A History of Japanese Literature/Book 2/Chapter 1

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Strictly speaking, this period begins A.D. 710, when Nara was made the seat of the Mikado's government, and ends A.D. 794, when the capital was removed to Nagaoka, in the province of Yamashiro, a site which was abandoned a few years later for that of the existing city of Kiōto. For the present purpose it is sufficiently accurate to make the Nara period coincide with the eighth century.

With the establishment of the capital at Nara, the old system by which every Mikado built himself a new palace in a fresh locality was discontinued. This was not only in itself an important progressive measure, but it was an evidence of the advance in civilisation which had been made during the previous two centuries. Under the influence of Chinese political ideas, the authority of the crown had become greatly extended, the power of the hereditary local chieftains broken, and a system of government instituted under prefects who held office subject to the control of the central authority. Learning, by which in Japan is, or rather was, meant the study of the masterpieces of Chinese antiquity, had made great progress. The Mikado Tenchi (662–671) established schools, and we hear later of a university under government auspices which comprised four faculties, viz., history, the Chinese classics, law, and arithmetic.

This, it should be observed, was for the benefit of the official classes only. It was not until many centuries later that education reached the common people. There were also teachers (mostly Coreans) of painting, medicine, and the glyptic arts. The colossal bronze statue of Buddha and some remarkable sculptures in wood which are still to be seen at Nara, testify to the skill which the Japanese had then acquired in the last-named arts.

Of even greater importance was the advance in the art of architecture. This was intimately associated with Buddhism, a cult which demanded stately temples and pagodas for its due exercise. The increased authority of the court also required edifices more befitting its dignity and more in consonance with the gorgeous costumes and ceremonial adopted from China than the old one-reign palaces.

The first written book which has come down to us in the Japanese, or indeed in any Turanian tongue, is the Kojiki[2] or "Records of Ancient Matters," which was completed A.D. 712. It contains the early traditions of the Japanese race, beginning with the myths which form the basis of the Shinto religion, and acquiring more and more of a historical character as it proceeds, until it comes to a close in A.D. 628.

The Kojiki, however valuable it may be for research into the mythology, the manners, the language, and the legends of early Japan, is a very poor production, whether we consider it as literature or as a record of facts. As history it cannot compare with the Nihongi, a contemporary work in Chinese; while the language is a strange mixture of Chinese and Japanese, which there has been little attempt to endue with artistic quality. The circumstances under which it was composed are a partial explanation of the very curious style in which it is written. We are told that a man named Yasumaro, learned in Chinese, took it down from the lips of a certain Hiyeda no Are, who had such a wonderful memory that he "could repeat with his mouth whatever was placed before his eyes, and record in his heart whatever struck his ears." Yasumaro's task was not an easy one. He himself in his preface describes his embarrassment. The phonetic syllabaries, known as the Katagana and Hirakana, which correspond to our alphabet, had not then been invented. The only choice open to him was to use the Chinese ideographic symbols, giving them their proper meaning and construction—in other words, to write pure Chinese—or to make each Chinese character represent merely the sound associated with it regardless of its meaning. The result of this latter course would be a Japanese text.

By the former method it was impossible to write down Japanese poetry, proper names, and a quantity of phrases and expressions for which there existed no adequate Chinese equivalent; while if a separate Chinese character had to be used for every syllable of the polysyllabic Japanese words, a prolixity intolerable to a mind formed by Chinese study would be the result. In this dilemma Yasumaro resorted to a compromise, and mixed up the two systems in a way which is fatal to style. Even in the same sentence we often find a purely Japanese construction interrupted by a phrase which it is impossible to consider as anything but clumsy Chinese; while, vice versâ, his Chinese contains expressions not to be understood without a knowledge of Japanese.

At the time of the compilation of the Kojiki there existed at the court of Nara a hereditary corporation of Kataribe or "reciters," whose function it was to recite "ancient words" before the Mikado on certain solemn State occasions, such as the beginning of a new reign. Even if Yasumaro's informant was not himself a member of this order, he must have been well acquainted with the matter of their recitals, and there can be little doubt that the myths, legends, and quasi-history of the Kojiki were drawn from this source. There is no reason whatever to believe that the recitations of the Kataribe were anything but prose. We are in possession of a considerable body of poetry belonging to this period, but none of it takes the form of narrative. It consists of lyrics, not ballads, and yields no material for history, whether true or otherwise. The annals of Japanese literature therefore give no countenance to Macaulay's theory that in the natural course of things history is preceded by ballad poetry. So far from its being true of Japan, a directly opposite process is observable. At a later period, history showed some tendency to develop into poetry. It began to be treated in an ornate, romantic fashion, and with some imperfect endeavour after metrical form.

