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International Symposium “Perspectives on Japanese history and literature from ancient historical records”

International Symposium Report

International Symposium: Perspectives on Japanese history and literature from ancient historical records

After opening remarks by Professor Hisao Takamatsu and a description of the objectives of the symposium by Professor Akio Kawajiri, both of Waseda University, the speakers began to report their findings.

The first presentation during the morning session was by Vanderbilt University Assistant Professor Bryan Lowe and titled “Poignant Teachings Preached in Villages: Focusing on Tōdaiji Fujumonkō and Local Buddhism” In the presentation, Lowe reconsidered the conceptualization of “state Buddhism versus the Buddhism of the masses,” arguing that there are problems with very concept of mass Buddhism and also noting issues concerning the main figures and leaders of ancient Buddhism. Because it has been argued that alms and precept-receiving ceremonies enabled people to escape from poverty, it can be assumed that Buddhist belief extended to the impoverished at the local level, in addition to existing at the national and regional levels. Concerning the leaders and principal actors in the acceptance of Buddhism, Lowe said that it is not conceivable that the state alone could have been the principal actor; rather, we should assume that there were numerous such actors. Thus, Lowe argued that it is necessary to consider the principal roles played at the local level and among the impoverished.

Lowe’s report was based on an actual document, Tōdaiji Fujumonkō, reaffirming the need for more-precisely argued discussions of how Buddhism came to be accepted in Japan during this period that accord with the available documents. It has long been noted that there are issues of readership; it may very well be essential to discussing any document to include in one’s perspective a consideration of the document’s intended readership. Assumptions about the readership of a document are also directly connected to how one understands the document’s character. With this report, one could say that Lowe demonstrated that such considerations are critical even to how we ultimately understand large historical frameworks.

The next presentation, by Keio University Assistant Professor Makoto Fujimoto, was titled “Issues Concerning the Use of Nihon Ryōiki as a Historical Source: Based on the Status of Recent Research into Ancient Japanese History and Early Japanese Literature.” First, Fujimoto presented an organized history of studies concerning the use of Nihon Ryōiki as a historical source and recapitulated important matters such as the perspective from which the text was understood at locations of Buddhist ritual—including gatherings for teaching the dharma and temples—and the perspective by which the text was understood as a practical religious document. Focusing on the ninth “link” (tale) of the middle volume of Nihon Ryōiki, Fujimoto demonstrated how the influence of the state’s Buddhist policies were apparent in the composition of the tale. Additionally, based on the tales concerning the relationships among Buddhist moral precepts in Nihon Ryōiki, it appears that elements of State Buddhism, as understood by the monks of large state-run temples, were laid over the Buddhist worldview that had been brought into local communities. Fujimoto argued that the compilation of Nihon Ryōiki by the monk Kyōkai was a practical religious exercise conducted under the understanding that Kyōkai was writing down the words of the Buddha, thus demonstrating a similar understanding of the task being performed as those who edified students using the words of the Buddha while preaching at dharma-teaching gatherings.

Fujimoto’s argument about the background to the creation of Nihon Ryōiki was more carefully supported with documents and historical sources than is typical. There is a considerable amount of research into early Japanese literature that consists of studies based on textual theory, but Fujimoto’s presentation offered an argument that demonstrated that it is necessary to pursue such research using both ideas of a literary bent and historical findings. All documents and historical sources came into being amid a societal milieu and against a historical backdrop. At the same time, there are always intentions affecting the writing, compilation, and description of writings—even if the relative influence at each stage may vary. Thus, it is surely vital to more deeply consider a text both from a larger, more overarching perspective and from various perspectives based on these separate aspects of the text.

