but unproductively. They, for one, “do not produce poetry”36placeholder (歌ある事なし)37placeholder because they

“cannot produce sound in and of themselves. Rather, they produce sound from outside stimuli. Because song is something produced through emotion, it is not reasonable to expect [beings without kokoro]38placeholder to produce song. Thus, the beautiful sounds produced by the various musical instruments are not called songs in and of themselves. The reason for this is because the sound was not produced through the emotions of the instrument.”39placeholder


“In and of itself” (みづから mizukara) here means “produced from emotions” (情よりいづる kokoro yori izuru). This is to say then that beings without kokoro cannot produce poetry because they lack that psychical process we call “emotions” which poetry can never be produced without. Even if they do emit sounds which can be mistaken for poetry, they could only have emitted those sounds mechanistically (“from outside stimuli”), so to speak. Since they are incapable of feeling any emotion even when they have come into contact with other things, we might also reason that they do not understand those things they have encountered either; and, without emotion, there would also be no actualization of action to be opposed by internal repression. A being without kokoro is then a being whose encounter with other things does not set off within it any psychical process.

We may also rephrase the distinction drawn earlier between a being which has kokoro and one which does not: it is not the presence of psychical processes or lack thereof which discerns one from the other, but the way they encounter other things. They encounter either productively, that is, immediately arriving at some understanding of the encountered thing, feeling emotions about this thing, and repressing those actions emotions would actualize in its body and life; or unproductively, without understanding, emotion, and repression and only ever moving when it is moved.

· · ·

…limbs and heads hacked off and glued back to the thoraces. Perhaps you have heard their choruses in that village upon the inverted sea? It goes like this, Aware! Aware! Aware! Thoraces shriveling to bloom from windpipes meat shreds like petals, to flutter, to wither, to die, to die. So listen for pattering should you ever venture there—in search of that pavilion upon whose floor is etched a single line; a profane imperative taken not from human lips but from the inverted sea itself,



(Resist to your heart’s content! and, in your contentment, die!)

· · ·

We begin with the portrait of the human psyche painted for us by Motoori Norinaga and we begin from outside the frame. There is, in the first place, an encounter; a body which breathes and bleeds coming into contact with another thing—and, if kokoro is to be found in this body, this encounter would immediately set off psychical processes. Understanding shall understand the encountered thing in a certain way. Emotions shall be felt and begin plotting against repression a movement of the body, a change to its life activities, and a relation to others; that is to say, another encounter with others, but an absolutely selfish one where nothing is understood, nothing felt, and nothing repressed with regard to the encountered thing. Repression shall likewise plot against emotions to hold at bay this movement and change in body and life, this unproductive encounter with others. There shall be a struggle, an act of resistance against my repression of myself and, when emotions have won through repression, there shall be another act of resistance against what law, value, moralism, and the likes which have prompted me to repress myself.

There shall be two acts of resistance culminating in the expenditure of that very force which powers our resistance (depth of emotion) and, therefore, also granting us a measure of peace or a contentment. Contentment but the contentment of having done that we ever wished to do; the contentment that says, “I can now die without regrets”—there is nothing ahead of me and everything behind has been fulfilled. If tomorrow does not come, I would surely die. The human psyche or, rather, that being which has kokoro is that which would resist what would repress it from within, to resist, again, with all its body and life, what would repress it from without and, through these two acts of resistance, find contentment.