The motley character of the language of the Kojiki of course disappears in a translation, but the following passage may give some idea of the sort of legends which form the staple of the earlier part of the work. The student of folk-lore will recognise in it one of the numerous variants of what in its Greek form is the story of Perseus and Andromeda.

The god Haya-Susa no wo, having been banished from heaven for his misdeeds, descends to earth and alights on the bank of a river in the province of Idzumo. He observes a chopstick floating down with the current:—

"His Augustness Haya-Susa no wo, thinking that there must be people living farther up the stream, went in quest of them, and found an old man and an old woman weeping, with a young maiden set between them. He asked of them, 'Who are ye?' The old man replied, 'Thy servant is a deity of earth, and his name is Ashinadzuchi, son of the great God of the Mountain. My wife's name is Tenadzuchi, and my daughter is called Kushinada hime.' He further inquired, 'Why weep ye?' He answered, saying, 'I have had eight children, girls; but the eight-forked serpent of Koshi came year after year and devoured them. It is now the time of its coming, and therefore do we weep.' 'Describe to me this serpent,' said Haya-Susa no wo. 'Its eyes are as red as the winter cherry. It has one body with eight heads and eight tails. Moreover, its body is overgrown with moss, pines, and cedars. Its length extends over eight valleys and eight hills. Its belly is always all bloody and inflamed to look upon.' Then his Augustness Haya-Susa no wo said to the old man, 'If this be thy daughter, wilt thou give her unto me?' 'With reverence be it said,' replied the old man, 'I know not thy honourable name.' 'I am the elder brother of the Sun Goddess, and have now come down from heaven,' replied Susa no wo. Then the deities Ashinadzuchi and Tenadzuchi said, 'In that case, with reverence we offer her to thee.' Haya-Susa no wo straightway took that young maiden and changed her into a many-toothed comb, which he stuck into his hair, and said to the deities Ashinadzuchi and Tenadzuchi, 'Do ye brew some saké of eight-fold strength. Also make a fence round about, and in that fence let there be eight doors, at each door let there be eight stands, on each stand let there be a saké-tub, and let each saké-tub be filled with the saké of eight-fold strength. Then wait.' So having prepared everything in accordance with his august bidding, they waited, Then the eight-forked serpent came, indeed, as had been said, and bending down one head into each of the tubs, lapped up the saké. Hereupon it became drunken, and all the heads lay down to sleep, when straightway Haya-Susa no wo drew his ten-span sword from his girdle and slew the serpent, so that the river had its current changed to blood. Now, when he cut the middle part of the tail the edge of his august sword was broken. Wondering at this, he pierced it and split it open, when he found that within there was a great sharp sword. He took this sword, and thinking it a wonderful thing, reported his discovery to the Sun Goddess. This is the great sword Kusanagi (Herb-queller)."

In the early part of the eighth century the Japanese Government gave orders for the compilation of geographical descriptions of all the provinces. The mineral, vegetable, and animal productions were to be noted, with the quality of the soil, the origin of the names of places, and the local traditions. Of these works only a few have reached us, the best known of which is the Idzumo Fudoki, written in 733. It contains a very few interesting legendary passages, but as a whole it consists of bald statements of fact, and must be classed with Charles Lamb's Biblia Abiblia or "Books that are No Books." It was the forerunner of the very considerable modern topographical literature known to us as Meisho.

The only other Japanese prose compositions of this time which need be noticed are the Imperial Edicts contained in the Shoku-nihongi, a continuation (in Chinese) of the Nihongi. Their style much resembles that of the Norito. Motoöri has edited them in a separate form with a commentary.

  1. I have followed the convenient Japanese practice of calling the periods of history by the names of the places which were the seat of government at the time.
  2. Translated by B. H. Chamberlain in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 1882; vol. x., Supplement.