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This is a past article published in Hiragana Times. Each Japanese paragraph is followed by its English translation or vise versa, and furigana are placed above each kanji to make Japanese study even easier. [Magazine Sample] [Subscription Page]

The Kojiki: Blending Ancient History and Myth

[From June Issue 2012]

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Kojiki is a book that contains writings about ancient Japanese history, it is the oldest remaining historical document in Japan. Though the first half recounts the mythological story of how the gods created Japan, records of actual historical fact increase in the latter half. The myths written in the Kojiki have a deep connection to the Japanese religion of Shinto, and many of the gods that appear in the Kojiki are worshiped in Shinto shrines.

All over Japan there are regions that still bear the same name as that used in the Kojiki. There are also legends about shrines passed down through generations that have their origins in the Kojiki. Many regions have become famous tourist destinations, such as Takachiho in Miyazaki Prefecture, which is said to be the place where the heavenly gods first set foot, or Suwa in Nagano Prefecture, which is purported to be the place to which a god fled after losing a trial of strength.

Of these locations, Shimane has the strongest ties to the Kojiki, with a third of all the places mentioned in the myths located in the prefecture. Popular among young women, the Izumo Temple houses the god of marriage and its legend is supposed to have its origins in the Kojiki. Other temples, local areas, and folk entertainments in Shimane are also said to originate from the Kojiki. “There are countless traditional Shinto rituals in each area and community,” says OKUDA Miwa, a member of the Kamigami no Kuni (The Island of the Gods) Shimane Executive Committee.

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Left Photo: Inasa Beach, Shimane Prefecture, appears in the Kojiki
Right Photo: Izumo Temple

 

Japanese people are well acquainted with the Kojiki. Most people learn about the Kojiki during school, and have read passages from the book. Since it is written in Old Japanese it is very difficult, so not many people read the original text, but a few tales are very famous. This is because these stories are often adapted into books for children.

Notable classic picture book adaptations include “Amanoiwato,” which is about how the Sun Goddess Amaterasu shut herself away inside a cave and how the gods cleverly lured her out, “Yamatano Orochi,” about a strong god who defeats an orochi (huge snake), “Umisachi Yamasachi,” about an elder brother who gets punished for picking on his younger brother, and “Inaba no Shiro Usagi,” about a kind god who finds happiness after saving a hare. Children enjoy reading these tales not only because the story is interesting, but also for the way in which the animals talk as if they were humans. Moreover, parents choose to read these tales to their children because in these stories bad people get their comeuppance, and good people end up happy.

However, since the Kojiki is an old history book, some stories in the Kojiki are not appropriate for children. Sometimes the main character is killed in a very cruel manner. “I wanted my book to be true to the original tale in the Kojiki, but I did not want to turn it into a story that would make children frightened,” says DATE Emiko, the author of an adaptation of “Inaba no Shiro Usagi” (The Hare of Inaba). “So, I decided to delete passages that were not appropriate for children. I wanted to make an emotionally healing story.”

“The main character in the story is a serene and warmhearted god, who doesn’t really like to fight. The charm of the Kojiki is that this kind of unconventional hero is given as much importance as the strong and brave gods,” says Date. “Not only that, humans and animals are treated as equals in the Kojiki. Even a white hare can become a god. I think this mindset is very Japanese.”

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Left Photo: A depiction of Amanoiwato
Right Photo: Hare of Inaba (Written by DATE Emiko / Bungeisha Co., Ltd.)

 

The myths in the Kojiki are on an epic scale, with gods marrying to create the islands of Japan, and a hero travelling from battle to battle from Kyushu to Kanto. That is why some stories are adapted into large-scale productions on stage. Some examples include the opera version of “Kojiki” and a Super Kabuki (modern style of kabuki) version of “Yamatotakeru.” Additionally, Kojiki tales are often used as subject matter for Japanese paintings. In turn, Kojiki tales and characters also appear in manga and games. Authors tend to think outside the box when making these adaptations, which makes them very popular with the manga and game loving younger generation.

“A reader of my English translation of Kojiki wrote in their review that ‘Those who have played the video game Okami will recognize some of the characters, including Amaterasu and Susanowo,’” says the poet, DANNO Yoko. “English translations of the Kojiki were done in the past by knowledgeable scholars, and are a must-read for people who are studying this subject. On the other hand, I attempted to create an English translation that can be enjoyed by ordinary people,” she says of her motivations for translating the book.

201206-1-4“I needed to be creative especially when I translated the names of people and places,” says Danno. “There are many tales that relate the origin of names of places, and when we use direct translations of people’s names, they become too long. When I read the Kojiki, I felt that the book was a very interesting tale of adventures, filled with vivid accounts of the movements of gods and humans, so I tried to translate the original text as faithfully as possible, while at the same time keeping it easy to understand and no longer than 160 pages.”

“The fascination of the Kojiki is that it touches on the emotions of these ancient people,” says Danno. “In those days people sensed the presence of the gods all about them. For example, the goddess of grief is born from tears. Also, the frank and powerful behavior of the characters, and the poetic language it is written in is so charming. The heart yearning for one’s homeland, or the feelings of being lovesick… Even today, these things haven’t changed.”

The Kojiki also has a political side. Since it was compiled in the eighth century by order of the reigning Emperor, it was affected by the politics of those times, so that the gods are stated to be the ancestors of the emperor. During the prewar (pre-World War Two) era, the Kojiki was the foundation of the idea that the emperor was god – because he was the descendant of the emperor who had ordered the Kojiki to be written. As a reaction to this ideology, in postwar Japan there were two factions of people: those who valued the Kojiki and those who disliked the book.

In this way, people have differing opinions and thoughts regarding the Kojiki. But there is no doubt that this book is valuable. This is because the records in the Kojiki are useful in confirming historical facts when ancient graves are discovered, and study of the Kojiki can also help researchers understand Old Japanese. Moreover, since people’s emotions are described in detail, it’s held in high regard as a piece of literature. Furthermore, the idea of gods inhabiting animals, plants, mountains and rivers is one that even modern Japanese are well acquainted with.

The Kamigami no Kuni Shimane Executive Committee
Bungeisha
Ahadada Books

Text: SAZAKI Ryo


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