While the Kojiki is comparable to Beowulf in the English tradition in being the oldest Japanese book extant, and of roughly the same date, it is a very different in kind of book. As Donald L. Philippi describes it in the introduction to his translation,It is an obvious attempt to establish, at the very beginning of their literary tradition, a history of the Japanese imperial line, endorsed by the court.Completed in 712 A.D. under the auspices of the imperial court, it is the oldest extant book in Japanese and, as its title (literally, "Record of Ancient Things") suggests, an account of a still earlier era. It is the court's statement about the origins of the imperial clan and the leading families and the beginnings of Japan as a nation; and it is, at the same time, a compilation of myths, historical and pseudo-historical narratives and legends, songs, anecdotes, folk etymologies, and geneologies.1
After a preface, it definitely begins in myth, with stories of how the gods created the Japanese islands, then with some emphasis on Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from whom the imperial line is seen to be descended (one of the most famous early stories is how she shut herself in a cave until another goddess, Amenouzume, lured her out by performing a lascivious dance on an overturned tub for the other gods to capture (Chapter 17, pp. 81-86)--perhaps a story explaining an eclipse, or luring the sun back from a long winter--but then, by Book II (page 163 in a 364 page book), it does begin to suggest it is historical, with the story of the Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor, a warrior. From there on the history of the reigns of the emperors continues sequentially up through the reign of the Empress Suiko (592-628 A.D.), so, at the time the book is compliled (perhaps the best term, since the components have evidently been accumulating for centuries) less than 100 years in the past. Though none of this is close enough to be very accurate history, it offers a sense of the whole tradition as seen by the court at the time--an early conception of Japanese history, many elements from which became traditional. The Kojiki did, in fact, become a kind of Bible for the Imperial Shintoism of World War II, for example. And it does trace the shift of the power from the South moving to the main island of Honshu, and the Nara/Kyoto region.
As an illustration of how pervasive some of the stories from this book are (much like our Bible stories), I am presenting a story I have translated from a contemporary children's picture book, which I used in working on the language informally with the grade-school-aged children in the family of the Japanese friend who gave me the book, for the practice it gave me reading simple sentences, all written in simple hiragana, to children who already knew the story. This story comes right at the end of Book I of the Kojiki, moving from the mythological into the legenday, and may be read as establishing "the superiority and power of the imperial family, represented by [Yamahiko] the grandfather of Emperor Jimmu."2 The story I have translated is also presented by Donald Keene as his example from the Kojiki in his Anthology of Japanese Literature.3 But here it has been adapted for children, of course.
Umihiko and Yamahiko (The Sea Boy and the Mountain Boy)
Long, long ago there were two brothers, named Umihiko and Yamahiko. The older brother, Umihiko, made his living catching fish in the sea. The younger brother, Yamahiko, made his living hunting birds and animals in the mountains.
One day Yamahiko said to Umihiko, "Why don't we exchange my bow and arrows for your fishing tackle, and trade places?" Umihiko agreed. Taking Yamahiko's bow and arrows, he went off to hunt in the mountains. Yamahiko took his older brother's fishing tackle and went off to fish in the sea. But, being used to using a bow and arrow, no matter how many times he baited the hook, he didn't catch a single fish. Worse yet, he let an important fishhook fall into the sea. And Umihiko, being used to fishing on the sea, wasn't able to hit a thing with a bow and arrow.
So Umihiko was dejected as he came back from hunting in the mountains. But Yamahiko was even more depressed as he returned from the sea. He said, "Older brother, I'm sorry, but I lost your fishhook in the sea. Please forgive me."
Umihiko answered, "Without that fishhook I'm in serious trouble. You must return it!
Yamahiko broke his own long sword into pieces and made 500 fishhooks. He said, "Please take these in place of the fishhook I lost." But Umihiko would not agree to that. So Yamahiko then made 1000 fishhooks. Umihiko still said, "Without that original fishhook, these are no good to me," which really distressed Yamahiko.
Yamahiko went back to the seashore. Saying, "How do I even look for one small fishhook in the middle of such a big sea?" he finally began to weep.
Then a gray-haired old man appeared from somewhere or other. After he had heard the story, he said, "I'll show you what to do." Getting bamboo shoots from a nearby bamboo thicket he wove them into a small boat. Yamahiko climbed into the boat. The old man pushed him off.
