Japanese Religions: Religious Documents

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A vast number of religious documents were written, transmitted, and circulated in Japan in the course of history. Special note must be made at the outset of the particular importance in Japan of Buddhist texts, commentaries, and related works, including those imported from China or Korea, as well as original works by Japanese authors. Since this voluminous category of writings is covered elsewhere, however, it is only treated in outline in this entry.

Instead, this entry concentrates on certain literary, religious, and historical texts that were used in Japan to establish the legitimacy of the state, not only in the eighth century, when the texts were originally compiled for that purpose, but also in the medieval period and again in modern times. Politicians establishing the modern Japanese nation-state buttressed their ideology by drawing on eighteenth-century nativist philological writings about the early texts, thereby legitimizing the imperial system (tennōsei ) and creating a cultural unity of the Japanese people (kokuminsei ).These texts are treated in chronological sections: (1) the ancient period when the documents were first compiled; (2) the medieval period when they became part of syncretic discourse embracing teachings of Shintō, Buddhism, and Confucianism; (3) the early modern period when nativist scholars found in them a basis for a new mythology focusing on the common language and ethnic identity of the Japanese people; and (4) the modern period when, until the end of World War II, state mythology affirmed Japan as a nation-state under an emperor who had been authenticated by divine decree.

Ancient Period

Important sources of written knowledge about Japan that predate the eighth century are passages treating "barbarians" in Chinese dynastic histories. The fullest account of Japanknown as the Land of Wais in Wei zhi (History of the Wei Kingdom, 220264, of North China), which describes a territory of Wa called Yamatai that was ruled by a queen named Himiko, who was a shaman. Rulers of Wa maintained tributary relationships to China and were thus incorporated into the Chinese worldview. Wei zhi provides details about the customs of Yamatai. For example, people clapped their hands in worship, showed respect toward others by squatting or kneeling with both hands on the ground, and purified themselves in water after a funeral.

Between the third and the sixth centuries a state gradually evolved that came to be known first as Yamato and later as Nihon (land of the "sun's source"). Written sources all date from later, but archaeological evidence of this period indicates a variety of rituals and beliefs.

The RitsuryŌ State

By the seventh century, rulers of Yamato or Nihon (Japan) declined to maintain the tributary relationship with China and set about establishing their own version of the Chinese imperial system and constructing the capital city of Nara in 710. Two texts in particular, Kojiki (Record of ancient matters; 712) and Nihonshoki (or Nihongi ; Chronicle of Japan; 720), were compiled to legitimize the state, authenticate the political hegemony of the imperial Yamato clan, and establish comprehensive legal codes (ritsuryō) according to which political power emanated from an emperor or empress (tennō) who was above the law. Other key texts from this period include Izumo fūdoki (completed 733), a gazetteer of Izumo province in western Honshū; Kogoshūi (Gleanings of old narratives, 807); and Man'yōshū (Collection of a thousand leaves, late eight century), a collection of more than 4,500 poems.

Texts of the ancient period circulated in manuscript form. The oldest surviving manuscript by a Japanese author is a commentary on the Lotus Sūtra in the collections of the Japanese Imperial Household Ministry. The commentary was written by Shōtoku Taishi (574?622?), regent to Empress Suiko and the leading cultural figure of his day. It is said to be in his own calligraphy.

Japanese monks traveled to China on missions to collect Buddhist texts several times in this early period. Of special note are collections of texts brought back by Saichō (767822) and Kūkai (774835) for which catalogs were made in the early ninth century. These catalogues are important milestones in the development of textual canons for Tendai and Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Imported Buddhist sūtras were copied in manuscript form to supply the many temples that proliferated in this period. Villages specializing in producing paper grew up in proximity to monasteries in order to meet the demand.

The earliest known printed documents in Japan also come from this period. They are ritual texts that were reproduced in a million copies, placed in small pagodas, and distributed to temples throughout the country in 764 on an order from Empress Shōtoku, following a protracted civil war. Known as the Hyakumantō darani (Dhāraī of one million pagodas), those texts were not in Japanese, but consisted of Sanskrit words (from a sūtra known in Japanese as Muku jōkō dai daranikyō) phonetically transcribed into Chinese characters. While the immediate motivation for printing them was evidently atonement for loss of life in the war, it has been suggested that the project also reflects Shōtoku's political sympathies for the Buddhist establishment rather than the court bureaucracy. Clearly not meant for reading, these ritual texts had both religious and political significance.

