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Japanese Religions: The Study of Myths


Japanese mythology is typically identified with the Kojiki (Record of ancient matters) and Nihonshoki (Chronicle of Japan). Together referred to as the Kiki texts, they record the history of the Yamato court's rule, which extended throughout the Kinki region of Japan. Both the Kojiki (712 ce) and the Nihonshoki (720 ce) were compiled when the Ritsuryō state, which adopted Chinese legal codes and institutions, neared completion. Both texts begin with tales of deities, narratives that are today understood as myths.

The study of Japanese mythology has, until recently, been guided by the question of how to read the Kojiki and Nihonshoki in relation to themselves. That is to say, the texts alone provided the assumed framework for all readings, and the question of what position they occupied within the discursive space of the daythe space occupied by the Kiki has rarely been asked. Moreover, from the modern period onwards, the Kiki texts have been understood in relation to the concept of myth. Given the Western origin of this concept, however, one must question how it has come to be applied to the Kiki texts, neither of which contains the term, and also how a modern understanding of these texts is altered as a result.

Issues of memory and amnesia within historical discourse have been discussed, to a large extent, within the field of modern history, but the problem posed by the limitations of historical material confronts all fields of historical research, regardless of theme or time period. Individual historical texts do not encompass or represent the discursive space of the time in question. The Kiki texts do not present themselves as collections of myths. Rather, they present themselves as histories and as narratives recorded and remembered as histories. Multiple written and orally transmitted narratives that have not been preserved must have existed alongside the Kiki texts.

Current research methods that discuss ancient Japanese mythology by focusing on the Kiki alone betray a textual approach typical of the era of the modern nation-state. An early manifestation of this textual approach can be seen in the works of Yoshimi Yoshikazu, a late Edo period scholar belonging to Yamazaki Ansai's Suika Shintō school. Yoshimi distinguished historical sources, whose dates of composition and authors were clear, from texts, including oral traditions, whose provenances were unclear. For example, Yoshimi rejected the Ise Shintō claim that the enshrined deity of the Outer Shrine, a shrine with close ties to the imperial house, was Kuni no Tokotachi no Mikoto by appealing to classical sources whose dates of composition were certain:

It is clear that the Outer Shrine does not enshrine Kuni no Tokotachi no Mikoto. Those who make such claims believe only unofficial histories and mixed theories; they do not consult the national histories and official pronouncements. Not a single word that pronounces Kuni no Tokotachi no Mikoto the enshrined deity of the Outer Shrine can be found in the true records jitsuroku.

As a result, the Five Books of (Ise) Shintō (Shintō gobusho ) and the Shintō texts of the Yoshida house were determined not to be of ancient origin, as they claimed. In their stead, the Nihonshoki was granted the status of an authentic ancient source.

Later, scholars of Native Learning exalted the Kojiki above all other texts. As the modern emperor-system state (tennōsei kokka ) took shape in the nineteenth century, accounts derived from the Kiki appeared in state-sponsored textbooks as official history. Thus, the Kiki functioned as the wellspring of the nation's (kokumin ) historical identity and as the memory of a pure and continuous ethnic community (minzoku ). Already in the late eighteenth century, Motoori Norinaga reread the Musubi deity of the Kiki as the origin of all things, including human beings: "All living things in this worldinstinctively know well and perform those acts which they must each perform, and this all comes about through the august spirit of the Musubi no kami. Human beings are born into this world as especially gifted beings" (Motoori, 1997, p. 232). Familial (ie) documents that had been submitted to the court and clan (uji) records that were determined to be inauthentic by Yoshimi had originally functioned to connect specific groups to the Kiki texts. During the early modern period, however, the Kiki were separated from uji and family transmissions. In the process these texts became the repositories of a national memory no longer connected to specific groups or families.

The question of how the Kiki texts functioned in the ancient and medieval periods will next be considered. What follows is an examination of how the Kiki were related to uji traditions (ujibumi) and familial records (kachō), Kiki commentaries, and Shintō texts (shintōsho ). the transformation of that discursive space over time will also be traced.

Studies of the Kiki texts by Kōnoshi Takamitsu and Isomae Jun'ichi have examined the history of their interpretation in order to trace the change in worldviews that were read into the texts. Such approaches, however, have tended to compare chronologically arranged individual texts. Historians of religions have introduced the three textual categories of canon, scripture, and commentary, which have brought to light the discursive space created their interaction. As a result, texts such as the Bible or Confucian classics, which had previously been considered orthodox in an unchallenged manner, have been reexamined (Henderson, 1991; Levering, 1989). Scholars today speak of the canonization process rather than of a set canon. Applying this methodological approach to the Kiki may also yield critical insights. The modern textual category of the "(scholarly) essay" will also be added to the three textual categories in order to clarify the historical nature of present-day understandings of the Kiki that is, the horizon of contemporary research.