The first presentation in the afternoon was by University of Florida Assistant Professor Matthieu Felt and titled “Nihon Shoki and the Production of Knowledge: Nihongi Kōen in the Heian Court.” Previously, the court lectures on Nihon Shoki (known as nihongi kōen), which were held from the start of the Heian period throughout the early part of the period, have received attention as the locus where myths from sources such as Nihon Shoki and Kojiki were “unified.” (Takamitsu Konoshi) However, Felt criticized such older attitudes, which have treated all nihongi kōen as though they were interchangeable. In this presentation, Felt engaged in a specific comparison: between the preface to Kōnin Shiki (a shiki being a lecture commentary text used in nihongi kōen) by Ō-no-Hitonaga and Teihon, a shiki by Yatabe-no-Kinmochi. Reading the former text reveals that the larger work it prefaced consisted of Nihon Shoki and other texts and was intended to convey historical facts; thus, the value of Nihon Shoki as a source of history was considered an academic issue. By contrast, in the latter text, it is evident that it was taken as given that Nihon Shoki contained absolute truth at the time that shiki was written. This change happened through the several intervening court lectures that took place between the compilation of the two texts. Nihon Shoki was considered a canonical work that had the ability to explain anything, and thus, Felt explained, knowledge was established by drawing connections to this piece of canon.

Felt’s argument that one must understand the characteristics of each nihongi kōen that took place through the shiki commentaries on Nihon Shoki urged a rethinking of the history of studies into the subject. These studies have essentially considered all the nihongi kōen as one, even though they spanned more than a century. Felt also clarified the differences in how Nihon Shoki was regarded, respectively, in the Kōnin and Jōhei eras. It was thus reaffirmed that is essential to analyze the details of individual documents to understand perspectives on Nihon Shoki, a work that, after its compilation, eventually became considered central to understanding ancient history.

The second afternoon speaker was Senior Research Fellow Kuniya Kuwata of Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, whose presentation was titled “Considering the Validity of Nihon Shoki as a Historical Source Based on Mokkan.” There have already been examples of research that have employed Nihon Shoki and mokkan (documents written on wooden strips). Most of these studies have used the method of considering the secondary historical source of Nihon Shoki using the primary historical sources of mokkan. Kuwata’s presentation used mokkan as a means of considering the degree of consistency with which words were written the same way in Nihon Shoki. It is evident from reading Nihon Shoki and the relevant mokkan that a variety of ways of writing even proper nouns were considered permissible. In his presentation, Kuwata focused on specific personal and place names—such as “Wohari” (written as 尾張 or 尾治), “Woharida” (小墾田 or 小治田), and Tajihi (丹比, 多治比, or 蝮)—and demonstrated the differences in the way these terms were written between Nihon Shoki and different mokkan. According to Kuwata, the character 治 tends not to be used in the writing of words in Nihon Shoki. Kuwata suggested that the reason for this was possibly a desire to use characters in a Chinese-style manner.

Kuwata argued that there are clear rules for the characters that are used in Nihon Shoki. By comparing the various ways of writing words that are known to have existed at the time, one should be able to reveal what the compiler of Nihon Shoki was attempting to do. Doing so should help to explain the very history that the work is trying to depict. It truly seems that the mokkan that were the raw historical materials that existed at the time when Nihon Shoki was written should be used more in further research.

