restricted access Realms of Literacy: Early Japan and the History of Writing (review)
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Realms of Literacy: Early Japan and the History of Writing by David B. Lurie. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011. Pp. xii + 497. $59.95.

This is an ambitious book. The early history of Japanese writing is complex, shrouded in mystery because of a dearth of material until an explosion of “texts” occurred in the late seventh century.1 Many of these texts are written on bamboo slats (mokkan 木簡) in what appears to be Chinese, while a smaller number are written in a phonetic script where each Chinese character is used for its sound. Other texts mix these two styles, Kojiki being the famous example. The question often asked is whether the writer is writing in Chinese or Japanese.2 And if this intricate subject about the origins of Japanese writing is not sufficiently complex, Lurie, as he states at the outset, “also aims to rethink the wider history of writing in general” (p. 2). Although each reader will necessarily need to reach his (or her) own conclusions on the various aspects Lurie addresses, I can report that this somewhat long tome is filled with information that will help guide scholars and students toward a better understanding of what it means to read and write in early Japan, a subject often filled with misunderstandings.

In Chapter 1, “Shards of Writing?” Lurie discusses fragments of what appear to be graphs on a variety of vessels that have been excavated from Yayoi-era finds. Examples include ta 田 (field), opo 大 (big), and pisa 久 (long time). Whether these can be considered writing or merely talismanic marks is a matter of debate that seems beyond solution at this time because of a lack of context, and Lurie rightly leaves the question open. The important point here is that Chinese graphs appear to have been introduced into the Japanese islands fairly early. In this chapter Lurie introduces us to the distinction of alegible texts versus legible texts, where “alegible” refers to a graph or set of graphs that is seen but perhaps not necessarily read (pp. 2, 37–38).

Chapter 2, “Kings Who Did Not Read,” picks up the narrative about the time of the Yamatai Federation (circa second century c.e.) [End Page 381] and continues into the “Five Kings” era (fifth century) as described in Songshu. In the past some scholars have focused on one line in Sanguo-zhi about Yamatai and possible literacy within the Queen’s federation: 傳送文書賜遣之物詣女王不得差錯, which Lurie renders as “[The official] sends the documents and bestowed items to the Queen, so it is impossible to tamper with them” (p. 76, Lurie’s italics).3 Here scholars have often assumed that the term wenshu 文書 (documents) illustrates that there was someone (or a group of people) in the Yamatai Federation who could read and write. Lurie, however, argues that the graph tamapu 賜 (bestowal) is only appropriate if seen as coming from the Chinese court (or the commandery) and not from the other direction—that is, there was no two-way communication going on—and thus, Lurie concludes, one should not read too much into this account regarding literacy.

The argument surrounding the long missive quoted in Songshu and recorded as coming from King Wu (武王) of Wa by way of an envoy sent to the Chinese court in 478 is a bit more complicated. This missive is 235 characters in length, and because of its “extensive familiarity with literary Chinese rhetoric,” Lurie has “doubts about its authenticity” (p. 82). He suggests several possible origins: (1) it was prepared by someone in Paekche as the Wa envoy passed through; (2) it was prepared for the envoy at the Song court; or (3) it was drafted by the compilers of Songshu. Lurie further notes, “The length and complexity of the manifest suggest an infrastructure to support it: production or importation of ink, brushes, and paper, cloth or strips of wood or bamboo, not to mention the reference works that would accompany the production of allusive parallel prose” (p. 82 n. 24). But is it not also plausible that a literate peninsular group in Wa with these skills, the writing inventory, and connections with the peninsula was hired by King Wu...