The Ancient Discursive Space

As already noted, the Kiki were compiled in close relation to the establishment of the Ritsuryō state's ruling structure. Although scholars have pointed out structural differences in the stories of the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, both texts sought to legitimate the hegemonic rule of the emperor-system state. It is helpful, however, to first examine the basic myth/history.

In the beginning, the orderless world divided into heaven and earth, and from between them a solitary deity emerged. After several generations, the male deity Izanagi and the female deity Izanami emerged. These two deities gave birth to all things, including the land of the Japanese archipelago, mountains, rivers, grass, and trees. In addition, three other major godsAmaterasu Ōmikami, Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, and Susano-o no Mikotowere born. Amaterasu ruled the heavens as the sun goddess and provided order to the mythical world of the Kiki as the ancestral deity to the imperial house. The story goes on to provide etiological accounts of the origin of human death in the conflict between Izanagi and Izanami and of the diurnal cycle of day and night in a fight between the god of the moon, Tsukiyomi no Mikoto, and the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Eventually, the grandson of Amaterasu Ōmikami, Ho no Ninigi no Mikoto (a name referring to the ripening of rice) descended from the heavenly realm to the earthly realm, where he pacified the deities of earth, represented by Ōkuninushi no Mikoto. The stories of the kami end by demonstrating that the descendants of Ho no Ninigi no Mikoto (i.e., the emperors) possess the authority to rule the Japanese archipelago. The story then transitions from the age of deities to the age of humans, recounting how successive emperors, beginning with Emperor Jimmu, and princes, such as Yamato Takeru, brought the Japanese islands (and perhaps even the Korean peninsula) under their military, religious, and political control.

It is important to note from the outset that the audience for these texts was not the subservient population, but rather the aristocracy and officials of the Yamato court itself. As Tsuda Sōkichi has pointed out, the concept of divinity (kami ) within the Kiki evidences a strong influence of Chinese Confucianism, with a clear conceptual bent that must have differed significantly from popular notions of the divine at the time. Furthermore, the characters within the Kiki texts belong largely to the imperial house and to the ruling elite. Other groups appear only as objects of conquest.

From the Nara period (710784) through the early Heian period (794943), commentaries on the Japanese chronicles (Nihongi kōsho ) were produced periodically for the central aristocracy for the purpose of forming a unified textual understanding of the Ritsuryō state (Ōta, 1992; Seki, 1997). No evidence can be found of the Kiki having been read and explained to commoners in regional villages, or to the bemin slaves belonging to particular uji.

In other words, the Kiki texts did not propagate the cultural unity of the subservient masses from the perspective of the ruling elite, as is the case in the modern nation-state. The texts were compiled to form the communal memory of the ruling class. This can also be seen in the fact that the earlier imperial chronicles (teiki ) and ancient tales (kuji ), which formed the basis of the Kiki texts, were selected from familial documents belonging to the various clans.

At the time of the Yamato court, the texts were referred to as "national histories" (kokushi), signifying their status as official state histories. The term Kiki was never employed. To be precise, the difference in social status between the Nihonshoki and the Kojiki was overwhelmingly clear. The Nihonshoki was included as the first of the Six National Histories (rikkokushi ), while the Kojiki whatever the initial intent behind its compilation might have beenwas understood merely as a variant of the Nihonshoki. By late antiquity, the Kojiki was hardly read at all.

At the same time, the historical discourse recognized by the Ritsuryō state was not restricted to the national histories. As stated in the Shoku Nihonshoki : "these things are recorded in detail in the national histories and familial records." Each uji possessed its own transmitted tradition, and by incorporating passages from the Nihonshoki into it they claimed an intimate relationship to the imperial house and, by extension, the state. This structure can be seen within the Kogoshūi (Old things collected from the ground) of the Inbe clan, in the Takahashi ujibumi of the Takahashi clan, and in the familial histories included in the Shinsen seishiroku and the Six National Histories (Isomae, 1999a). The examination of both a passage from the Nihonshoki and the corresponding passage from the Kogoshūi can help to illustrate these textual relations

Takamimusubi no Mikoto spoke and said, "I will raise up Amatuhimoroki and Amatsuwasaka, and truly have them bless my descendants. You, Ame no Koyane no Mikoto and Futodama no Mikoto, descend to the Middle Land of the Reed Plains with Amatsuhimoroki and also bless my descendants".These two deities served within the palace and guarded it well. He also spoke and said, "Take the ear of rice from the sanctified garden [yuniwa ] of our Plain of High Heaven and give it to our children".For this reason, Ame no Koyane no Mikoto and Futodama no Mikoto, and the gods of the leading families with them, gave the rice to all. (Nihonshoki )

