Ancient History & Civilisation

2. History

The historians—Arai Hakuseki

We shall not find Japanese historiography so interesting as its fiction, though we may have some difficulty in distinguishing them. The oldest surviving work in Japanese literature is the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Things,” written in Chinese characters by Yasumaro in 712; here legend so often takes the place of fact that the highest Shinto loyalty would be needed to accept it as history.31 After the Great Reform of 645 the government thought it advisable to transform the past again; and about 720 a new history appeared, the Nihongi, or “Record of Nippon,” written in the Chinese language, and adorned with passages bravely stolen from Chinese works and sometimes placed, without any fetichism of chronology, in the mouths of ancient Japanese. Nevertheless the book was a more serious attempt to record the facts than the Kojiki had been, and it provided the foundation for most later histories of early Japan. From that time to this there have been many histories of the country, each more patriotic than the last. In 1334 Kitabatake wrote a “History of the True Succession of the Divine Monarchs”—the Jintoshotoki—on this modest and now familiar note:

Great Yamato (Japan) is a divine country. It is only our land whose foundations were first laid by the Divine Ancestor. It alone has been transmitted by the Sun Goddess to a long line of her descendants. There is nothing of this kind in foreign countries. Therefore it is called the Divine Land.32

First printed in 1649, this work began that movement for the restoration of the ancient faith and state which culminated in the passionate polemics of Moto-ori. The very grandson of Iyeyasu, Mitsu-kuni, by his Dai Nihonshi (“The Great History of Japan,” 1851)—a 240-volume picture of the imperial and feudal past—played a posthumous part in preparing his countrymen to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Perhaps the most scholarly and impartial of Japanese historians was Arai Hakuseki, whose learning dominated the intellectual life of Yedo in the second half of the seventeenth century. Arai smiled at the theology of the orthodox Christian missionaries as “very childish,”33 but he was bold enough to ridicule also some of the legends which his own people mistook for history.34 His greatest work, the Hankampu, a thirty-volume history of the Daimyo, is one of the marvels of literature; for though it must have required much research, it appears to have been composed within a few months.35 Arai derived something of his learning and judgment from his study of the Chinese philosophers. When he lectured on the Confucian classics the Shogun Iyenobu, we are told, listened with rapt and reverent attention, in summer refraining from brushing the mosquitoes from his head, in winter turning his head away from the speaker before wiping his running nose.36 In his autobiography Arai paints a devout picture of his father, and shows the Japanese citizen at his simplest and best:

Ever since I came to understand the heart of things, my memory is that the daily routine of his life was exactly the same. He never failed to get up an hour before daybreak. He then had a cold bath, and did his hair himself. In cold weather the woman who was my mother would propose to order hot water for him, but this he would not allow, as he wished to avoid giving the servants trouble. When he was over seventy, and my mother also was advanced in years, sometimes, when the cold weather was unendurable, a lighted brazier was brought in, and they lay down to sleep with their feet against it. Beside the fire was placed a kettle with hot water, which my father drank when he got up. Both of them honored the way of Buddha. My father, when he had arranged his hair and adjusted his clothing, never neglected to make obeisance to Buddha. . . . After he was dressed he waited quietly for the dawn, and then went out to his official duty. . . . He was never known to betray anger, nor do I remember that, even when he laughed, he gave way to boisterous mirth. Much less did he ever descend to violent language when he had occasion to reprimand anyone. In his conversation he used as few words as possible. His demeanor was grave. I have never seen him startled, flurried, or impatient. . . . The room he usually occupied he kept cleanly swept, had an old picture hung on the wall, and a few flowers which were in season were set out in a vase. He would spend the day looking at them. He painted a little in black and white, not being fond of colors. When in good health he never troubled the servant, but did everything for himself.37

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