National identity was critical to the rise of the modern nation-state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nation-building, and the attempts by government leaders to create strong loyalties to the nation, are historically linked with the social and economic transformations produced by industrialization. In Japan, this process began in 1868, when the Tokugawa shogunate, which had ruled the country since 1600, gave way to a new government which claimed to restore the emperor to rule. In reality, a small group of oligarchs, ruling in the emperor's name, carried out a massive modernization program designed to strengthen the country and enable it to meet the Western challenges to Japanese sovereignty. The new ideology that was created to legitimate the Meiji reforms drew on ideas of the divine origins of Japan and the divinity of its emperors that were found in Japan's oldest historical records.
Most educated Japanese in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) accepted as historical fact the version of Japanese history presented in their earliest histories. According to the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon shoki (History of Japan), written in the early eighth century, the islands and the people of Japan were created by deities. The most important of these deities was the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Amaterasu sent her grandchild down to the Central Land of Reed Plains (Japan), and his descendant, Jimmu, eventually unified the contending tribes and became Japan's first emperor (tennō), in 660 B.C. From Jimmu Tennō to the current emperor there has been a continuous, unbroken line of descent.
Theories of divine origins were not as important in the Tokugawa period as they were to become in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To begin with, the emperor had since 1185 been divested of actual administrative power. Japan was actually governed by a succession of shogunal houses. It was curious that the divine origins of Japan and of the imperial line should in the seventeenth century become the focus of a major school of scholarship led by a member of the Tokugawa lineage. While the Tokugawa shoguns patronized Confucianism, the daimyō of the Mito domain founded a scholarly enterprise that focused on emperor-centered history. The Mito school, as it is called, began with Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628-1700), who wrote Dai nihon shi (History of Great Japan). Mitsukuni readily accepted Jimmu as the founder of the imperial house and carefully traced an orthodox line of imperial succession. Mitsukuni's history repeated accounts of Japan's divine origins. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Mito school's emphasis on the centrality of a divine emperor to the Japanese polity helped erode the legitimacy of shogunal rule.
The divine origins of Japan and of the imperial house were challenged by other Tokugawa historians. But Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) and other proponents of the National Learning school (Kokugaku) sternly defended the Kojiki and Nihon shoki versions of Japanese origins as historical truth, especially against Confucian challengers. Motoori is best known for his successful efforts to place the Kojiki at the center of the Shinto revival of the eighteenth century. He and the other members of the National Learning school attacked Confucianism as a foreign import, and they praised Japan's uniqueness as embodied in its imperial line.