Author: Elisha Kayne
Today, more than 119 million people practice Shintoism both in Japan and around the world. The tenants and philosophies surrounding Shinto beliefs and customs have had an extremely profound impact on Japanese culture and history, even in the modern era’s rapidly changing environment. One of the most influential texts associated with Shinto is Nihon Shoki, a book that was written almost 1,300 years ago. Despite its age, the accounts and myths expressed within the pages of Nihon Shoki has continued to inform and inspire generations of Japanese families, providing them with a powerful and priceless connection to their past.
Writing of Nihon Shoki
Nihon Shoki was compiled and created by Prince Toneri and a team of scholars and historians. They began writing the document in 681 AD, and presented it to Emperor Gensho in 720. The title means “Origin of the Sun” and is a fitting name, as it chronicles the history and heritage of the Gods and Emperors from creation until the time of its publication. While the Kojiki was formally presented in 712, eight years before Prince Toneri’s work, the Nihon Shoki differs because it has less of an overall focus on mythology, and a more detailed presentation of history. Therefore, Nihon Shoki is considered by most to be Japan’s first official historical collection.
Chronology and Structure
The 30-chapter collection took almost 40 years to complete, and when one pours over the content, it’s easy to understand why such a manuscript would require so much time and effort to publish. Nihon Shoki begins with the legend of creation and the first seven generations of Gods. In this way, the text is similar to the Kojiki in the first two chapters. However, the book goes into greater detail about historical events and extends its genealogical line from the first Emperor Jimmu to Empress Jito in the 8th century, the time in which it was written.
Relevance to Japanese History and Shinto Practice
The Nihon Shoki is one of the fundamental documents associated with both Shinto tradition and Japanese history and culture. Shinto practice requires wisdom of one’s ancestors, and this document was essential to understanding the divine inheritance of the royal family, whose lineage had now been traced to the very beginning of the world itself. Having such a manuscript available created unity and strength within the hearts of the people of Japan, and helped to preserve important knowledge and wisdom that may have otherwise been lost during future periods of struggle.
Finding an English Translation
The first English language version of Nihon Shoki was published by William George Aston in 1896. Born in Ireland, he developed a passion for the Japanese language and culture and wrote and lectured extensively on topics related to Japanese literature in the west. Another book, The Six National Histories of Japan, includes Nihon Shoki and five other related documents. It was published in 1970 by Sakamoto Taro. English speaking readers who are interested in reading the Nihon Shoki in its entirety can find copies of both the 19th and 20th century versions online or at major book stores.