But there is yet more: no portrait of the human psyche or a being which has kokoro is complete with also an account of its adventure into extinction. Those beings with kokoro which we are are creatures thriving, if not outright subsisting, on psychical processes. Our bodies are animated now and again by such unendurable emotions we have felt and our lives thus changed and others thus related to. Most of all, we are discerned, in the first place, from beings without kokoro by always understanding, feeling, and repressing something in every encounter. At the same time though, we are also those creatures who exhaust all our powers to suspend these processes and negate this distinction between us and those without kokoro. I am speaking here of contentment—and contentment is never merely the exhaustion of the depths of those emotions already felt or the becoming-endurable of formerly unendurable emotions. It is always this exhaustion through the actualization of an unproductive encounter which sets off no psychical process within us: when we vent to others we understand and feel nothing about and, therefore, also gain from this encounter nothing new to repress. That the depths of emotions already felt are exhausted by this encounter also means that we can no longer actualize afterwards another, more productive, encounter. New psychical processes are, therefore, warded off twice: first by a direct suspension of these processes in the encounter actualized by emotions and second, indirectly, by the mere exhaustion of depth which renders another encounter, another set of processes impossible. We must remember too that this warding-off of new psychical processes is no accident, not the product of any intervention from without, but merely the psychical processes already unfolding within us running their courses. Hence, our every encounter with things and every understanding, every emotion, and every repression thus set off runs always the risk of being the last. Whenever we are driven by unendurable emotions to find contentment and, when we do find it, we must have done so through the actualization of not just an embodied action; a movement of the body, a change to life activities, and a relation to others but an indefinite suspension of psychical processes (which, foreseeably, can only be terminated by another, productive, encounter crashing in unwilled and unwarranted).

But there is yet more: the suspension of psychical processes or, rather, the suspension of such processes in an encounter with others suspends also the distinction between a being which has kokoro and one without41placeholder. Where the former encounters productively with understanding, emotions, and repression, the latter does not; but we also know now that the former encounters to the potential effect of becoming the latter. Each time it finds contentment by giving vent and draining depth from emotions already felt; each time it actualizes an encounter with others which yields no new unendurable emotion, and no new struggle of emotion against repression (and, therefore, ensures that the small peace it has secured would never be broken), the distinction between it and beings without kokoro is suspended. Not only is it suspended, it is also suspended indefinitely: as depth of emotion reaches zero across the board, so too does the capacity of a being with kokoro to actualize a restoration, that is to say, another productive encounter. (It must remain in a stillness without understanding, emotion, and repression or a comatose passed off as contentment for another until that fateful encounter crashing in to stir it alive; to feel, to move, to change and relate again).

The life of the human psyche or a being which has kokoro is then always a life of resistance and, potentially, contentment and extinction. Everything encountered, everything the body runs into is a site of resistance, resistance or two struggles: it struggles first against its repression of itself to actualize another struggle against what would repress it from without. This second struggle, however, is also always an encounter where it understands, feels, and represses nothing. Because it understands, feels, and represses nothing about those it now encounters, and because it has also exhausted, at the same time, the depths of those emotions it felt from its previous encounter, it finds contentment. This contentment must also be simultaneous with an extinction, because the unfeeling encounter and exhaustion of depth which allow us to find contentment suspend also and suspend indefinitely those psychical processes which make of us beings which have kokoro and not otherwise. Contentment is not possible without a becoming-heartless which finishes us once and for all (until that encounter with another crashing in to restore us again, and again).

· · ·

But the doll emissary speaks also of a prophecy inseparable from the imperative, transcribed in an apocryphal text now shunned by the cult, which goes as follows.

“The crowds freed from mere repression shall to a fouler plot fall. When there is no more servitude happy and ignorant or unhappy and beaten, when routes are charted of least repression and resistance turned against resistance42placeholder, the tides [of the inverted sea] shall swell, shall froth, shall only say, ‘Deepen, deepen, deepen.’”

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

Works Cited

Marra, Michele. “Japanese Aesthetics: The Construction of Meaning.” Philosophy East and West 45, no. 3 (1995): 367–86.

Mizuno, Yūji. Motoori Norinaga no shisō kōzō: sono henshitsu no shoos [The thought structure of Motoori Norinaga: Various aspects of the alteration]. Sendai: Tohoku University Press, 2015.

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.

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

Sagara, Tōru. Motoori Norinaga. Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1978.


Motoori Norinaga, “Isonokami Sasamegoto” (hereafter IS) in An anthology of kokugaku scholars, 1690-1868, trans. John Bentley (Cornell University East Asian Program, 2017), 203.


