The Emergence of Japanese Kingship

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Stanford University Press, 1997 - History - 434 pages
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This is the first comprehensive study of the sources and nature of classical Japanese kingship and state formation. To draw new insights from the rich body of extant documents and artifacts from early Japan, the author employs the analytical tools of recent Western historiography and anthropology, constructing an “archeology of kingship” that begins by exposing the roots of Japanese monarchy in third-century chieftaincy.

The book then traces sovereignty and polity through a series of temporal cross sections, analogous to an archaeologist’s trenches, to reveal artifacts from seven historical epochs, including an array of chieftains, kings, and sovereigns variously styled as Son of Heaven, Polestar Monarch, and Heavenly Sovereign. These sacral and increasingly courtly rulers (both men and women) first presided over confederate chieftaincies, then expansive coalescent polities, and eventually the archipelago’s earliest state formation, Nihon.

The book culminates in an account of the reign of the mid-eighth-century monarch Shomu, who represented the zenith of classical Japanese kingship and was supported by a bureaucracy of more than 7,000 people. Shomu’s opulent Chinese-style palace and the unprecedented, monumental Temple of the Great Buddha at Todaiji were replicated in smaller scale by provincial headquarters and temples, all of which functioned as ritual stages for articulating Shomu’s cultural hegemony. Although the forms of classical Japanese kingship—court, fisc, dynasty, and realm—continued to develop in subsequent centuries, all assumed their basic form in the age of Shomu.

The author has sought to counter the ahistoricity that characterizes much scholarship concerning early Japanese kingship and to broaden the geographical and disciplinary contexts within which Japanese kingship has been examined. As long as evidence was limited to certain myth-histories compiled in the eighth century, which traced the rule of Heavenly Sovereigns and their realm of Nihon back to prehistory, ahistoricity was inevitable. The author suggests that only when such narratives are reread in the light of evidence from archaeology, continental history, and comparative ethnohistorical research can new scenarios be formulated to trace the emergence of paramount rule.

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About the author (1997)

Joan R. Piggott is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University and the author of The Emergence of Japanese Kingship (1997).

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