- Man’yōshū and the Imperial Imagination in Early Japan by Torquil Duthie
Torquil Duthie’s brilliant new book, Man’yōshū and the Imperial Imagination in Early Japan, gives the final quietus to the comfortable fictions that Man’yōshū, Japan’s earliest extant anthology of vernacular poetry, is a collection intended to showcase some timeless voice of the Japanese people, or to sing of a “sincere” self, as variously proposed by early modern scholars of National Learning and prewar nationalist ideologues. Duthie, by contrast, shows that Man’yōshū was among a number of texts created during the reigns of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jitō in support of a new courtly ideology based on the ideal of a universal realm (“all under heaven”) centered on a universal sovereign.
The late seventh and early eighth centuries were a watershed era in Japanese history. The death of Emperor Tenchi precipitated the Jinshin War (672 CE), a succession war between his brother Tenmu and his son Ōtomo (I use posthumous names for convenience, as I do the exonym “Japan”). As Herman Ooms has also demonstrated in Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008), the victor Tenmu and his consort Jitō (later “heavenly sovereign” [tennō] in her own right) essentially founded a new dynasty. The first “permanent” capital was constructed to serve as center and symbol of the new regime; far-reaching statutes were adopted to form and maintain the imperial state; and, in concert with the swift acquisition of literacy by the court, texts were written to provide “an ideological structure for its subjects to belong to and make sense of their position within the larger world” (p. 1). It is Duthie’s project to show how these texts, which include Man’yōshū, Nihon shoki, Kojiki, and other early writings, were created both to reflect and to effect this new imperial imaginary.
His subject is thus the literary representation and cultural formation of the Yamato court, rather than solely a formalist study of the works as such. Duthie’s self-described approach is a combination of “the philological foundations of Japanese-style scholarship with the literary criticism and historicist orientation of English-language Japanese studies.” He adds, however, that “something like this combination of approaches already exists in some of the best Japanese scholarship that I have cited in this book,” [End Page 123] notably the work of Kōnoshi Takamitsu, Misaki Hisashi, Ogawa Yasuhiko, and Shinada Yoshikazu, whom he scrupulously and generously footnotes (p. 408). With admirable clarity of reasoning and rhetoric, Duthie shows that Nihon shoki in Chinese, Man’yōshū in various versions of the vernacular, and Kojiki in an inventive hybrid all “define the discursive space of history as centered on the words and actions of successive ‘heavenly sovereigns’ who rule over an imperial realm” (p. 2). (The term “heavenly sovereign” was coined by Joan R. Piggott in The Emergence of Japanese Kingship (Stanford University Press, 1997) as an alternative to what she views as the misleading nuances of the term “emperor.”) Taking a page from the work of Shinada, Duthie demonstrates that Man’yōshū was not compiled to showcase some sort of ethnic and linguistic unity; it is instead a literary demonstration of the Yamato imperial order.
Here and throughout his text, Duthie starts with the received wisdom on these sources, then provides careful, nuanced reinterpretations. Mindful of his own contingent site of analysis, he reviews the ideologies—nationalist, antinationalist, and multicultural—through which these texts have been interpreted over the last century and a half. The result is a one-volume guide to some of the most important conceptual advances in the study of early Japanese literature (Jōdai bungaku) that have been achieved in recent decades.
In a typical instance of his care to avoid the kind of essentialization for which he is providing a corrective, Duthie reminds us that the universalizing program of the Yamato court was itself not unified, and that while the texts that support...