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Asian History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Japan: Culture and History

John R. Bentley has now completed a major study of the historiography of early Japan . Included in the study are translations of seven texts from the Nara and Heian periods, the most important of which are Kogo shui and Ima kagami. Bentley's primary interest is in Kogo shui, a revisionist text written in the early Heian period by Hironari, a member of the Imibe family, which had once rivaled the Nakatomi (later Fujiwara) as ritualists at the emperor's court. By Hironari's time the Imibe had fallen, even as the Fujiwara, having married into the imperial family, were continuing a steady rise to ever loftier positions in the emperor's service. It was Hironari's contention-and his reason for writing Kogo shui-that the Nakatomi / Fujiwara had deliberately and willfully forced the Imibe out of their positions at court. The Nakatomi / Fujiwara were thus responsible not only for the decline of the Imibe, but also for the falsification of history in order to deny the critical role played by the Imibe as ritualists in court affairs in ancient times.

Bentley is a linguist with a special interest in history. His lengthy chapter on Kogo shui entitled "Toward a Genre" seeks to draw the attention of historians and others to the importance of this often neglected or under-appreciated text. He discusses Kogo shui from a variety of perspectives, including: the character of the text; modem scholarship dealing with it; the argument advanced by its author; and the influence on it of other ancient texts, such as Nihon shoki. This analysis of Kogo shui, along with the translation of it and the six other texts, greatly broadens the field of early Japanese historiography for readers of English. Bentley's translations are smooth; his textual analysis of Kogo shui informative; and his general commentary on early historiography helpful to students of the field. Historiographical Trends in Early Japan is another important contribution to what I hope will be a continuing boom in the study of early Japan .

In order to argue this point, we will start by discussing which genre these works should be classified as. Traditionally these works have been either loosely assigned a classification, or left hanging. This is unfortunate, because these works are important, and should be exposed to greater scrutiny. The most important work in the present volume is Imibe Hironari's Kogo shui, because of Hironari's astute perception of what constitutes `evidence', and how that evidence is preserved. This is a vital element in historiography, especially because some modem scholars tend to assume that earlier societies were less sophisticated than their own. As has been noted from the outset, the major theme of all these works is that of genealogical ties, and how the genealogy of a family is intrinsically tied to the history of the family. In the end, the history of the family is the history of the nation.  

Below is an explanation of the eleven works contained in the present volume, with a comment about each. The works below are listed approximately a in chronological order.  

Jogiski. A biographical work dealing with Prince Shotoku, apparently compiled soon after the death of the prince in 621. Like the precious fragments of Papius in early Christianity, Joguki is only known to the world through several quotes, the largest contained in Shaku nihongi, a commentary of Nihon shoki from the Kamakura era (ca. 1286). Unfortunately, this fragment says nothing about the prince himself, dealing only with the genealogy of Emperor Keitai, the u black sheep in the imperial line. This fragment appears in the appendix.

Norito. I have translated two norito (liturgies) that the Imibe clearly had jurisdiction over, because the name Imibe appears within the text of the liturgy. These are relegated to the appendix. I have tentatively dated these liturgies from the late Asuka era (cf. Bentley 2001a:36) based on the accuracy of the historical spellings. The existence of these liturgies lends credence to Hironari's charge against the Nakatomi, and somewhat contradicts what Naumann argues (2000:49-50) that the Imibe (her Inbe) were only in charge of "preparing and taking care of the offerings." This argument is further developed in the following chapter.

Toshi kaden. Often abbreviated to Kaden. This is a two-volume work, divided into two branches of the early Fujiwara family. The first volume deals  with Kamatari, who received the Fujiwara name, and his sons, Joe and Fubito. The second volume deals with Kamatari's grandson, Muchimaro. Only the first volume has been included in the present work. This record was compiled by Fujiwara Nakamaro (710-764) between 761 and 763. Overall it indirectly parallels the text in Shoki, but since much of the style is clearly different, the reader must conclude that the work has relied on independent though similar information. What can be said is that an original group of documents from the late Asuka period has become somewhat hagiographic under the brush of Nakamaro.

The end of the first volume says, "The two records of Kamatari's sons, Joe and Fubito, are in a separate volume." Unfortunately, the record of Fubito no longer exists. The extant portion of Joe is a mere two pages long, but it is historically important, and I have included it in the appendix.