Amatsumioya Amaterasu Ōhokami, Tamamimusuhi no Mikoto thus spoke and said, "We have raised Amatsuhimoroki and Amatsuiwasaka to bless our descendants. You two deities, Ame no Koyane no Mikoto and Futodama no Mikoto, descend to the Middle Land of the Reed Plains and bless our descendants. You two deities, both serve within the palace and guard it well. Take the ear of rice from the sanctified garden of our Plain of High Heaven and give it to our children. Futodama no Mikoto, lead the gods of the leading families and serve your lord, and do according to the command of heaven." Thus the various gods also came to serve. (Kogoshūi )

In a passage that closely mirrors the language of the Nihonshoki, the Kogoshūi inserts a section (italicized) wherein the ancestor of the Inbe uji, Futodama no Mikoto, is honored. Previous research has tended to view sections that do not overlap with the Kiki as the actual transmissions of the clans, while the overlapping sections were understood to be falsifications produced subsequent to the Kiki texts. Such an understanding, however, reflects the negative effects of the modern focus on the Kiki alone and treats the uji transmissions as mere variants of the Kiki, thus overlooking the differences in the social functions of the two. The function of the uji transmissions and the familial records was to chronicle the history of each group's service to the court, thus fulfilling the political function of advocating the legitimacy of their respective social positions within the court. Although the example above comes from the Heian period, there are many cases recorded in the Six National Histories, including a dispute between the Takahashi house and the Azumi house concerning the office of the imperial messenger who delivered offerings (hōheishi ) to Ise Shrine, and the changing of familial names (kaisei ), where uji and familial records were appealed to as legitimating documents. The state's basis for arbitrating such disputes was whether or not the clan traditions accorded with the Six National Histories, including the Nihonshoki, and the Ritsuryō code.

Against the backdrop of this political function, the Six National Histories, as the "historical canon" of the state, came to control the historical consciousness, and even the words, of the uji and familial records belonging to members of the court. By canon, we mean something that has been established as the "normative" text, which functions as a "law and rule, fundamental axiom, principle or standard" (Folkert, 1989, p. 173). It also includes the sense of being a "fixed" text (Levinson, 1997, p. 36). Conversely, however, the familial records developed their own unique narratives, not included in the national histories, by connecting them to passages in the Six National Histories. The familial records and uji transmissions, unlike the Kiki, were not closed records. As long as the group that they represented existed, they remained open texts that accumulated new narratives at each opportunity (e.g., by submitting records to the state). The structure of the Takahashi ujibumi, a document explaining the origins of court offices held by the Takahashi uji, and the production process of the Nakaomi honkeichō (the genealogy of the Nakaomi uji ) both reflect such a structure of ongoing supplementation.

The expansion of the Ritsuryō state was accompanied by an increase in the number of officials serving the state. As the state's rule reached into the lower strata of society, the number of familial historical traditions must have increased as well. One indication of such a growth in historical records can be found in the large number of familial traditions included in the Shinsen shōjiroku, compiled in 815 ce.

In summary, with the compilation of national histories such as the Nihonshoki, state-related memory was fixed within the ruling class, and individual uji histories developed apart from, but in close relation to, these national histories. The uji records and familial documents submitted to the court functioned as a bridge between state memory and clan memories. Because of the existence of multiple group memories, the national histories became authoritative texts, the central memory of the ancient court, capable of bestowing social legitimacy on the individual uji. The dual structure of the rigid memory of the state and the multiple and developing memories of the various families constituted the shape of history in antiquity.

The modern understanding of the Kiki thus merely captures the unified memory that came only after the decline of the ancient court's political authority. As the court lost political power, the Kiki texts were no longer needed to determine the social status of court officials in relation to uji transmissions and familial records. Instead, the Kiki came to represent a national memory. In antiquity, those whose origins did not directly intersect with the Kiki must have possessed very different histories of private traditions.

One final point must be made regarding the position of the Kiki in antiquity. In the past, some scholars within the field of religious studies sought the origins of myth within ritual on the understanding that myths and rituals are closely related. In Japan, the Kiki narratives are understood to be myths, but the Engishiki (a text from the mid-Heian period) is understood to be a ritual text. The divine names and tales recorded in the Engishiki include some that are not included in the Kiki, but they all belong to common basic Weltanschauung. What is important to note is not a theory of origins concerned with which of the texts are more archaic, but rather the difference in their functions within the ancient Yamato dynasty. One the one hand, as already noted, the Kiki narratives were recognized as historical texts that regulated the uji traditions within ancient society. The Engishiki, on the other hand, contained prayers for the emperor, as the descendant of the heavenly deities, to recite before the multitude of deities inhabiting Japan, asking for peace in the land, a bountiful harvest, or for the emperor's own spiritual well-being (Nakamura, 1999; Saitō, 1996). In other words, the Kiki were, strictly speaking, declarative texts that recorded historical origins, and as such were expected to perform the function of regulating all other uji histories. The Engishiki was, in turn, a religious text recording human performances directed towards the deities, performances conducted by the emperor, the ritual celebrant who approached the deities or the spirits of deceased emperors in person. In recognizing this distinction, the difficulty of including within the category of myth all ancient Japanese texts dealing with deities should be apparent.