Kojiki and Nihonshoki

Under Chinese influence, the Japanese began writing histories by at least the seventh century, but none have been preserved from that time. The project of historical compilation that resulted in the issuance of Kojiki in 712 and Nihonshoki in 720 was begun by Emperor Tenmu (r. 673686), who had usurped the throne and wanted to legitimize his rule. According to the preface of Kojiki, Tenmu lamented that the records of the "various houses" (presumably the imperial and courtier houses) had been altered and falsified, and ordered a ritual reciter named Hieda no Are to memorize an imperial genealogy (Teiki ) and a collection of narratives (Kyūji ). These seem to have served as the basis for Kojiki and Nihonshoki in the next century.

Despite being based on the same sources and compiled for similar purposes, Kojiki and the Nihonshoki differ fundamentally, especially in the story of the origin of the imperial rule. Kojiki gives Amaterasu, the sun goddess, the key role as ancestress of the imperial house, while in Nihonshoki Amaterasu is a subordinate deity and plays no such role. It is likely that these two texts represent surviving exemplars of heterogeneous mythologies that eventually merged to form a single mythology of the origin of imperial rule. Furthermore, the text of Kojiki is in Japanese transcribed into Chinese characters, a cumbersome writing method that was later abandoned. So difficult is Kojiki to read that little attention was paid to it for more than a thousand years, until the scholar Motoori Norinaga (17301801) spent some thirty-five years translating it into vernacular Japanese. In contrast, Nihonshoki is in the Chinese language that was used at court, and it has always been relatively easy for educated Japanese to read.

According to both Kojiki and Nihonshoki, Ninigi, grandson of Amaterasu, descends to earth (Japan). In the Kojiki version Amaterasu gives Ninigi the Yasaka curved beads, mirror, and Kusanagi sword that became the regalia of emperorship, and decrees that Ninigi's family should rule Japan eternally. In the Nihonshoki there is no such role for Amaterasu and it is only after Ninigi's descendent, Emperor Jinmu, gains control over earth in 660 bce that the legitimacy of imperial rule is established.

Kojiki is a book in three parts. Part one deals with the age of the gods from the time when the first deities appeared, as heaven and earth took shape, up to the birth of the emperor Jinmu. Part two covers the period from Jinmu through Ōjin, the fifteenth sovereign in the traditional chronology. Part three traces the imperial succession from Nintoku, Ōjin's son, through Empress Suiko (554628), a historical figure who reigned from 592 to 628. The narrative comes to an end about a century before Suiko, and the last century of its coverage gives only a listing of sovereigns with genealogical data. Although the final part of Kojiki may be regarded as protohistory, the work as a whole is mythology.

In Kojiki, Amaterasu's role as the most important deity is evident in the story of the Heavenly Rock Cave. When Amaterasu hides in the cave, heaven and earth are plunged into darkness; only on her reemergence is order restored. Further, she bestows the rule of the land to the progeny of Ninigi, confirming that arrangement through ceremonial worship of the mirror, which represents her continuing support of the imperial line.

Nihonshoki is more than twice as long as the Kojiki, the later portions of its thirty chapters dealing in considerable detail with the events of the sixth and seventh centuries and ending with the abdication of Empress Jitō (645720) in 697. While Kojiki gives only one version of each mythological story, the first two volumes of Nihonshoki, known as The Age of the Gods, often provide three or more. Nihonshoki begins with the story of the emergence of heaven and earth from a primal chaos, presenting a world view influenced by yin-yang philosophy. The intercourse of the deities Izanaki and Izanami gives birth to the world and all its deities (kami ), with Amaterasu being a subordinate deity in this world order.

