CHAPTER II. SHINT[=O]: MYTHS AND RITUAL
Japanese, Chinese, History, Ancient, Japan, Century
The Japanese a Young Nation
What impresses us in the study of the history of Japan is that, compared with China and Korea, she is young. Her history is as the story of yesterday. The nation is modern. The Japanese are as younger children in the great family of Asia's historic people. Broadly speaking, Japan is no older than England, and authentic Japanese history no more ancient than British history. In Albion, as in the Honorable Country, there are traditions and mythologies that project their shadows aeons back of genuine records; but if we consider that English history begins in the fifth, and English literature in the eighth century, then there are other reasons besides those commonly given for calling Japan "the England of the East."
No trustworthy traditions exist which carry the known history of Japan farther back than the fifth century. The means for measuring and recording time were probably not in use until the sixth century. The oldest documents in the Japanese language, excepting a few fragments of the seventh century, do not antedate the year 712, and even in these the Chinese characters are in many instances used phonetically, because the meaning of the words thus transliterated had already been forgotten. Hence their interpretation in detail is still largely a matter of conjecture.
Yet the Japanese Archipelago was inhabited long before the dawn of history. The concurrent testimony of the earliest literary monuments, of the indigenous mythology, of folk-lore, of shell-heaps and of kitchen-middens shows that the occupation by human beings of the main islands must be ascribed to times long before the Christian era. Before written records or ritual of worship, religion existed on its active or devotional side, and there were mature growths of thought preserved and expressed orally. Poems, songs, chants and norito or liturgies were kept alive in the human memory, and there was a system of worship, the name of which was given long after the introduction of Buddhism. This descriptive term, Kami no Michi in Japanese, and Shin-t[=o] in the Chinese as pronounced by Japanese, means the Way of the Gods, the t[=o] or final syllable being the same as tao in Taoism. We may say that Shint[=o] means, literally, theoslogos, theology. The customs and practices existed centuries before contact with Chinese letters, and long previous to the Shint[=o] literature which is now extant.
Whether Kami no Michi is wholly the product of Japanese soil, or whether its rudimentary ideas were imported from the neighboring Asian continent and more or less allied to the primitive Chinese religion, is still an open question. The preponderance of argument tends, however, to show that it was an importation as to its origin, for not a few events outlined in the Japanese mythology cast shadows of reminiscence upon Korea or the Asian mainland. In its development, however, the cultus is almost wholly Japanese. The modern forms of Shint[=o], as moulded by the revivalists of the eighteenth century, are at many points notably different from the ancient faith. At the World's Parliament of Religions at Chicago, Shint[=o] seemed to be the only one, and probably the last, of the purely provincial religions.
In order to gain a picture of life in Japan before the introduction of Chinese civilization, we must consult those photographs of the minds of the ancient islanders which still exist in their earliest literature. The fruits of the study of ethnology, anthropology and archaeology greatly assist us in picturing the day-break of human life in the Morning Land. In preparing materials for the student of the religions of Japan many laborers have wrought in various fields, but the chief literary honors have been taken by the English scholars, Messrs. Satow,1 Aston,2 and Chamberlain.3 These untiring workers have opened the treasures of ancient thought in the Altaic world.4
Although even these archaic Japanese compositions, readable to-day only by special scholars, are more or less affected by Chinese influences, ideas and modes of expression, yet they are in the main faithful reflections of the ancient life before the primitive faith of the Japanese people was either disturbed or reduced to system in presence of an imported religion. These monuments of history, poetry and liturgies are the "Kojiki," or Notices of Ancient Things; the "Manyöshu" or Myriad Leaves or Poems, and the "Norito," or Liturgies.