The Medieval Discursive Space

What, then, was the discursive space of the medieval period, and what changes did it undergo as it bridged the ancient and modern discursive spaces? The pioneering works of Itō Masayoshi and Abe Yasurō concerning the medieval appropriations of the Nihonshoki provide important clues. The clearest indication of a shift from an ancient to a medieval discursive space is found in the terminological shift from national histories (kokushi ) to Japanese chronicles (nihongi ). Describing the corpus referred to as the Japanese chronicles, Abe makes the following observation: "What is most often found are explanations of meaning or origins that are told individual tales utterly unrelated to the main text of the Nihonshoki. At first glance, these tales simulate the form of a citation from a text called the Chronicle of Japan, and appear to belong to the scholarly genre of commentaries on ancient sources" (Abe, 1993, p. 199).

A fixed national history, as in the ancient official histories, can no longer be found within these texts. Instead, the content of the Nihonshoki is reread and rendered fluid by a multiplicity of voices. For example, in the section on Emperor Keikō in Yamatohime no Mikoto seiki, the spiritual power of the Kusanagi sword (one component of the imperial regalia) and how it came to be enshrined in Atsuta Shrine of Aichi prefecture is explained though Yamato Takeru's eastern conquest:

(1) Winter, on the second day of the tenth month, Yamato Takeru departed on his journey. On the seventh day, he altered his route and worshiped at the shrine [kamu miya ] of Ise. Taking his leave of Yamatohime, he said, "Under the order of the Emperor, I now go east to punish those who resist our rule. I take your leave." Then Yamatohime took the Kusanagi sword and gave it to Yamato Takeru, saying "Be reverent and do not be neglectful." Yamato Takeru reached Suruga for the first time that year, entered the wilderness, and woefully encountered a wildfire.

(2) The prince's sword drew itself of its own accord and cut the grass around the prince. Because of this, the prince was saved. He named his sword Kusanagi [grass cutter].

(3) Yamato Takeru, having pacified the enemies of the east, reached the land of Owari on his journey home. There he stayed for a while with his wife, Miyazuhime. He untied his sword and left it at his house as he walked alone to climb Mount Ibuki. He died there, overcome by poisonous air. The Kusanagi sword is now at the shrine of Atsuta in the country of Owari.

Section (1) quotes the main text of the Nihonshoki ; the section describing the wildfire in Suruga (2) comes from a variant of the shoki ; and the passage describing the death of Yamato Takeru (3) is taken from the Kogoshūi.

Unlike the Kojiki, the Nihonshoki contains within it variants of the main text. Through the Heian period, these variants were cited only as references for the main text. The two were clearly differentiated by differences in the sizing of the characters. In Yamatohime no Mikoto seiki, however, the variant account of the Kusanagi sword moving of its own will to save Yamato Takeru is woven into the main text in order to create a tale demonstrating the spiritual power of the sword. The more powerful the sword was believed to be, the more authority the Ise Shrine, home to Yamatohime and the source of the sword, was thought to possess. This would have been an interpretation amenable to those affiliated with the shrine, who were responsible for the creation of this text. Furthermore, Yamatohime's words are prefaced with a "said" (iwaku ) in the Nihonshoki, while they are prefaced with a "declared" (notamau ) in Yamatohime no Mikoto seiki. This indicates a desire to elevate Yamatohime's status (Isomae, 1999b).

The medieval period saw the liberal alteration of the Nihonshoki text in the interest of producing tales that served the interests and positions of those who produced them. In regards to the legend of the Kusanagi sword's spiritual power, multiple texts emerged, including Owari no kuni Atsuta taijingū engi (an account of the origin of the Atsuta Shrine, thought to have been compiled by people affiliated with the shrine); Jinnō seitōki (a chronicle of deities and emperors by Kitabatake Chikafua, a central figure in the Southern Court); Kanetomo senkenbon Nihon shoki jindaikanshō (a Yoshida Shintō digest of the divine age section of the Nihonshoki ); and the Tsurugi no maki (Tale of the sword) in military chronicles such as Heike monogatari and Taiheiki. In the Kakuichi variant of the Heike monogatari, for example, the tale begins with Susano-o gaining the Kusanagi sword by defeating the Orochi dragon. The sword is then enshrined in the Atsuta Shrine following Yamato Takeru's eastern conquest. Later, following the monk Dōgyō's failed attempt to steal the sword at the time of the Tenchi court and Emperor Yōzei's drawing of the sword out of madness, the Kusanagi sword is lost in the sea with the drowning of young Emperor Antoku. The tale concludes as follows:

A scholar among them offered this explanation: "The great snake killed at Hi River in Izumo by Susano-o longed for the spiritual sword deep in his head. As foretold by his eight heads and eight tails, he regained the sword after eighty generations of human rulers in the form of an eight-year-old emperor sinking with the sword to the depths of the sea." Having thus become the treasure of a divine dragon in the unfathomable depths of the sea, it will never return to human hands again.