Motoori Norinaga, “Isonokami Sasamegoto” in Ashiwake obune, Isonokami Sasamegoto, ed. Koyasu Nobuyuki (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2018), 187.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 187.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 187.


Translation my own.


Sagara Tōru, Motoori Norinaga (Tokyo: Tokyo University Press, 1978), 71, translation my own. I am philosophically indebted to Sagara’s reading that Norinaga understood, in his poetics as in his wider worldview, the world as constituted by emotive objects, as well as his argument that Norinaga maintained, throughout his life, a separation of the world of moral teachings, which was identified with the social, from the world of poetry identified, in turn, with the individual (which I reject to some measure). See Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 54.


Norinaga’s sense of “understanding” likewise is vague but, from the myriad examples he offered of this “understanding”, we can gather that understanding refers, broadly, to an internalization of something external, and not necessarily an intellectual one either. In Shibun Yōryō, Norinaga spoke of us “knowing a good thing to be a good thing, an evil thing an evil one, to find a sorrowful thing sorrowful” (よきことはよし、悪しきことは悪しし、悲しきことは悲し). The goodness and evil (or badness) spoken of here, however, do not refer only to moral goodness or evil but also to “goodness and badness of the appearance of another, the goodness and badness of clothing” (人のかたち・有様のよし悪し、衣服のよし悪し). It is also unclear what it means to know a joyous thing to be a joyous thing and a sorrowful one sorrowful. In a recent study by Mizuno Yūji, it was argued that this knowing or understanding, as I have called it, was only the first stage which must be cleared in order for us to feel those emotions we should feel about a thing, though clearing this stage and having this understanding also do not guarantee we would feel those emotions. If this is the case, this understanding would amount to something like an acquainting of oneself with such social conventions as “Thou shalt be happy about this, sad about that” and/or an orienting of the body within social order, such that it feels those emotions it should feel. See Motoori Norinaga, “Shibun Yōryō” in Motoori Norinaga shū, ed. Hino Tatsuo (Tokyo: Shinchosa, 2003), 64, 86, and Mizuno Yūji, Motoori Norinaga no shisō kōzō: sono henshitsu no shoos [The thought structure of Motoori Norinaga: Various aspects of the alteration] (Sendai: Tohoku University Press, 2015), 44.


Emotions, in turn, are always emotions felt before things we have encountered. Hence, emotions, side-by-side with understanding and repression, can be conceived as go-between processes by which the encountered things or, rather, our embodied encounters with said things actualize embodied actions. Within these encountered things we can include also not only those objects generally held to be “outside” of the body, but also more “internal” ones such as desires. Sexual desires, for one, are held to be “profoundly emotional” and which “[n]o living creature can avoid…especially human beings”. See Motoori Norinaga, “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.


While the action I and Norinaga focused on is that of singing, it should be noted that, throughout the text under study here, Norinaga also spoke in the passing of other actions which were actualized by emotions, that is, actions undertaken when we could not endure deep emotions. In his discussions of illicit love, for one, he mentioned actions undertaken in lust, found throughout Chinese historical records, which “cause[d] the downfall of their lands and ruin[ed] themselves” (国をうしなひ、身をいたっづらになし). Hence, Norinaga’s poetics should be understood as one (well-developed) branch of a wider (and very underdeveloped) psychology, a theory of emotions which identifies the conditions for human actions as well as the actions of any living being in emotions felt, and always about something encountered. See Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 196 and Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 271.


Translation my own.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 214.


Translation my own.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 217.


Translation my own.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 216.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 208.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 198.


