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Shoku Nihongi

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Commentary by Dr. Delmer Brown, Professor Emeritus of History, University of California Berkeley

The Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀), a continuation of the Nihon Shoki, is an official record of events at the Japanese Imperial court between the enthronement of Emperor Mommu in 697 and 771, the second year of Kōnin reign.This text is our most valuable historical source for Japan's remarkable Nara Period (710-780). This was when Japan's Great-Reform plans were being energetically pressed by Emperor Temmu (天武 d. 686) and his Imperial descendants. During this Nara Period, Japanese public life was being fundamentally transformed by the Imperial court's endeavors to strengthen every aspect of state control. The following changes were particularly notable:

  ・  The capital city of Nara was intentionally built to look like Chang-an (the T'ang capitol)
  ・  A Chinese-like civil and penal code (ritsuryō 律令) defined Japan's new bureaucratic order
  ・  The Chinese-type land tax system (handen shūju 班田収受) increased and regularized state income
  ・  A Chinese-like Bureau of Higher Learning (Daigakuryō 大学寮) administered a nationwide Higher Learning complex for training young aristocrats to handle state affairs
  ・  Chinese Buddhism (Bukkyō 仏教) was made one of Japan's two state religions
  ・  Native Kami beliefs were organized into the state's second religion called Imperial Shinto (Tei Shintō 帝神道)
  ・  The Great Reforms were unified, strengthened, and sanctified by an overriding policy later articulated as the "Unity of Religion and Politics"(saisei icchi 祭政一致).

Toward the end of the years covered by the Shoku Nihongi, Japan's leaders became embroiled in a crisis that led to a sudden and fundamental shift from authoritarian to symbolic sovereignty. From the beginning of the Great Reforms in 645 until the outbreak of the crisis in 765, Japan had been governed by emperors and empresses in a Chinese authoritaran way. But authoritarian sovereignty was more than a Chinese import. It had prevailed, for centuries, all around this globe. Even before Japan emerged, around 250 CE, as a unified state(kuni 国), each of its kuni had been ruled by a Great King or Great Queen (Ōkimi 大君) honored and obeyed as a divine descendant of a Kami believed to have created each particular kuni and its ruling clan (uji 氏). These Kings and Queens possessed and exercised full control over both religious and secular matters of their particular kuni or uji.

In 592, however, a basic sovereignty-shift came when the head of the immigrant Soga clan conquered most of Japan's small states (kuni 国) and decided not to become an emperor but to exercise military and political control as a ministerial appointee of Empress (Suiko r. 593-629). Having sanctified his position in this way, the Soga head and his Soga descendants were able to retain control over Japan for the next 53 years, even though the famous Prince Shōtoku (Shōtoku Taishi 聖徳太子574-622), a descendant of the Great Goddess, had championed absolute sovereignty of the Chinese type.

In 645, however, a rebellion erupted and Soga leaders were ousted from their positions of control. The current head of the Imperial clan was again placed on the throne as an absolute sovereign, as Prince Shotoku had wanted. This was the first year of Japan's Chinese-type Great Reforms after which everyone at the Imperial court seems to have thought of the new control arrangement as being in accord with both Japanese tradition and Chinese modernity.

During the first 73 years of Great Reform covered by the Shoku Nihongi (697 to 770), each of the state's major decisions was handed down as an Imperial Rescript that was usually recorded and subsequently included in the Shoku Nihongi. These Rescripts provide exceptionally meaningful evidence of what was being done and thought by Japan's authoritarian rulers at a time of extraordinary historical change. Each one begins with words that proclaim this to be a divine message being passed along by the current descendant of the Great Goddess.

In the year 765, Japan's great sovereignty crisis erupted. That was when Empress Shōtoku (718-770) was occupying the throne for a second time. She thought of herself as another Empress Wu, who had had "the effrontery to rule [Chiina] like a manEduring the last half of the previous century. Five years before her death, Shōtoku dared to appoint a Buddhist priest, her lover, to the position of Minister Zen Master (大臣禅師), making him the most powerful minister of the land and her heir to the throne. That appointment riled almost every one at court, since each was a firm believer in, and had been blessed by, the Divine Principle (Dōri 道理) that only a direct descendant of the Great Goddess Amaterasu (Amaterasu Ōmikami 天照大神) was entitled to be an emperor or empress of Japan.. A few months later, Shotoku handed down an Imperial Rescript, included in the Shoku Nihongi and translated as follows:
    Concerning the appointment of my mentor to the position of Prime Minister Zen Master (大臣禅師), [some members of the court] are saying that [I] have foolishly and thoughtlessly not ferreted out the weaknesses of [candidates for that appointment] and therefore came to favor this bad fellow. It is absolutely clear that persons who said such thngs were rebellious individuals with bad hearts. So they had to be punished in accord with Divine Principle (Dōri 道理)1 and Buddhist Law ( 法). Dōkyō had said: "Let's put up with their behavior and have them taught to serve at the Imperial court with true and pure hearts." What I have actually done, however, is to have them fired. By a command handed down [by me] their positions have been eliminated. If henceforth anything the least bit questionable is heard about any official at court, that official shall [also] be definitely dealt with in accord with Buddhist Law (法). Hear and abide by these words of [your] Empress."

