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.