SONG AND STORIES OF THE “KOJIKI” as retold by Yoko Danno, illustrated by Horaku Nakamura. Tokyo/Ontario: Ahadada Books, 2008, 162 pp. $14.95 (paper)

The “Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters)” is Japan’s oldest extant chronicle — a collection of events from the mythological age up to the times of the Empress Suiko (reigned 593-628). It was supposedly compiled in 712, though the only surviving manuscript is a 1372 copy.

The compiler, O-no-Yasumaro, a court official working under the authority of the imperial family, stated that all other versions of genealogical records and anecdotal documents were false and that “unless these falsehoods are amended right now, the truth will before long be lost.”

Those in the “Kojiki,” however, are correct. They must be because “their authenticity is the fundamental framework of the empire and the basis for imperial government.” This record is, therefore, among other things, a justification of the Yamato imperial family and it had a big role to play in the propaganda maneuverings of World War II.

Now, however, it is a school text, a compendium of the marvelous, a movie (with Setsuko Hara as the Sun Goddess and Toshiro Mifune as her unruly brother), and several manga. It has also been variously translated into foreign languages. Here we have it in a simplified version retold in English by a Japanese poet.

Yoko Danno’s purpose in undertaking this is fittingly poetic. She knows that though the collection “was composed to justify the rule of the imperial family, we can [also] read it as [a record which] preserves the rhythm and diction of oral literature.” Her aim was to convey “as best I could the simple dynamic and lyrical voice of the ancient people.”

Her ambition is thus the same as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne when he retold the Greek legends and of Charles and Mary Lamb when they retold Shakespeare — to return the simplicity of the original and to eliminate its difficulties. In so doing they popularized their subjects by making them more attractive and much easier to read.

The “Kojiki” is famously difficult to read. It is written in a language that is to modern Japanese something like Anglo-Saxon is to English. Any readable edition must modernize, and how much more difficult to render these subtleties in a foreign tongue. Here are some examples.

First, the Basil Hall Chamberlain’s 1882 translation: “Her Augustness Heavenly-Alarming-Female hanging [round her] the heavenly club-moss of the Heavenly Mount Kagu as a sash, and making the heavenly spindle-tree her head-dress, and binding the leaves of the bamboo-grass of the Heavenly Mount Kagu as a posy for her hands . . . and pulling out the nipples of her breasts, pushing down her skirt-string usque ad privates partes. Then the Plain of High Heaven shook, and the eight hundred myriad Deities laughed together.”

Here is Donald L. Philippi’s 1968 translation of the same passage:

“Ame-no-usume-no-mikoto bound up her sleeves with a cord of the heavenly pi-kage vine, tied around her head a head-band of the heavenly ma-saki vine, bound together bundles of sasa leaves to hold in her hands . . . . Then she became divinely possessed, exposed her breasts, and pushed her skirt-band down to her genitals. Then Taka-no-para shook as the eight-hundred myriad deities laughed at once.”

And here is Yoko Danno’s translation: “The dancer deity Uzume, her sleeves girded up with hikage-creepers of the holy Kagu Mountain, her hair ornamented with a headdress woven with heavenly evergreen vines, bundles of bamboo leaves in her hands . . . sang and danced in a divine trance, exposing her beasts and lowering her skirt down to her genitals. The Heavenly High Plains echoed loud as the multitudinous deities laughed together.”

Danno’s is the simplest and at the same time the most lyrical, if by this we mean (the dictionary definition) “expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and pleasing way.” She does not have to cope with the pomposities of Latin, nor place-name perfection. She is as free as Hawthorne or the Lambs to tell a story.

Being a very good poet she tells it very well and this version of the “Kojiki” does indeed convey something that might approximate the original voice in all of its unsullied innocence.

To find out more about this edition visit: www.ahadadabooks.com

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