Why Prewar Japanese Historians Did Not Tell the Truth

By Brownlee, John S. | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Prewar Japanese Historians Did Not Tell the Truth


Brownlee, John S., The Historian


Modern academic historical scholarship is based on a universal assumption that historians are committed to discovering and publishing the truth. Tales from ancient China describe two brothers, historians in the state of Qi, sixth century B.C.E., who insisted on writing the disagreeable truth that the ruler did not want to hear and paid in turn with their lives. The ruler gave up when yet another brother "presented himself, brush in hand," prepared to write the same truth.(1) But we are also uneasily aware of the many uses to which fabricated and distorted history has been put by regimes like those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Yet even the Nazis did not believe that Wagner's operas set in the mythical past represented the literal truth of German history. Thus it is shocking to discover that prior to 1945, academic historians in Japan, for reasons of state and society, publicly professed belief in historical myths that they knew to be untrue. Accepting imperial authority based on the Shinto religious belief that the emperor was divinely descended from the mythic Sun Goddess, prewar historians developed a double standard in which certain topics of historical research might be pursued and discussed privately within universities so long as the professors officially affirmed the truth of ancient myths to the population at large.

Early Japanese historians from the eighth century on had long been influenced by Chinese historical writing. The ancient Japanese court produced six national histories between 720 and 901.(2) All were written in Chinese, as the Japanese had yet to develop a script of their own. Even when a vernacular script was developed, Chinese remained the official formal language of court documents. The Japanese histories were based on Chinese examples like the famous Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), written by Sima Qian and published c. 86 B.C.E. during the Han dynasty. This work furnished the model for all official Chinese histories to come, and the Japanese histories generally followed Chinese forms and methodology.(3)

The last five of these histories were scrupulous compilations based on sophisticated handling of government documents, although they at points reflect the folklore and superstitions of their times, such as the appearance of good and evil auguries. But the first of the national histories, Nihon Shoki, differed from later works. In discussing Japan's early history, the authors necessarily relied on oral sources and folklore; thus, this work begins by retailing as authentic historical fact the myths of the indigenous religion that came to be known as Shinto. According to Shinto belief, the "age of the gods" preceded the "age of humans," and the dividing line between the two was supposed to have been the reign of the first human emperor, Jinmu.(4)

But Nihon Shoki is full of obvious fabrications. First, the authors imposed on the Japanese past, which had no known chronology, an invented chronology based on Chinese calendrical systems. According to this chronology, Emperor Jinmu began his reign in 660 B.C.E. and ruled for 76 years. Later rulers were slotted into place.(5) Lacking empirical data, the authors of Nihon Shoki drew on Japanese myths and inserted material and quotations from Chinese works, which they presented as actual fact. The early rulers are the most problematic; in fact, modern historians believe that the first 14 or even the first 19 of the rulers described in Nihon Shoki did not actually exist, or at least were not "emperors" as they are presented. The compilers probably had little more than a list of names of important chieftains and perhaps some free-floating legends unattached to specific reigns. Ordered by Emperor Temmu (r. 673-87) and compiled by court aristocrats in imitation of Chinese chronicles, Nihon Shoki was intended to relate the origins and laudable history of the emperors in order to confer legitimacy on the imperial rule. To fill in the many gaps in those early reigns, the authors placed legends into specific reigns and mined the Chinese classics for noteworthy accounts. …

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