Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan

Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650–800

Herman Ooms
Copyright Date: 2009
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wr02x
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan
    Book Description:

    Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan is an ambitious and ground-breaking study that offers a new understanding of a formative stage in the development of the Japanese state. The late seventh and eighth centuries were a time of momentous change in Japan, much of it brought about by the short-lived Tenmu dynasty. Two new capital cities, a bureaucratic state led by an imperial ruler, and Chinese-style law codes were just a few of the innovations instituted by the new regime. Herman Ooms presents both a wide-ranging and fine-grained examination of the power struggles, symbolic manipulations, new mythological constructs, and historical revisions that both defined and propelled these changes. In addition to a vast amount of research in Japanese sources, the author draws on a wealth of sinological scholarship in English, German, and French to illuminate the politics and symbolics of the time. An important feature of the book is the way it opens up early Japanese history to considerations of continental influences. Rulers and ritual specialists drew on several religious and ritual idioms, including Daoism, Buddhism, yin-yang hermeneutics, and kami worship, to articulate and justify their innovations. In looking at the religious symbols that were deployed in support of the state, Ooms gives special attention to the Daoist dimensions of the new political symbolics as well as to the crucial contributions made by successive generations of "immigrants" from the Korean peninsula. From the beginning, a "liturgical state" sought to co-opt factions and clans (uji) as participants in the new polity with the emperor acting as both a symbolic mediator and a silent partner. In contrast to the traditional interpretation of the Kojiki mythology as providing a vertical legitimation of a Sun lineage of rulers, an argument is presented for the importance of a lateral dimension of interdependency as a key structural element in the mythological narrative. An enlightening line of interpretation woven into the author’s analysis centers on purity. This eminently politico-ritual value central to Chinese Daoism and Buddhism was used by Tenmu as the emblematic expression of his regime and new political power. The concept of purity was most fully realized in the world of the Saiô princess in Ise and was later used by Ise ritualists to defend themselves against Buddhist rivals. At the end of the Tenmu dynasty, it was widely believed that avenging spirits were the principal source of danger and pollution, notions understood here as statements about the bloody political battles that were waged in Tenmu court circles. The Tenmu dynasty began and ended in bloodshed and was marked throughout by instability and upheaval. Constant succession struggles between two branches of the royal line and a few outside lineages generated a host of plots, uprisings, murders, and accusations of black magic. This aspect of the period gets full treatment in fascinatingly detailed narratives, which the author skillfully alternates with his trademark structural analysis. Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan is a boldly imaginative, carefully and extensively researched, and richly textured history that will reward reading by Japan specialists and students in several disciplines as well as by scholars with an interest in the role of religious symbolism in state formation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6295-4
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xv-xxii)

    This study circles a century and a half of Japanese history, from about the mid-seventh century to around the beginning of the ninth, extending beyond the Nara period (710–784) at both ends. During the last decades of the seventh century, the Yamato kingdom, which had been ruled by unstable coalitions of lineages whose leaders acknowledged one among themselves as their head, was transformed into a rapidly centralizing state, led by an “emperor” (tennō) who extended his rule through a service nobility recruited from old lineage leadership. A bureaucratic structure was put together, comprehensive law codes promulgated, and grand capitals...

  6. 1 BRICOLAGE
    (pp. 1-27)

    During the second half of the seventh century, three rulers brought about a regime change in Yamato.¹ They were the brothers Tenji and Tenmu, and Jitō, Tenji’s daughter who was also Tenmu’s wife and successor. From among Tenmu and Jitō’s offspring, to the femaletennōShōtoku (d. 770), a line of rulers developed, traditionally referred to as the Tenmu dynasty.² A quick glance at figure 1 reveals that Shōtoku’s successor,tennōKōnin, as Tenji’s grandson, restored the line to Tenji.

    Dynastic identities revolve around more than bloodlines. Equally important are perceptions of founders, lineage composition, and successions, issues that were...

  7. 2 MYTHEMES
    (pp. 28-48)

    Before identifying divine emperorship too readily as a singularly Japanese mytheme, one should remind oneself that, as a rule, power becomes accepted only when sacralized. Rulership without religious sanction is power without legitimacy. As Gilbert Dagron remarks, “Tout pouvoir de fait ne devient pouvoir de droit qu’en se sacralisant: l’État est sacré, l’Église est pouvoir.”¹ It is not that some cultures sacralize authority and others don’t; all do somehow and often in similar ways. In the fifth century, for instance, Koguryŏ kings appealed to Heaven and the Sun, as Yamato kings did later.² The differences between traditions called upon for...

