The Oldest Historiography in Japan

Have you ever had a Japanese person come up to you on the street and tell you about the oldest XYZ in Japan which you can find in this particular area? This happened to me for the second time today. My friends and I were looking vaguely out at the harbor in Dejima, and a complete stranger–naturally, an ojisan–approached us and talked about the oldest Protestant seminary in alllll of Japan which used to be on Dejima but was moved somewhere else. The first time was on my study abroad, when a stranger, also an ojisan, sat next to me on the train holding a binder full of laminated newspaper clippings, ascertained that I didn’t know enough Japanese to comprehend his vital message, and went to tell my program director about how this particular area of Kyoto was in fact the oldest human settlement in Japan, but had been covered up by an official conspiracy.

I reflected on these unusual events after hearing my professor friend say this evening, “It’s not that Japanese people don’t have an opinion about history, but we don’t speak about our opinions.” This is both true and false in extremely important ways. As I understand it so far, not quite knowing enough Japanese to read Beat Takeshi’s History of 20th Century Japan, there are five ways in which Japanese people are interested in history. The first is the usual, bookish memorization of names and dates as taught in middle schools, and keeping any underlying narrative to oneself. TheĀ rekijo seem to be mostly of this first category. Indeed, this normal mode of history is purely about facts and has nothing to do with opinions other than those of the “rules-sucks” type.

The second is the myopic obsession with blaming people from history for the problems of today, which has caused endless Japan-bashing. The third is the equally myopic defense of every Japanese person in all of history against the attacks of the critics, which is just as lame. These two types of interpreting history are based on very deeply held opinions, but the one thing people hate to do in these discussions is admit they have an opinion; thus they will present their opinion as an unbiased exposition of the facts, even when this strains credulity, which only adds rancor to the discussion.

The fourth type, just to acknowledge its existence, is the actual opinionated narrative that directly contradicts my professor friend’s statement. I am guessing Beat Takeshi’s book is one such example, based on the Amazon reviews. It is nice to know what Japanese people think about their own history, and even nicer to read it in a book instead of painstakingly exacting it during a conversation. These books are still rare, though.

But the fifth type most interests me, because it is absent from Western historiography. There are a large number of middle-aged men in Japan (and perhaps a rekijo or two) who have scientifically and accurately determined that some whatsit in their hometown is the OLDEST WHATSIT IN ALL JAPAN, and must get the word out about this old whatsit to the entire world, especially notifying any foreigners that happen to come pass through the area. Of course, every country in some way has a mania for the ancient. The only country that has not traditionally obsessed over its own age is India, and even that is now changing. But in Japan this manifests in a unique way. Perhaps these ojisans are continuing that great kokugaku quest to find the purity of ancient times. (Speaking of which, doesn’t that make this historiography predate the other four kinds of historiographies? You know, I think it does!) Perhaps they just have too much free time on their hands, and spend every Sunday patrolling for possible recruits to their cult of the old thingamabob. Who knows? It is something to explore if you ever encounter it in Japan. Just learn Japanese first, because they often don’t know English.

Posted: September 26th, 2010 | Kokoro