An examination of Heike monogatari variants depicting the loss of the treasured sword reveals three distinct groups: (1) texts that claim a replica was forged during Emperor Sūjin's reign, which was then lost in the sea (Engyō-bon, Yashiro-bon [extracts], Genpei jōsuiki, Shibukassenjo-bon ); (2) texts that claim a replica was forged, but that the real sword was lost (the Kakuichi variant quoted above); and (3) texts that mention no replica, but that depict the real sword being lost in the sea (Yashiro-bon [main text], Hyakunijjuku-bon ). Takagi Makoto has explained the proliferation of these texts, observing that "each variant text refracts the other variants and denies a movement towards the creation of a single 'meaning.'" He sees "the totality of the relations [between the texts] as a corpus" (Takagi, 2001, pp. 227228).

Within that corpus, little attention is paid to which text is historically accurate. Rather, an array of perspectives corresponding to varied positions exist side-by-side, containing mutual contradictions within their narratives. Additional new texts were produced by overlapping those multiple narratives. This is true not only of the Heike monogatari but also of the medieval Japanese chronicles as a whole. During this period, debates over whether or not texts were authentic rarely arose with any degree of seriousness.

The medieval period saw the warriors (bushi ) assume real political power, while the court lost political influence. Paralleling that development, the Nihonshoki, compiled in order to legitimate the court's authority, could no longer maintain its position as a fixed referent. As a result, the various texts once subordinated to the Nihonshoki, such as the familial documents submitted to the court (kachō ) and uji records (ujibumi ), were replaced by genres with freer narrative content, such as Shintō texts (shintōsho ), temple and shrine origins (engi ), and military tales (gunki ). As already noted, the familial documents and uji records were premised upon the political power of the court. They were political texts designed to be submitted to the court. At that time, the national histories, notably the Nihonshoki, functioned as the standard against which the content of the records and transmissions were judged. With the weakening of the court during the medieval period, however, the national histories lost this political function, and the ancient dual structure of "fixed authority/fluid familial records" crumbled.

At the center of the corpus referred to as the medieval Japanese chronicles lay the commentaries on the Nihonshoki. These were produced by priests of the Yoshida house and esoteric Buddhist monks in environs of the court. Commentarial activity on the Nihonshoki took place periodically from at least the Heian period in the form of the ritual "reading of the Japanese chronicles" (Nihongi kōsho ). Private records of the official lectures have survived. These lectures, however, were conducted under the jurisdiction of the court. Most took the form of phonetic instruction (kunchū ) with additional etymological discussion.

In the medieval period, the text was no longer literally interpreted as a record of actual events, as had been the case in the ancient court. Rather, focusing on the Shindai no maki (Scroll of the divine age), allegorical interpretations based on Buddhist metaphysics were used to reread the texts. The locus of commentary moved from the singular control of the court and spread throughout various aristocratic houses and schools. The difference between the ancient and medieval commentaries can be seen by comparing the following two passages:

Kuni no Tokotachi no Mikoto. Query: Who first called this deity by this name? The teacher answers: the Kana Nihongi, Kamimiyagi, and the various ancient texts all contain this name. However, I have never seen the first instance of its use. There is no way to determine its origins in early antiquity (jōko ). (Nihonshoki shiki [teihon ; a private record of the official commentary])

Kuni no Tokotachi no Mikotothis deity is the one spirit of all the peoples' hearts. The heart of this deity is very clear, like a polished mirror reflecting light on its base. Because it contains no artifice and shines upon all things, it begat Amanokagami no Mikoto. To contain no artifice in the heart and to remain in nothingness [kyomu ] is the essence of Shintō. (Kanetomo Nihonshoki shindaikanmyō [a Yoshida Shintō commentary])

The first commentary on the Nihonshoki entertains the question of who first named the deity Kuni no Tokotachi no Mikoto. Because the matter is not recorded in the sources, however, the question is abandoned. In contrast to this, Yoshida Kanetomo begins his commentary with the deity's name, but then develops a metaphysical argument regarding the essence of the human heart.

Shintō texts (shintōsho ) were written as a result of this new form of commentary. In them, Buddhist metaphysics provided a means to construct a discourse that combined an interior "Way" with the historical ontology of Japan. At this time, the Nihonshoki in some cases even the Kojiki and the Sendai kujihongi was no longer treated as a "national history," but rather as scripture, a "divine text" that "tells the tales of the kami " (Yoshida Kanetomo). In Ryōbu Shintō's Reikiki, for example, Amaterasu Ōmikami's grandson Ho no Ninigi states his name as "imperial descendant Kotokukimi" and claims to have descended from heaven, not as the manifestation of the spirit of rice as depicted in the Kiki, but as the manifestation of the (Buddhist) diamond sword (Kongōshō ) in order to spread throughout the land the true word (shingon ) of Amaterasu Ōmikami's prime noumenon, Bontennō (Brahmā). The Shindai no maki was thus read as a text declaring the salvation of all people (shujō ) by the Buddha. Its narrative form no longer strictly follows a historical chronology, but instead takes the form of topical sequences, such as a discussion of the three sacred treasures, or the imperial regalia. With commentary layered upon commentary, and, one provenance placed atop another, the discourse surrounding the Japanese chronicles swelled, all the while building centrifugal force.