  8. 3 ALIBIS
    (pp. 49-85)

    Tenmu, Yamato’s last great king and Nihon’s firsttennō, is portrayed in theNihon shokias an extraordinary military strategist, institution builder, and ruler: powerful, charismatic, and numinous. Prince Toneri, the final editor of the work, allotted to Tenmu and his consort Jitō more attention (15 percent of the total volume) than given to any of the thirty-nine other rulers chronicled. Eight years earlier, theKojiki’s Preface had already celebrated Tenmu’s Jinshin victory in panegyric, epic, and even cosmic terms.¹ TheManyōshū, ancient Japan’s earliest monumental compilation of poetry, was finalized by Ōtomo Yakamochi (718–785), grandson of the leader...

  9. 4 ALLOCHTHONS
    (pp. 86-104)

    The emperor’s supreme role in the Chinese model of rulership consisted of keeping the realm’s human affairs in sync with cosmic forces, and thus promoting the welfare of all under Heaven. This task required special knowledge and expertise concerning the operation of the yin and yang synergies, the flow of cosmicqi(ether;kiin Japanese), and portents and the interpretation of signs. How did this knowledge cross over to Yamato? Where did the specialists who controlled it come from? How did Tenmu secure both this culture and the practice, especially since contact with China was discontinued for a whole...

  10. 5 LITURGIES
    (pp. 105-131)

    Food has played a crucial role in the life not only of individuals, but of political regimes as well in East Asia. Through ritual, people have forever sought to secure its production against the elements, and when states developed, perceiving themselves equally vulnerable to the political consequences of natural disasters, they created public rites or liturgies for the same purpose. China, the first state emerging in East Asia, understood that its survival depended on success with the weather, called Heaven, an awareness that took root in Yamato concurrently with the establishment of a state there in the late seventh century....

  11. 6 DEPOSITS
    (pp. 132-153)

    Succession problems after Suiko, who died in 628, were serious enough for a council of officials to convene and decide on a new sovereign. Their choice fell on one of Bidatsu’s second-generation descendants, Jomei, who was in turn succeeded by Kōgyoku/Saimei and Kōtoku, both three generations removed from Bidatsu (see figure 1). The brothers Tenji and Tenmu, as sons of Jomei and Saimei inheriting the throne on shaky genealogical grounds and, in addition, having the blood of eliminated rivals on their hands, appear to have attempted restoring some sort of double royalty through a dense web of endogamous marriages for...

  12. 7 ARTICULATIONS
    (pp. 154-186)

    The group of four consecutive rulers from Kōtoku to Tenmu are memorialized in theNihon shokiwith posthumous names opening with a reference to Heaven such as Ame yorozu toyohi and Ame toyo takara ikashihi tarashi hime, “Heaven Myriad Abundant Sun” and “Heaven Abundant Treasure Grand Sun Bountiful Princess” for Kōtoku and Kōgyoku. The new practice continued with Tenji and Tenmu’s posthumous names. In addition, almost a century later, when the court in late Nara allocated two-graph names to all past rulers, Heaven was further highlighted in the names of the brothers Ten-ji and Ten-mu (“Heavenly Wisdom” and “Heavenly Warrior”)....

  13. Color plates
    (pp. None)
  14. 8 PLOTTINGS
    (pp. 187-223)

    Theritsuryōstate was a new creation of the late seventh–early eighth centuries, and so was the ritual that was meant to butt ress its authority. Monmu’s anticipated succession, which took place in 697, seven years after Jitō ascended the throne, provided an occasion for plotting the public transmission of ruling power. The Fujiwara and the restored Nakatomiujiplayed an important role in this process. The Fujiwaraujiwas created in 669 for Kamatari, known until just before he died as a Nakatomi, when Tenji changed Kamatari’sujiname from Nakatomi to Fujiwara. In 698, however, a branch...

  15. 9 SPIRITS
    (pp. 224-252)

    Ōtomo Yakamochi, poet and compiler of theManyōshūand one-time general in campaigns against the Emishi, died just before Fujiwara Tanetsugu’s murder on 785/9/23 at the hands of some Ōtomo, anujiwith a long-standing enmity against the Fujiwara. The record suggests that he may have been involved, although marginally, in both Nakamaro’s and Naramaro’s rebellions — accusations that cannot be verified. As an Ōtomo, Yakamochi was considered to have been in cahoots with the plotters. He was posthumously reduced to commoner status, and his children were banished. Worse, his corpse was left to rot for over twenty days before...

  16. 10 PURITY
    (pp. 253-266)

    Purity as a distinct politico-religious value emerges in theNihon shoki’s historically reliable part toward the end of Tenmu’s rule — he died on 686/9/9 — when he brought the notion of a heavenly court into focus.¹ In his reorganization of the official hierarchy (685/1/21), Tenmu set two ranks for princes apart from and above the rest of officialdom, titling themmyō明 (bright/sacred) and净 (kiyoi; pure). A year and a half later, on 686/7/22, he renamed his royal quarters AsukaKiyomihara no miya (Palace on the Pure Plain of Asuka), and ordered scores of men of pure...

  17. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. 267-268)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 269-324)
  19. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 325-342)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 343-353)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 354-354)