Writing of and Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The publication of two Japanese histories known as the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki, the oldest in existence, greatly contributed to a national self-consciousness, helped legitimize the imperial system, and solidified the positions of the noble families by tracing their ancestors to the gods and the mythical creation of Japan.

Summary of Event

Writing came to the Japanese through the Korean scribe Wani Wani , who flourished in the late fourth-early fifth century c.e. When Wani arrived, most likely in 404, he brought with him a collection of Chinese classics, from which the Japanese devised a system of writing their own language. One of the oldest inscriptions, in which spoken Japanese is recorded using the pronunciations of Chinese characters, has survived on a Japanese iron sword, inscribed in 471 and re-deciphered in 1978. [kw]Writing of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (March 9, 712, and July 1, 720) [kw]Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Writing of (March 9, 712, and July 1, 720) [kw]Nihon Shoki, Writing of Kojiki and (March 9, 712, and July 1, 720) Kojiki Nihon shoki Japan;Mar. 9, 712, and July 1, 720: Writing of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki[0550] Historiography;Mar. 9, 712, and July 1, 720: Writing of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki[0550] Temmu Hieda no Are Ō no Yasumaro Prince Kawashima Ki no Kiyohito Miyake no Fujimaro Toneri, Prince Gemmei

After contact with the literate societies of China and Korea and adopting the Chinese writing system, the Japanese developed a desire to record their own history. By recording an official history of Japan, the imperial family, which traced its origins to the sun goddess of Amaterasu, hoped to justify its rule through its claim to divine ancestry. Similarly, the noble clans wanted to record that they had been founded by ancient princes or princesses, or followers of the earliest, mythical rulers.

Prince Shōtoku Shōtoku Taishi (574-622), with a friend, wrote the earliest Japanese history in 620. It focused on the imperial line and its relationship to the nobles and lower ranks of people. However, a fire destroyed most of the text in 645, and the surviving remnants disappeared during the Jinshin War of 672. Some scholars theorize that it was deliberately destroyed by rebels who wanted to erase detrimental records.

In his preface to the Kojiki, Ō no Yasumaro Ō no Yasumaro writes that around 680, Emperor Temmu Temmu became concerned about Japanese history. Various noble families possessed different, sometimes partial copies of the Imperial Chronicles (teiku) and Fundamental Pronouncements (kyūji). The emperor also rightfully suspected that there were many forgeries. Temmu charged the courtier Hieda no Are Hieda no Are with discovering the true history of Japan and memorizing its text.

Perhaps as backup, in the spring of 681, Temmu ordered Prince Kawashima Kawashima, Prince and eleven other nobles to write an authorized, official version of the Imperial Chronicles and other important Japanese historical events. This included the earlier mythical accounts of Japan’s past, then believed to be real.

Before the completion of Are’s oral and Prince Kawashima’s literary efforts, Emperor Temmu died in 686. Empress Jitō Jitō (645-703, r. 686-697) continued to support the project. In 691, she ordered eighteen noble clans to furnish their ancestral records, obviously as sources.

Probably to preserve Are’s work for posterity, Empress Gemmei Gemmei commanded Ō no Yasumaro to write down the memorized historical text on November 3, 711. Working speedily, Yasumaro presented the empress with the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters, 1883; best known as Kojiki) on March 9, 712.

Contemporary scholars still debate how the Kojiki was written. Yasumaro’s preface states that it is a mere compilation of true tales of the past. However, with stakes so high for the imperial line and the noble clans, who wanted to prove their ancestry, and with so many forgeries in circulation, Are and Yasumaro must have done careful research and editing and been subject to political pressure.

The Kojiki offers a unified history of Japan’s past. It is divided into three sections, the first of which deals with the “Jindai no maki” (book on the age of gods) and covers the creation of the universe with Japan at its center. The second section covers the period from Japan’s first legendary emperor Jimmu to that of Ōjin, the first emperor who can be verified. The third part continues up to the reign of Empress Suiko Suiko (554-628, r. 593-628), which ends the book. The Kojiki is written in Chinese characters whose sounds correspond to the Japanese language, and it contains a glossary for the correct pronunciation of proper names.





