Center of the Cosmos

Center of the Cosmos

Herman Ooms, a professor of premodern Japanese history at UCLA, explains how the Tenmu dynasty manipulated religious symbols to reinforce concepts of supreme authority.

The Kojiki's politically structuring impact in ancient Japan was limited basically to a couple of decades

Japan's oldest surviving book, the Kojiki, completed in 712, attempted to solidify the imperial line by tracing it back to the Shinto goddess Amaterasu. The myths, presented as a history, rooted the imperial line in sacred origins. But the native Shinto religion was only one of several traditions called upon to justify a rulership troubled by non-linear succession, explained Herman Ooms, a UCLA professor of premodern Japanese history, at a colloquium on April 13, 2009, sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies.

The lecture drew upon material from Ooms' 2009 book Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800. Emperor Tenmu ordered the Kojiki to be written in 681, and a first draft began circulating in 689. The ideology presented in the work began to exert influence during Tenmu's reign. However, other symbols associated with Tenmu and the mythos surrounding the tennô, or emperor, during the dynasty were influenced by China and rooted in Daoism.

"The Kojiki's politically structuring impact in ancient Japan was limited basically to a couple of decades when it was being composed in 690-710, followed by some 30 years until the last years of [Emperor] Shômu's rule," said Ooms.

Even in the Nihon Shoki, much of the language used to discuss Emperor Tenmu is more Taoist than Shinto, and the terms ten, the symbol for heaven, and the related tennô appear during his reign. Ten first appears in the Japanese family registry, added to the names of a few of Tenmu's predecessors. While many believe ten is derived from the spelling of the name of the sun goddess Amaterasu, Ooms argues that the symbol is to be interpreted as a more expansive representation of the night sky.

"It is exactly when we have the Taika reforms and the establishment of the regional bureaucratic state that this ten is being introduced," said Ooms, suggesting the name refers to the Chinese constellation in which the stars move in regulated fashion around the pole star region, which symbolizes the court. Paintings of this very constellation cover the walls in Japanese tombs, similar to paintings found in China. Significantly, the Chinese paintings did not include the pole star region in the center—the constellation which the other stars revolved around—while the Japanese paintings did.

The same symbolism is found on a ceremonial coat modeled on a Chinese-style coat that is covered with Daoist symbols. Ooms points out that the great dipper, the carriage in which the tennô rides in heaven, is positioned in the center of the Japanese example.

"Political symbols that rely on astro-images were very pronounced during [Emperor] Tenmu and [Empress] Jitô's time... and the Hall of State, the name of which alludes to the Pole Star, was much more central than Shinto in the Tenmu and Jitô reigns," said Ooms. Japan had no Hall of State prior to Tenmu's rule.

"The manipulation of symbols intensified very strongly toward the end of Tenmu's life... and these ideological efforts culminated in the building of Fujiwara-kyô, the first Japanese capital in 694," said Ooms. Tenmu began plans for the capital, the first to include quarters for officials, but it was built under Empress Jitô.

Excavation of the site has revealed a city layout as large as that of the capital at Nara, which was built in compliance with the rules of Chinese geomancy to defend against evil forces on three sides. In addition to this, the layout of Fujiwara-kyô placed the Hall of State directly at the center of three mountains within the capital's bounds.

"Centrality for the realm and cosmic centrality seems to have been very much the preoccupation when this was built," said Ooms.

Shinto played its role in the symbolism, which had a lateral dimension besides the well-known vertical one. The Kojiki lists 201 uji (clans), 176 of them related to the imperial household. These were the houses of local rulers and ritualist lineages. It presented the nobility as "bound together with tennô, having common kami ancestry, and it also made a case for non-royal women to qualify as queens," said Ooms, a case that served Fujiwara interests at the time. Tenmu reinforced the idea of common ancestry ritually through a ceremony celebrating the ancestral gods. Delegates from the state-appointed shrines visited the capital up to four times a year to receive gifts to take back to their shrines. These gifts were of course for the local rulers and the ritual performance was meant as a symbolic expression of the centrality of the state. The festival, however, was scaled down during the second half of the eighth century.

The Kojiki period, Ooms said, was "sandwiched between different although analogous portrayals of supreme authority," preceded by a period of strong Daoist symbolism and displaced by the mid-eighth century, when Buddhism took hold.

Published: Monday, June 01, 2009