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Poems on the Nihonshoki

A week or so ago, I read an interesting article in Monumental Nipponica (Matthieu Felt (2021), Nihongi Banquet Poetry: Rewriting Japanese Myth in Verse, Monumenta Nipponica 76:2, 249–290) about poems written on the Nihonshoki over a thousand years ago.

On half a dozen occasions during the ninth and tenth centuries, the court organised official readings of the Nihonshoki, at which the whole work was read over the period of at least a couple of years. Part of the purpose of this was to simply read it out in Japanese; the Nihonshoki is written in a style called “kanbun”, which basically means that only the kanji characters are written, and they are written in roughly the order that would be used in Chinese, but they are read as Japanese. Over the years, the conventions for this solidified, but the Nihonshoki was one of the first works to be written this way, and it seems that the conventions it used were not obvious. Thus, it was helpful to have an expert simply read it and explain how it should be pronounced. These readings also involved some commentary, and the later ones concluded with banquets, at which 31-syllable tanka poems were composed on topics taken from the Nihonshoki. The article is mainly about what these poems tell us about the reception of the Nihonshoki at that time.

One thing mentioned in passing is that there was a much heavier emphasis on the first two books, the “myths”, than on the later sections. That is something that is still very noticeable today. Another interesting comment was that the poems composed at the early tenth century banquets are roughly contemporary with the Kokinshū, which set the aesthetic standards for tanka for centuries to come, but are very different in tone. There is some overlap in authorship, as well, which suggests that tanka could have gone in a rather different direction. There is a later genre of tanka about the kami and about Shinto practice (as well as tanka on Buddhist themes, of course), but I am not sure how continuous the tradition is — and, in any case, it was not the mainstream.

I also learned something that solved a mystery for me. As I have mentioned before, the Kojiki, which is now the standard source for Japanese myths, was much less popular before the late eighteenth century — it was basically revived by Moto’ori Norinaga. Its surviving manuscripts are fairly late, and it was largely ignored during the Heian period. That had led me to wonder how we know it is genuine. We obviously do, because no-one has ever seriously suggested that it is a later forgery, as they have for the Sendaikujihongi. Part of the answer, it seems, is that the Kojiki was mentioned in the early ninth century lectures on the Nihonshoki, and described as a first draft for the latter work. It looks as though there are enough quotes and references to confirm that the Kojiki we have has bits that are genuine, and internal evidence suggests that the text is all that old. So that is nice to know.

It does raise an interesting point, however. The notes from the first Nihonshoki reading, which can be dated to 815, say that Ō no Yasumaro, the compiler of the Kojiki, also worked on the Nihonshoki. However, the Shokunihongi, the sequel to the Nihonshoki, which was completed in 797, does not mention him. This seems to be taken to show that he did not actually work on it, but I am not sure why. The sources are not that different in date, and the one that is actually about the process of composition of the Nihonshoki is the one that mentions him. It would have been very odd if the two processes had not interacted at all, given that they were happening in the same place at the same time. A source a century after the events can certainly be wrong, but I’m not sure why a conflict with a source eighty years after the events is taken to be decisive evidence for that.

The main claim of the article was that the interpretation of the Nihonshoki was shifting towards taking it as a canonical text that contained all knowledge about the history of Japan, and that demonstrated the peaceful succession of the Imperial line. However, the conclusion also notes that, within another century, it seemed to have dropped out of mainstream awareness almost completely. People had heard of it, but did not know what was in it. So perhaps we are looking at evidence of a failed attempt to create a canonical text for Shinto.

There were a few points that struck me as a bit odd. Felt describes Ukëmochi as a “minor, nearly invisible figure” (p. 280), when she plays a central role in one of the more memorable myths in the Nihonshoki. It’s true that she doesn’t appear anywhere else in that text, and that her identification with Inari may well be later, but there are much more minor kami than that — one of whom actually comes up in the article, because a poem was written about him. Similarly, in a footnote (p. 277, fn 97), he says, “For instance, compositions on Toyotamahime and Tamayorihime emphasize their role as mothers in the imperial line, even though both deities predate the founding of the empire”. This is true, but Tamayorihimë is the mother of Jinmu Tennō, the first Tennō, and Toyotamahimë is his grandmother, so emphasising their role as mothers in the imperial line does not seem unreasonable — and they both postdate Amaterasu Ōmikami’s entrusting of the country to Ninigi-no-Mikoto.

Overall, it was a very interesting article, and it is good to know a bit more about the role of Shinto myths in Japanese society.

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