Nihon shoki (Japanese: 日本書紀), also known in English as the Chronicles of Japan, is the second oldest history book of classical Japan. It is more elaborate than Kojiki, the oldest text on Japanese history, and has proven invaluable to historians as it includes the most complete historical records of ancient Japanese history in existence, combined with myths about the origins of Japan and a genealogy of the Imperial family.
Mainstream Japanese myths, as generally recognized today, are based on the Kojiki, Nihon shoki and some complementary books. These two works are the primary texts of Shintoism. One notable aspect of Japanese mythology is that it explains the origin of the Imperial family, and assigns them godhood. The Japanese word for the Emperor of Japan, tennō (天皇), means "heavenly emperor" (the character 天 means “heaven” ). Nihon shoki is an important historical text in understanding the relationship between Japanese polity and Shintoism.
Nihon shoki was finished in 720 C.E. under the editorial supervision of Prince Toneri. The book is also called Nihongi (日本紀). After Kojiki was issued in 712, another five official national historical books were published, but Nihon shoki was the most important officially authorized history. It was written at a time when the Japanese Court was challenged by the sudden occurrence of a number of international conflicts surrounding Japan. The motives behind the editing of the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki were quite different.
Kojiki’s primary role was to establish the identity of the Imperial family as descendants of the deity of Japan and thus justify its rule. It integrated existing oral histories, folk tales, customs, traditions, and other cultural elements into mythology and supported the political authority of the Imperial family. The focus was to establish cultural unity within the nation, centered upon the Imperial family. Nihon shoki, however, aimed to present Japan as a nation centered upon the Imperial family to neighboring countries of China and Korea. Its aim was to establish Japan as having a strong national identity.
Nihon shoki includes many articles concerning foreign diplomacy, international viewpoints and a strong political awareness of Japan as a nation. Nihon shoki also contains not only many articles detailing domestic political structure, but also articles about delegations coming from and going to Paekche and Silla on the Korean peninsula, and the Sui and Tang dynasties of China; and presentations on newly arrived Chinese indigenous culture and Buddhist culture. The contents cover the mythological age through the reign of Emperor Jito. The book was written in a classical Chinese and chronological form. It is made up of 30 volumes, plus one volume with a genealogical table. This genealogical table has since been lost. Nihon shoki was presented to Emperor Genshou, who was the 44th Emperor and a woman. The chief editor was Prince Toneri, one of the sons of Emperor Temmu (天武天皇 Temmu Tennō) (c. 631-October 1, 686), the 40th emperor of Japan according to the traditional order of succession. He is the first monarch of Japan to whom the title "tenno" was assigned contemporaneously instead of by later generations. He ruled from 672 until his death in 686. The first and only document about his life was Nihon shoki. Since it was edited by his son, Prince Toneri, and the work was written during the reigns of his wife and children, its accuracy and impartiality are suspect.
The Original Sources
During the reign of Emperor Kinmei (29th Emperor), Buddhism was imported via Paekche (the ancient Korean nation) in 538. It is surmised that in that period Teiki (an Imperial genealogy which was maintained by government officials and is no longer in existence) and Kuji (the oral traditions of each clan’s history, also no longer in existence) were adopted. It is said that in 620, Prince Shotoku and Soga no Umako edited Tennoki (an Imperial genealogy almost same as Teiki) and Kokuki (“History of the Nation”). However, in 645, during the Itsushi incident, the mansion of Soga no Emishi was set on fire with Tennoki and Kokuki inside. The Kokuki was carried to safety, but has since been lost. These two projects were later resumed by successors.
During the sixth and seventh centuries C.E., Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Paekche, Silla and Goguryeo (Koguryo, Koguryu, Koguryo). The Chinese Sui Dynasty (founded in 581) wanted to occupy the Korean peninsula and attempted three major invasions of Goguryeo unsuccessfully. After replacing the Sui Dynasty in 618, the Tang Dynasty repeatedly intervened in the affairs of Korea. In order to profit from this new situation, the Silla Kingdom allied with the Tang Dynasty and defeated the Goguryeo and Paekche Kingdoms. After its defeat in the Battle of Hwangsanbeol in 660, the Paekche Army requested Japanese aid. Prince Naka no Ōe, later to become Emperor Tenji, dispatched an initial contingent of 170 ships and 47,000 soldiers. According to Nihon shoki, over 400 Japanese ships were lost in naval confrontations in the lower reaches of the Tongjin River, and in September of 663, the Japanese army retreated to Japan along with Paekche refugees. This retreat marked a major turning point in Japanese-Korean relations, and afterwards Japan lost any significant cultural contact with the Korean peninsula. Prior to that, by 663, many people of Paekje had immigrated to Japan, bringing technologies and culture with them.
