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  • Yoshino and the Politics of Cultural Topography in Early Japan
  • Torquil Duthie (bio)

Yoshino 吉野 is portrayed in early Japanese texts as a place full of power, beauty, and magic. In the Nihon shoki 日本書紀 (c. 720), Kojiki 古事記 (c. 712), Man’yōshū 万葉集 (c. eighth century), and Kaifūsō 懐風藻 (c. 751), it appears as a symbolic center of imperial authority, as a poetic landscape of manifold mountains and clear rivers, and as a mysterious site associated with immortal beings (shinsen 神仙). Although much work has been done on these various aspects of Yoshino from different disciplinary perspectives—historical, literary, and religious—little attention has been paid to the specific contexts in which Yoshino appears in each of these early texts, or to the relationship between Yoshino as a political symbol, as a numinous site, and as a literary topos. In this article I examine the portrayal of Yoshino in its various contexts in order to clarify the process through which it came to be represented as a significant place in the historical narratives and poetry anthologies of the eighth-century Japanese state.1

Today the name “Yoshino” is primarily associated with Mt. Yoshino, well known as the most spectacular cherry-blossom-viewing area in Japan, and with the northern edge of the World Heritage Site that stretches from Mt. Yoshino to Ōmine 大峰, through the modern district of Yoshino, which occupies the southern two-thirds of Nara prefecture, and down to the Kumano 熊野 shrines in Wakayama.2 Mt. Yoshino and its cherry blossoms have been famous since at least the mid-Heian period, and the temples and shrines in the area have multiple historical associations.3 In the Asuka and Nara periods, however, the region known as Yoshino was mostly limited [End Page 189] to the area along the banks of the Yoshino river and the surrounding moors and hills, and it was associated primarily with the river rather than the mountain.4 Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a small palace on the northern bank of the Yoshino river, several kilometers away from all the hubbub and tourist attractions of Mt. Yoshino, in a place known now as Miyataki 宮滝 (see figure 1).5 There are traces of at least three rebuildings on the same site: the first is believed to be from the reigns of Tenmu 天武 (d. 686, r. 672–686) and Jitō 持統 (645?–702, r. 687–696) in the late seventh century,6 the second from Shōmu’s 聖武 (701–756, r. 724–749) reign in the mid-eighth century, and the last from Uda’s 宇多 (867–931, r. 887–897) reign in the late ninth century. It is this older “Yoshino” that is the subject of this article.

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Figure 1.

Topography of the Nara basin; map image by Kana Kudo.

[End Page 190]

In both the Nihon shoki and Kojiki the earliest mention of Yoshino is as a place inhabited by earthly gods (kunitsukami 国神) who submit to the legendary first emperor, Jinmu 神武. Yoshino reappears briefly during the reign of Ōjin 応神, and then later as a hunting destination in the accounts of the semilegendary fifth-century reign of Yūryaku 雄略. This is the last mention of Yoshino in the “Account of Ancient Matters” of the Kojiki, which contains only genealogical information after the reign of Kenzō 顕宗 in the late fifth century and ends with the reign of Suiko 推古 (554–628, r. 593–628). In the later annals of the Nihon shoki Yoshino appears briefly during the sixth-century reign of Kinmei 欽明 (d. 571, r. 539?–571) in connection with the arrival of Buddhism at the Japanese court; in the mid-seventh-century reign of Kōtoku 孝徳 (d. 654, r. 645–654), as the place where the rebel prince Furuhito no Ōe 古人大兄 (d. 645) takes up residence; and in the reign of Saimei 斉明 (594?–661, r. 655–661), as the site where a detached imperial palace is built.7 In the last volumes of the Nihon shoki, Yoshino is strongly associated with Tenmu, who is described as leaving the Ōmi capital in 671 to “go to Yoshino and practice the way of the Buddha” (Yoshino ni makarite butsudō o okonai semu 之吉野修行仏道).8 Yoshino then becomes the...


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