This year marks the 1300th anniversary of the completion of the Nihonshoki.
The Nihonshoki is the first official history of Japan, starting from the creation of Japan, and continuing up to the reign of Jitō Tennō at the end of the seventh century. It is a very important source for early Japanese history, and an even more important source for Japanese myth.
Although the Kojiki, which was completed in 712, and is thus slightly older, is more famous today, the Nihonshoki is the more important text for the study of myth. This is because it contains more than one version of most of the myths it includes, one of which is almost always extremely close to the version in the Kojiki, while others can be very different. (There are important exceptions: a sequence of myths about Ōkuninushi no Ōkami and the lands of Izumo that are only found in the Kojiki.) For example, while the Kojiki has Amaterasu Ōmikami born when her father, Izanagi, purifies himself after returning from the land of the dead, the main version of the Nihonshoki has her born from Izanagi’s wife, Izanami, while another version has her born when Izanagi looks into a mirror.
Throughout history, people have picked and chosen among these versions of the myths to find the ones that best suit their purposes. There is, for example, one version of the birth of the ancestor of the Tennō in which he is not the son of Amaterasu Ōmikami, but rather of Susano’o, her brother. That version gets ignored by the Shinto establishment (and, it must be admitted, the idea that the Tennō are descended from Amaterasu Ōmikami is found throughout the other myths). On the other hand, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the “Three Great Divine Promises” to the Tennō, but none of the versions of the relevant myth include all three. It also means that there is almost no sign of “mythical literalism” in contemporary Shinto. It is rather hard to believe that the myths are literally true when the main source provides several contradictory versions without comment.
From the time of Jinmu Tennō, the mythical first Tennō, the Nihonshoki stops providing alternative versions and starts providing dates, and there are some people who believe that these stories are literally true. Serious scholars, however, are clear that they are not, although they may be based on actual events. On the other hand, pretty much everyone agrees that the Nihonshoki is a reliable, albeit partisan, source for the events of the seventh century, particularly the late seventh century. After all, those were events that were still within living memory when it was written down. There is serious debate about the parts in between, which are generally thought to be mythologised history. For example, the Nihonshoki talks about the foundation of Jingū. We know that Jingū was founded. We are fairly sure that the date given in the Nihonshoki is too early. But there is a lot of room for discussion over whether the story is largely accurate, but about a later date, or largely made up for political purposes.
As I have got to know the Nihonshoki better, I have come to prefer it to the Kojiki, particularly for the many versions of the myths that it offers. My Patreon essays about the myths tend to draw on it heavily.
Oh, and why have I posted this today? Because the Nihonshoki was completed 1300 years ago on the Lunar calendar, and today is the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Happy birthday and Happy new year to the Nihonshoki!
What are the “Three Divine Promises;” I can’t find them anywhere in English…
There might be different translations. In any case, that’s a bit too much for a comment, but a good topic for a future blog post.