A History of Japanese Literature/Book 3/Chapter 7

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It was inevitable that the Japanese language, which had now reached its highest degree of perfection as an instrument for the expression of thought, should, sooner or later, be applied to some more serious purpose than the writing of poetry, stories, diaries, and other light literature. The Yeigwa Monogatari is notable as the first instance of its being used for history. The authorship of this work is unknown. A not very trustworthy tradition ascribes it to a celebrated poetess of this period named Akazome Yemon, but as it mentions events which occurred after her death, it cannot all be from her pen. She may however, have left materials which were incorporated into the work of a subsequent writer. The date of its composition is also uncertain. It must be near the end of the eleventh century.

The Yeigwa Monogatari consists of forty books, which cover a period of about two centuries of Japanese history, ending with A.D. 1088. It is, however, not so much the general history of the country during this time as of the glorious rule (Yeigwa Monogatari means "A Tale of Glory") of Fujiwara no Michinaga, who was Chief Minister in the three reigns of Ichijō, Sanjō, and Go Ichijō, and who died A.D. 1027. The latter part of the work is the history of his two sons, Yorimichi and Norimichi, who succeeded to his power.

The author's style and method have been greatly influenced by his models—the more fictitious Monogatari. He (or she) betrays a preference for romantic episodes, and leans to a more or less poetical and imaginative treatment of his subject, enlivening his narrative with anecdotes, and adorning his pages freely with the ubiquitous Tanka.

The custom, common with romance writers at the present day, of placing fanciful headings to every chapter, began with this work.

The following passage illustrates the strong hold which Buddhism had upon the Japanese nation at this period. It may be premised that the Mikado Kwazan ascended the throne in 985 at the age of seventeen. He was provided with three beautiful and noble women as consorts. One of these he became passionately fond of, and when she died soon after, the shock was too great for a mind in which there already lurked hereditary germs of insanity:—

"From the beginning of the second year of Kwanwa (986) there was an uneasy feeling in the minds of the people, and many strange warnings were given. In the palace also religious abstinence was frequently practised. Moreover (at what time this began is uncertain) the people turned their minds to religion in an extraordinary degree, and nothing else was heard of but of one becoming a nun and another entering the priesthood. When the Mikado was informed of this, he bewailed the wretchedness of this transitory world. He must have thought to himself, 'Alas! how deep Kōkiden's [his favourite wife] sins must have been. Such as she was, her guilt [in some past existence] was surely great [or she would not have died so young]. Oh that I could find some means of doing away with it!' His august heart being frequently disturbed by strange and lofty thoughts like this, the result was apparent in his agitated demeanour. The Prime Minister noted this with sorrow, and the Chiunagon also, the Mikado's uncle, must in secret have been simply heart-broken. Gonkiu, a priest of the monastery of Kwazan, was continually sent for in order to expound the scriptures, and the Mikado's august heart was given up to religion in an infinite measure. His remarks about wife and child, and the priceless treasure of the sovereign rank, filled the Sachiuben Korenari with the utmost pity, and this devotion to religion gave both him and the Chiunagon great concern. 'To give up the world and enter religion,' they said, 'is an ordinary course to take, but how will it be in this case?' Certain expressions of his sentiments from time to time must have been due to nought else but an evil influence proceeding from Reizei-in [his father and predecessor on the throne, who became insane]. Meanwhile, they noted other strange, unwonted, and unconscious behaviour of the Mikado, and attended closely upon him. But on the night of the 22nd day of the sixth month of this year he suddenly disappeared. An alarm was given, and everybody, without exception, from the nobles-in-waiting down to the guards and servants of meanest rank, procured lights and sought everywhere. But no trace of the Mikado could be found. The Prime Minister with the other ministers and nobles all assembled. Every room was searched, but he was nowhere to be seen, and the night was spent by all in the utmost consternation and alarm.

"The Chiunagon, prostrating himself in grief before the shrine of the [Shinto] gods, protectors of the palace, prayed them with tears and lamentations to reveal to him the place where his precious lord was hidden. Then he was sought for by parties despatched severally to all the Buddhist temples, but in vain. Meanwhile his consorts wept, and in their hearts thought what a terrible thing had happened. The long summer's night at length gave way to dawn, but the search was still fruitless.

"The Chiunagon and the Sachiuben Korenari went at last to Kwazan, and there they discovered him clothed as a dear little priest. They fell down before him with exclamations of grief and concern, and both followed his example and entered the priesthood."

The Ō-Kagami or "Great Mirror" is another historical work. It contains the history of fourteen reigns, beginning with that of Mondoku, who came to the throne A.D. 851, and ending with that of Go Ichijō, who died in A.D. 1036. The author was one Tamenari, a member of the great Fujiwara family, and an official attached to the court of the Mikado Sutoku (1124–1141). He served for some time as Director of the Empress's palace, but subsequently assumed the tonsure and retired to a hermitage on Mount Ohara, near Kiōto. Here he was joined by his two brothers, who followed his example and abandoned the world for a life of religion. Tamenari's preface to the Ō-Kagami shows that he was a devout Buddhist.

Whether we have regard to its matter or to its form, the Ō-Kagami is not a very important contribution to literature. It is in eight volumes. Volume I. contains, in sixty-four pages, meagre sketches of the lives of fourteen Mikados. The year, month, and day of birth, appointment as Crown Prince, assumption of the manly style of dressing the hair, accession to the throne and death of each sovereign, are set down baldly in a page or two. Then follow one or two sentimental or humorous anecdotes, adorned as usual with Tanka. There is little more. In the next six volumes we find biographies of the principal statesmen during the same period. This part of the work is somewhat more substantial, but there is still a marked inclination towards the anecdotal and romantic treatment of the subject. The last volume is an excursus on the origin of certain festivals at the shrines of Kamo and Hachiman.

The Ō-Kagami throws but little light on the times of which it professes to give the history, but it may perhaps be acceptable as an addition to the information supplied us by the drier official histories in the Chinese language.

This work, with the Masa-Kagami and the Midzu-Kagami (to be noticed afterwards), are known as the Mitsu-Kagami or "Three Mirrors." Mirror, it may be explained, is a familiar metaphor for history, not only in Japan, but in China and Corea.

Before closing this chapter, one or two works in the Chinese language require to be mentioned.

The Shōjiroku is a sort of peerage. It was prepared A.D. 815, and contains the genealogy of 1182 noble families of Japan. It has no value as literature, but is useful for historical reference, and has one interesting feature—it shows that at this period about one-third of the Japanese nobility claimed to be descended from Chinese or Corean ancestors.

The Yengishiki, or "Institutes of the Period Yengi" (901–923), was completed in 927. The first two volumes contain minute directions for the celebration of the Shinto rites of worship, including the Norito or liturgies used on these occasions, which were now for the first time, so far as we know, committed to writing, although in existence for centuries previously. The remaining forty volumes give a description of the organisation of the various Government departments, the duties of the officials, &c. The Yengishiki is a most valuable work of reference.

The Wamiōshō is a Chinese-Japanese dictionary, arranged according to categories, such as Heaven, Earth, &c., and is valuable to philologists, but not otherwise. The author of this lexicon was one Minamoto no Shitagaü (911–983).