Kojiki by Yasumaro : a Work greater than its own Writer…

Welcome back, here we present our fourth article which shall give you a solid understanding of one of Shinto’s holy books: that is to say Kojiki (lit. “record(s) of ancient matters”). Happy read to you all! 

The Historical Cradle of a Masterpiece

It is unknown when Oho-no-Yasumaro (660-723 AD) began writing the Kojiki, the first actual work of Japanese literature, but we can extrapolate a time range from the historical context of that age. The sacred text was commissioned by emperor Tenmu (631-686 AD) to Yasumaro as an attempt to give its country a great classic that could match or even surpass Chinese works and legitimate the divine descent of the imperial house of Japan. Tenmu had noble origins but he was not supposed to become the emperor, indeed he and his closest family members had retired in a cave where to conduct an ascetic religious life. And yet, in 672 AD prince Otomo had put into motion a coup which allowed him to take control of the country; upon learning this, Tenmu left the cave then swiftly gathered an army and defeated Otomo (648-672 AD) who committed suicide. Following this brief civil war, Tenmu rose to power as the emperor in 673 AD. He built a political system based on nepotism, strength of the central authority, collaboration among his sons and daughters so that none of them could be more important than another. Tenmu promoted both Buddhism and Shinto in Japan and allied with the Kingdom of Silla (the recently unified Korea), but at the same time he showed great opposition against China. Some speculate that the Kojiki was meant to be the highest pinnacle of his hostility against Chinese culture, while according to others the Kojiki was a way to reinforce Shinto after the death of princess Tochi (648/653-678 AD). She was a saio, daughter of Tenmu himself, assassinated in mysterious circumstances… a crime that heinous that even the Kami must have veiled their faces not to gaze at the horror. 

Structure of a Record of Ancient Matters

We know that Yasumaro stopped writing the Kojiki in 686 AD because of Tenmu’s death, but in 711 empress Genmei (660-721) ordered him to finish the holy book. According to some scholars, she, grand-daughter of Tenmu, gave this command to celebrate the finding of a huge copper mine in the country. In the past there have been empty rumors about the Kojiki being a fake, but a deep analysis of the phonotactics and phonetics utilized demonstrated that it was exactly the original work written by Yasumaro. Also, in 1979 a team of archeologists found his tomb with there inscribed specific information reported in the Kojiki too proving again its authenticity. The book was originally written in Japanese but by using Chinese characters since Japan lacked its own writing system; by now it’s been translated in lots of languages such as Chinese, English, German, French, Italian. The Kojiki is composed by four parts : an introduction 54 verses long, three chapters respectively named “Kamitsumaki”, “Nakatsumaki”, “Shimotsumaki”. The introduction has three parts itself : a summary of the book, a speech about writing styles, a praise of emperor Tenmu. The first chapter describes the age of the Kami, the second chapter tackles the history of the imperial house from the 1st to the 15th emperor with a strong focus on religion, the third chapter is more “secular” and talks about the history of the emperors from the 16th to the 33th. The work ends with the death of empress Suiko (554-628). The Kojiki also contains many songs and short poems, notes from the author and myths.

Deeds of O-Yasumaro

Yasumaro was a nobleman who served the imperial house of Japan, he wrote the Kojiki and contributed a lot to writing and preparing the Nihongi, the other holy book of Shinto. He was promoted many times up the ranks in the palace, even centuries after his death in 1911 by the Japanese Empire he received a posthumous promotion. Yasumaro became the commander of Clan Oshi in 716. During his years of work on the Kojiki, he was helped by Hiyeda no Are. We don’t know much about this person, probably Hiyeda was a woman (so we will use the feminine) but there is contrasting evidence about her sex. Unknown are birth and death dates too, but she was at least 28 years old under Tenmu’s rule and she was still alive in 686. Hiyeda had both noble and divine descent : her family came from the Kami Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto Who plays a big role in Shinto. She had an incredible memory which had allowed her to memorize hundreds of Japanese, Chinese and Korean works word by word : with this unbelievable knowledge of historiography, religious writings and literature, Yasumaro used her as the main source of information when writing the Kojiki. He had basically a talking-library. 

Goodbye for now!

Hope you all enjoyed this article, stay tuned for another publication of ours!