CHAPTER II. THE PREHISTORIC PERIOD
660 (?) B.C. -400 (?) A.D.
We repeat here what we stated in the previous chapter, that, from the standpoint of the historical critic, this period and the preceding one might well be included together under the title of "Prehistoric." But, in view of the fact that the Japanese strictly mark off the "Divine Ages" (Jindai) as a period by itself, it has seemed best to follow that plan. Our second period, therefore, covers the time from the accession of Jimmu, when he set up his capital at Kashiwabara, until about 400 A.D. The date officially assigned to the former event is 660 B.C., from which the years of the Empire are reckoned, so that the year 1915 is the 2,575th year from the founding of the Empire. Even the day of Jimmu's accession is fixed (February 11), which is officially observed as a national holiday, under the name Kigensetsu. And that was the day selected for the founding of a new empire by the promulgation of the constitution in 1889.
This "Prehistoric Period" is the one which is called by Peery that of "mythological history," and to which Griffis applies the expression "twilight of fable." What was said in the preceding chapter concerning the value of the traditions of the "Divine Ages" may be repeated here with more emphasis; for the myths and legends of the era under consideration have greater historical value than those of the preceding era, as we gradually approach nearer and nearer to historical records which can be more and more verified. It is impossible to mark out clearly just where myth and legend cease and history begins, but it is quite interesting to observe how much more "historical" the narratives become toward the end of this period. At the beginning the mythological element is large and the historical is small; at the end of this period the mythological element has become small and the historical is large.
But, whether the date 660 B.C. can be accepted or not, it is interesting to make some comparison with synchronous periods in the history of other countries. It was the time when Assyria, under Sardanapalus, was at the height of its power; not long after the ten tribes of Israel had been carried into captivity, and soon after the reign of the good Hezekiah in Judah; before Media had risen into prominence; a century later than Lycurgus and a few decades before Draco; and during the Roman kingdom.
Concerning the eight emperors between Jimmu and Sujin, there is nothing of importance recorded in either the Kojiki or the Nihongi, which are filled up with uninteresting genealogies and other trifles. But during that interval the Empire seems to have extended its boundaries. According to one accoun "the Emperor Jimmu's sway was limited to a few districts [nine provinces] in the neighborhood of Yamato," especially in what are now called the Five Home Provinces (around Kyōto); but "in the reign of Emperor Sujin the imperial authority had much wider bounds." During this reign, to which are assigned the years from 97 to 30 B.C., "generals were despatched in various directions and quickly subdued the designated provinces." "The five kinds of grain were produced and the peasantry enjoyed abundance." And in this reign, "taxes were for the first time levied on the proceeds of the chase and on the handiwork of women." In fact, this emperor was so popular that he received the title of "the first country-pacifying emperor." Indeed, we may say that Jimmu was the Cyrus, or founder, of the Japanese Empire, while Sujin, called "the Civilizer," was its Darius, or organizer.
The next emperor, Suinin, is credited with an incredible reign of about a century (29 B.C.-70 A.D.). But it was an important reign in regard to both internal and foreign affairs. "This sovereign also took measures to promote agriculture." It was during his reign that the "Three Insignia" (mirror, sword, and jewels), which had hitherto been kept in the palace and thus moved about as the location thereof changed, were deposited, in charge of an imperial princess, in the famous shrine of Ise. There the jewels and the mirror are still kept, while the sword now lies in the Atsuta Shrine. The present Ise Shrine is "an exact replica of that first erected more than nineteen hundred years ago by Yamato Hime (Princess), preserving all the primitive simplicity of construction without any outward adornment of color or carving, either in wood or in metal, of the architecture of the age in which she lived." This shrine is rebuilt every twenty years.
The reign of Suinin was also marked by the first attempt to abolish the cruel custom of burying alive, with the dead, "retainers and horses that had been in their service," and whose agonizing cries could be heard night and day. It was suggested, just as in Rome, that "clay images of men and women and horses" be used instead. These have been found in burial mounds and mark the "birth of Japanese art." It is also said that Suinin dispatched to Korea some expedition called "the first ever sent by Japan to a foreign country."
Suinin's successor was Keikō, whose reign is dated from 71 to 130 A.D. He is much less famous than his son Yamato-Dake, who is represented as "pursuing a most daring and romantic career." And it has been truly said that "the myths concerning him are among the most picturesque in Japanese history." Griffis calls him "the conqueror of the Kwantō," which was the large section of Japan of which Yedo was about the center. Yamato Dake had first the honor of subduing rebels in Kiūshiu, and was then sent on his more difficult, but also successful, task of bringing the barbarians of the northeastern districts into subjection. In Yedo Bay, his wife, Oto Tachibana-no-Hime, leaped into the raging waves as a sacrifice to the wrath of the sea-god, who then gave the hero safe passage across. His lament on Usui Pass for his lost wife (Aa! tsuma! - "Alas! [my] wife!") has given to art, history, and literature the well-known name Azuma.
The fourteenth emperor, Chūai, reigned only eight years, when he died and was succeeded by his wife, known as Jingu, or Jingō. Her reign ran from 201 to 269 A.D., but is not generally included in the official records, where those years are added to the short reign of Chūai. The "semi-mythical" Empress Jingō is most famous for her Jingoistic invasion of Korea early in the third century A.D. This expedition is a bone of contention among students of Japanese history. The native scholars are not inclined to be destructive in their criticisms. The German Hoffman thought that he might obtain "a sketch for the domain of history" by "stripping the native accounts of poetical and religious ornament." But Aston goes so far as to suggest that one might as well "attempt to extract a true narrative from the story of Cinderella by leaving out the mice, the pumpkin coach, and the fairy godmother!" And he states in another place that, "while there was an empress of Japan in the third century A.D., the statement that she conquered Korea is highly improbable."
