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Commentary by Dr. Delmer Brown, Professor Emeritus of History, University of California Berkeley

The Kojiki 古事記 is Japan's oldest extant chronicle. Ôno Yasumaro, its compiler, wrote that on the 18th day of the 9th month of 711 CE he was commanded by Empress Gemmei, then occupying the throne, to record Japan’s Ancient Myth (Kuji 旧辞) correctly. She apparently was demanding that Yasumaro reshape and reword these Myths in ways that would clarify and sanctify one single line of Imperial descent, a line that began with the birth of the Great Goddess Amaterasu in heaven and continued, generation after generation, down to the present reign.

Yasumaro was commanded, in addition, to record Ancient Myths remembered by one Hieda no Are who was reputed to be so intelligent that he could recall, and orally repeat, anything he had ever heard or seen. The Empress undoubtedly knew, or assumed, that Hieda no Are could recall myths that explained and sanctified the Empress’s direct descent from Great Goddess Amaterasu, as well as those that explained and sanctified the supremacy of the Imperial clan over all other clans.

Yasumaro closed his Preface with the statement that he had finished compiling the Kojiki in strict accord with Imperial commands and was submitting his manuscript to Empress Gemmei on the 28th day of the 1st month of the year 712.

Midway through the Preface, Yasumaro quotes the whole of another Imperial command handed down over 30 years earlier. Since this command also called for a compilation of Ancient Myths, it is assumed that Yasumaro inserted it in order to remind his readers that he was complying with the wishes of two sovereigns: the current occupant of the throne, and the great Emperor Temmu (r. 673 to 682) who was considered, even in those ancient times, the principal proponent of the Great Reforms. Fortunately, this command also contains words and phrases that tell us about the kinds of sources Yasumaro was to use, and about Emperor Temmu’s reasons for demanding that these particular Ancient Myths be recorded.

The two sources were: Teiki 帝紀 (Imperial Records) and Kuji 旧辞 (Ancient Myths). Teiki's first character (帝) is properly translated as“imperial” but its meaning for Emperor Temmu was more limited, denoting only emperors and empresses of Japan, each one of whom was a direct descendant of the Great Goddess Amaterasu. And the second character has the radical (糸), which commonly appears in characters for something “written”. Therefore Teiki were written records that showed, above all, how every single Emperor and Empress of Japan was descended directly from the Great Goddess Amaterasu. Emperor Temmu was obviously demanding the use of written Imperial records that no longer exist.

In considering the nature and use of Teiki, we are forced to raise this knotty question: Why did Yasumaro bring the Kojiki to a close with the death of Empress Suiko in 628 ― 84 years before his manuscript was submitted to Empress Gemmei in 712? The reign of Empress Suiko was long (592 to 628) and is thought to have come just when Japan was beginning to blossom as an empire. So why did Yasumaro devote only two short paragraphs to her reign, and say nothing at all about later reigns, even that of Emperor Temmu whose command Yasumaro quoted in full? Was it because a non-Japanese clan, the Soga, was in control of Japan until the coup of 645? Did Yasumaro find it impossible to connect the pre-Soga Imperial descent line with its post-Soga extension without violating the Imperial commands he was required to respect? Was it because he did not know how to deal with reigns during the Soga years and therefore decided to write nothing about even the glorious reigns of his own day?

The second type of source (Kuji 旧辞, Ancient Myths) also carries specific meaning of importance. The first character (旧) does not simply refer to Japanese ancient history but to a much more ancient time when heaven and earth were formed, when the islands of Japan were created by a Kami couple named Izanagi and Izanami, and when the Great Goddess Amaterasu was born. And the second character (辞) does not refer to myths in a general sense but to particular ones that sanctified the birth of every Japanese emperor and empress on one particular line of descent from the Great Goddess. Kuji was also used synonymously with Honji 本辞 (Origin Myths) in the Temmu command. The first character (本) of that word means “origin”. We therefore conclude that Kuji myths were valued first and foremost for what they said about the origin of Japan’s Imperial descent line, in heaven, with the birth of the Great Goddess.

At one point in the Preface, Yasumaro simply states that Empress Gemmei had ordered him to record Kuji, not even mentioning Teiki. This and other statements support the conclusion that the Great Goddess myths gave the Kojiki its most fundamental character. The importance of these myths is also highlighted by the Kojiki's entire first volume, which contains only myths about the ancestors and descendants of the Great Goddess, or about the Kami ancestry of clans controlled by the Imperial clan. Probably it was this chronicle’s mythological character that led editors of the Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei to exclude the Kojiki from their 100-volume collection of ancient Japanese literary texts. Maybe it was the prominence of such myths that has led Japanese friends to refer jokingly to the Kojiki as Japan’s Bible.