Takahashi ujibumi. This is a biographical work dealing with the genealogy and hereditary position of the Takahashi, imperial stewards at court. The work

Historiographical Trends in Early Japan by John R. Bentley (Japanese Studies V. 15: Edwin Mellen) There has recently been a boom in the study of early Japan by scholars writing in English. In the past decade or so, monographs have been published on such subjects as the origins of warfare and the Japanese warrior, early kingship, and important ancient texts, including the "Record of the People of Wa" (Wajinden) in the Chinese Wei Dynastic History. In addition, volumes one and two of the Cambridge History of Japan have finally been issued after many years in preparation.

 originated from a dispute with the Azumi family over precedent and order in serving food at important ceremonies. In order to judge whom was right in the matter, the court ordered each family to produce its history. The work appears to have existed since the early Nara era, but it took its final shape around 792, when presented to the court of Emperor Kammu. Unfortunately, the work is no longer extant, and is known to the world through various long quotes.

Gangoji garan engi. This is the oldest extant example of the engi or `temple record' dealing primarily with the history of the temple. This record is important because it also explains the situation at court when Buddhism was introduced to Japan . The colophon of the Gangoji manuscript is dated the eleventh day of the second month of 747. Scholars believe the record took its final form near the end of the Nara era, but the original record has been`lost. In the twelfth century, a priest, Jishun (*,) compiled the current record by taking large segments from the original. Various pieces of evidence also point to the fact that the original compiler manipulated some material to show Gangoji had more authority over some land and assets than it originally had, but there is also evidence that parts of the record are much older than the date of compilation. Consider that the spelling convention used to transcribe personal 'and place names perfectly mirrors the Asuka era orthography, and I believe the record has relied on pre-Nara era documents, making the Gangoji record even more valuable.

Two points are worth making about the Gangoji record. First, the record gives an important view of the history of the introduction of Buddhism that is somewhat different than the orthodox version found in Nihon shoki. The date for the introduction of Buddhism is placed fourteen years earlier in Gangoji than in Shoki. While hagiographical in nature, the Gangoji record does give the reader a strong feeling that there was resilient opposition to the importation of a foreign religion. Also, while the Soga family is portrayed in a very kind light, the record also shows that Suiko was as proactive in protecting Buddhism as Soga no Umako. The compilers of Nihon shoki (and Kaden), on the other hand, depict the Soga as power-hungry tyrants. Thus, the basic material for Gengoji engi predates the historiographical maneuvering to discredit the Soga as contained in Nihon shoki.

The second point that may attest to the antiquity of the record is the entire chronology, which matches the chronology in Shoki in some areas, but does not in others. This may testify to the fact that the chronology of the Kimmei-Suiko era was poorly recorded, and historiographers vied to present their version to the court. This fact should take some of the pressure off the compilers of Nihon shoki who are often denigrated by modern historians as nothing more than fabricators of history. The Gangoji record lends evidence that this reconstruction of history at Temmu's court may have been something encouraged by the throne.

The Gangoji record is included because it is mainly concerned with the history of the temple, the importation of Buddhism, and the court, while later temple records tend to been more concerned about supernatural events surrounding the temple. In this respect, the Gangoji record is an important attempt at historiography in early Japan .

Kogo shui. This is one of the most important works in the present collection. Analogous to the dispute between the Takahashi and Azumi, the Imibe found themselves hedged in by the powerful Nakatomi. Imibe Hironari g appealed to the court of Heizei for assistance, and compiled a small work to show historical precedent in religious ceremonies. He appended eleven specific grievances to the work. Hironari presented his work to the throne in the beginning of 807. It contains several stories and anecdotes seen in no other work, and also shows an important aspect of how the early Japanese viewed their own history and its assessment. Motoori Norinaga's defense of this work, Kogo shui gisaiben, has been included in the appendix.

Jogu shotoku taishi hoo teisetsu. This is a laconic, haphazard biographical work dealing with Prince Shotoku. It is an important record, however, with information that supplements the text in Nihon shoki. Scholars theorize that Teisetsu was a compilation by a bonze at Horyfji who had a large store of now lost records at his disposal (cf. Ienaga 1970). From internal orthographical evidence, scholars know that much of the material comes from the Suiko era, but that does not mean the work originated from that early era. There are some doubts in scholarly circles about the date of compilation, but the general consensus fixes it around the early Heian era (cf. Inoue 1984.1:385).

