BOOK ABOUT EMPERORS RECOMMENDED READING FOR HOLIDAYS
The winter solstice has just passed and the new year is around the corner. What type of a year it is going to be will depend largely on how we Japanese face it.
With the Wuhan virus having caused utter chaos the world over, Japan certainly is not the lone victim. Meanwhile China, where the deadly pandemic started, appears to have benefited the most, managing to undertake economic recovery ahead of any other nation. But it must also be said that in the wake of the pandemic the true nature of China has become evident to the international community.
Taking advantage of the turmoil, China has sought to play the role of a major altruistic donor of medical assistance, while at the same time ruthlessly oppressing, dominating, and silencing the Uyghurs and the Honkongers. One after another the virus has laid bare the ugly realities of China’s lies, and as it has done so the Chinese have steadily lost friends among the major nations of the world. As the saying goes, the gods have cast a wide net, and little escapes.
The US-China conflict is expected to get worse than ever in 2021. China will continue to draw fully on the strength of the “Art of War” teachings of Sun Tzu, successively adopting new tactics based on a grand strategy aimed at propelling itself to world hegemony. As it endeavors to thwart any possible Chinese aggression, Japan must demonstrate to the US, both materially and politically, that our alliance is extremely beneficial to the U.S. as well as to Japan.
In order to convince America, it will be necessary for Japan to exhibit the essence of its true nature. For thousands of years, Japan has nurtured a gentle culture with the emperor at the center, naturally honoring a philosophy of universal equality.
To understand what the presence of the emperor has signified, one should think in terms of the old Kyoto Imperial Palace instead of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Emperor Meiji moved into Edo Castle in 1868 after the shogunate had surrendered it bloodlessly during the Meiji restoration. Until then, he had resided in the Kyoto Imperial Place.
Quite unlike Edo Castle, the old palace in Kyoto had no moat or ramparts to fend off enemy attacks, with simple mud walls surrounding it. Any intruder could have easily entered its premises. But in the long history of the nation, no such outrage has ever occurred, making Japan a rare exception in the world, I suppose. I believe this fact, which reflects the gentle relationship that has existed between the emperor and his people in all eras, is largely attributable to the emperor constantly praying for the wellbeing of his nation and people, with the people reciprocating with a profound feeling of love and respect of the emperor and the imperial family.
Praying for People’s Well-being
A History of the Emperor’s Nation by Tsuneyasu Takeda (PHP Institute, Kyoto; August 2020) is a superb compilation of a vast number of records that treats the history of Japan as a chronicle of the path its emperors have treaded with their people. I would recommend this voluminous book by the great-great-grandson of Emperor Meiji, all of 668 pages, for anyone planning to spend the New Year’s holidays reading quietly at home, keeping the Wuhan virus away.
Takeda starts his narrative by depicting the characteristics of Japan as a nation, tackling the grand mystery surrounding the origin of the vast universe. In Christianity, a monotheistic religion, the creation begins with a statement that “in the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” In other words, the Lord God created the universe.
By contrast, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Things), a record of the origin of Japan compiled in 712, states that the universe came before the gods (in Japan’s Shintoism, the polytheistic national religion). The Kojiki’s view of the world is that there was no great God who created the universe. Instead, the universe—the source of all life—made numerous gods.
The Christian view of the world sees almighty God as always strong, precious, righteous, and good, asserting that man is guided and saved by following him, thus putting God first before man, who comes ahead of nature. Meanwhile, the Kojiki portrays gods as sometimes wrong, sometimes troubled, and sometimes seeking advice from other gods. Quite contrary to the monotheistic God who is always absolutely right and wise, Shinto gods are rather human-like. The view of the world that forms the foundation of the Kojiki, i.e., the Japanese civilization, thus puts nature ahead of gods who come before people, explains Takeda.
Although I have no intention whatsoever of saying which view is correct, the Kojiki, or traditional Japanese, view would seem to feel more natural to me, as I think nature should be the root of all life and people in terms of what I regard as the law of nature.
The Kojiki view of the world can be said to mirror the root of Japanese spirituality. Given that, it would have been natural for Japanese to find gods in everything—from mountains and forests to big rocks to rivers and seas to every single tree or blade of grass. The sensitivity that enabled ancient Japanese to feel nature as the place for gods to dwell in has steadily been handed down in Japan from the primitive era.
Takeda points out that in the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan compiled in 720) governing a country is referred to as “keeping informed” or “ruling,” both pronounced identically as “shirasu” in Japanese. He then concludes that emperors ruled their country side by side with their people, keeping themselves well-versed in the state of affairs of their domain. Here lies the true essence of Japan. The important task of a ruler was not just to rule but to attach importance to being well informed of matters pertaining to his people. Knowing his subjects well led to an understanding, empathy, and love of his people—and a heart wishing for their happiness. That is what successive Japanese emperors have prayed for.
The image of the long line of emperors constantly praying for the well-being of their nation and people is precisely what the Kojiki is describing when it states that Japan has always been “a country where emperors ruled by emphasizing the importance of ‘learning’ about their subjects.”
Amazing History of Our Predecessors
Another point that delighted me about Takeda’s book was the discovery that the history of Japan’s ancient era I had learned during my junior high school days, which taught that the Japanese civilization was way behind the four major civilizations of the world, was completely wrong. By beginning his explanation with the history of rare ground stone tools found in 1949 at the Iwajuku Ruins by amateur archaeologist Tadahiro Aizawa, Takeda reveals the stunning beginnings of our ancient predecessors.
The first tool that mankind ever used were stoneware. Among the stoneware used as tools, not just tools chipped from a mass of rock, is polished stoneware. The existence of polished stoneware is proof of a more advanced civilization. Takeda asserts that the world’s oldest polished stoneware has been discovered in Japan.
The polished stoneware of Iwajuku proved to date back 35,000 years. After the discovery by Aizawa, a large number of polished stone tools dating as far back as 38, 000 years were found in several prefectures, including Nagano, Kumamoto, and Iwate.
Around the world, polished stone tools are believed to have begun to be used from some 10,000 years ago. This would mean that the Japanese civilization was some 28,000 years more advanced than the rest of the world. As regards the nations neighboring Japan, the oldest polished stoneware found in China is believed to be 15,000 years old, and the oldest on the Korean Peninsula 7,000 year.
If that is the case, the following question naturally arises: wasn’t ancient civilization actually transmitted from Japan to China via the Korean Peninsula, instead of the other way round?
With science making progress virtually every day, it is not uncommon that new scientific findings often necessitate a revision of the age of some major historic happening. I earnestly hope that more true history is dug up about our ancient predecessors who inhabited the Japanese archipelago, shedding light on what an amazing nation Japan really has been.
Takeda did a brilliant job depicting the lives of our emperors from Jinmu to Reiwa over some 2,600 years. He introduces a number of fascinating anecdotes, including surprising facts about Oda Nobunaga, one of the unifiers of 16th century Japan, and the difficult decisions Emperors Meiji and his grandson Showa had to make. The book is a reservoir of no small number of moving scenes involving these and other figures in our history.
Taking a fresh look at Japanese history centering on our emperors is an invitation to scrutinize, understand, and embrace the true essence of our civilization through various historical events. I sincerely hope the reader will enjoy this excellent book.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 932 in the December 24, 2020-January 7, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)