Although archaeological and other evidence indicates that, in fact, the historical ruling dynasty of Japan probably dates from only the early sixth century ce, the record of an unbroken imperial line beginning with Jinmu as found in Kojiki and Nihonshoki became the basis for the great myth of bansei ikkei, or "one dynasty to rule for a myriad generations"that is, forever. Whereas in China there were frequent dynastic changes, justified by the mandate of heaven, in Japan it was established from early times that rulership had been given unequivocally and forever by Amaterasu to a single line of her descendants. According to bansei ikkei, Emperor Akihito, who was invested in 1989, is the 125th sovereign in direct descent from Jinmu.

While the genealogy of the imperial family is central to the mythology as presented in Kojiki and Nihonshoki, the pasts of leading courtier families are also woven conspicuously into it. A good example is the Nakatomi (later, Fujiwara) family, whose founder, according to the mythology, was Ame no Koyane, one of five deities (kami ) who accompanied Ninigi on his descent from heaven. During the Heian period (7941185), when the Fujiwara rose to dominance at court as imperial regents, they cited Kojiki and Nihonshoki in claiming that their right to "accompany" and "assist" in rule was as ancient and unassailable as the imperial family's right to rule.

Izumo fudŌki

In 713 the newly established Nara court issued a decree to the provinces, calling upon each to report on its geography, natural resources, local traditions, and the like. The idea of requesting such reports was based on Chinese gazetteers and was intended as a means for the Nara government to extend its control more fully. Although bureaucratic in origin, these documents include details of local names, products, and legends, providing early (albeit limited) documentation of local religious practices. Of these reports, called fudōki (records of wind and earth), only one has survived intact: Izumo fudōki. Four others are preserved in fragments. Submitted to the Nara court in 733, Izumo fudōki comprises nine sections, each treating a district. Interspersed throughout are tales and legends that collectively constitute the mythology of Izumo.

Situated on the Japan Sea and relatively isolated by mountains, Izumo maintained its independence for a considerable period. The final conquest of Izumo was apparently an important step taken by the Yamato state in its march to hegemony, so the story was written prominently into the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. According to the mythology, Izumo, governed by the earthly deity Ōkuninushi (or Ōnamuchi), opposed repeated attempts by heaven to force it to submit to heavenly rule. Finally, however, Ōkuninushi and Izumo were persuaded to give in, thereby setting the stage for the dispatch of Ninigi to earth to found a ruling dynasty according to the mythology.


During the formative period of the Ritsuryō state, various strands of mythological systems were put forward that could not be completely reconciled with one another. New texts were then compiled that brought together ritual and mythology into a more coherent whole. The Kogoshūi (Gleanings from old narratives) is a prominent example.

In 807 the Inbe family of court ritualists compiled Kogoshūi, which includes stories not found in Kojiki and Nihonshoki. Many of these stories deal with the history of the Inbe clan itself. Their main purpose in compiling the text was to combat the ascendancy of the rival Nakatomi family at court. In Kogoshūi the family's role as key figures in imperial enthronement ceremonies and other court rituals was legitimized by a retelling of the story of Ninigi's descent that gave Futodama, an ancestral deity of the Inbe clan, a crucial role. This retelling presents a new version of the heavenly descent that incorporates elements from both Kojiki and Nihonshoki, along with new information not in either text. Further, Kogoshūi includes stories about the mirror and sword of the imperial regalia, their enshrinement at Ise, and rituals related to them, thereby creating a new mythology of the regalia.

Official lectures on Nihonshoki were presented six times from 812 through the end of the tenth century. Mythologies from Kojiki, Nihonshoki, Kogoshūi, and other sources were gradually synthesized into a single mythology and system of ritual practices at court. It was during this period, too, that Shintō and Buddhism coalesced (shinbutsu shūgō ) and veneration of deities (kami ) became part of Buddhist ritual practice in Japan, something that continued until the modern period when the Meiji government attempted to separate them.


Kojiki contains more than one hundred songs and is thus the oldest body of written poetry in Japan. But Japanese poetic tradition truly began with the compilation of the Man'yōshū in the late eighth century. This anthology of more than 4,500 poems includes a majority (4,200) in the tanka or waka (short poem) form. Though its earliest poems are attributed to an empress of the fourth century, most verse in this collection dates from the mid-seventh to the mid-eighth centuries.

