The origin myth that beat the drums of war

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Since the 18th-century — the age of English historian Edward Gibbon — Western theories of history have held that the past consists of causes, effects and events; there are no determining laws or theorems, and no divine purpose. This is the opposite of the view held by the classic Chinese historians, who saw history as preordained but manageable by decree; its purpose was to legitimize the current dynasty. The “Kojiki” is closer to this view of history — a past that can be used to validate the present.

The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters, by O no Yasumaro
Translated by Gustav Heldt
312 pages.
Columbia University Press, Folklore.

It is interesting to conjecture whether the earliest readers of the “Kojiki,” a complex work compiled in the Nara Period (710-794), understood the contents of this work as historical documentation or as a great hanging mirror — a surface of symbols and fictive events. Gustav Heldt, the latest scholar to translate this “account of ancient matters,” hopes it will grant the contemporary reader a broader understanding of the foundations of Japanese history, religion and literature. Far from being a chronicle obscured by the blur of time, Heldt regards the “Kojiki” as a “monument to the human imagination, worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of world mythology,” finding in it parallels with sacred books such as Hesiod’s “Theogony,” the Hebrew Bible and the “Popol Vuh.”

In his elegantly crafted introduction, Heldt establishes his credentials not merely as a translator, but a writer. This enabling gift is significant: It is what makes, for example, Junichiro Tanizaki’s modern rendering of “The Tale of Genji,” so engaging as literature.

If you thought the casts of literary classics such as John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga” or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” were difficult to follow, the “Kojiki” will be an equally demanding read. Heldt’s decision to name practically all the locations, spirits and human figures in the narrative requires readers to stay on their toes. Many of these names, however, such as “Moorland Elder,” “Flickering Flame” and “Root Splitter” are distinctive enough to stick. And how could anyone forget the name “Water Gushing Woman”?

The well-formed structure of the account helps in its negotiation: the first book focuses on the spirit world, the second on mortals and the third on complex succession issues. The clarity of the narrative improves considerably when figures from the “Kojiki” are linked to events, such the exploits of heroic warriors, or the journey of the mythological first emperor, Jimmu (who supposedly lived 711-585 B.C.), from Kyushu to the vale of Yamato. Or when the realm of spirits coexisting with legendary figures is superseded by the elemental and human. In a section of song, translated by Heldt as “Withered Moor / was burnt for salt / the charred remains / made into a zither,” we understand implicitly the transformative influence exerted by mortals over nature.

The first translation of the “Kojiki” into English was made by Basil Hall Chamberlain in 1882. When I asked Heldt if he felt any competitive pressure producing a fresh translation of the work, he expressed satisfaction at having created a more accessible version of the work, one that, unlike its predecessors, is defined by more textually nuanced content.

The co-opting of the “Kojiki” in the 1930s and ’40s as a text to validate — even sanctify — the political ideologies of the far right, was perhaps inevitable given that the Emperor was regarded as a god until as recently as the end of World War II. It is not surprising to find that in a 1940 film version of the “Kojiki,” Japan’s mythological Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, is seen benignly casting the light of civilization over Asia, or at least the nations under the heel of Japan’s imperium.

My review copy of this book turned up a few days before Kenkoku Kinen no Hi (Foundation Day), a national holiday that suggests the Japanese still take their creation myths seriously; not perhaps literally, but as a component of their national heritage. When asked what he considered to be the relevance of these ancient accounts today, Heldt highlights the ongoing reappropriation of its characters and stories in forms of popular culture that are now spread across the world. Of particular interest was his remark concerning the relevance of the myths in the “Kojiki” to a resurgent Japanese nationalism. Heldt cited the name Izumo, which is used for the country’s first helicopter carrier warship constructed for the Maritime Self-Defense Force. According to Heldt, this associates the helicopter carrier with the WWII battleship Yamato — Izumo and Yamato being major rivals in the “Kojiki.”

As Heldt puts it, “Izumo’s mythical, cultural and historical ties with the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula also signal Japan’s growing concern over its maritime border with the continent.”

Ultimately, mythology is what might be termed pure fiction, or original literature. Like faith, it requires an immense suspension of disbelief if the reader is to plunge into the narrative and be buoyed along unimpeded by doubts — the skepticism associated with the rational, inquiring mind. For the reader willing to surrender his or her empirical insistencies — to luxuriate in the beauty of language — the “Kojiki” is time well spent.

