Kojiki Essay - Critical Essays



Kojiki 712

Compilation of Japanese myths, history, and genealogy.

The roots of the Kojiki—a collection of tales from ancient Japanese mythology and history—appear to reach back beyond human record. Known in English as "Record of Ancient Matters," the Kojiki may constitute "the start of Japanese prose literature," in the words of critic Masao Yaku. The Kojiki has no single author, since it is the product of individual efforts extended over almost a century. Early in the seventh century, the noble families of the Japanese empire kept their own mythologies and genealogical records, and many of the versions provided different, sometimes contradictory accounts of Japanese history. The earliest attempt—circa 620—to consolidate these histories came from an imperial desire to a create a single, consistent record that would give credence to the emperor's sovereignty. By 681, Emperor Temmu became the most zealous advocate of this work, assigning the project to Hiyeda no Are, an attendant at his court sometimes identified as male and sometimes as female who apparently possessed what is commonly referred to as a photographic memory. Whether she made a written version is unclear, but it is known that when Temmu died before the record could be completed, the project lapsed for twenty-five years. In 711, Empress Gemmio rejuvenated the effort, ordering the scholar Yasumaro to capture Are's memory in writing. This time, the work was finished in just four months.

Major Plots and Characters

Editors generally divide the Kojiki into three parts: the age of the gods, which is primarily mythical; the age of gods and men; and the age of men, which emphasizes the genealogies of noble families and has much to do with the history of the Japanese empire. Although liberally mixing mythological legend with dry genealogical record, the Kojiki is chronologically comprehensive, covering the epochs of Japanese culture from the earliest, legendary records to the beginning of the seventh century A.D.

Like the mythologies of many cultures, the Kojiki begins with creation. The first tales relate the inception of the universe and are soon followed by the creation of gods, who multiply quickly. Most students of the Kojiki feel that the significant material begins with the brother and sister deities Izanagi and Izanami, whose union produces the islands that make up Japan. They also people the world they have created with a family of gods related to such natural forces as fire, the moon, and the sun. The most prominent of these, whose actions dominate the first third of the Kojiki, are the Sun Goddess and her brother, Susano-o, or the "Impetuous Male Deity." These two, along with their sister, the Moon Goddess, inherit the universe from their father. Much of the first part of the Kojiki focuses on Susano-o's antics, particularly his conflicts with the Sun Goddess. Susano-o usually embodies the quintessential rebel, similar to characters in the mythologies of other cultures. The tales also closely follow his offspring, who apparently begin the empire's royal line.

The second and third sections of the record revolve more explicitly around the lineage of the royal family. They progress from fantastic tales of supernatural beings to stories of ancient emperors and empresses, including Jimmu, Sojin, the traditional Japanese hero Yamato-Take, and Jin-go, who conquered Korea. The scope of the work encompasses at least 17 monarchs and documents in detail the genealogies of centuries of noble families.

Major Themes

Scholars have generally discussed the Kojiki in terms of two central themes: the literary, with an emphasis on internal coherence, and the political, with an emphasis on the right of sovereignty. The two areas overlap to the extent that they focus on struggle, which all readers easily discern in the content of the Kojiki. Russian critic N. I. Conrad assigned distinct struggles to each of the sections of the Kojiki, boiling them down to the struggle for heaven, the struggle for earth, and the struggle for the empire on earth. Some literary discussions have reduced this even further, casting the entire work as one kind of struggle, such as the conflict between sun and storm or between sun and volcano. Political analyses treat the struggle in more concrete terms, taking a cue from the inception of the work with seventh-century emperors. These critics relate the content of the Kojiki directly to Emperor Temmu and Empress Gemmio's desire to create indisputable evidence of their right to rule, compelling the records of other noble families to conform.

Textual History

Unlike many early medieval texts, the complete Kojiki has remained intact to the present day. Diligently copied by Shinto priests, the tales survived in manuscript form through the Middle Ages. The earliest extant manuscript dates from 1371-72 and was followed by many later manuscripts. When much of Japanese literature went into print in the seventeenth century, the Kojiki was no exception. First printed in 1644, the record found a general readership and a significance that led to many more editions in the centuries that followed. By the nineteenth century, the editions were accompanied by many translations and volumes of criticism.

Critical Reception

Only eight years after its completion, the Kojiki was eclipsed by the Nihon shoki, or "Chronicles of Japan," and thus never achieved the status of an official history. While the Nihon shoki covers much the same territory, it displays the greater polish and consistency that scholars attribute to Chinese influence. The Kojiki, consequently, was comparatively neglected through the Middle Ages until it enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the seventeenth century that was probably spurred by the kokugaku, or "native learning" movement. Vital to this reevaluation was the work of Motoori Noringa, usually identified as the first great Kojiki scholar; he finished his extensive commentary, the Kojiki-den, in 1798, just three years before his death. By the nineteenth century, the Kojiki—often seen as more genuinely Japanese—rivalled the Nihon shoki in importance.

