Kojiki Criticism

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Basil Hall Chamberlain (essay date 1882)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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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 Ko-ji-ki or Records of Ancient Matters, which was completed in A.D. 712. It is the most important because it has preserved for us more faithfully than any other book the mythology, the manners, the language, and the traditional history of Ancient Japan. Indeed it is the earliest authentic connected literary product of that large division of the human race which has been variously denominated Turanian, Scythian and Altaic, and it even precedes by at least a century the most ancient extant literary compositions of non-Aryan India. Soon after the date of its compilation, most of the salient features of distinctive Japanese nationality were buried under a superincumbent mass of Chinese culture, and it is to these Records and to a very small number of other ancient works, such as the poems of the "Collection of a Myriad Leaves" and the Shinto Rituals, that the investigator must look, if he would not at every step be misled into attributing originality to modern customs and ideas, which have simply been borrowed wholesale from the neighbouring continent.

It is of course not pretended that even these Records are untouched by Chinese influence: that influence is patent in the very characters with which the text is written. But the influence is less, and of another kind. If in the traditions preserved and in the customs alluded to we detect the Early Japanese in the act of borrowing from China and perhaps even from India, there is at least on our author's part no ostentatious decking out in Chinese trappings of what he believed to be original matter, after the fashion of the writers who immediately succeeded him. It is true that this abstinence on his part makes his compilation less pleasant to the ordinary native taste than that of subsequent historians, who put fine Chinese phrases into the mouths of emperors and heroes supposed to have lived before the time when intercourse with China began. But the European student, who reads all such books not as a pastime but in order to search for facts, will prefer the more genuine composition. It is also accorded the first place by the most learned of the native literati.

Of late years this paramount importance of the Records of Ancient Matters to investigators of Japanese subjects generally has become well known to European scholars; and even versions of a few passages are to be found scattered through the pages of their writings. Thus Mr. Aston has given us, in the Chrestomathy appended to his "Grammar of the Japanese Written Language," a couple of interesting extracts; Mr. Satow has illustrated by occasional extracts his elaborate papers on the Shintō Rituals printed in these "Transactions," and a remarkable essay by Mr. Kempermann published in the Fourth Number of the "Mittheilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur und Völkerkunde Ostasiens," though containing no actual translations, bases on the accounts given in the Records some conjectures regarding the origines of Japanese civilization whith are fully substantiated by more minute research. All that has yet appeared in any European language does not, however, amount to one-twentieth part of the whole, and the most erroneous views of the style and scope of the book and its contents have found their way into popular works on Japan. It is hoped that the true nature of the book, and also the true nature of...

(The entire section is 45,318 words.)