Following a break came a presentation by Professor Atsushi Nito’s of the National Museum of Japanese History, “Story and Historical Fact in Nihon Shoki: With an Emphasis on the Process of Formation of Japan’s Founding Myth.” The main character described in the foundation myth of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki is Ōkuninushi-no-Kami (also known as Ōnamuchi). However, Nito hypothesized the existence of a predecessor national foundation myth involving Yamato-no-Ōkunitama-no-Kami. According to this hypothesis, Yamato-no-Ōkunitama-no-Kami was the god worshiped by those appointed Yamato-no-Kuni-no-Miyatsuko and Yamato-no-Atai (titles granted in ancient Yamato province), and Ōkuninushi-no-Kami (Ōnamuchi) was worshipped by the predecessors of those appointed Izumo -Hime and Izumo-no-Miyatsuko (in Izumo province). The change to the latter deity would have happened during the time of the court of Emperor Kinmei. During that era, the construction of, and carrying out of worship at, the original Kizuki Taisha shrine (now the Izumo Ōyashiro shrine) was entrusted to the Izumo-Hime and the Izumo-no-Miyatsuko. The relationship between the original kenpō (nation-creating) deity and the building of shrines found in folklore from the court of Emperor Kinmei, the compilation and the establishment of mythology in Teiki and Kyūji (both texts referenced in Kojiki that are no longer extant), and the coming into force of the system of governing by Kuni-no-Miyatsuko, are all related to one thing: how Ōkuninushi-no-Kami’s ceding of the Japanese archipelago to the deities from whom the emperors of Japan would descend came to have a nuance of emphasizing the subservient role of kokushu (provincial lords). Among the stories in Nihon Shoki, religious matters are concentrated in the text’s accounts of the courts of Emperors Sujin and Suinin. However, based on historical fact, it appears that these accounts reflect events from the reign of Emperor Kinmei and later.

The reign of Emperor Kinmei has long been a period that has received attention for being the time of various epochal events, including the compilation of Kyūji and a precursor text to Teiki. In his presentation, Nito thus emphasized the importance of the reign of Emperor Kinmei in the establishment of the national foundation myth of the ceding of the lands of Japan to the deities said to be the ancestors of the Japanese emperors—an event that could be described as one of the climaxes of the mythic sections of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. However, both Kojiki and Nihon Shoki seem to convey that the system of ritual worship was fully established during the reigns of Emperors Sujin and Suinin. If, as Nito’s hypothesis would have it, the act of concentrating religious events during the reigns of Sujin and Suinin were to have been performed during or after the reign Emperor Kinmei, then it would become necessary to consider methods of uncovering the historical facts regarding Sujin and Suinin, themselves. This report truly made those who heard it curious about the historicity of the reigns of Sujin and Suinin—including in terms of traditional imperial genealogy—and about the “stories” told about both courts (including how the two reigns are now imagined).

The final report was by Professor Hisao Takamatsu and titled “The Diplomatic Document from Baekje in Nihon Shoki.” This presentation was based on Takamatsu’s interest in how the history of Japanese writing is recorded in Nihon Shoki. Takamatsu first showed the audience a table—“List of Writing-Related Entries in Nihon Shoki”—and provided an overview of the parts of the text that express the concept of writing words. Takamatsu then showed a graph, based on the data from the table, titled “Totals for Writing-Related Entries in Nihon Shoki” and noted that epochal divisions concerning written communications are evident in periods such as the reign of Emperor Kinmei, the reign of Empress Suiko, and the period of the Taika Reforms. Takamatsu explained distinguishing features of a letter from Baekje to Emperor Kinmei included in the section covering the third month of the fifth year of Emperor Kinmei’s reign in Nihon Shoki. The letters sent between Emperor Yang of the Chinese Sui dynasty and Empress Suiko are apparently a real correspondence transcribed without changes (excepting some orthographic modifications in places). However, it appears likely that the contents of what were actually oral communications sent via emissaries are also included. Based, in part, on this possibility, one comes to understand the exceptional length of the letter from the third month of the fifth year of Emperor Kinmei’s reign. Additionally, this letter included expressions, such as “ěr qí jiè zhī” and “xǐ jù jiān huái,” that appear in Chinese histories, demonstrating that these expressions had been used often enough to become set phrases before being used within the context of the letter.

As Takamatsu noted during his presentation, Nihon Shoki also has descriptions of historical developments, of which the document speaks approvingly, concerning the principle of filial piety. It is very interesting to find examples, such as those mentioned in Takamatsu’s presentation, that seem to make the era in question stand out in terms of developments in the written word. That this era overlaps with periods—the reigns of Emperor Kinmei and Empress Suiko, and the time of the Taika Reforms—that are already subject to considerable attention (the reign of Emperor Kinmei having just been mentioned in Professor Nito’s presentation) presumably means that some caution is warranted in interpreting these findings. As is the case with filial piety, the question of what ideas the compiler of Nihon Shoki had about the historical development of writing must await further research.

