Yamato-damashii (the Japanese spirit) (大和魂)

The common sense and social skills required to know the stream and make things go smoothly in society.

In particular, the ability and competence to make actual use of various types of specialist knowledge, education, and skills in society.

The commonsensical, typically Japanese ability (of the Japanese people) to respond to situations, which should go hand-in-hand with an appreciation of foreign (Chinese) culture and civilization. Yamato-gokoro (the Japanese mind).

The sensibility and ability to grasp things with emotions and human kindness, instead of intellectual logic or ethics, and to empathize. Mono no aware (the sadness or pathos of things).

Flexibility in one's love life and the success that brings, making it possible to love many women at the same time and furthermore to make all of them happy. Iro-gonomi (lechery).

The spiritual ability possessed by a remarkable individual which should form the basis of the above.

The brave, heroic, and loyal nature, spirit, and disposition, especially with regard to lords and the Emperor, (which were considered) unique to the Japanese race.
(A new interpretation resulting from the modern study of Japanese classical literature)

Yamato-damashii is a term and concept referring to the judgment and ability that are necessary in accepting foreign scholarship and knowledge in Japan, as well as the heart to appreciate feelings (mono no aware), etc. As indicated above, it is a very broad term and concept, which denotes personality, ability, character, and so on.

It began to be used from the middle of the Heian period as a contrast to 'zae' (scholarship) and 'karazae' (Chinese learning). It was an extremely broad concept having various implications as described above. In the study of Japanese classical literature beginning in the middle of the Edo period, however, it was often contrasted with 'kara-gokoro' (Chinese mindedness).
The misuse of the term to mean 'the unique spirit traditionally going back to Japanese ancient times,' 'superior Japanese spirituality unequaled in any other country,' and 'a pure mind to render good service to the Japanese nation' became rather mainstream
This tendency became more marked from the Meiji period onwards and, with the rise of nationalism and racism, the term 'yamato-damashii' became heavily loaded. It took on a militaristic tinge during World War II, and it was mainly used with the meaning of encouraging an offensive spirit to break the status quo. As a consequence, it has been excluded from the prevailing currents of Japanese thought and culture since Japan's defeat in the war.


The term yamato-damashii is said to have first appeared in the "Otome" (Maiden) chapter of "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji). The term and concept of yamato-damashii emerged as a contrast to those of karazae. The expression wakon-kansai (Japanese spirit with Chinese learning) was also sometimes used. Yamato-damashii was to adopt karazae -- that is, the scholarship and knowledge introduced from China and other countries -- as a basic education and apply it to politics and other aspects of life in accordance with the actual condition of Japan, instead of transplanting it as it is in the country. The mid-Heian period, when "Genji Monogatari" was written, saw the flourishing of Japan's own unique culture, known as Kokufu Bunka. However, it is believed that some people at that time recognized it was founded on Chinese knowledge and culture, which had been altered to make it more Japanese. Yamato-damashii soon began to signify the judgment and ability to put written knowledge to practical use in different real-life situations. It was mainly used to mean 'business ability', but it was also used to stand for 'a heart to understand feelings'.

These usages continued for a long time, but Norinaga MOTOORI, who appeared in the middle of the Edo period, gave the meaning of 'a unique Japanese spirit' to the term. Yamato-damashii was additionally used as a political term to advocate Japanese uniqueness by scholars of Japanese classical literature in the late Edo period. In this context, SUGAWARA no Michizane, who had urged the abolition of the Japanese diplomatic missions to Tang Dynasty China, was promoted as the creator of the word yamato-damashii.

The sudden influx of Western knowledge, scholarship, and culture during the Meiji period led Tenshin OKAKURA and others to claim that they should be assimilated into the Japanese style. The word wakon-yosai (Japanese spirit with Western learning) also began to be used with yamato-damashii. This expression was a parody of wakon-kansai, and it contained the original meaning of yamato-damashii. However, it also implied resistance to the excessive adoption of Western knowledge and culture.

Later, as Japanese nationalism and racism intensified during the Taisho and Showa periods, the word yamato-damashii began to connote a strong Japanese consciousness. It was used as a term suggesting a sacrificial spirit for the nation as well as an anti-foreign attitude. As such, it took on a meaning that was the complete opposite of the original 'adopting foreign knowledge and applying it flexibly'. This way Japan, which had lost sight of the true meaning of yamato-damashii, was defeated and almost ruined in World War II. The tendency after the war has been to avoid using the word yamato-damashii because of its link to militarism. Also, less attention is being paid to its original meaning.

Waka (traditional Japanese poems of thirty-one syllables)

If I am asked about the meaning of yamato-gokoro, I will answer it is the blossoms of yamazakura (mountain cherry trees) shining in the rising sun (Norinaga MOTOORI). I knew that it would end so if I acted thus, but I am compelled by yamato-damashii (Shoin YOSHIDA). Even if my body rots in the Musashino Plain, I will forever have yamato-damashii (Shoin YOSHIDA). The Way of the Sword, being a path taught by the gods, hones yamato-gokoro (Sasaburo TAKANO).

[Original Japanese]