Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Japanese Historians


Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945.
The age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu.

John S. Brownlee

UBC Press
ISBN 9 780774806459
256pp


In front of Heian Shrine in Kyoto is a small sign in English giving a short history of the shrine, and one phrase jumped out at me.... "2660 years of Imperial rule".
This is of course a totally absurd number, with the current Imperial line MAYBE going back about 1600 years. It's the equivalent of stating that Columbus discovered America in the 4th Century and not the 15th Century.
The date of 660BC comes from the Kojiki, a book written in the early 8th Century to justify the Yamato Clan's rise to power, and to "correct" false versions of history. The early part of the Kojiki concerns itself with the founding myths of Japan, but even nowadays the Kojiki is treated as history by some, in a way some people view the Bible as history.
Brownlee's excellent book looks at how Japanese historians have dealt with the founding myths since 1600, when a new generation of neo-Confucian scholars discovered that the dates used in the Kojiki were completely inaccurate. In the later Edo-period, a new school of thought arose called Kokugaku, National Learning, and they sought to return to a "pure" Japanese thought before the introduction of Chinese thought and culture. They believed the myths were historical truth. When the Meiji Restoration occured, and the new government attempted to create a new Japan based firmly on the Imperial institution, they adopted the Kokugaku view. From then until the 1930's, historians were intimidated, pressured, and coerced, until every single Japanese historian claimed publicly that the founding myths were historical truth.
The chapter on notable Japanese historians of the 1930's examines in details the lives of these men and how they succumbed to the nationalism that drove Japan.
There is an epilogue that looks at the situation in post-war japan, and this could be a book of its own, as even though scholarship is no longer so tightly controlled by the State, education is, and the national myths still occupy a position that overlaps into history. February 11th, the date the Kojiki gives for tyhe ascension of Jimmu, is still the National Foundation Day, a brief look at Japanese tourist websites will reveal that Jimmu is written about as the "first Japanese Emperor", not the mythical first Emperor, and a recent Junior High School history text book has a map of Jimmu's advance from Kyushu to the Kinai, without making it clear that this is myth, and not history.
Excellent book providing background material to the current problems with Japanese school history books.

1 comment:

  1. Ojisanjake,

    Thanks for the book review. I'll have to get my hands on a copy. It's really hard to break people out of the thinking that imagines "Japan" as some timeless, homogeneous entity and not a modern creation like all other nation-states.

    Great post.

    Best,

    Taintus

    ReplyDelete

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