Clearly, Empress Shōtoku had no intention of backing down. Shortly after that, civil war broke out between her and the clans that opposed her. The Empress's forces won. Consequently, Dōkyō retained his high post until the Empress's death in 770.

That was when Prince Shirakabe, not Dōkyō, was suddenly enthroned. Although the Shoku Nihongi, as well as later historical accounts, depicts this enthronement of Prince Shirakabe as smooth and normal, historians now think of it as one of the sharpest and most significant political turns in the history of Japan. This view is based on historical evidence showing that the reign of Emperor Kōnin (r. 770-781), as well as all later reigns (except for a short one in the 14th century), have been marked by a virtual absence of authoritarian control. From then on, secular affairs were handled by powerful clan leaders, retired Emperors, Shoguns, or elected officials. Thereafter, occupants of the throne have tended to hold only symbolic authority and to reign as high priests or priestesses of Japan's two interactive state religions. The effects of this sovereignty shift are reflected in much of Japan's cultural change since 770.

And yet, the Shoku Nihongi not only fails to notice or report on such a shift in Japanese sovereignty but reveals a consistent and conscious attempt to hide the shift. When reporting events after the Empress’s death, this text includes almost nothing about what was said or done by any court official in those turbulent days. Nothing suggests the beginning of a new period in Japanese political history, or of a new type of political control. Instead, readers are presented with a picture of normality in which direct descendants of the Great Goddess Amaterasu continue to rule over the state of Japan.

Nearly four and half centuries later Jien (1155-1225), who was Japan’s first interpretive historian, deals with these critical years in the following way:

    During her second reign (764-770), Koken was called Empress Shōtoku. Having fallen in love with Dōkyō, a Buddhist priest, she committed such iniquities as promoting him to the position of Priest Emperor (Hōō 法王) in 766, and placing other priests in control of secular affairs of state. The Senior Minister, EMI Oshikatsu, was replaced by Dōkyō as the Empress's favorite, creating a bad situation. The Empress was no ordinary person.... The things she did were gossiped about but were not thought of as precedents. Her actions should be considered those of a Buddhist incarnation (Gonge 権化)...... Before her death, Empress Shōtoku issued an Imperial Rescript stating that Prince Shirakabe [not Dōkyō] should be the next emperor, and the enthronement was arranged by FUJIWARA Momokawa."2

Although a high-ranking Buddhist priest, Jien also saw only a smooth and normal succession of another descendant of the Great Goddess Amaterasu.

What really happened? This is a question that will never be answered to the full satisfaction of historians. But I am inclined to think that the fundamental nature of the 765-770 conflict was pin-pointed in the above Imperial Edict. There the Empress Shōtoku used two different religious values (Divine Principle and Buddhist Law) to justify her decision to eliminate the positions held by her opponents. But when stating what she intended to do in the future, she justified her position only by Buddhist Law.

When looking at this conflict within the context of religious and political history during and after the Great Reforms, I draw the following tentative conclusions:

  ・  Since dōri 道理 were consistently rooted in religious belief and therefore the term should be translated as Divine Principle.
  ・  For Empress Shōtoku Divine Principle was rooted mainly in Shinto belief.
  ・  In 765 we suddenly see signs of an ideological conflict between Japan’s two state religions, one native and the other imported.
  ・  The 770 victory of Divine Shinto Principle proponents constituted an affirmation of the ancient belief in the divinity of Japan and her emperors and empresses
  ・  Japanese movers and thinkers tended, after that, to assign higher value to what was Japanese and less to that which was Chinese.

The Shoku Nihongi is indeed an important source for testing these and other explanatory theories about historical change during and after Japan’s ancient Great Reforms. It will become even more important, however, as historians begin to see that Japan’s modern Meiji Restoration (roughly 1868 to the present) has been a true restoration of Japan’s ancient Great-Reform beliefs and policies, and that those ancient Great Reforms were both a product and generator of an ideological force that is still a significant factor in Japan's spectacular emergence as a world power. Therefore, non-Japanese-speaking students of Japanese history will now want a full English translation of the Shoku Nihongi that is cross-tagged with the Japanese original. Then they will be able to search through the entire text, and through all other JHTI texts, as they make holistic and electronic studies of such ideological particles as dōri 道理, 法, sai 祭, and sei 政.

October 17, 2006 

1 The KT edition uses only the second character 理 of this compound, but Kōjirō Naoki concludes that it meant Dōri 道理. Shoku Nihongi (Heibonsha, 1990) 3. 166.
2 Gukanshō 86. 145-6, on JHTI.