Mitogaku (水戸学) is a school of thought based on Shintō and Confucian beliefs. Its origins can be traced to the early part of the Edo Period (1600-1868), when Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the lord of the Mito Domain (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture) founded a historical research institute named Shōkōkan (水戶の彰考館) for the purpose of compiling the Dainihonshi (大日本史, lit. “Great History of Japan”).
The members of the early Mito School came from all sorts of philosophical backgrounds, among them followers of Taoism, Buddhism, Shintō, as well as Confucianists of various schools. The open-mindedness and tolerance of Mitsukuni is reflected in an epitaph he wrote:
He honoured Shintō and Confucianism, and he stood against Shintō and Confucianism. He revered Buddhism and Taoism, and he opposed Buddhism and Taoism.
Famous proponents of the early period are Mitsukuni and his teacher Shu Shunsui (朱舜水, 1600-1685), a Chinese scholar who had fled China after the fall of the Ming dynasty and settled in Japan, as well as Kuriyama Sempō (栗山潜鋒, 1671-1706), Miyake Kanran (三宅観瀾, 1673-1718), and Asaka Tampaku (安積澹泊, 1656-1737). The early phase of the Mito school ended in 1720 when the major part of the Dainihonshi, consisting of the main annals and the biographies, was presented to the shogunate.
The late Mito School began around 1790 when Tachihara Suiken (立原翠軒, 1744-1823) was presiding the Shōkōkan. His most notable student was Fujita Yūkoku （藤田幽谷, 1774-1826）, whose Seimeiron (正名論, “On the Rectification of Names”, 1791) has been considered a guideline for late Mito scholarship, advocating the proper moral order in society. Together with his student Aizawa Seishisai (会沢 正志斎, 1781-1863), the author of Shinron (新論, “New Discourse”, 1825), and his son Fujita Tōko (藤田東湖, 1806-1855), who wrote Kōdōkan Kijutsugi (弘道館記述義, “Commentary on the Manifesto of Kōdōkan Academy”, 1845-49), Yūkoku became a propagator of Mito samurai nationalism exemplified in the famous slogan sonno jōi (尊皇攘夷, “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians”).
In contrast to the early phase, the studies of the late Mito school had a more distinct character and resembled more to a “school of thought”. Its main orientation was based on the ethics of the Zhu Xi (朱熹 Chu Hsi) school of Confucianism (called 朱子学 shushigaku in Japan), the “oneness of theory and action” of the Wang Yangming school of Confucianism (陽明学 Ōyōmei-gaku in Japanese), the institutional approach of Ogyū Sorai’s (荻生徂徠, 1666-1728) school of Ancient Learning (古學 Kogaku), and the Neo-Shintoist Kokugaku (国学, “National Learning”). Even the technically oriented Western Learning (蘭学 Rangaku) left its imprint on the late Mito thought. The institutional centre was the Kōdōkan Academy of Mito founded by Tokugawa Nariaki, a student of Aizawa Seishisai.
Although the Mito school tended to political conservatism, their works were read throughout the country and provided an ideological thrust to the proimperial antishogunate forces during the final years of the bakufu. Even after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Mito school exerted a formative influence on the nationalist ideology of the new imperial regime, an ideology that stressed the spiritual tradition of Japan and further developed the concept of the kokutai (国体, lit. “national body or structure”). Some scholars mainly associated with the Historical Society of Mito and other traditionalist groups, such as the Shintō-based Kōgakkan University in Ise, try to preserve the ideals of the Mito school to this day.
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