The Emergence of Japanese Kingship
In his commentary on the 1889 Meiji Constitution, Ito Hirobumi intoned that “the Emperor is Heaven-descended, divine, and sacred” for “the Sacred Throne was established at the time when the heavens and the earth became separated,” and that “the splendor of the Sacred Throne transmitted through an unbroken line of one and the same [End Page 449] dynasty has always remained as immutable as that of the heavens and the earth” (David Lu, ed., Japan: A Documentary History [Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997], p. 340). Ito was articulating what he and his cohort cast as the resurrection, or restoration, of an ideology of kingship dating back nearly two and a half millennia, and one that would four decades later become the engine driving the ultra-nationalist propaganda machine that carried Japan—and with it, the United States—into World War II. But the conception of kingship that so captivated nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japanese rhetoricians was neither immutable not timeless, as Joan Piggott reminds us in her formidable new study, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship, in which she traces the institution and ideology of kingship in Japan from its nascency in the third century c.e. to its zenith in the eighth.
Piggott presents what she terms “an archaeology of kingship,” combining data from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese written records with archaeological evidence, to assemble temporal cross-sections exposing the reigns of seven ancient Japanese monarchs. Through this, she describes a process by which kings and regional paramounts gradually integrated most of the archipelago into a unified cultural and political entity. Her emphasis throughout is on the decentered nature of Japanese state formation and the importance to the process of competing polities.
Early Western-language treatments of Japanese state formation stressed the adoption of Chinese institutions and ideologies of statecraft, a view that continues to dominate textbooks and survey histories. For example, William Theodore DeBary, Donald Keene, and Ryusaku Tsunoda declared, in their classic Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), which still ranks among the texts most frequently used in introductory courses, that
as the Yamato people consolidated their position in central Japan, and as their rulers attempted to win undisputed supremacy over the other clans . . . it was to the Chinese example that they turned more and more for political guidance and cultural direction. . . . In place of the old political organization based on clan units was set up the systematic territorial administration of the Chinese . . . centrally directed and executing a uniform law which represented the paramount authority of the emperor. . . . The reformers went far toward achieving for the ruling house that absolute control over all the elements of power characteristic of the greatest Chinese dynasties. But with this wholesale imitation of China came likewise the chronic difficulties experienced by these dynasties, which were to undermine the new state almost from the beginning”(pp. 52–53). [End Page 450]
More recent scholarship, by Dana Robert Morris, William Wayne Farris, Robert Borgen, Bruce Batton, and myself, has focused on Japanese adaptation and adjustment—rather than simple adoption and imitation—of Chinese ideas and institutions. Piggott further refines and advances the newer view.
Piggott describes Japan as a “secondary state formation within the Chinese sphere of influence” (p. 11), in which a Chinese-style, fully vertically integrated state did not appear during the centuries spanned by her study. Although, as she observes, there is no question that those who shaped Japanese kingship did take the Chinese monarchy as their model structure, the historical circumstances shaping the rulership on the archipelago differed dramatically from those on the continent. Symbolic of these differences, she notes, is the decision by Japanese king-makers to style their monarch by the distinctive title tenn̄o (“Heavenly Sovereign”) instead of the tenshi (“Son of Heaven”) preferred by the Chinese. Even at its zenith, under Sh̄omu Tenn̄o in the mid-eighth century, the Japanese state remained essentially segmentary—“centered rather than centralized” (p. 280). Sh̄omu’s realm successfully linked and coordinated the capital with the hinterlands, and he incorporated elites from all over the country into his officialdom. But his realm was qualitatively different from both the aristocratic polities of early and medieval China that preceded it, and the autocratic polities of early modern China that followed.
Japanese kingship was also unlike that exercised by the warrior kings of early Western Europe, in that it exhibited a distinctly sacral character throughout its development. Piggott is particularly interested in how and why Japanese kings were sacral, and how their sacrality changed over time. She contends that the largely theurgic kingship of the third century (and perhaps earlier) gradually gave way to a more martial model of sovereignty by the sixth, after which increasing pressure from the continent caused warrior kingship to be rejected in favor of a more unifying and stable rule by a sacerdotal monarch, nurtured by the idioms of Buddhism and other Chinese-inspired religious ideas. By Sh̄omu’s time, she maintains, the sovereign’s legitimacy was mainly “soteriological,” anchored by the realm-protecting cults of Buddha and the native divinities, for which the ruler served as ritual coordinator.
Readers of the Journal of World History will be particularly interested in what this volume adds to the ongoing debate concerning state formation across the globe. Piggott has read broadly, crossing disciplinary, geographic, and temporal boundaries, in search of new investigatory tools and models and with the explicit goal of making “a meaningful contribution to world historical studies” (p. 4). The result is a narrative [End Page 451] guided and flavored by an impressive array of paradigms and associated vocabulary drawn from the literature on political and cultural anthropology, historical sociology, archaeology, ethnohistory, ritual theory, gender studies, religious sociology, kingship, and courtly societies.
In sum, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship is impressive for both the information it conveys and the scope of the research underlying it. I heartily recommend it not only to students of early Japanese history, but also to anyone interested in questions concerning kingship, hierarchy building, or the integration of core and periphery in state formation at any time or place in world history.