In his commentary, Columbia University Associate Professor David Lurie first posed a question large in scope: “What is the difference between history and literature?” Answering his own question, Lurie said that the more crucial distinction lies has to do with the methods used to approach a topic, rather than in the topic, itself. The two fields have in common that what they study are texts (which Lurie said should be thought of as “imaginary spaces”); it was noted several times during the symposium that the objects of study discussed in the presentations must be approached in a way that intermingles historical and literary studies.

Professor Kimiko Kono of Waseda University started out with comments about each presentation individually. She then posed as an overall question: What does it mean to write and compile words and characters? What are the rules when writing characters and what are the rules when compiling texts? Texts that lay out such rules did exist on the Asian continent, so perhaps the question should be that of what the authors were trying to create while referring to such past examples. Kono’s argument was thus that it is necessary to consider texts comprehensively, including by incorporating research findings from the field of linguistics.

Next, there were replies from the presenters in response to the comments. These responses included discussions of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, the intended purpose of compiling Nihon Ryōiki (including from a Japanese language studies perspective), the reason that the way Nhon Shoki was handled changed in the years between the Kōnin-era and Jōhei-era court lectures on the text, issues concerning reading Nihon Shoki as a Japanese-language—rather than classical Chinese-language—text, the purpose of unifying the way proper names are written, criticism of Nihon Shoki as a historical source, and Confucianism and Confucian rites as they appear in Nihon Shoki. The next round of comments touched upon, among other topics, issues of primary and secondary sources and the Confucian canon. There was a comment from the moderator, Professor Akio Kawajiri, about views regarding the differences between the study of history and the study of literature in terms of how one thinks about one’s perspective while looking at individual parts of texts versus one’s perspective when looking at whole texts. He then asked the presenters for their opinions about how it might be possible to mix the fields of literature and history. Members of the audience also participated with enthusiasm and expressed their opinions, delving even further into such issues as the canon and words, the global canon and Nihon Shoki, reading texts written in classical Chinese as though they were written in Japanese and the act of speaking, and rules and texts.

Typically, history and literature are kept partitioned from one another, even though there are times when the findings in one field are referenced in the other out of necessity. However, as was discussed at this symposium, it may be necessary to more actively intermingle the two fields and have each take in findings from the other if we are to learn about ancient times in their totality. The commentary and question and answer part of the symposium left quite the impression, because of the frequency with which new topics came up one after another, as well as because of the depth of the discussions, themselves.

At the end of the event, Professor Lee Sung-si of Waseda University gave some closing remarks, and the event, which had gone on from the morning into the evening, concluded as a rousing success.

Symposium Overview

  • Title: The International Symposium: “Perspectives on Japanese history and literature from ancient historical records”
  • Event date: January 20, 2019 (Sunday)
  • Schedule: Part 1 10:00 am to 11:30 am; Part 2 12:30 pm to 4:50 pm
  • Venue: Meeting Room 1, 6th floor of Building 33, Toyama Campus, Waseda University

Bryan Lowe (Assistant Professor, Vanderbilt University)
Makoto Fujimoto (Assistant Professor, Keio University)
Matthieu Felt (Assistant Professor, University of Florida)
Kuniya Kuwata, (Senior Research Fellow, Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)
Atsushi Nito (Professor, National Museum of Japanese History)
Hisao Takamatsu (Professor, Waseda University)


David Lurie (Associate Professor, Columbia University”
Kimiko Kono (Professor, Waseda University)


Akio Kawajiri (Professor, Waseda University)

Opening Remarks

Hisao Takamatsu (Professor, Waseda University)

Closing remarks

Lee Sung-si (Professor, Waseda University)

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