Wake Kiyomaro den. This is a short work dealing with the important political figure, Fujino (later Wake) Kiyomaro. Some believe this brief record was copied from the record in Nihon koki, but because of the following three reasons, I believe the record found in Gunsho ruiju to be the older (original).

1) Nihon koki's style is tighter, showing due respect to various parts of the court. For example, when the Emperor is about to dispatch Kiyomaro to Usa Shrine to discover the will of the deities regarding Dokyo's desire to ascend the throne, the Gunsho manuscript says, "I saw a dream in which a servant had been dispatched from the Usa Hachiman Shrine. He said to me, 'I have a message requesting that the nun, Hokin, be sent here.' In reply I said, `Hokin is feeble and it would be difficult to negotiate the long journey. In her place I will dispatch Kiyomaro.' Thus go there and hear what the oracle has to say."

The version in Nihon koki reads (italicized sections vary from the Gunsho version):  "I saw a dream in which a person calling himself a servant from the Usa Hachiman Shrine came. He said to me, `I have a message requesting that the nun, Hokin, be sent here.' In reply I said, `Hokin is feeble and it would be difficult to negotiate the long journey. In her place I will dispatch Kiyomaro.' You thus will go there quickly and hear what the oracle has to say" (Kuroita 1984:18).

Also, while the Gunsho ruijfi version uses Kiyomaro's name and title as a prologue to the biography, the text in Nihon koki adds the word `died', making it a declaratory statement.

2) The Gunsho text contains more information than the record in Nihon koki. As a simple example, the following appears in Nihon koki:

"On the day he worshipped at the shrine, Kiyomaro was able to stand at last. Through the oracles of the shrine, 80,000 ton of divine ceremonial cotton was bestowed upon Kiyomaro (ibid.)."

The same section in Gunsho contains an additional passage (which is italicized): "On the day he worshipped at the shrine, Kiyomaro was able to stand at last. Through the oracles of the shrine, one divine sword, a pair of male and female cattle, and 80,000 tons of ceremonial cotton were bestowed upon Kiyomaro."

The fuller account should mean that it is the original, but in some circles' in Japan, when a work is assumed to be lost, and two fragments exist, the fuller) fragment is usually condemned as the newer of the two. I believe the compilers s of Nihon koki abbreviated the original record due to spacial limitations, and I, view the fuller version as the older.

3) The death date for Kiyomaro's older sister, Hiromushi, is different from that in Nihon koki. Gunsho says Hiromushi died in 798, first month, nineteenth day, while Nihon koki says 799, first month, twentieth day. If someone in the Wake family had copied this account out of Nihon koki, these; discrepancies should have been corrected. I thus date this record sometime after 806, viewing the establishment of Kobun'in by Hiroyo as taking place after Kiyomaro had died (in 799). Also, it would take at least a few years for this, private school to accumulate the thousands of books it later possessed. Thus we deem it proper to date the compilation of this record around 815-20.

Ima kagami. This is the newest work in the compilation, inserted at the; end to illustrate the end result, or what state Japanese historiography had, congealed into by the end of the Heian era. Most believe Ima kagami to be a compilation of Fujiwara Tametsune, completed after 1170, though some think it, to be the work of Nakayama Tadachika. Ima kagami continues the tradition of Okagami, itself a continuation of the quasi-historical form in Eiga monogatari. I have given broad quotations from various sections of the text, since it has never been translated into English.

Samurai: An Illustrated History by Mitsuo Kure (Tuttle) beside being a topnotch survey of the history and culture of the samurai, this book has distinctive design qualities with a exceptional use of color and b&w illustrations. Highly recommended. They fought for property, lands, and money--and sometimes even for honor. The violent, tumultuous, and surprisingly elegant world of the medieval Japanese samurai is brought vividly to life in Samurai: An Illustrated History. The long bloody era of the samurai--when sons killed their fathers, brothers attacked their brothers, wives betrayed their husbands and hosts their guests, and the forces of the samurai rulers destroyed those of the emperors and the monasteries--is depicted here in illustrations, in photos from the weapons collections of major museums, and in photos of meticulous reenactments of famous battles. Dr. Mitsuo Kure vividly details the origins of the samurai and their rise to power, presents a chronological history of the main battles, personnel, and general themes, and makes a thorough study of samurai armor and weaponry, fortifications, and the changes in strategy and armor upon the introduction of firearms and cannon.

