Work Begins on Japan’s National History

Tokugawa Mitsukuni, lord of Mito, initiated a project for a monumental national history, the Dai Nihon shi, modeled on traditional Chinese dynastic histories. Mitsukuni selected the Chinese scholar Zhu Shunsui as the chief editor. Mitsukuni’s perseverance established the Dai Nihon shi as the main history of Japan until modern times.

Summary of Event

Tokugawa Mitsukuni’s Tokugawa Mitsukuni father, the first daimyo, or lord, of Mito, was the son of the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu , and the brother of the second Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada . As the second Mito daimyo, Mitsukuni was frequently in attendance at the shogun’s court in Edo. Daimyos from most domains, or hans, were required to demonstrate their allegiance to the shogunate by alternating residence in Edo at the shogun’s court with periods back in their own feudal territories, under the system generally referred to as sankin kōtai
Sankin kōtai , “alternating service.” Being closely connected with the immediate shogunal family, with his han relatively close to Edo, Mitsukuni was exempted from sankin kōtai obligations. His family had a permanent Mito domain estate of their own within the shogun’s Edo Castle complex, and Mitsukuni was on close personal terms with all the shoguns who reigned during his lifetime. [kw]Work Begins on Japan’s National History (1657)
[kw]History, Work Begins on Japan’s National (1657)
[kw]Japan’s National History, Work Begins on (1657)
Historiography;1657: Work Begins on Japan’s National History[1910]
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Japan;1657: Work Begins on Japan’s National History[1910]
Dai Nihon shi
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Until late adolescence, Mitsukuni had little interest in his studies. This changed when his teachers introduced him to the Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960) by the Han Chinese historian Sima Qian. The idealism and devotion to principle in this work moved him deeply and made him a lifelong student of history. This Chinese history covered events from earliest recorded times almost up to the author’s own era. It was made up of comprehensive sequential biographies, critiques of historical figures by Sima Qian, topical essays, and explanatory tables. It was quite unlike other chronological diary-style histories. Mitsukuni adopted the ideals and analytical methods he learned from the Shiji and developed a lifelong respect for this Chinese history.

The noted Edo Neo-Confucian scholar Hayashi Razan Hayashi Razan , however, had a great respect for Sima Guang’s Zizhi tongjian (late eleventh century; comprehensive mirror for governance, partial translation 1996) a Chinese history arranged mainly on chronological lines. Hayashi began a comprehensive history of Japan along the same lines in 1644, under the patronage of the shogunate. It was to be close to three hundred volumes in length, like the Zizhi tongjian, and titled the Honchō tsūgan (Japanese comprehensive mirror). Hayashi worked on it for a dozen years, but the great Meireki Fire, which incinerated much of Edo in January, 1657, destroyed much of his manuscript and notes. Hayashi Razan died soon afterward, but his son Hayashi Gahō Hayashi Gahō received fresh patronage from the shogunate to resume the effort, and the Hayashi family’s Honchō tsūgan
Honchō tsūgan (Hayashi)[Honcho tsugan (Hayashi)] was completed in 1670, 310 volumes in length. The next shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Tokugawa Tsunayoshi , continued to support Hayashi Gahō’s historical and philosophical research.

The 1657 Meireki Fire also destroyed part of the Edo Castle complex, so the official Mito residence was moved from there to Komagome, in northern Edo. Perhaps in part because it seemed at the time that the Hayashi Japanese history project had ended, Mitsukuni decided to set up his own Japanese history project, using the Shiji format of sequential essays, rather than Hayashi’s more strictly chronological format. Mitsukuni hired a staff of scholars to begin this project in Komagome. In 1661, after Mitsukuni officially succeeded to the position of Mito daimyo, the Mito Edo residence moved to new permanent quarters in Koishikawa, and the history project staff subsequently moved there as well.

In 1665, Mitsukuni invited an established scholar from China, Zhu Shunsui Zhu Shunsui , to help supervise the history project. The text was written in a Japanese adaptation of classical Chinese, so Zhu was helpful as an editor, assuring stylistic authenticity as well as basic fidelity of the history to the Chinese Shiji model. Zhu, who had arrived in Japan in 1659, trained a generation of Mito historians in careful scholarship and the practical application of Confucian thought to the analysis of historical and contemporary issues.