These divine texts and commentaries on the Nihonshoki were transmitted and controlled as esoteric traditions by the houses and schools surrounding the surviving court, but no longer by the court itself. At the same time the military tales (gunki ) and temple and shrine histories (jisha engi ) that subsumed the medieval Japanese chronicles appear to have spread through society via regional lords and prominent temples and shrines. Both channels of textual transmission were located within the sphere of influence of political authority based in western Japan, with the surviving court at its apex. In eastern Japan, in contrast, the discourse of medieval Japanese chronicles was known to some extent, but it was either rejected or fundamentally reread. For example, one work describes Amaterasu-Ōmikami as "a deity who tells lies" (Nitta, 1989).

Moreover, while the divine texts and commentaries gained intellectual authority by virtue of being esoterically controlled, the origin tales and military chronicles circulated widely. For this reason, the reception of the Kiki during the medieval period appears to have followed two different trajectories. In one trajectory, the Kiki texts were hidden esoterically within the weakened court circles, with an ever-shrinking audience. In the other trajectory, the texts were pulled centrifugally beyond that boundary into broader segments of society.

In summary, in the course of the medieval period, the Six National Histories, especially the Nihonshoki, lost their centripetal force as classical sources (koten ); Shintō texts, military chronicles, and temple and shrine histories emerged in place of the familial documents and uji records that had once been subordinated to the national histories. Among these, a distinct corpus called the "medieval Japanese chronicles" (chūsei Nihongi ) took shape. These borrowed the title of the Nihonshoki but sought to present a reading beyond the meaning written into the text. In a sense, they sought to deconstruct the ancient worldview. The honji suijaku doctrine functioned within this corpus to ground the universal thought of Buddhism in the particular locus called Japan (Kuroda, 1975; Imahori, 1990).

At the same time, however, to the extent that these texts continued to claim some formal connection to the divine age of the Kiki, groups represented by the medieval texts still sought to ground their legitimacy in the historical tradition embodied in the emperor. In this, we can see the nature of the medieval state in western Japan mirrored in the corpus itself. The ranking aristocratic families and powerful Buddhist temples (kenmon ), along with regional lords, increased their level of autonomy, while at the same time they sought the possibility of uniting all political forces beneath the emperor. While still lacking a true center, the discursive space of Buddhist metaphysics emerged wherein various texts took shape under the umbrella label of "Japanese chronicles."

With the demise of the Ritsuryō state, the divine rituals (jingi saishi ), which possessed a different function from the national histories and familial records in antiquity, ceased to be performed. With the exception of private versions of these rituals, such as the Nakatomi purification ritual (harai ), most court rituals were discontinued in the late medieval period. Under these circumstances, the difference between the concept of kami in the Kiki and that in the rituals and ritual texts grew ambiguous. The inconsistencies between the two were eventually unified, with the Kiki providing the basis for doing so. By this time, though, the Kiki texts had been fundamentally reread in relation to the discourses of Buddhist metaphysics and the medieval social structure, both very different from that of antiquity.

The Kiki as National Memory

With the work of Yoshimi Yoshikazu in the late early modern period, texts with uncertain dates of composition were declared to be inauthentic, unlike such ancient texts as the national histories and official records. Furthermore, Motoori Norinaga's Native Learning (kokugaku ) for the first time identified the Kiki as texts containing the memory of the ethnic-nation (minzoku ) as a whole. Texts depicting the emperor existed in the early modern period, including Chikamatsu Monzaemon's Kabuki play, Yōmei tennō shokunin kagami. Yet such works dealt with the emperor strictly in terms of fiction and must be distinguished from any treatment of the Kiki as historical accounts. In the hands of scholars such as Yoshimi and Motoori, the status of the Kiki, which had become ambiguous during the medieval period, regained clarity. In the modern period, the Kojiki and Nihonshoki achieved canonical status as the repository of national memory. At the same time, the texts referred to as the medieval Japanese chronicles (chūsei Nihongi ), such as the Shintō texts and temple/shrine origins, which had once subsumed the Kiki, were rejected as fabulous.

