Truth is a sordid business. It brings nations down to earth, cuts people down to size. Why honor it, therefore? Why esteem it above myth, which does the opposite, raising nations to the gods and turning ordinary, unremarkable people into subjects of divine rulers?

Japan, the ancient chronicles tell us, is “the land of the gods,” its emperors descended from the Sun Goddess. Pre-rational thinking spawns beliefs a lot more fantastic than that. Is it surprising that this one went so long unquestioned?

Prince among early skeptics was Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Asked by a disciple how best to serve the gods, he replied, “You are not even able to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?” Keep your thoughts earthbound, he seems to be saying; they’ll be busy enough.

Confucianism in Japan goes back to the seventh-century, coming of age a millennium later as the official ideology of the Tokugawa shoguns. Absolute rulers from 1603 to 1867, the Tokugawas found Confucian downplaying of the divine a convenient cover for their effective sidelining of the divine Emperor. Confucianist Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725) spoke in the master’s prosaic spirit when he said, “The kami (gods) are human beings. … And when the kami Izanagi and Izanami are said to have had intercourse and produced the islands of Japan, this refers to a merging of two great fleets of warships led by these personages.”

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 toppled the Tokugawas and hurled feudal, stagnant, isolated, backward Japan forward into the modern world. This was a revolution — carried out in the name of the 15-year-old Emperor Meiji, “restored” not to power but to immaculate, powerless, sacredness. Out with Confucianism. Japan once again was “the land of the gods,” and the shrewd politicians who ruled in the Emperor’s name intended to keep it that way.

The intellectual dilemma this determination encompassed emerged only gradually. Science and myth are fundamentally incompatible. A regime seeking to wield both — science to build “a rich nation and a strong army,” myth to foster popular enthusiasm and unquestioning obedience — walks a very tricky tightrope.

Science meant education in the positivist mode — unfettered curiosity, methodical observation, objective reasoning. European and American professors were recruited to staff new universities, Tokyo Imperial University, the future University of Tokyo, among them. Scientific history was largely a German development. Among its early exponents was Ludwig Riess (1861-1928), who taught at Tokyo Imperial University for three years beginning in 1887. Riess articulated the spirit of the new age: “All historical subjects and problems are capable and in need of scientific treatment.”

Riess setting the tone, Japanese colleagues eagerly followed. Most famous among them was Kunitake Kume (1839-1931). Decorated and feted, he suffered an abrupt downfall. In 1892, he resigned in disgrace. What had he done? How had he offended? He had said — as Arai and other Tokugawa thinkers had two centuries earlier — that Japan’s gods were mythical, not historical; that the native Shinto religion was a primitive form of worship, relic of bygone times. As for the “way of the gods,” what nation doesn’t have its way of the gods? “The way of the gods is worldwide,” said Kume; “religion itself is the way of the gods.”

The Meiji government was honest at least to the extent of being forthright about its conservative aims. There was no humbugging lip service to individual freedom, human rights, democracy. “In the administration of all schools,” declared Education Minister Arinori Mori (shortly before his assassination in 1889 by a Shintoist zealot), “it must be kept in mind that what is done is not for the sake of the pupils but for the sake of the country.”

Imperial universities in Meiji Japan were government departments; professors were civil servants. Kume, clearly, was a man of considerable courage. Mori’s assassination made the risks he ran only too plain; dismissal was one of the lesser ones, and he remained admirably firm when political thugs known as soshi visited his home uninvited and harangued him for hours. Years later, having to some extent resuscitated his academic career at the private Waseda University, he recalled: “We three professors, (Yasutsugu) Shigeno, (Hisashi) Hoshino and myself, who started the Department of Japanese History, were all considered bad. I was the most hated of the three, and … when I expressed myself too lightly in the matter of Shinto, I had to resign the prestigious position of professor at the Imperial University. Looking back, I would say that I was a victim of the merger of Japan and Korea.”

That vexed question did not involve him personally, but the axe fell on him as the most radical, or perhaps simply the most reckless, of the three trailblazing disciples of Riess. Shigeno — as historian John Brownlee explains in his book “Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945” — was known as “Dr. Obliteration” for the doubts he cast on the existence of this or that character of myth or pseudo-history. Hoshino evolved a hypothesis that assigned Korean origin to the god Oshimimi, a child of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess and ancestress of the Imperial line. The supposed ancient union of Japan and Korea gave Japan its excuse to annex Korea in 1910, but 20 years earlier it was a touchy subject. Shigeno and Hoshino, more politically adroit apparently than Kume — their failure to speak out in Kume’s defense suggests as much — were spared, though Shigeno’s works were censored posthumously amid the nationalist hysteria of the 1930s.

In 1911, a vague plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji was summarily dealt with by a mass roundup of political dissidents, 12 of whom were hanged. See what unorthodox teaching leads to, people said. “Scientific history” was amoral, corrosive. “History,” Brownlee quotes the contemporary scholar Shuji Isawa as asserting, “must be centered primarily on moral education that makes clear the right relations between the Emperor and his subjects” — the former divine, the latter worshipful. “That is not open to question.”

Michael Hoffman’s forthcoming book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

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