The Ancient Documents
The first book, the "Kojiki," gives us the theology, cosmogony, mythology, and very probably, in its later portions, some outlines of history of the ancient Japanese. The "Kojiki" is the real, the dogmatic exponent, or, if we may so say, the Bible, of Shint[=o]. The "Many[=o]shu," or Book of Myriad Poems, expresses the thoughts and feelings; reflects the manners and customs of the primitive generations, and, in the same sense as do the Sagas of the Scandinavians, furnishes us unchronological but interesting and more or less real narratives of events which have been glorified by the poets and artists. The ancient codes of law and of ceremonial procedure are of great value, while the "Norito" are excellent mirrors in which to see reflected the religion called Shint[=o] on the more active side of worship.
In a critical study, either of the general body of national tradition or of the ancient documents, we must continually be on our guard against the usual assumption that Chinese civilization came in earlier than it really did. This assumption colors all modern Japanese popular ideas, art and literature. The vice of the pupil nations surrounding the Middle Kingdom is their desire to have it believed that Chinese letters and culture among them is an nearly coeval with those of China as can be made truly or falsely to appear. The Koreans, for example, would have us believe that their civilization, based on letters and introduced by Kishi, is "four thousand years old" and contemporaneous with China's own, and that "the Koreans are among the oldest people of the world."5 The average modern Japanese wishes the date of authentic or official history projected as far back as possible. Yet he is a modest man compared with his mediæval ancestor, who constructed chronology out of ink-stones. Over a thousand years ago a deliberate forgery was officially put on paper. A whole line of emperors who never lived was canonized, and clever penmen set down in ink long chapters which describe what never happened.6 Furthermore, even after, and only eight years after the fairly honest "Kojiki" had been compiled, the book called "Nihongi," or Chronicles of Japan, was written. All the internal and not a little external evidence shows that the object of this book is to give the impression that Chinese ideas, culture and learning had long been domesticated in Japan. The "Nihongi" gives dates of events supposed to have happened fifteen hundred years before, with an accuracy which may be called villainous; while the "Kojiki" states that Wani, a Korean teacher, brought the "Thousand Character Classic" to Japan in A.D. 285, though that famous Chinese book was not composed until the sixth century, or A.D. 550.7
Even to this day it is nearly impossible for an American to get a Korean "frog in the well"8 to understand why the genuine native life and history, language and learning of his own peninsular country is of greater value to the student than the pedantry borrowed from China. Why these possess any interest to a "scholar" is a mystery to the head in the horsehair net. Anything of value, he thinks, must be on the Chinese model. What is not Chinese is foolish and fit for women and children only. Furthermore, Korea "always had" Chinese learning. This is the sum of the arguments of the Korean literati, even as it used to be of the old-time hatless Yedo scholar of shaven skull and topknot.
Despite Japanese independence and even arrogance in certain other lines, the thought of the demolition of cherished notions of vast antiquity is very painful. Critical study of ancient traditions is still dangerous, even in parliamentary Nippon. Hence the unbiassed student must depend on his own reading of and judgment upon the ancient records, assisted by the thorough work done by the English scholars Aston, Satow, Chamberlain, Bramsen and others.
It was the coming of Buddhism in the sixth century, and the implanting on the soil of Japan of a system of religion in which were temples with all that was attractive to the eye, gorgeous ritual, scriptures, priesthood, codes of morals, rigid discipline, a system of dogmatics in which all was made positive and clear, that made the variant myths and legends somewhat uniform. The faith of Shaka, by winning adherents both at the court and among the leading men of intelligence, reacted upon the national traditions so as to compel their collection and arrangemeut into definite formulas. In due time the mythology, poetry and ritual was, as we have seen, committed to writing and the whole system called Shint[=o], in distinction from Butsud[=o], the Way of the Gods from the Way of the Buddhas. Thus we can see more clearly the outward and visible manifestations of Shint[=o]. In forming our judgment, however, we must put aside those descriptions which are found in the works of European writers, from Marco Polo and Mendez Pinto down to the year 1870. Though these were good observers, they were often necessarily mistaken in their deductions. For, as we shall see in our lecture on Riy[=o]bu or Mixed Buddhism, Shint[=o] was, from the ninth century until late into the nineteenth century, absorbed in Buddhism so as to be next to invisible.
|Written By William Elliot Griffis|
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