For my Japanese Lit class, we had to read a few excerpts from the oldest and most notorious Japanese text available, the Kojiki, as our first assignment. Of course, in the modern world, any discussion-based lit class now requires something along the lines of blogging or tweets to kickstart (or perhaps substitute for) discussions. In our case, it’s all done through the “Discuss” feature of our online assignment system, but it seems that such responses might elicit somewhat more thought if posted outside of the academic cage. Even considering my single-digit readership, I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that this post will reach more people in a day than the school-based one will in the semester. So here goes, verbatim:

Leaving aside the subject matter of these selections, what struck me most was the style of the prologue. In both content and presentation, it is quite similar to parts of Beowulf and several Old English and Old Norse poems (not to mention the Greek epics, Metamorphoses, and, on occasion, the Old Testament). It strikes me that this could be partly the effect of the translator’s personal aesthetic, but the types of metaphors used and the roundabout summaries are remarkably familiar and make me wonder about what this could tell us about the oral traditions that gave rise to these works. As the prologue notes, the Kojiki is drawn from someone with a photographic and aurally exact memory, but I wonder how much the style reflects the devices storytellers and courtiers used to preserve the legends. This would certainly have been altered by the filters of contemporary politics and religion in all cases, but it would be interesting to study, nonetheless.

A second note that caught my attention in the prologue was the note on the writing system in lines 58-62. It seems that such an almost apologetic explanation would have considerably aided translation efforts, which I have heard were painfully labored. Then again, those “obvious meanings” must have hinged on the reader’s familiarity with both the subject and the two languages. Still, it seems much more accessible than (for example) Mayan glyphs.

[This in response to several posts expressing first confusion at the imperfections and mortality of the gods, then beginning to draw parallels between the Kojiki and Genesis:]

Getting behind the parallels you guys are drawing between the nature of Eastern and Western mythologies here (which extend to the New World, African, and Aussie origin myths, as well), it might be worth considering why we all have mythologies in the first place. Humanity will always be presented with an existence it largely doesn’t understand, and to cope with that or expand our knowledge we have to draw parallels between new observations and known quantities. When faced with the question “why are things the way they are?” or “where did all this stuff come from?,” the most immediate considerations for most early thinkers were probably along the lines of “I dunno, what’ve we got now that could do this…well, maybe if it were really BIG…” and, later, “how do I make the other person understand the essentials?” When you get right down to it, we still tell stories to explain things like science, history, and sensations; a small comparison or story, though strictly inaccurate, gets the point across. Also, mythologies were originally oral and a means of education as much as entertainment. They include the prevailing values of the culture, instruct in traditions, and tend to prop up the current ruler. Man isn’t made in the image of God; gods are a reflection of man. When books came along (as in the case of the Old Testament or the Kojiki), it merely meant that the legends were capable of outlasting their cultural context. Most wound up being a mesh of story and public policy. Despite how our understandings and civilizations have changed, oh how we enjoy interpreting those legends through modern lenses!

All this goes to say that I wasn’t terribly surprised to find such human divinities in the Kojiki, or to find parallels with other creation myths.

Another thing that might be worth considering is the difference in perception of divinity between cultures. In ancient Rome, Syria, Japan, Egypt, and so forth it was possible for a mortal to be revered as a deity in both life and death. A modern Western culture, on the other hand, tends to view divinity as a quality distinct and superior to any mortal state. There’s a whole lot more that could be added to this argument, but I just thought I’d throw that out there.

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So, with this slice of the discussion outed, I’d be interested to hear what some of you, my non-classmates, think.

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