  • MacTire

    I am surprised that the reviewer makes no mention
    of Donald L. Philippi’s scholarly yet accessible translation, published in 1969. Ironically enough, Philippi was for a time an “activist” on the (violent) far left and even spent some time in jail before leaving Japan. (He later regretted it all.) Mansfield-san might also have considered to what extent the younger generations have any knowledge of the Kojiki.
    The original, without modern transcription and considerable notes, is inaccessible except to specialists, and while translations into Modern Japanese are certainly available, my experience as a teacher in (supposedly top-notch) universities suggests that most students haven’t much of a clue. Amaterasu-Oomikami, the sun goddess? A few may vaguely know. Izanagi/Izanami? Most have never heard of them, no more than today’s semi-literate American college
    students have heard of Odin…The headline of this article is in that regard sensationalist and misleading. But then any excuse to wax hysterical about “rightwing” Japan appears to be acceptable.

    • Avery

      Agreed. Obviously the reviewer has no background in Japanese studies or poetics, and is simply here to tell us about his political views. Completely unsurprising coming from this “newspaper”.

      • MacTire

        Many thanks for this! I doubt that the writer had any say in the headline. The JT was once moderate to conservative, both patriotic and pro-American, before America went off the deep end…My guess (and that’s all it is) is that in order to survive the newspaper has decided that it has to appeal to and give over editorial authority to leftist foreigners (or NJs, as Debitou-san would put it) and their agenda. There are still good people who contribute, and that’s why I keep subscribing.

  • Michael Eamon Osborne

    I think the “Kojiki” is a “reawakening” of its people & by naming the ship “Izumo” brings the people together as one nation – a very special moment . . . . a sense of Identity & it’s exactly what Japan is trying to say. It’s a reminder of who they are & where they are at. I feel Japan is trying to regain her identity back & I tend to support this view! It is their “Culture” & understandably, they don’t want to loose that! it is the “Land of the rising sun”

  • Starviking

    This article shows the errors that can creep into a work when the writers have no experience of military matters.

    First to the photo caption. The current Izumo is not “Japan’s first helicopter carrier”. That accolade is reserved for the Hyuga, launched in 2007.

    Secondly, Gustav Heldt may think that Japan’s THIRD helicopter carrier is associated with the battleship Yamato. However, the fact is that there is a JSMDF tradition of naming helicopter carriers after ancient Japanese provinces. Current helicopter carriers all carry province-related names.

    There is one Imperial forebear of the Izumo, an armorered cruiser which was active from 1900 to 1945. Not a battleship.

    If the JMSDF had wanted to link to a battleship, they could have called it Musashi, a sister ship of Yamato, and an ancient province too.

    • theirs

      Don’t forget about the Osumis. Sure they are technically amphibious assault ships and officially called LSTs, but they’re helicopter carriers too. Off course these new DDHs are logically related to the previous four, they’re anti-submarine warfare and command ships. The major difference is in the increased emphasis on using helicopters for antisubmarine warfare. I’m actually interested if Izumo has more aviation facilities than her predecessor, especially as there doesn’t seem to be a major increase in ASW equipment.

      I do think that the association of the names between Yamato and Izumo is plausible. When Izumo (1900) was launched, they haven’t really settled down on a naming convention for types of ships, or even on how to classify their ships.
      They finally ended up using names of provinces for battleships. Of course they hardly bothered to change the name even if they changed the ship type, but you can generally see what type of ship it was originally ordered as.

      The fun thing about the current JMSDF is, they made a change in their naming convention. The naming convention of the previous DDHs moved to the DDGs (named after mountains, just like IJN large cruisers). While the current DDHs got an upgrade and are named after provinces, just like the battleships. It would be really funny if they named the second Izumo class Shinano or Kaga. I put my money on Kaga at first, but after reading this, Shinano seems more likely.

      • Starviking

        I agree that there could plausibly be a link between the naming of the Izumo and the Yamato, but it certainly is not as definitive as suggested by the writer.

        I think the shift for naming the DDGs in the same way as old cruisers probably reflects the reality that the ship are virtually cruisers, in size and capability.

        The Oisumis are one of those ships that sit on the boundary, but really don’t go over it. They can land Chinooks on the rear potion of their deck, but cannot keep them in their hangar. And the hangar itself is a small one – the only lift to it can only handle very small helicopters. The hangar is actually designed around carrying vehicles.

        The Izumo must have more hangerage than the Hyuga class – it is significantly bigger. I have seen reports that its size also reflects that it will have the ability to refuel escorts and carry troops and equipments. That would also add to the size.

        However, on the defensive side, Izumo does not have the VLS systems of the Hyugas – so it is a little more dependant on escorts for defense.