Monday 12 January 2015

'The Kojiki' by Ō no Yasumaro (Review)

While January in Japan is a time to catch up with some of my favourite Japanese writers, I also like to look at some more classical texts, and when it comes to classic J-Lit, you can't really go much further back than today's choice.  We're going back in time with a book first written at the start of the eighth century - the content, however, dates from much earlier than that...

The Kojiki (translated by Gustav Heldt, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is, as it says on the cover, an account of ancient matters.  The book was compiled by an official of the court (Ō no Yasumaro) in an attempt to codify the many versions of the Japanese ruling family's genealogy.  All of which sounds innocent enough, until you realise that the Emperor and his family actually claimed divine descent from the gods themselves, a fact that allowed certain liberties to be taken over a thousand years later...

The work itself is divided into three books, roughly equating to the eras of myth, legend and history.  In the first, the reader is treated to the Japanese creation myth, in which a collection of spirits appear, later begetting the first big names in the pantheon, Izanagi (He Who Beckoned) and his sister Izanami (She Who Beckoned).  While their methods of creating the Japanese archipelago are unusual (and slightly incestuous), unfortunately, the nation's gender roles are established right from the beginning of the country, when a couple of false starts with the creation of the Japanese homeland are blamed on Izanami's temerity in speaking first...

Later we get to meet Amaterasu (Heaven Shining), the ruler of all heaven, and her destructive brother Susa-no-o (Rushing Raging Man) and learn what happened when she fled to the underworld (and how she was persuaded to return).  The section ends with a shift from the age of spirits to the world below:
"And with these commands, the mighty one Ripening Rice Ears Lad of Heaven left his stone-firm seat in heaven and pushed through layer after layer of heaven's trailing clouds.  After solemnly selecting his path, he stood tall on the floating bridge of heaven, then descended to the wondrous ancient peak of Mount Thousand Rice Ears Tall in Sunward on Land's End to reside there."
p.50 (Columbia University Press, 2014)
Better known as Hiko-ho-no-ninigi, this spirit is the one who will be the ancestor of the mortal rulers to come.

The second book begins with the voyage of the first (mythical) Japanese Emperor Jinmu as he travels from Kyushu to the Nara region, subduing rivals as he goes.  As we move from ruler to ruler, the writer describes their wives, offspring and notable actions whilst on the throne.  While this part is more concerned with the exploits of men than spirits, we're still very much in the realm of fantasy, with several Emperors living far beyond a century (and one described precisely as being 10 feet 3 inches tall...).

There's a focus here on war, with many Emperors winning fame by forcing 'barbarian' tribes, including some across the water in Silla and Paekche (Korea), to submit to the Yamato forces.  It's mostly written in a sombre tone, but there is the odd note of unintentional humour:
     "Now the mighty one Pacified Land Lad shot an arrow that straightaway struck the mighty prince Clay Calmed Brave, slaying him.
     So his force was shattered, and they fled, scattering.
     And so their foes chased after the fleeing force, pursuing them to the ford of Camphor Leaves, where they were so hard pressed that they soiled their breeches.
     Hence that place was named Soiled Breeches.  (Nowadays it is called Camphor Leaves.)" (pp.86/7)
It's probably for the best that they changed the name back...

In the final book, the story turns to more historical figures, and the focus on the otherwordly starts to disappear.  Having vanquished most foes, now it's time for the Yamato to turn on each other, with much of the book taken up with power struggles between scheming brothers, each of whom is eager for the ultimate power ( a warning - there will be blood...).  The other main theme here is romance, with many of the Emperors using their time between murders to compose impromptu songs in an attempt to court comely maidens, a sign of things to come in later classic Japanese literature :)

The Kojiki has a lot to interest those with a strong passion for Japanese literature, but I'd have to caution the casual reader - this isn't a book anyone can just pick up and speed through.  The style is a rolling, clipped prose, reminiscent of the language (in English) of Beowulf or the Greek myths.  There's also a fascination (understandably, given the book's origins) with the royal lineage, and in the second and third books in particular, there are pages filled with '...and ruled over all under heaven from there...' and 'This sovereign of heaven took to wife...'.  Believe me - some of these rulers did nothing but rule under heaven and take women to wife...

Some of you may also have noticed that many of the names above, both of people and places, look rather... well, unjapanese, and that's because Heldt made the decision to transfer them all into English.  It was probably a wise decision as these names can be very long (and similar), but it does make things confusing if you do know a little about the creation myths, as you're constantly trying to connect the Japanese and translated names.  Still, there's a wonderful glossary at the end of the book (with maps!), and the names Heldt has chosen are, for the most part, suitably elegant and poetic :)

A book for J-Lit purists rather than newcomers, then, but it is an essential read if you have more than a superficial interest in the culture.  Just as the Bible and the classic Greek texts underpin much of western literature, so too does The Kojiki inform later Japanese culture, if not always for the better.  As I mentioned above, there is a dark side to tracing back your royal family's origins to the gods - this connection to the spirits allowed Japanese nationalists to harp on the unique nature of the Japanese people, with tragic consequences during the first half of the twentieth century.  Myths are all well and good, provided that they're not used as justification for exploitation and war...

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)