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Of Allochthons and Alibis
Otherworldly Ideologies in Seventh- and Eighth-Century Japan
Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650–800. By Herman Ooms. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009. 376 pages. Hardcover $50.00.

The seventh and eighth centuries—roughly, the Asuka and Nara periods—were a particularly fertile and dynamic moment in the history of Japan, with concepts and organizational frameworks created during these centuries shaping later political and institutional developments. Foremost among these new inventions are the name Nihon (Nippon) itself and the title tennō, both of which were created in the late seventh century as part of a complex ideological project set in motion by Emperor Tenmu inline graphic (r. 672–686) and his consort and successor Jitō inline graphic (r. 686–697).1 With a strong but nonexclusive focus on Tenmu, Herman Ooms has written a book about the transformation of Japanese rulership in this period, emphasizing religious and ideological components of power that do not fit easily into the traditional tripartite framework of “Shinto,” “Buddhism,” and “Confucianism.” Imperial Politics and Symbolics examines territory surveyed in earlier Anglophone studies by Gary Ebersole and Joan Piggott. It also joins a number of other recent monographs that consider the nexus of religion and temporal power in early Japan, including studies by John Bentley, David Bialock, Michael Como, and Donald McCallum—a cluster of works that suggests a renewed sense of the importance of this period for our general understanding of the political, institutional, intellectual, and cultural history of premodern Japan.2

Put simply, Ooms’s concern in this book is the role played in early Japanese political ideology by “manipulators of supernatural symbolics” (p. 209), most prominently [End Page 79] Tenmu himself, but also his successors and the experts he and they employed—many of whom were from immigrant lineages. The period covered by Imperial Politics and Symbolics begins with Tenmu’s military victory over his nephew (son of his predecessor Tenji inline graphic; r. 661–671) and ends with the extirpation of Tenmu’s heirs by Tenji’s grandson Emperor Kōnin inline graphic, who reigned from 770 to 781 (although portions of the latter half of the book make reference to developments of the late eighth century and beyond). As Ooms summarizes, “the Tenji line was thus embroiled in succession conflicts at both ends, in the beginning as the loser in a civil war and a century later as victor through murder and the manipulation of accusations of black magic. These two events frame a century of dynastic turmoil among Tenmu’s offspring” (p. 209). It is this tumultuous period that the book frames as “the Tenmu dynasty,” as in its subtitle, but it is important to recognize the provisional nature of this designation. We are frequently reminded that “the notion of a dynastic line originating with Tenmu was already in dispute in the eighth century. In other words, the idea of a Tenmu ruling house was being contested while under construction” (pp. xvi–xvii).

Over the course of the decades thus delineated, and with occasional excursions both back and (especially) forward in time, Ooms shows how “through Tenmu, a politico-religious discourse and practice was set up, one that could accommodate a number of enchanting idioms” (p. 69). The passive voice here is typical of the book’s treatment of Tenmu, who is presented not only as a historical actor but equally as a vehicle for larger forces and intellectual constructs. The “enchanting idioms” surveyed include mythology; royal genealogy; constructed spaces of palaces, cities, and tombs; rituals and sacrifices; imported knowledge of stars, portents, and various kinds of magic; Daoist (or at least traditionally Chinese) imagery of cosmically sanctioned political legitimacy; political plots employing black magic; fear of the vengeful dead; and a discourse on purity that becomes steadily more influential from the ninth century onward.

Imperial Politics and Symbolics begins with a chapter on the retrospective creation of royal lineages, which Ooms terms “genealogical bricolage” (p. 1), but overall the book is concerned with a more general form of bricolage, as summed up in a key passage:

This potpourri of symbols should not surprise. Most traditions are not entities that police themselves through a...