Like Kojiki, Man'yōshū is written in Japanese transcribed into Chinese characters. In the case of Man'yōshū, the writing system is called man'yōgana, or Man'yō syllabary, which became a forerunner of katakana and hiragana, the two syllabaries that were developed by the tenth century and that enabled the Japanese for the first time to write their own language with some ease. Since the creation of katakana and hiragana, Japanese has been written in a mixture of Chinese characters (for their meanings) and these two syllabaries (for their sounds).

The greatest poet of Man'yōshū was Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, who flourished in the late seventh century. A low-ranking courtier, Hitomaro served as a "court poet," engaged to compose poems on important public occasions, such as imperial hunts and other excursions, and the deaths of sovereigns.

Part of the fundamental "spirit" of the ancient Japanese that later scholars found in the poetry of Man'yōshū is the kotodama (spirit of words), manifested in makura-kotoba (pillow words), epithets that were evidently first employed for liturgical purposes. An example of a pillow word is hisakata no (far-reaching), as used in such phrases as "far-reaching heaven," "the far-reaching clouds," or even "the far-reaching capital." Here we see the great importance attached by the early Japanese to the native (Yamato) language, whose cadences were thought to possess both religious and magical qualities. Sacred verse and prose pieces known as norito, some of which purportedly date from the seventh century, illustrate the use of kotodama. Most surviving norito are found in Engishiki (Supplementary regulations of the Engi era), compiled in 927. In any case, all norito are based on seventh-century diction, and thus were later thought to retain the primitive spirit of the Yamato language.

Medieval Period

Buddhist documents and ideas dominated Japanese religious and intellectual life in the medieval period. From the eleventh until the sixteenth century, printing of books in Japan was carried out exclusively at Buddhist monasteries. Sūtras and other works written in Chinese by both Chinese and Japanese authors were printed with woodblocks at major temples in and around Nara prior to the end of the twelfth century and in Kyoto thereafter. Especially influential were editions issued by the great Zen monasteries in Kyoto, Kamakura, and elsewhere that are known as gozan-ban. The earliest extant printed works in the Japanese language date from the fourteenth century and are associated with the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, which made special efforts to reach audiences unable to read Chinese. During this period Buddhist monasteries were seats of political and economic power, as well as religious authority, and the printing of Chinese religious and philosophical texts at such institutions had relevance in those realms, as well as within a religious context.

Throughout this long period, despite the availability of printing technology, most religious and other works written in the Japanese language circulated only in manuscript form. Of special interest are elaborate manuscripts combining texts and illustrations, known as emakimono, which included legends of the origins of temples and shrines, lives of famous monks, descriptions of festivals and rituals, and popular tales. Colophons on some manuscripts indicate that these scrolls were used in conjunction with performances and sermons that were religious in nature.

Japanese medieval manuscripts have survived in significant numbers. Especially noteworthy are large collections at medieval imperial Buddhist convents (monzeki ) that were opened for the first time in the 1990s. These rich archives include manuscripts, paintings, diaries and other previously unknown primary sources that are especially relevant to studies of the role of women in Buddhism in medieval Japan.

With the establishment of the Kamakura bakufu (shogunate) at the end of the twelfth century, the government moved away from the imperial court in Kyoto. Changes in the role of the imperial court inevitably called for revisions in the imperial mythology reflecting the new world order. Commentaries on Nihonshoki along with new collections of legends from this period, called the "medieval Nihongi," present a syncretic view of the universe, in which Buddhist, neo-Confucian, and Shintō ideas are interwoven. In contrast to earlier texts on Nihonshoki that focused on legitimizing the Ritsuryō state, medieval commentaries present a pan-Asiatic worldview reflecting the widespread proliferation of Buddhist ideas.

