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.

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