The Kojiki (古事記), the "Records of Ancient Matters", is Japan's oldest extant chronicle and records events from the mythical 'Age of the Gods' to the time of Empress Suiko (推古天皇 Suiko-tennō, 554-628). It was compiled by Ō no Yasumaro (太安万侶, d. 723) and presented to Empress Genmei (元明天皇 Genmei-tennō, 660-721) in 712. Parts of it are considered sacred texts of Shintō. There is no existing copy of the original text; the oldest known edition is from the late 14th century.


Amaterasu emerging from the cave, by Shunsai Toshimasa (春斎年昌), woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and colour on paper (1887)

The Kojiki is divided into three fascicles. The first fascicle, the Kamitsumaki (上巻 "first volume"), is also known as Kamiyo no Maki (神代巻 "Volume of the Age of the Gods") and records the creation of heaven and earth, and the myths surrounding the founding of Japan. It describes the creation of the Japanese archipelago by Izanagi and Izanami, the last of the seven generations of primordial deities, and their progeny, the sun goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami and her brother Susanoo, as well as the descent from heaven of Ninigi no Mikoto (瓊瓊杵尊), the grandson of Amaterasu and the founder of the Japanese imperial line, to the mountain Takachihonomine in Kyūshū. It also tells the story of Umisachihiko (海佐知毘古 or 海幸彦), the eldest son of Ninigi and ancestor of the Hayato people (隼人) in southern Kyūshū, who pledged allegiance to Hohodemi no Mikoto (彦火火出見尊), the grandfather of Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan.

The second fascicle, the Nakatsumaki (中巻 "middle volume"), covers the period from Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇) to Emperor Ōjin (応神天皇 Ōjin-tennō), the 15th emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession. The third fascicle, the Shimotsumaki (下巻 "lower volume"), records events from the reign of Emperor Nintoku (仁徳天皇 Nintoku-tennō) to Suiko in the early 7th century. With the passage in the third section that deals with Emperor Kenzō (顕宗天皇 Kenzō-tennō) the Kojiki no longer features story elements but turns into a narrative of records on imperial succession and the imperial family. Contrary to the Nihon Shoki (720) which focuses on historical events, the Kojiki describes myths, legends and narratives and is therefore also called Furukotobumi, a literary work that deals with matters of ancient time.

The Kojiki is written in Yamato language transcribed into Chinese characters, as the Japanese had not yet developed their phonetic script. The main text is transcribed in kanbun (漢文 "Chinese writing"), a form of literary Japanese that borrowed heavily from classical Chinese. Also, the verse sequences make phonetic use of Chinese characters. The main text has annotations that indicate access patterns, pronunciations of characters in Chinese and Japanese, and provide definitions.

Ō no Yasumaro, the Japanese nobleman and bureaucrat who compiled the Kojiki, stated in the preface that sometime during the latter half of the 7th century, Emperor Temmu (天武天皇 Tenmu tennō, 631-686) decreed that the Teiki (帝紀), a genealogical record of the imperial family, and the Kyūji (旧辞), a collection of myths, legends and songs, both no longer extant, had ceased to be accurate and needed to be rectified. The compilation of accurate historical records would "clarify the basis of the state" and "the foundations for the moral teachings of the emperors". Temmu ordered the court attendant Hieda no Are (稗田阿礼) to memorise the Teiki and the Kyūji but the project was interrupted for various reasons. In 711, Empress Genmei asked Ō no Yasumaro to transcribe the information compiled by Are, and the completed records were presented to the imperial court in 712.

motoori-norinaga.jpg

Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長,1730-1801)

The oldest surviving manuscript of the Kojiki is a scroll from 1371-72 called the Shinpukuji-bon (真福寺本), named after Shinpukuji Temple in Nagoya where it is stored. According to the postscript in this edition copies from the Kamakura Period existed at the time, but not from the Nara or the Heian periods. No other historical records from the Nara Period mention the Kojiki. Later, in the Edo Period (1600-1868), it was speculated that the Kojiki had not actually been compiled in 712 but was a forgery from a later age. However, the Man'yōshū (万葉集 "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves"), an anthology from the 8th century, has quotations from the work, and the Shōhei no shiki (Private Record of the Shōhei Era, 936) describes the Kojiki as the oldest historical book.

From the Nanbokuchō Period (南北朝時代, 1336-1392), the era of the conflict between the Northern and the Southern court, the Kojiki was considered a historical document, along with Nihon shoki and the Sendai kujihongi (先代旧事本紀), a work based on ancient history compiled in the Heian Period. In the Edo Period, the scholar Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長, 1730-1801) wrote his 44-volume "Commentaries on the Kojiki" (古事記伝 Kojiki-den). Norinaga and other scholars of the Kokugaku (国学) school, a movement that aimed at steering scholarship away from the study of Chinese, Confucian, and Buddhist texts in favour of research into the early Japanese classics, valued the Kojiki as a 'classic among classics".

Links:

  • The Kojiki translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain (full text by Sacred Texts)
  • Kojiki (HTML and PDF versions presented by the Waseda University)

References:

  • Chamberlain, Basil Hall, Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters, Tuttle Publishing 2012
  • Heldt, Gustav, The Kojiki: An Account of Ancient Matters, Columbia University Press 2014
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2002