The Kojiki, however, it is not a history in the modern sense. It includes large amounts of mythology, legend, and imaginary speeches mixed in with real historical facts. To give the Japanese empire an older and more auspicious date for its foundation, all but the most recent historical dates of the Kojiki are backdated. This has been proven by comparison with Korean and Chinese histories describing the same events at verifiably later dates.

For reasons still hotly debated by scholars, in 714, Empress Gemmei added Ki no Kiyohito Ki no Kiyohito and Miyake no Fujimaro Miyake no Fujimaro to the team that was working on the Nihon shoki. On July 1, 720, Prince Toneri Toneri, Prince , one of Temmu’s sons, officially presented the thirty volumes of the finished history, plus one book of genealogical charts, to Empress Genshō Genshō . The book soon was called the Nihon shoki (Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896; best known as Nihon shoki), even though its official title is Nihongi.

The Nihon shoki is written in classical Chinese. Only its first two books deal with the mythological age. The others cover the time from Jimmu to Jitō’s abdication. The different writing styles of its books show that it was composed by many authors, with Prince Toneri an honorary editor. Although more focused on historical events than the Kojiki, the Nihon shoki similarly presents divine events as real and backdates Japanese history. It also contains passages from Chinese and Korean histories and sometimes gives more than one narrative of the same event. However, the Nihon shoki becomes reliable and detailed history as it moves closer to the time of its writing.


For more than a thousand years, the Japanese considered the Kojiki and Nihon shoki a true account of the origin and early times of their nation. The oldest surviving copy of the Kojiki dates from 1371-1372, and its subject has been an integral part of Japanese national historical self-consciousness. Under the influence of Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), the Kojiki became highly esteemed as a literary classic. Because it is not written in Chinese, it has often been regarded as the purer of the two ancient histories. Contemporary scholars value the Kojiki as an exemplary literary text that showcases how medieval Japan viewed its history and the origin of its society.

Ever since its publication, the Nihon shoki has been treated as a valuable official document. History lectures were given based on it in the eighth century, and public readings and lectures continued to 1185. Numerous medieval commentaries exist on this work, which was considered a standard history long into the modern era. The oldest existing manuscripts date from the late 700’s or early 800’.

The events told in the two histories have been part of Japanese historical belief until the cultural cataclysm following defeat in World War II. In the 1960’, radical Japanese intellectuals tried to discredit the two ancient histories based on modern standards of historiography Historiography;Japan Japan;historiography . In the early twenty-first century, Japanese national consensus focused on their value as literature and as historical record for the later parts of their chronicle.

Still, the two texts have a powerful imaginative impact on Japanese cultural thought and tradition. The Nihon shoki is considered the oldest of the “six national histories of Japan.” February 11, the legendary day when, as told in these oldest histories, in 660 b.c.e. Jimmu founded the Japanese empire, is celebrated as a national holiday.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 1896. Reprint. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. Still the only English translation of the Nihon shoki. Introduction, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Delmer M., ed. Ancient Japan. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Chapter 9, by Edwin Cranston, and chapter 10, by Brown, deal with the writing of the two texts and show their impact on Japanese literacy and historical consciousness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownlee, John S. Political Thought in Japanese Historical Writing: From Kojiki (712) to Tokushi Yoron (1712). Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991. The first two chapters deal with the two oldest extant histories, their writing, and their meaning for Japanese society. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Motoori, Norinaga. Kojiki-den Book 1. Translated by Ann Wehmeyer. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell East Asia Program, 1997. The text of the first of Mootori’s forty-four books of commentary on the Kojiki, written from 1764 to 1798, which argue that this history is to be preferred because of its more purely Japanese style than the Nihon shoki. Introduction, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Philippi, Donald L., trans. Kojiki. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. Most generally available English translation. Philippi’s unique transcription of ancient Japanese names alters their common English spellings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, G. W. “Early Japanese Chronicles: The Six National Histories.” In Historians of China and Japan, edited by W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1961. Relatively unsympathetic view of the Japanese writers of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, who are considered less accomplished than their earlier Chinese counterparts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sakamoto Tarō. The Six National Histories of Japan. Translated by John S. Brownlee. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1991. Translation of the 1970 Japanese study of the oldest Japanese histories. Chapter 2, on the Nihon shoki, contains an excellent discussion on the source materials used by Japanese historiographers and a summary of the historical text. Appendix, bibliography, and index.

Categories: History