Theses Doctoral

Rewriting the Past: Reception and Commentary of Nihon shoki, Japan's First Official History

Felt, Matthieu Anthony James

This study traces the diverse interpretations of Japan’s oldest official history, the 720 Nihon shoki, from its earliest scholarly treatment in the ninth century until its enshrinement within the canon of Japanese national literature in the modern period. Elites in the early eighth century produced a number of texts that described the fundamental principles of the world and the contours of the Japanese empire, such as Kojiki (712), Kaifūsō (751), Man’yōshū (late 8th c.), and as the official court narrative, Nihon shoki. While each of these possesses its own “imperial imagination,” Nihon shoki is distinct because it heavily incorporates historical polities across Northeast Asia, especially on the Korean peninsula, in creating a narrative of ancient Japan in the world. Further, Nihon shoki, while written primarily in Literary Sinitic, also includes elements of the Japanese vernacular, and rather than delineating a single orthodox narrative, provides a number of alternative, conflicting accounts of Japanese mythology. These characteristics animated much of the debate surrounding the text’s proper reading and meaning as later commentators grappled with its exegesis.
The dissertation comprises an introduction and five chapters. The first chapter analyzes the discourse surrounding the Nihon shoki in the eighth and ninth centuries, when lectures were periodically given on the text at court. The notes from these lectures reveal controversies over how the text was composed and the proper method of reading it. After the lectures, courtiers composed Japanese poetry about major figures depicted in the work, frequently creating new mythologies that departed from the original as they sought to connect their vision of antiquity with the present. The poems also demonstrate the use of digests and alternative texts that were used as stand-ins for Nihon shoki. I discuss two of these in detail, Kogo shūi (807) and Sendai kuji hongi (c. 936), and show how they took advantage of ambiguities in Nihon shoki to position themselves as authoritative accounts.
In Chapter 2, I take up approaches that used Nihon shoki as an originary narrative from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. This type of treatment begins to appear to a limited degree in poetic treatises such as Minamoto no Toshiyori’s Toshiyori zuinō (1113) and Fujiwara no Nakazane’s Kigōshō (1116) and became widespread through the middle of the twelfth century. These same mid-century scholars were also responsible for producing picture scrolls based on the text and the first Nihon shoki commentary, Shinzei’s Nihongi shō (circa 1150). As the trend intensified, citations began to go further and farther afield, often attributing stories and facts to Nihon shoki that are not in the original text. Use of Nihon shoki as an originary narrative was also adopted in political treatises by commentators such as Jien (1155-1225), and I discuss the methods and acrobatic intellectual maneuvers of these agents in blending Buddhist and continental cosmology with the Nihon shoki creation story. I focus especially on Jien’s Gukanshō (c. 1220) and Ichijō Kaneyoshi’s (1402-1481) Nihon shoki sanso (1457).
Chapter 3 begins with the uneasy syncretism between Nihon shoki and Song Confucian metaphysics in the seventeenth century. Works in this lineage, such as Hayashi Razan’s Jinmu tennō ron (1618), imagine the gods as metaphors for human actors and form the mainstream of intellectual treatment of Nihon shoki in the Edo period. Other Confucian thinkers, such as Yamazaki Ansai, instead read the gods as factual and use Nihon shoki as evidence of universal Confucian metaphysics; in Ansai’s case the result was an entirely new school of Shinto, and his disciples were responsible for the first two commentaries that covered the entire text. One response to this was a reading that prioritized continental histories over the Nihon shoki chronicles, epitomized by the full-length commentary Shoki shukkai (c. 1785). Another arose in the nascent discipline of national learning, exemplified by Motoori Norinaga’s (1730-1801) criticism of Ansai. Norinaga went on to write a full commentary of the Kojiki, but his reading relied heavily on Nihon shoki, and he cites it more than any other text in his narrative of Japan’s divine age.
Chapter 4 introduces a diversity of approaches that attempt to reconcile Nihon shoki with the ideal of a modern national history at the end of the nineteenth century. I begin outlining an 1888 debate that continued for nearly a year over the chronology of Nihon shoki; producing an accurate chronology of Japanese history was considered critical to measuring Japan’s societal progression in comparison to other civilizations. I then discuss historical and linguistic study of the divine age from 1890-1912. Contemporary scholarship often misreads these accounts as being based in positivist historicism, but I show that they are actually rooted in original reinterpretations of Nihon shoki that mix-and-match variant pieces to create a new imperial narrative. Particular attention is given to how such readings were used to justify colonial expansion to Korea.
Chapter 5 addresses Nihon shoki’s shifting position in national literature by analyzing several histories of Japanese literature written from 1890 to 1912, especially Takatsu Kuwasaburō and Mikami Sanji’s Nihon bungaku shi and Haga Yaichi’s Kokubungakushi jikkō. The variety of interpretations applied to Nihon shoki illustrate major shifts in ideas about what constituted literature, how literary periods should be divided, the role of academics in creating a national canon, and whether literature should focus on universal characteristics of civilization or particular attributes of national culture. By the end of this period, emphasis on the idea of a shared national language led scholars to sideline Nihon shoki in favor of texts written in something more closely resembling the Japanese vernacular like Kojiki and Man’yōshū. It also cemented the eighth-century as “Ancient Japanese Literature” (jōdai bungaku), a field periodization still in place today.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lurie, David B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 10, 2017