Medieval scholars were particularly interested in Nihonshoki 's first section, the Age of the Gods. For example, Kitabatake Chikafusa (12931354) in his Jinnō shōtōki (Chronicle of gods and sovereigns, 1339), begins with a famous opening line: "Great Japan is the land of the gods." Writing to legitimize the Southern over the Northern imperial line during the war between the courts (13361392), Chikafusa emphasized the purity of imperial lineage, symbolized by transmission of the imperial regalia, which set Japan apart from other countries, making it superior in his view. However, his call for the restoration of imperial rule was not successful, and his thinking had more significance later than in his own time.

Early Modern Period

At the end of the sixteenth century, movable-type printing was brought to Japan from Korea as loot taken during the invasion of Toyotomi Hideoyoshi. Thereafter, printing of Japanese texts, including religious works, began and quickly spread. Sections of Nihonshoki were printed for the first time in 1599. Movable-type printing flourished under imperial and shogunal patronage until the mid-seventeenth century. Additionally, for a brief period starting in 1590, Jesuit missionaries in Japan published as many as one hundred titles that are known as Kirishitan-ban. Fewer than forty of those works have survived, due to severe censorship in the seventeenth century.

As commercial publishing took over, woodblock printing, providing greater economies of scale, was used until the nineteenth century. Between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries many ancient texts were printed in this manner, stimulating a great deal of scholarship about them, which also circulated in printed form.

Especially relevant to the topic at hand are works of eighteenth-century scholars of so-called kokugaku (national learning), a movement that embraced philological, literary, and political, as well as religious, concerns and was essentially motivated by the desire to "return to the past." A leading kokugaku scholar, Kamo no Mabuchi (16971769) saw Man'yōshū as a repository of the "forthright emotions" (naoki kokoro ) and "sincerity" (makoto ) of the Japanese people when they were still relatively "unpolluted" by Chinese culture. In fact, many of the most prominent poets of the Man'yōshū were well steeped in the culture of China, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Nevertheless, compared to the overly refined court poetry from the ninth century on, Man'yōshū poems seemed to kokugaku scholars to have a more youthful vigor, spontaneity, and breadth of emotion.

Mabuchi's most famous student was Motoori Norinaga. Kojiki, as noted previously, was scarcely comprehensible until he translated it. His study, Kojikiden, on which he worked from 1764 until his death in 1801, established Kojiki, rather than Nihonshoki, as the foundation text of Japanese history and as the repository of ancient Japanese language. Norinaga considered it a source in which to find the "ancient words" (furukoto ) spoken by Japanese people in ancient times and expressing mono no aware (pathos of things). Norinaga's reading of Kojiki produced a new mythology different from that of the ancient texts that he studied. In particular, he did not focus on the legitimacy of the imperial system, but rather on the common language and ancestry of the Japanese people as the basis for allegiance to the emperor and opposition to outside lands, especially China. In Norinaga's interpretation the ancient myths have relevance for all Japanese people, not just the imperial and aristocratic families.

It should not be forgotten that Buddhist works continued to circulate widely in this period as well, especially in the seventeenth century, when they dominated commercial publishing. Huge compilations, such as the first Japanese editions of the Buddhist canon that were issued at this time, were private ventures of temples rather than commercial publishers, since such works would not be viable in the marketplace.

Perhaps the most extensively reprinted text of this period was the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety (Xiao jing ), known in Japan as Kōkyō, which was first printed in Japan in 1599. Copies were continuously available, with surviving dated editions extant from almost every year between the 1650s and the 1860s. The popularity of this and other Confucian texts reflects the widespread influence of neo-Confucianism beginning in the medieval period and accelerating in the early modern period

While most documents that have survived prior to the modern period obviously are limited to works produced by educated elites, there are some extant sources from this period that reflect religious practices and beliefs of ordinary people. For the most part, such documentation is in the form of manuscripts written in cursive style (komonjo) that are held by local archives in Japan.

Modern Period

In the nineteenth century, as the Japanese nation-state was being formed, statesmen who visited Europe became aware of national literatures and poetic traditions through which people of each nation expressed their identity. With the introduction of Western-style movable-type printing in the 1870s, works of kokugaku scholars, as well as the ancient texts that they discussed, became readily available. In 1879 the government began sponsoring a project, not completed until 1914, to collect and classify the entire canon of Japanese classics into encyclopedic categories in a work entitled, Koji ruien (Classified collection of old documents). At the root of the project was a desire to establish a scientific and historical approach to the national literary and cultural heritage. Other projects initiated at the time, such as Dai Nihon shiryō (Japanese documents, 1901) and Dai Nihon komonjo (Japanese manuscripts, 1901), focusing on both collecting and publishing authoritative versions of historical texts in annalistic compilations, have been underway for more than a century.

