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Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan

The Tenmu Dynasty, 650–800

Herman Ooms

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

Friends, scholars, and institutions contributed enormously to this book. I gratefully acknowledge the many debts I incurred during the nine years it took me to complete it. Without this support, I would still be writing. Foremost, I would like to thank my friend Christine Schoppe, whose long-standing interest in matters Daoist came as a welcome surprise when...

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pp. xv

This study circles a century and a half of Japanese history, from about the mid-seventh century to around the beginning of the ninth, extending beyond the Nara period (710–784) at both ends. During the last decades of the seventh century, the Yamato kingdom, which had been ruled by unstable coalitions of lineages whose leaders acknowledged one among them-...

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1 Bricolage

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pp. 1-27

During the second half of the seventh century, three rulers brought about a regime change in Yamato.1 They were the brothers Tenji and Tenmu, and Jitō, Tenji’s daughter who was also Tenmu’s wife and successor. From among Tenmu and Jitō’s off spring, to the female tennō Shōtoku (d. 770), a line of rulers developed, traditionally referred to as the Tenmu dynasty.2 ...

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2 Mythemes

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pp. 28-48

Before identifying divine emperorship too readily as a singularly Japanese mytheme, one should remind oneself that, as a rule, power becomes accepted only when sacralized. Rulership without religious sanction is power without legitimacy. As Gilbert Dagron remarks, “Tout pouvoir de fait ne devient pouvoir de droit qu’en se sacralisant: l’État est sacré, l’Église ...

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3 Alibis

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pp. 49-85

Tenmu, Yamato’s last great king and Nihon’s first tennō, is portrayed in the Nihon shoki as an extraordinary military strategist, institution builder, and ruler: powerful, charismatic, and numinous. Prince Toneri, the final editor of the work, allott ed to Tenmu and his consort Jitō more att ention (15 percent of the total volume) than given to any of the thirty-nine other ...

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4 Allochthons

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pp. 86-104

The emperor’s supreme role in the Chinese model of rulership consisted of keeping the realm’s human affairs in sync with cosmic forces, and thus promoting the welfare of all under Heaven. This task required special knowledge and expertise concerning the operation of the yin and yang synergies, the flow of cosmic qi (et her; ki in Japanese), and portents and the in-...

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5 Liturgies

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pp. 105-131

Food has played a crucial role in the life not only of individuals, but of political regimes as well in East Asia. Through ritual, people have forever sought to secure its production against the elements, and when states developed, perceiving themselves equally vulnerable to the political con...

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6 Deposits

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pp. 132-153

Succession problems aft er Suiko, who died in 628, were serious enough for a council of officials to convene and decide on a new sovereign. Their choice fell on one of Bidatsu’s second-generation descendants, Jomei, who was in turn succeeded by Kōgyoku/Saimei and Kōtoku, both three generations removed from Bidatsu (see figure 1). The brothers Tenji and ...

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7 Articulations [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 154-186

...memorialized in the Nihon shoki with posthumous names opening with a reference to Heaven such as Ame yorozu toyohi and Ame toyo takara ikashihi tarashi hime, “Heaven Myriad Abundant Sun” and “Heaven Abundant Treasure Grand Sun Bountiful Princess” for Kōtoku and Kōgyoku. The new practice continued with Tenji and Tenmu’s posthumous names. ...

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8 Plottings

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pp. 187-223

The ritsuryō state was a new creation of the late seventh–early eighth centuries, and so was the ritual that was meant to buttress its authority. Monmu’s anticipated succession, which took place in 697, seven years after Jitō ascended the throne, provided an occasion for plotting the public transmission of ruling power. The Fujiwara and the restored Nakatomi uji ...

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9 Spirits

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pp. 224-252

...time general in campaigns against the Emishi, died just before Fujiwara Tanetsugu’s murder on 785/9/23 at the hands of some Ōtomo, an uji with a long-standing enmity against the Fujiwara. The record suggests that he may have been involved, although marginally, in both Nakamaro’s and Naramaro’s rebellions — accusations that cannot be verifi ed. As an Ōtomo, ...

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10 Purity

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pp. 253-266

The titles of the official ranks were modified. . . . There were Purity as a distinct politico-religious value emerges in the Nihon sho-ki’s historically reliable part toward the end of Tenmu’s rule — he died on 686/9/9 — when he brought the notion of a heavenly court into focus.1 In his reorganization of the official hierarchy (685/1/21), Tenmu set two ranks ...


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pp. 267-268


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pp. 269-324


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pp. 325-342


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pp. 343

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862954
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832353

Publication Year: 2009