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Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800 (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 72, Number 1, June 2012
pp. 159-164 | 10.1353/jas.2012.0009

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For political drama, few periods in Japanese history can match that of the Tenmu dynasty. The lineage was founded when Emperor Tenmu, then known as Prince Ōama, came to power after defeating Prince Otomo, his son-in-law and the consort's brother, in a bloody civil war in 672. It concluded when Tenmu's last direct descendant who had claims on the throne, Prince Osabe, was killed with his mother, Princess Inoue, in 775, after a year and a half of house arrest. Their deaths eliminated the last potential rivals of Prince Yamabe, a descendant of Emperor Tenji, Tenmu's brother, who took the throne in 781 as Emperor Kanmu. Between these two events, as Herman Ooms writes in this fascinating and densely detailed book, were "assassinations, plots, poisonings . . . black magic, bewitching, several large-scale armed rebellions, and many hundred banishments" (p. 12). This chaos, Ooms rightly argues, came about because of the unsettled questions of succession. The dynasty put on record a number of firsts: "the first recorded non-adult crown prince and the only female crown princess ever, the succession backtracking, from son to mother, and the first abdication" (pp. 12-13). In fact, although Ooms does not delve into it in great detail, one of the prime reasons the Tenmu dynasty ended so abruptly was Emperor Shomu's decision, orchestrated by his Fujiwara consort, Komyo, to make their daughter Princess Abe, heir designate, and then to abdicate on her behalf.

Although the Tenmu dynasty ultimately failed to control imperial succession, during its almost one hundred and fifty years a number of the most distinctive aspects of Japanese kingship were established. These include legitimizing the dynasty through an association with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu; the establishment of a bureaucratic state based on Chinese legal codes; the fashioning of Yamato into an "empire" (tenka) that was for the first time ruled by a "heavenly sovereign," or "emperor" (tennō); the establishment of the first capital as a locus of rule; and the extension of political authority beyond the Yamato region (pp. 3-4). These innovations, as well as the shift away from basing succession exclusively on double royals (princes with two royal parents), are the true focus of Ooms's excellent monograph.

Ooms does not provide his readers with a narrative history. The text does not describe the specific details of the Jinshin Rebellion that brought Tenmu to power. Nor does it explain a great deal about the actual planning and establishment of the Fujiwara and Heijō capitals, the smallpox epidemic of 737, or Emperor Shōmu's peregrinations—all topics that appear in more conventional histories of the period. Rather, as Ooms writes in his introduction, "politics and symbolics" are the subject of his study (p. xvi). He is interested in exploring the "adoption or manipulation of symbols, a practice with symbols and parallel to politics, both related to the acquisition or exercise of power, status, or authority" (p. xvi). Thus, he builds an understanding of the period thematically. Although the book begins with Tenmu and Empress Jitō and ends with Kanmu who firmly reestablished the lineage of Tenji, ten separate topics are introduced, revisited, and revisited yet again, and only slowly and somewhat indirectly does the reader progress through the one hundred and fifty years that are the subject of the volume. This thematic approach has its benefits since it frees Ooms from being overly biographical and tied to a chronological sequence. Moreover, it allows him to explore each topic, summarized by single-word chapter titles, in full detail. But it can also make the book somewhat difficult to follow. The complexity of the events is probably the reason Ooms (or perhaps his editors) provide a tear-out guide with ruler lineages and plots for the reader to use as a bookmark.

Acknowledging the scholarship of Shinkawa Tokio among others throughout the volume, Ooms emphasizes the central role Daoist practices, imported from the continent, played in legitimizing and strengthening the Tenmu dynasty. By focusing attention on the influence of Daoism (which Ooms suggests might be better termed " Daosiant" since the seventh and eighth centuries predate the establishment of religious Daoism, p. 72) and yin-yang practices, Ooms...



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