Samurai: An Illustrated History traces the story of a unique historical phenomenon: a period of 700 years‑equivalent to the entire stretch of Western history between the reigns of the Crusader king Richard the Lionhearted and of Queen Victoria at the height of the British Empire‑during which are enclosed civilization was dominated by a single warrior caste.

From the 12th  to the 19th  centuries the history c Japan was effectively the history of the samurai‑--the class of professional fighting men. At first they were no more than lowly soldiery employed by the court aristocracy of Kyoto, but the growing power of the provincial warrior clans soon enabled them to brush aside the executive power of the imperial court and to form their own parallel military government. Though individual dynasties came and went in cycles of vigor and decadence, the dominance of the as a class proved uniquely resilient.

Through centuries of warfare, rebellion, and treachery, through invasion and overseas expeditions, the ever‑shifting alliances of samurai families struggled relentlessly for land and power. The great warrior clans were founded by ruthless adventurers, rose to extend over provinces and who regions of the country, and fell in utter ruin. At last from the bloodbath of the Sengoku Jidai--"the age of battles" beginning in the late 15th  century--there emerged three extraordinary leaders who pursued the vision of unifying Japan under a single ruler: Oda Nobunaga, his lieutenant and successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu who fought, plotted, and butchered his way to the ultimate prize.

Early in the 17th  century the victorious Tokugawa shoguns took the deliberate decision to isolate Japan completely; and until U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry anchored off their coast nearly 250 years later the extraordinary medieval world of the samurai was preserved as if in amber. Mitsuo Kure's account ends with the painful birth of modern Japan under the stimulus of that shocking encounter, which finally destroyed the institutions created by the samurai shoguns.

The historical narrative is supported by explanations of samurai armor, weapons, fortifications, tactics, and customs, and illustrated with nearly 300 fascinating color photographs, maps, and sketches, including ancient scroll paintings and surviving suits of armor preserved for centuries in Japanese shrines.

A History of the Development of Japanese Thought by Hajime Nakamura (Kegan Paul) This revised and expanded edition of a classic work traces the development of the history of philosophy in pre-modern Japan. While many historians take the view that Japanese philosophy only started with the Meiji Restoration and the entrance of Western culture into Japan, Hajime Nakamura demonstrates that there has been a long history of philosophy in Japan prior to the Meiji. Beginning in 592 AD, when Japan first became a centralized state and continuing into the early modern era, this work deals with the important problems and salient feature of Japanese philosophical thought at all stages in its development, dealing with subjects such as the philosophical ideas of the Nara and Heian periods, Japanese medieval thought, the major sects of Buddhism, the way of meditation, controversy between Buddhism and Christianity, modern trends in the Tokugawa period, religion and capitalism, Buddhist influences upon Japanese ways of thinking, and the basic features of Japanese philosophical thought.

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People by William Fitzhugh, Chisato O. Dubreuil (University of Washington Press) As most in-depth treatise available in English on Ainu prehistory, material culture, and ethnohistory, Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People is also a well produced book with fine graphic qualities and great integration of text and illustration. Often scholarly volumes have excellent content but are poorly produced and edited while museum volumes are often well produced and edited but lack serious and contemporary scholarly material--they become catalogues of artifacts without real contextualizing material.

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People manages to overcome both of these problems. As a scholarly volume it has excellent content (much of which has not been previously available to non-Japanese speakers) and is well produced and beautifully laid out.

Aside from some small quibbles I have with some other articles seeming truncated for space concerns and others for not presenting enough information (notably the articles dealing with Ainu language/linguistics), I find little to find fault with. Even my concerns about some aspects of the volume are only a request for more, not a complaint with what is in the volume.

Overall this volume does a wonderful job of making contemporary Ainu research accessible to the lay reader while also presenting enough scholarly material to make it worth-while reading for those with a deeper interest in the Ainu. Even though the volume does not deal directly with the area of my research, the amount of knowledge it conveys has forced me to rethink aspects of my own work.


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