Beginning in the 1880s, Man'yōshū was rediscovered in the course of the search for a national poetry anthology. From the time of its compilation almost a thousand years earlier, with the exception of kokugaku and other scholars, Japanese people in general had largely been unfamiliar with this work.

Building on the work of the kokugaku scholars, late nineteenth-century Japanese intellectuals focused on the role of language as a defining feature of a nation-state. Within that context, establishing a national literature, and particularly a poetry, that expressed the spirit of the people was seen as a way to prove the existence of a people united through a common language. Some scholars searched for the origins of Japanese culture in ethnographic studies of folk myths and songs, while others undertook philological studies of the ancient classics. Through this process, Man'yōshū, Kojiki, and Nihonshoki were established as repositories of such folk traditions. Motoori Norinaga's views of the superiority of Kojiki prevailed, and it assumed a privileged position as a national classic. Likewise Man'yōshū was established as the national poetry anthology, expressing both the national character (kokuminsei ) and the ethnic or folk character of the people (minzokusei, minshūsei).

In the context of the Meiji (18681912) government's forcible separation of Shintō and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri ) and its suppression of Buddhism, the status of Shintō as an independent religion was constructed. Prior to this period, Shintō always existed within the context of Buddhism. Shintō as a separate religion dates from this period. Likewise the status of texts associated with Shintō, including Kojiki, Nihonshoki, and Man'yōshū, as national classics was constructed in this context.

In 1890 the Imperial Rescript on Education (Kyōiku chokugo ) was promulgated in reaction to importation of Western culture, but quickly came to be seen as a statement of the spiritual unification of the Japanese people. Inoue Tetsujirō's (18551944) commentary on the text published in 1891 used figures from Western history, including George Washington and Joan of Arc, to show that loyalty and filial piety were universal ethical values. These values then became the foundation of the nation-state. Seeking to restore Shintō's role within the state, Shintō priests developed rituals, ceremonial readings, and other rites, and they began promoting adherence to the values not as an ideal, but as an obligation to the state. The Rescript became the basis of school curricula, supplemented by biographies of historical paragons of loyalty and filial piety worthy of emulation. Adherence to this was challenged by the Christian schoolteacher Uchimura Kanzō (18611930), who refused to pay obeisance to the Rescript when it was promulgated in 1891. He was removed from his position, at the time finding little support from Buddhist, Shintō, or even Christian communities in his protest of this limitation on religious freedom.

In 1937 the Ideological Control Bureau of the Ministry of Education issued Kokutai no hongi (Principles of the national essence of Japan), a patriotic educational work affirming Japan as a nation-state based on a system of continuous ancestry of the imperial family (tennōsei ) and presenting the authority of the emperor as divinely decreed. In a section entitled, "Dai Nihon kokutai" (National essence of Japan), the mythological basis of kokutai (national essence) was detailed with quotations from Kojiki and Nihonshoki in perhaps the most extreme formulation of Japan as the emperor's country. By 1940 State Shintō was established as the national religion and ancient mythologies were being fully exploited for militaristic purposes.

Following the end of World War II the supreme commander for the Allied Powers issued the Shintō Directive, ordering the separation of church and state and guaranteeing freedom of religion in Japan. In January 1946 Emperor Hirohito issued the Declaration of Humanity, renouncing his divinity as well as that of his ancestors. The emperor continues to serve as "the symbol of the state and the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power" under the 1946 constitution. This view of the emperor is based on the ideas of Watsuji Tetsurō (18891960), who reinterpreted Kojiki and Nihonshoki texts as expressing the moral authority of the emperor for the Japanese people.

See Also

Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia; Poetry, article on Japanese Religious Poetry; Shintō.


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