The little boat went floating along on the current of the sea. It drifted that way for some time, until, as the old man had told him he would, he could see a large roof with tiles arranged like the scales on a fish. That was a palace in the sea. Near the gate there was a fountain, with water bubbling up. Above that there was a tree, with thick branches, like coral.
Yamahiko climbed up into the branches of the tree, where he could see anyone coming out from the palace. Soon a woman came to dip water from the fountain. Yamahiko called down from the tree, "My throat is dry. Please give me a drink of water."
The woman handed him the water jar. As he was returning it, Yamahiko put a jewel from his own necklace into the jar.
There was a beautiful princess living in the palace of the sea. When she heard the story from the woman who drew the water, she came out to fountain to see for herself. When she saw Yamahiko, she thought he was an excellent young man, and went immediately to tell her father, the sea god. The sea god was delighted. He welcomed Yamahiko into the palace, where he invited him to sit on silk carpets piled on top of sea lion skins.
Yamahiko then told the sea god that he had come looking for the lost fishhook. The sea god immediately commanded all the fish to gather there. He asked them, "Has anyone among you swallowed a fishhook?"
The fish answered, "For several days the red snapper has been distressed by what has seemed like a bone stuck in his throat."
Calling the red snapper the sea god examined his throat and discovered the fishhook Yamahiko was looking for.
The the sea god said an interesting thing to Yamahiko. "When you give this fishhook to your older brother, please turn with your back to him and say, 'Stupid fishhook,/ Troublesome fishhook,/ Poor fishhook,/ Crybaby fishhook.'
Yamahiko was delighted. He said, "With this fishhook I can return proudly."
As Yamahiko was preparing to return, the sea god showed him two jewels. He said, "This one is the high-tide jewel. When you say, 'Water come out!' water will gush out. This other is the low-tide jewel. When you say, 'Water come back!' water will be continually sucked up.' Saying, 'In a time of trouble, please use these jewels,' he presented them to Yamahiko as a gift.
Yamahiko then climbed on the back of a large crocodile, and was returned to his homeland.
As soon as Yamahiko returned, he immediately went to Umihiko. Turning his back to him, he said, 'Stupid fishhook,/ Troublesome fishhook,/ Poor fishhook,/ Crybaby fishhook,' and returned his fishhook.
Then Yamahiko continued to make his living in the mountains. Umihiko continued to make his living in the sea.
After a while, Yamahiko's people from the mountains, and Umihiko's people from the sea began to plant rice. Yamahiko arranged it so that the water continually flowed into the low place he had chosen. Umihiko chose an even lower place. But the important water did not flow into Umihiko's rice field at all, while Yamahiko's rice field bore a productive crop.
Umihiko, becoming envious of Yamahiko's rice field, began to be angry. Finally, he attacked Yamahiko and took his rice field from him.
Yamahiko then took out the high-tide jewel the sea god had given him, and said "Water come out!" The high-tide jewel, whistling all the while, continually spurted out water on Umihiko's rice field.
Umihiko, overwhelmed by the water, was drowning in it. "Help me! Help me!" he called out.
Yamahiko, finally withdrawing the high-tide jewel, took out the low-tide jewel. Saying, "Low-tide jewel, suck up the water!" The low-tide jewel steadily sucked up the water.
Umihiko was saved at last. He said, "I was wrong, brother, and I admit it," as he apologized to Yamahiko. After that Umihiko submitted to working in Yamahiko's rice fields, saying, "From now on let me work for you." From then on he worked for Yamahiko.
* * * * *The story is very little modified in the part that is told here, essentially chapters 42-44 (pp. 148-155) from the Kojiki. The Kojiki version does have Yamahiko marrying the princess and staying in the palace in the sea for three years before he even raises the question of the lost fishhook, as the most important difference. Then, in the following chapter, Yamahiko's wife (the sea god's daughter) comes to him pregnant, to be with him when she had their child. She tells him not to watch, for she will return to her origins as she gives birth, but he does watch, and sees her turn into a crocodile, which shocks him and shames her, so that she returns to the sea. But she does leave the baby with him, to become the father of the first legendary emperor, Jimmu (date given, 585 B.C.).4 It was probably thought best not to tell young children that part of the story.
1Philippi, Donald L. (translator), Kojiki, jointly published by Princeton University Press and Universtiy of Tokyo Press, 1969, p. 3.
2ibid., p. 414.
3Keene, Donald (editor), Anthology of Japanese Literature, Grove Press: New York, 1955, pp. 54-58.
4Philippi, p. 18.