Mitsukuni’s Japanese history project, which came to be known as the Dai Nihon shi (history of great Japan), followed the kiden format of annals and biographies in the Shiji. The hongi, basic annals, were accounts of the lives of one hundred mythical and actual emperors, from the legendary primordial ruler Jimmu Tennō through Emperor Go-Komatsu, whose reign ended in 1412. The retsuden, eminent biographies, were records of the lives of court ministers, shogunate notables and officials, and other prominent historical figures. The remaining two categories were shi, treatises on religious rites, court ceremonies, administrative procedures, various fields of learning, and the like; and hyō, tables illustrating civil and military government organization, ranks and offices, and so on. During Mitsukuni’s time, attention was given to the first two categories. The project took almost 250 years to complete—by 1906, there were 397 volumes in all, made up of 73 basic annal volumes, 170 biographical volumes, 126 volumes of treatises, and 28 volumes of tables.

Asaka Tanpaku Asaka Tanpaku , trained by Zhu Shunsui, became head of the Dai Nihon shi project in 1693, continuing in charge on and off for most of the next forty years. Following the lead of Sima Qian, he wrote critical analyses of historical figures in accord with Confucian standards. These critiques were later deleted on the grounds that they were “too frank.” The unconventional Confucian scholar Rai Sanyō Rai Sanyō , however, later edited them as an independent book, the Dai Nihon shi sansō
Dai Nihon shi sansō (Rai) (nineteenth century; collected appraisals from the Dai Nihon shi).

By the mid-eighteenth century, a school of Mito history had developed, emphasizing the national importance of the imperial institution. This ideology became an important factor in the development of the imperial restoration movement. This sort of use of the writing of history as a medium for criticism brought serious sanctions from the shogunal authorities. Fujita Yūkoku Fujita Yūkoku , a Dai Nihon shi historian who became the head of all Mito official scholarship in 1807, developed a critique of the power of the shogun, and advocated local autonomy of daimyos under the national authority of the emperor. Yūkoku’s son Tōko Fujita Tōko and the young Mito lord Tokugawa Nariaki both became advocates of national reform and the restoration of imperial power. They suffered periods of persecution and imprisonment for their views, resulting in Nariaki’s death in confinement in 1860. Yūkoku’s student and successor as Mito chief historian, Aizawa Yasushi, was also confined by the shogunate for a time


With the fall of the shogunate and the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Mito School of History, originally founded by Mitsukuni and further developed by Fujita Yūkoku, was vindicated by events. Its views became the basis for a new official nationalism, leading to material progress but also to militarism and in turn to totalitarianism and war. In postwar Japan, the careful research reflected in the Dai Nihon shi continued to be emulated, but the nationalistic views of the Mito School were largely rejected

The task of compiling the Dai Nihon shi was not officially completed until 1906. When the history was finally completed, the facility originally founded by Mitsukuni was converted into a historical research institute and library in Mito, still used by scholars today

There was no other national history project or facility of the same scale in Japan until 1869, when the Meiji government established official organizations for the collection of materials and the compilation of national history. These merged over time into the present National Historiographical Institute at Tokyo University, which serves as a central data collection and research facility and helps maintain a high level of national historiographical standards. This continues the tradition of careful scholarship first established by Mitsukuni in 1657, while remaining independent from the Mito nationalism that developed later

Further Reading

  • Boot, Willem Jan. The Adoption and Adaptation of Neo-Confucianism in Japan: The Role of Fujiwara Seika and Hayashi Razan. Leiden, the Netherlands: Lectura, 1982. The development of the Neo-Confucian climate of opinion preceding Tokugawa Mitsukuni.
  • Brownlee, John S. Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945: The Age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997. A history of the authors and processes involved in writing Japan’s major works of national history, with a chapter on the Dai Nihon shi.
  • Koschmann, J. Victor. The Mito Ideology: Discourse, Reform, and Insurrection in Late Tokugawa Japan, 1790-1864. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Analysis of the more militant Mito thought that developed from Tokugawa Mitsukuni’s earlier approach.
  • Najita, Tetsuo. Tokugawa Political Writings. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A Tokugawa political and historiographical sourcebook, focused on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
  • Webb, Herschel F. The Thought and Work of the Early Mito School. New York: Columbia University Microform Dissertation, 1958. A specialized study of the philosophy of Tokugawa Mitsukuni and the creation of the Dai Nihon shi.

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