I am, arguably, only biting the bullet here. Realistically, there would be no escaping the gaze of the other when we vent to others, and this gaze would double, under Norinaga’s sketch of the human psyche, as an encounter setting off within us psychical processes to the effect of, for one, having us temper what we would say so as to not offend our audience and so on. In this case though, I would argue that an encounter where psychical processes are suspended remains nevertheless something we desire and mean to bring about, because we desire also contentment in the sense annexed to it by Norinaga (or the depth of emotions being zero across the board, so to speak) which requires such an encounter. We actualize then a caricature of this encounter by not suspending said processes but suppressing them, such as when we force ourselves to keep talking and pretend we cannot see the interest drained from our audience’s faces. Through this caricature of an encounter, we would arrive only ever at an incomplete contentment, if at all, because, for all pretenses otherwise, we still would have encountered others and, therefore, lose our contentment to a new hurdle of emotions felt about said others.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 204.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 189. Shortly after though, Norinaga also spoke of a kokoro, written as “emotion”, which does not know the emotive significance of the moon and blossoms.


Translation my own.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 178. I would not discuss this sense of kokoro here, since it does not pertain directly to the human psyche. Michael (also Michele) Marra, for one, whose translation of Norinaga I used here now and again, understood the kokoro here as “external reality”. See Michele Marra, “Japanese Aesthetics: The Construction of Meaning”, Philosophy East and West, 45, no. 3 (1995), 380. In the study by Mizuno which investigated the meaning of this term within literary works prior to Norinaga where the term made appearances, the term has also been understood to mean knowledge of the “natural order and proper reasoning” (当然のすじみちや正しい論理) of things. I, for my part, understand this term under inspiration from both studies as a term which is inseparable from “understanding” (わきまへしる wakimaeshiru) and broadly denotes something external which is encountered and internalized (or “understood”). See Mizuno Yūji, Motoori Norinaga no shisō kōzō, 42.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 204.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 189.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 204.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 189.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 195.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 177.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 195.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 177.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 204, translation modified.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 189.


Bentley has the unenviable task here of translating omomuki (おもむき) which is used both in everyday Japanese and discussions of aesthetics. I, for my part, would not dare and have nothing to say here other than to point out the difficulty of the task.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 204, translation modified.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 189.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 182.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 159.


Bentley translated hijō no mono (非情の物) here as “lifeless objects” and “lifeless things”. This translation is certainly not incorrect, since Norinaga did, shortly prior, contend that “[a]ll living things have emotions [kokoro]” (いける物はみな情あり), but it nevertheless is a misleading one. See Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 182 and Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 159.


Motoori, “IS”, trans. Bentley, 182.


Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 159.


Whether this suspension is a genuine one or otherwise depends on the sense we understand kokoro under. If we understand kokoro, simply, in the sense of psychical processes unfolding in a body, then the cessation of said processes, by virtue of either prior processes in the same body or an encounter with another thing which renders such processes impossible (e.g. a fatal car accident), would mark a genuine suspension of the distinction between a being with kokoro and one without. On the other hand, if we understand kokoro in the sense of those faculties supporting said psychical processes, be it a classical mind separatable from the body, the brain, the nervous system, and the body’s vicinities, etc., the cessation of said processes would not necessarily spell the end of the faculties supporting them. It is not clear which sense Norinaga used the term under.


I refer here to a method of social control which can be formulated under Norinaga’s sketch of the human psyche. The method in question consistently appropriates certain acts of resistance in order to suppress others; and it achieves this appropriation through the adjustment of the degrees at which various acts of resistance are repressed. Since the actualization of an act of resistance depends as much upon the depths of emotions felt as the degree of repression faced by this actualization, and since internal repression can be traced to some external source (e.g. through understanding of an encountered good thing as a good thing), it should be possible to regulate the actualization of acts of resistance from without by relaxing the repression of some while tightening or leaving the rest untouched. Those acts of resistance which face less repression would then be actualized more often than others. Contentment then finishes the job, so to speak, by rendering the actualization of another act of resistance, regulated or unregulated, impossible. Resistance can, in other words, be turned against resistance or, more specifically, certain acts of resistance can be tolerated, not with a view to allow for constructive criticisms and the likes, but to soothe the disgruntled, the outraged, etc. and, in so doing, also snuff out other acts of resistance. An example of this is, arguably, found already in Norinaga. A poem of adulterous love is, arguably, nothing other than a less repressed act of resistance actualized in the place of a more repressed one of adultery; and, if some measure of contentment can be secured through this poem, then there would be no reason, that is, no depth of emotion left to compel one to commit adultery. “Less repressed” here does not necessarily mean less repressed under moral prohibitions, but less repressed under literary traditions which understood poetry only as “an expressive act that sings good things as well as bad ones, simply following the poet’s heart” (よき事もあしき事も只その心のままによみいづる), and which was also separated from politics and ethics (to which is relegated all things moral). See Motoori, “On Love Poems”, 197 and Motoori, “IS”, ed. Koyasu, 272.