During the ancient period, the Kiki played a central role in explaining the origins of the social positions occupied by various uji. The status of the Kiki grew ambiguous during the medieval period, while the freedom enjoyed by Shintō texts and temple/shrine origins vis-à-vis the Kiki dramatically expanded. Still, for those represented by these new texts, the Kiki provided the basis for claims of historical origin, however perfunctory those claims may have been. The discursive space within which the Kiki possessed meaning from the ancient through the medieval period, however, did not comprehensively include all of the inhabitants of the Japanese islands, in terms of class and region. From the late early modern period onwards, however, this began to change. No longer tied to specific groups, the Kiki texts came to be held as the repositories of a shared, communal memory in correspondence with the emerging nation-state (Isomae, 2000). Needless to say, the homogeneity implied in such a discursive space functioned to elide social differences that nevertheless continued to exist.

Ancient uji records that survived into the early modern period ceased to connect the Kiki to specific groups. Instead, they came to be treated as mere variants capable of supplementing lacunae in the communal memory that the Kiki came to represent. By the early modern period, shintōsho could no longer exist independently, encompassing and altering the Kiki. They instead were relegated to the status of secondary texts that interpreted the canonical statements of the Kiki. The term Shintō itself came to be shunned in Native Learning. Although Shintō is once again placed at the center of the kokutai (national body) ideology in the modern period, new texts bearing the title shintōsho were never again produced.

During the modern period, the Ministry of Education's history curriculum and the Shintō shrines that, under the directives of State Shintō, came to enshrine deities from the Kiki served as the two primary conduits through which the Kiki texts were propagated to the nation (Kaigo, 1969; Murakami, 1970). Thus, public schools and shrines formed part of the foundation of the modern state's newly created administration. Both were expected to play a critical role in national indoctrination. History education was designed to "shape national thought," while "the rites of the state" were to be handled by the shrines. The identification and preservation of imperial tombs and palace sites mentioned in the Kiki expanded during this period as well.

In addition to such government vehicles, other books dealing with the Kiki sought to reread the state's official history in terms of liberalism or national essentialism (kokusuishugi ). Such works spread through the nation via print media and the intellectual class. As early as the Edo period, however, woodblock print versions of the Kiki and other classics saw wide circulation. Many shrines also altered the names of their enshrined deities during this period in response to the growing influence of Yoshida Shintō.

Relatively large shrines possessed their own histories or oral traditions dating back to the medieval period. Confronted first with the Yoshida house's governmental mandate to license priests and with the modern state's shrine policies, however, such histories and traditions were too weak to resist alteration or outright erasure. In the case of small shrines lacking clear histories or defined deities, they were completely subsumed by the doctrinal system of Yoshida Shintō or the modern emperor system. The histories of newly formed branch families rarely reach farther back than a couple of generations. The state's history, with the Kiki at its core, supplemented this lacuna.

At the same time that the Kiki texts were fixed in their modern position, a liberal reading emerged, one premised on the Kiki texts but also subsuming them. The "academic essay" came to replace the "commentary." In the commentaries of the early modern period, the Kiki texts were treated as fact by the authors who strove to understand this content. Against this, the academic essay strives, not to enter into the Kiki themselves, but rather to grasp the "history" that came to exist separate from, yet surrounding, the texts. While commentaries were written under the restrictions of the text itself, the scholarly essay incorporates the Kiki texts into its own narrative, where the author employs it to develop his or her own thought.

Although a few commentaries were written in the modern era, they merely provided etymological interpretations and were no longer related to the understanding of history itself. Kazamaki Keijirō locates the supplanting of commentaries by academic essays in the Taisho era (19121926). He notes this shift in reference to studies of the Kojiki : "Looking at commentaries alone, there were twenty-six during the Meiji period[but only] four commentaries on the Kojiki during the Taisho era. By contrast, there were twenty titles in the category of [scholarly] research. Just as the backgrounds of the scholars changed between the Meiji and Taisho periods, the nature of their research also changed" (Kazamaki, 1956, pp. 177181).

Eventually, the commentaries themselves were incorporated into the essay form. The main body of the essay is treated as a text in its own right, while earlier commentaries are turned into authoritative works that support the author's own thought. This is clearly different from the fundamental distinction that had existed between the medieval commentaries and the metaphysical narrative of the Shintō texts.

At the same time, the Kiki texts continue to occupy a canonical position (even though the familial records and uji transmissions are absent in the modern period). The ancient and modern periods are fundamentally different, however, when it comes to the question of whether the Kiki are to be understood as history or as material for historical understanding. For example, in the ancient readings of the Japanese chronicles (Nihongi kōsho ), when an undecipherable section of the text was reached, all attempts at judgment were suspended: "The way of the deities is unfathomable; the truth of this remains unknown. What is heard differs and explanations disagree." Because the text was held to be history itself, without a hint of modern rationality, commentators could not exceed the narrative of the text. If the Kiki maintained a sacred character before the modern era, it was the result of its identification with history itself. Even Norinaga understood the Kiki as the direct record of chronological events: "The ancient records merely recorded what has been transmitted from the age of the deities."

In contrast, because modern scholars separated history from the text of the Kiki, they could freely cut and weave texts. In some cases, they integrated uji transmissions and ancient texts in order to reach beyond the texts into the dimension of history.