The Purpose of ‘‘Nihon shoki’’
This military defeat sent shockwaves through Japan. For the first time in the Japanese history, Japan faced pressure from foreign sovereignties. Japan started to try to further establish its national identity. Its name was changed from “Wa” to ”Nippon” (Japan) and the name of the sovereign from “Daiou” (Great King ) to “Tennou” (Emperor). A system of centralized government based on the ritsuryo code was put into effect, modeled on Tang dynasty. Among these efforts to reinforce the Japanese national identity was the compilation of official National Histories, one after another, in the Chinese style. The Nihon shoki was intended to show that Japan had a strong national structure of its own, centered on the Imperial Family and the aristocracy. It was deeply politicized, leading to the theory that powerful figures in the political world took charge of the editing policy and the selection of the original materials. Nihon shoki attempted to establish the legitimacy of the reign of Emperor Temmu and his lineage. Historical information about ancient periods is less credible, as obvious efforts were made to reconcile ancient periods with the modern calendar. Nihon shoki seems to have been written in the modern style, so it is probable that there were a number of other books and a general readership in existence at the time of its publishing. The editors of Kojiki, in contrast, appear to have made strenuous efforts to join oral traditions into one story by using references that could not be easily acquired.
Style and Terminology of Nihon shoki
Among the 30 volumes of the Nihon shoki, 25 volumes (with the exception of volumes 1 and 2 which were the mythological ages, and volumes 28, 29 and 30 which were the authentic records of Emperor Temmu and Jitou) can be split into two parts. One spans the mythological ages to volume 13, and the other is from volume 14 to volume 21. The remaining volumes 22 and 23 can be classified as part of the former, and volumes 24 to 27 can be classified in the latter.
Until recently Nihon shoki was considered to be written in pure Chinese language forms, but modern scholars have detected many Washu in the vocabulary and word structure. Washu means misapplications and abuses of Chinese characters based on their usage in the Japanese language.
King Seong of the Korean kingdom of Paekche maintained diplomatic ties with Japan as well as with the Liang Dynasty in China. In Nihon shoki it was recorded that King Seong of Paekche dedicated a statue of Shakyamuni (Buddha) and Buddhist scriptures (to Japanese Emperor Kimmei) in 552. However, several other historical books place the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 538, and this is widely held to be true. There are several modifications in Nihon shoki.
Excepting the mythological ages, Nihon shoki is perfectly chronological, with years, months and days written according to a sexagenarian cycle. Scholars found that two kinds of Chinese calendars were used: the Genka reki calendar, and the Gibo reki calendar.
Like Kojiki, Nihon shoki begins with mythological tales that cannot be relied on as historical references, and continues until contemporary events. It is considered to have recorded accurately the later reigns of Emperor Tenji, Emperor Temmu, and Emperor Jitō. Nihon shoki focuses on the merits of the virtuous rulers and the mistakes of the bad ones. It records episodes from mythological eras, diplomatic contacts with China and Korea, and numerous events close to its time of compilation. Though Kojiki was written in transliterated Japanese with Chinese characters, Nihon shoki was written in classical Chinese as was common for any official documents at that time.
The ‘‘Nihon shoki’’ Lecture Series
Nihon shoki was difficult to read and understand for Japanese because, except for the parts in poetry and verse, it was written in pure Chinese language. Therefore, the year after Nihon shoki was released, an official lecture series was initiated, to be presented by scholars to the aristocracy. This lecture series was called Shoki-kouen, and lasted for several years; in some cases it is known to have lasted for seven years. Lecture notes containing words from ancient Korean languages is an important resource for linguistic studies.
- Aston, W. G. 1972. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 2005 edition. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0804836744
- De Bary, William Theodore, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley. 2001. Sources of Japanese Tradition, Volume One: From Earliest Times to 1600 Second Edition, 2002. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231121393
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