A more modern and political instance of this would, to my mind, be those laws which prohibit and, even, prescribe penalties for certain activities, but which are also rarely carried out or carried out to little effect (e.g. littering, jaywalking and, not so much recently, copyright laws, the banning of Internet pornography in South Korea which is easily bypassed by using a VPN, and the banning of uses of unregulated VPNs in China which continue even in the light of widely reported arrests). This might be due to the mere difficulty of enforcing these laws or some other reasons. Whichever the case though, there is no denying that these laws open up a space where individuals, delivered from fear of legal prosecution, need not repress the actualization of those actions which would violate these laws as much as they would when these laws are more strictly enforced. They are free, so to speak, to resist and find some measure of contentment from the thought of having resisted a state which binds them at every turn. At the same time though, this space for resistance is also manufactured and kept open by the state, even unwittingly; and it goes without saying that this space can be closed down at any point whenever the state decides to divert more resources towards enforcing those laws which open this space up in the first place. It also bears noting that the contentment ensuing from these tolerated acts of resistance also contribute towards soothing discontents towards the state and maintaining stability in the nation. Hence, we have here acts of resistance freely taken by grace of the state which has relaxed its repression of said acts, which is also at the mercy of the state (i.e. tolerated by the state which continues to relax said repressions), to the benefit of the state (i.e. contributing to the maintenance of stability in the nation) and, as it were, also cancels out any alternative not at the mercy of or to the benefit of the state (i.e. contentment from having resisted exhausting any energy which could have been channeled towards the actualization of other acts of resistance).

Now we may also envision not one act of resistance taken with regard to one loosely enforced law, but a million and more interlocked in a system or systems for social control, which no longer achieve their ends by prohibiting and developing in its subjects repressive mechanisms against actions harmful to state and capital, but by monopolizing or striving, at the very least, to monopolize the actualization of acts of resistance through constant adjustments of external circumstances correlative with internal repression. I am speaking here not only of laws but also of appropriations of the vocabulary of this or that political movements by statespeople and social media influencers spurring explosions of activity in both the movement thus “endorsed” and opposing movements; of marketing which invents new acts of “resistance” by framing the consumption of this or that product as a small rebellion against backward value systems; etc. An individual living under or, rather, formed within these systems would almost always be resisting and, indeed, resistance might even be encouraged as the mark of individuality and consciousness of sociohistorical reality. That said, every such act of resistance would also always be anticipated even before its actualization, calculated to incur only a recoverable cost or, even, be beneficial in the long run, and then laid out on the menu with its repression relaxed to allow for easy actualization; and, if the first act of resistance on the menu fails to satisfy us, another would present itself almost immediately and then another, another, and another until the outrage, discontent, or whatever can pass off as revolutionary energy has been exhausted and we are content, incapable of effecting another act of resistance. It goes without saying too that the actualization of alternative acts of resistance not on the menu would also be difficult, if not outright impossible; drowned out as they are already by the succession of acts of resistance tolerated under state and capital, only for contentment to come by and preclude them altogether.


May 2022


Hegel's 1803 Ethics: Empiricism and the State of Nature

by Antonio Wolf

Hegel’s Conceptual Materialism: Finding Meaning in the Material World

by Jarrad Felgenhauer

By the shores of the inverted sea: Resistance, Contentment, and Extinction in Motoori Norinaga

by Raphael Chim

Border Crossing in the Time of Pandemic: COVID-19, mobility, belonging, and citizenship

by Edward Shiener