The term Kiki first saw broad use in the Meiji period, but the term did not reflect simply combining the Nihonshoki and Kojiki. Rather, the term referred to the discursive space of history that appears in the background when the two texts are brought together. Naka Michiyo's argument concerning dating within the Nihonshoki, put forward in the 1880s, provides a clear example of this separation of the concept of history from the Kiki. By taking the Christian era into consideration, the measurement of time within the Nihonshoki and the Kojiki, the imperial reigns and the sexagenary cycle (eto ), was rendered relative, and a different temporal axis was constructed outside of the Kiki texts (Tanaka, 1998). Dealing with the age of the deities, which lacked a calendar, created a problem though.

Motoori Norinaga's interpretation of the divine age during the transitional period to modernity was based on his declaration that all the content concerning the divine age was historical. Like Christian fundamentalists in the West, Norinaga forbade all allegorical interpretation of the ancient text. By the 1890s, however, Takagi Toshio and Anesaki Masaharu had absorbed the Western concept of "mythology." As a result, the descriptions of the divine age came to be understood in terms of psychological reality (Ōbayashi, 1973). The term Kiki myths broadly employed today originated at this time. In this manner, the sections of the Kiki concerning the divine age (kamitsuyo no maki ) achieved a stable position as a form of "national history," although related in terms of the worldview of the past.

This perspective of treating such texts as historical products was applied not only to the divine age but also to the human age within the Kiki texts by the Taisho period, especially in the work of Tsuda Sōkichi. Consequently, the Kiki texts in their entirety came to be understood as reflecting the historical perspective of a specific class of people belonging to a specific time period (Ienaga, 1972). Not only was the concept of "hard history" detached from the Kiki, but simultaneously Japanese literary studies sought to reposition the Kiki within the axis of historical time.

Within the discursive space called "history," various debates regarding the Kiki intersect. These debates include competition between diverse approaches to the Kiki, such as: (1) treating the words as independent texts with distinct logical structures (sakuhinron ); (2) searching for original texts that served as sources for the derivative Kiki (seiritsuron ); (3) conflicts over the Western and imperial calendars in determining dates (kinenron ); and (4) whether one should accept the depiction of the divine age as historical fact or as a product of psychological reality. The expansive discursive space today called "history" allows the discussant to read into history a variety of positions and perspectives.

By emphasizing the unique canonical status of the Kiki texts, the modern approach has treated them as the shared memory of the nation. The understanding of "Japanese mythology" is a discourse produced within these developments.

This discussion has traced the transformations that the discursive space surrounding the Kiki underwent through the ancient, medieval, and modern period. The ancient period, in the sense employed here, begins with the reign of Tenmu (673686 ce) and ends in the early Heian period (tenth century ce). The medieval period stretches from the Kamakura period (11801333 ce) through the Muromachi period (13361573 ce). The modern period begins in the late Edo period (late eighteenth century onwards). The late Heian period, which produced the Japanese chronicle texts during the cloister governments of retired emperors (inseiki ), corresponds to the transition from the ancient to the medieval period. Likewise, the early Edo period, with the strong influence of Confucian Shintō, corresponds to the transitional phase from the medieval to the modern period. Of course, this periodization is based on the types of textual analysis of the Kiki that were practiced. This chronology does not strictly correspond to the periodization employed by historians in general.

Whether or not current historical research can maintain its critical power depends upon whether we can move beyond acknowledging various historical products outside ourselves, and instead render our own horizon of understanding an object of analysis. To do so does not mean, as in the past, constructing another representation called the "true myths of the Japanese ethnic nation" in order to resist the authority of the emperor system and the Kiki. We can no longer immerse ourselves into the interior of existing texts. Nor does it mean, as in some scholarship on the medieval Japanese chronicles and ancient kingship, projecting modern and Western religious concepts, such as the sacred and profane developed by Euro-American religious studies, directly onto the past. The past must be faced in order to clarify how the structure of discursive space organizes subjectivity, and to understand what forces of integration and opposition are at work within that space. As part of that process, the significations contained within the concept of Japanese mythology must be historically examined in terms of their emergence as a discourse produced by native elites buffeted by waves of modern Westernization.

The discursive space that can be made an object of historical research, though, is only a small part of the memory that once existed within society as a whole, and a privileged part at that. At the same time, one must ask why the specific limited memory of the Kiki became the fountainhead of history, all the while altering the structure of the surrounding discursive space, and why it entranced those enmeshed in that space for so long. The field of research identified with Japanese mythology must now take up the task of confronting the historical inclinations that have been internalized.

See Also

Amaterasu Ōmikami; Ame no Koyane; Izanagi and Izanami; Jimmu; Jingo; Ōkuninushi no Mikoto; Shintō; Susano-o no Mikoto; Yamato Takeru.


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Isomae Jun'ichi (2005)

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