One sentence in Emperor Temmu’s command tells us why he was having the Kuji and Teiki accurately recorded. Philippi translates the sentence in this way “This is the framework of the state, the great foundation of the imperial influence.” These two concepts do not appear anywhere else in the Kojiki or the Nihon Shoki. But when considered in context, each one points to an objective of supreme importance to Emperor Temmu and the Great Reforms.

“Framework of the state” clearly refers to the state’s system of control, its bureaucracy. And what is read about political action in Japan at the time of the Great Reform makes one quite certain that Emperor Temmu was intent―in large measure because of constant fear of rebellion at home and invasion from abroad―on doing whatever he could to increase the power of his state and his control over it, as soon as possible. High priority was obviously assigned to creating, staffing, and over-seeing a new Chinese-like bureaucratic system known as the Ritsuryô 律令 order. Indeed, the Great Reform Era (roughly 600 to 900) is commonly referred to as the Ritsuryô Period of Japanese history. The Great Reforms were not limited, however, to the establishment of a modern Chinese-like bureaucracy. Drastic steps were also taken to increase the state’s military might and its revenue, to promote trade, to stabilize the media of exchange, and to multiply the number of young aristocratic men properly trained for bureaucratic service. In Emperor Temmu’s way of thinking the “framework of the state” was therefore not merely a reason for having Imperial Records and Ancient Myths written down but a centrally important purpose of the Great Reforms.

“Foundations of Imperial influence” pointed to the sanctification of authority. What we read in the Kojiki, and other early historical texts of ancient times, shows that Emperor Temmu―as well as his predecessors and successors on the throne―was constantly preoccupied with the Kami-origins of his Imperial authority. Such preoccupation emerged from ancient and widespread religious belief (commonly categorized as ancestor worship) that has induced most Japanese persons, throughout history, to believe that their leaders are descendants of Kami. But Emperor Temmu had other reasons for demanding action that would sanctify his position as the Emperor of Japan: he was only the younger brother of Emperor Tenchi, the previous occupant of the throne, and he reached the throne only after fighting and winning a war against a Tenchi son.

Even though we will never have a full and accurate picture of Emperor Temmu’s motives for doing so much to sanctify his sovereignty, the historical record shows that he and his successors gave serious and continuous attention to building a statewide religious movement for the worship of the Great Goddess Amaterasu. The Kojiki served as that movement’s sacred text. And the Council of Kami Affairs (Jingikan 神祇官) was placed beside the Council of State, right under the emperor, and given the responsibility for organizing, developing, and administering Great Goddess shrines, rituals, offerings, priests, and patronage. The Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Daijingû 伊勢大神宮), the main Great Goddess sanctuary standing at the heart of the Great Goddess Shinto system, was and still is where the most spectacular rituals were conducted by the highest-ranking Shinto priests. It is often referred to as the Mecca of Japan.

But the most valid evidence of governmental support for Great Goddess Shinto is found in a 927 update of Japan’s official code of law. The first 10 volumes of the 50-volume Engi Shiki (延喜式) are devoted entirely to Kami law. The remaining 40 are for civil and penal (Ritsuryô 律令) law. By inserting Kami law first, and including a massive amount of regulatory detail concerning Great Goddess shrines and rituals, the Engi Shiki leads one to conclude that Emperor Temmu and other emperors and empresses of the Great Reform Period were doing their utmost to tap two interactive sources of Imperial power: Great Goddess Shinto for sanctifying Imperial authority, and the Ritsuryô order for modernizing and strengthening Imperial control.

Such linkage between the authority and power of the Japanese state is revealed not simply in the wording of the Temmu command but in the sweep and tone of both the Great-Reforms and the Great Goddess Shinto movement. To understand this interactive relationship between these two institutional developments (Great Goddess Shinto and the Ritsuryô Reform) we need to look closely at how each is dependent upon the other, and to notice that imperial rulers did not, and could not, disassociate religious belief from political action. Therefore, if we historians of today see the Kojiki as no more than a collection of interesting myths about the Great Goddess, we will be overlooking a powerful, old, and lasting imperial assumption expressed in this 19th century slogan: The Unity of Religion and Politics (Saisei icchi 祭政一致).