Previous to the eighteenth century, orthodox readings of the Kojiki insisted on literal interpretations of all its records, even the most fantastic supernatural events, much as some readers of the Bible insist on its facutality. Beginning in the eighteenth century, a more secular readership initiated a tradition of interpreting the Kojiki allegorically. Most twentieth-century criticism falls into one of two secular fields: cultural history or literary criticism. In the first instance, scholars read the Kojiki for some evidence of Japanese life in ancient times, combing the earlier sections in particular for evidence of Japan's early belief systems and daily life. This field also encompasses political analyses, which treat the Kojiki as part of an effort to consolidate imperial power, an idea first proposed by historian Tsuda Sokichi in 1913. The literary analyses often involve arguments about the work's consistency and internal coherence. While the Kojiki has generally been viewed as an awkward and inconsistent aggregation of tales, some recent scholars have insisted on its "harmony of style" and "symmetrical contours," in the words of Alexander Vannovsky.

Principal English Translations

Translation of "Kojiki" or "Records of Ancient Matters" (translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain) 1882

The Story of Ancient Japan or Tales from the Kojiki (translated by Yaichiro Isobe) 1929

Kojiki (translated by Donald L. Philippi) 1969


Basil Hall Chamberlain (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: Basil Hall Chamberlain, in his introduction to Translation of "Ko-Ji-Ki "; or, "Records of Ancient Matters, " second edition, J. L. Thompson & Co., 1932, pp. i-lxxxi.

[Chamberlain, a professor of Japanese and Philology at the Imperial University of Tokyo, was responsible for bringing many central works of classical Japanese literature into English. His translation of the Kojiki, first printed in 1882, has remained authoritative; excerpts from his original introduction appear below.]

Of all the mass of Japanese literature, which lies before us as the result of nearly twelve centuries of bookmaking, the most important monument is the work entitled...

(The entire section is 24748 words.)

Alexander Vannovsky (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Alexander Vannovsky, in an introduction and "The Search for a Subject," in Volcanoes and the Sun, Bridgeway Press, 1960, pp. 11-29, 68-83.

[Previous to 1960, scholars cast the central conflict of the Kojiki in terms of sun and storm; Vannovsky amended these to sun and volcano, noting both the significance of volcanoes in Japanese geology and culture and their absence as explicit references in the Kojiki. In the first part of the following excerpt, he relates the essential material of the mythological portion of the Kojiki focusing especially on the Susano-o tales. In the second part, Vannovsky examines that portion through the lens of his central thesis.]...

(The entire section is 9045 words.)

Masao Yaku (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Masao Yaku, "Love Songs" and "The Theme of the Kojiki," in The Kojiki in the Life of Japan, translated by G. W. Robinson, The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1969, pp. 82-121, 122-50.

[In the following excerpt, the Kojiki is presented as a unified, literary work designed to provide a "basis and origin" for the Emperor's sovereignty. Combining literary and political analyses, Yaku contends that the "principle of conflict, fusion, and harmony" facilitates "an account of the creation of a state with centralized power brought about by the submission to the emperor of the chieftans and heads of clans at the base. "]

Were one to define...

(The entire section is 5262 words.)

Wieslaw Kotanski (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Wieslaw Kotański, "The Belief in Kotodama and Some Earlier Misinterpretations of Kojiki," in European Studies on Japan, edited by Ian Nish and Charles Dunn, Paul Norbury Publications, 1979, pp. 237-42.

[In the following essay, Kotański discusses the significance of proper names in the Kojiki, charging that earlier translators had neglected to pay them sufficient attention.']

While preparing the Polish translation of Kojiki, I have consulted some earlier European interpretations of that work, namely those of Chamberlain, Florenz and Philippi, and I have of course observed that they reveal no tendency to engage in translating the...

(The entire section is 2732 words.)

Fuminobu Murakami (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Fuminobu Murakami, "Incest and Rebirth in Kojiki," in Monumenta Nipponica: Studies in Japanese Culture, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 455-63.

[In the excerpt that follows, Murakami grapples with the role of incest in the Kojiki, arguing that it is integral to the text's notion of eternal life.]

In Kojiki…, Izanami … is referred to as an imo…, a term meaning both wife and younger sister in ancient Japanese, and scholars have generally considered this to mean that she was only the wife, and not the sister, of Izanagi….1 The first scholar to suggest an incestuous union between the two was Oka Masao …, who claimed that...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)

Further Reading

Isobe, Yaichiro. The Story of Ancient Japan or Tales from the Kojiki. Tokyo: San Kaku Sha, 1929.

Presents select tales from the Kojiki in simple and clear language, making the stories accessible to young readers.

Kawai, Hayao. "The Hollow Center in the Mythology of Kojiki." Review of Japanese Culture and Society 1, No. 1 (October 1986): 72-77.

Analyzes the concept of space defined by the Kojiki and argues that the concept is integral to Japanese culture in general.

Kidder, J. E., Jr. "The Protohistoric Period." In Japan Before...

(The entire section is 267 words.)