There are many interesting features of the story, whether it is historical or not. Favorable omens accompanied every step in the preparation and the prosecution of the enterprise. Two deities, one of gentle disposition to watch over the Empress, and one of warlike spirit to lead the squadron, accompanied the expedition. We are forcibly reminded of Vergil Aeneid when we read that "the wind-god sent a breeze; the sea-god raised the billows; all the great fishes of the ocean rose to the surface and encompassed the ships."
Brinkley makes an attempt to harmonize the difficulties concerning Jingō and her expedition to Korea in the following way:
Chinese annalists say, at the very time when Jingō's figure is so picturesquely painted on the pages of Japanese records,a female sovereign of Japan sent to the Court of China an embassy which had to beg permission from the ruler of northwestern Korea to pass through his territory en route westward. Thus, although the celebrated empress' foreign policy be stripped of its brilliant conquests and reduced to the dimensions of mere envoy-sending, her personality at least is recalled from the mythical regions.
This Japanese Amazon's son Ōjin (270-310 A.D.) demands a place in these records, not so much on account of his own achievements, but because he is the Japanese Mars, or Hachiman, whose shrines are still very numerous and popular. The Japanese records give the date 284 A.D. for the introduction of letters and the beginning of literature, when a celebrated scholar called Achiki visited Japan from Korea and was appointed tutor to the Emperor's son. He was followed by another scholar named Wani, under whose tuition the young prince "acquired a thorough knowledge of the Chinese classics. This is the first recorded instance of the teaching of Chinese literature in Japan." But Aston is strongly of the opinion that a mistake of two sexagenary cycles, or 120 years, was made in the reckoning, and that these important events occurred about the beginning of the fifth century.
One of the famous "characters" of this period is the Japanese Methuselah, Take-no-uchi, who is renowned for having lived to be over three hundred years old and for having served as Prime Minister to five emperors and one empress.
The successor of Ōjin was Nintoku (313-399 A.D.), who deserves special mention for his "beneficent sway," particularly shown in a well-known story, as follows: One day, having looked far and wide over the country from a lofty tower, he saw no smoke arising in the land, and from that inferred that the people were so poor that they were not cooking rice. Therefore he intermitted forced labor for three years, so that the people could raise rice. During that period the palace fell into ruin, so that "the wind and rain entered the chinks and soaked the coverlets." But when the emperor again looked forth from his tower he saw smoke arising plentifully and rejoiced in the people's prosperity, because "the people's poverty is no other than Our poverty; the people's prosperity is none other than Our prosperity."
At the close of the reign of Nintoku there is a great change in the character of the records. The incredibly long lives and reigns which had been a marked feature suddenly disappear and are succeeded by what we may almost call incredibly, or, at any rate, unusually, short reigns. The first seventeen rulers (counting Jingō separately) reigned 1,059 years (660 B.C.-399 A.D.), or more than 62 years on an average. Or, if we omit Jingō from the count, we have sixteen rulers reigning, on an average, more than 66 years. But the next seventeen rulers reigned only 228 years (400-628 A.D.), or not quite 13½ years on an average. This is too significant to overlook, especially in view of the fact that about 400 A.D. official records began to be kept by historiographers. For that reason we end the era called the "Prehistoric Period" at 400 (?) A.D.
At this point, before we reach the period when foreign influences enter, we must make some reference, though necessarily brief, to the pure Japanese cult, Shintō. It can scarcely be called a "religion" in the strict sense of that term, but it may not unfairly be said that to some extent Shintō became "a system of patriotism exalted to the rank of a religion," i.e., it was a kind of ecclesiastical patriotism. Pure Shintō was a system in which the deification of forces of nature, family ancestors, local and national heroes, and emperors plays an important part. It had no dogmas, no sacred books (unless the Kojiki and the Nihongi may be so classed), "no philosophy, no code of ethics, no metaphysics." It summed up its theory of human duty in the following injunction: "Follow your natural impulses and obey the laws of the state." "Shintō is essentially a religion of gratitude and love."
One Shintō apologist asserted that "morals were invented by the Chinese because they were an immoral people; but in Japan there was no necessity for any system of morals, as every Japanese acted rightly if he only consulted his own heart"!
Shintō was, of course, polytheistic, but in general lacked idols, although the gohei, or paper fillets, some phallic and other figures, and the mirror seem to be emblems of deity and practically idols.
Another interesting feature of Shintō was the fact that the emperor, as in Rome, "was at the same time highpriest (pontifex maximus) and king (imperator)." Moreover, a Shintō priest was a secular official.
Shintō required of its adherents nothing except worship at certain temples or shrines on stated days. A pure Shintō temple is an exceedingly plain affair, in front of which, at a little distance, is invariably set a torii or a series of torii. The form of ordinary worship was simple, as it consisted of washing the face, or hands, or both, in holy water; of ringing a bell, or clapping one's hands to attract the god's attention; of casting in a coin as an offering; of standing with clasped hands during a short prayer, and of making a farewell bow. Shintō prayers were for material, and not for moral and spiritual, blessings. Pilgrimages to holy spots, usually "high places," are important in ShintI+014D.
Frequent lustrations were also required.
In 1872, the Department of Religion summed up the principles of Shintō in the following "commandments," which it then promulgated:
Thou shalt honor the gods and love thy country.
Thou shalt clearly understand the principles of Heaven and the duty of man.
Thou shalt revere the Mikado as thy sovereign, and obey the will of his court.