The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature

By Michele Marra | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
A Counterideological Discourse: Buddhism in the Taketori Monogatari

T he role played by Buddhism in Japan during the Asuka (ca. 500-710) and Nara ( 710-784) periods has often been described as providing protection to the state at a time when imperial power needed a theoretical justification for government.1 If Buddha Vairocana was the supreme leader of the Buddhist cosmos, the emperor could well portray himself as a human representation of the Buddha and, therefore, chief of the nation. The order by Emperor Shōmu (r. 724-749) to build the majestic Tōdai Temple in Nara, and to enshrine in it the largest Buddha statue ever made in the country, was clearly meant to convince his subjects of the sacredness of imperial power.

While, on the one hand, Buddhism was providing the state with an ideological means of self-justification, on the other it contained the seed for a counterideological discourse emphasizing the limitations of imperial power due to the human nature of the emperor. By stressing the superiority of the Buddhist Law (dhārma), people dissatisfied with the contemporary sociopolitical situation could point to the vulnerability of human decision makers, who were not acting from the standpoint of the enlightened ruler. The Buddhist critique of power is documented in the pages of the Taketori Monogatari (The Bamboo Cutter) in which ancient Taoist legends are interpreted from a Buddhist perspective and then presented with allusions to real politicians of the time. The fantastic setting of the story enabled the compilers to deal with a forbidden subject and express their discontent with the emerging power of a new leading family, the Fujiwara. By following the method of "ideology analysis," this chapter focuses on the ideological conflicts of the text, both Taoist and Buddhist, that will afford us a repoliticized reading of fantastic writing.

The first difficulty met by the reader of the Taketori Monogatari is the choice of manuscript given the unclear development of the story's textual history. An analysis of the ideological layers of Taketori Monogatari requires attention to the fact that no manuscript of the story before the Muromachi period exists, which leaves centuries of its textual development in the dark. The lack of such information makes the concepts of date and authorship seem superfluous, simply objects of scholarly speculation. Nevertheless, we may assume that a version similar to the one read today was available to the

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