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Ancient Japan1

Nature volume 29, pages 485487 | Download Citation



THIS volume contains a literal translation of the oldest Japanese book in existence, accompanied by introductions, notes, and appendices, and is beyond doubt the most learned and remarkable work which European scholarship has yet produced from Japan. Of the many important propositions on the early history of the Japanese race established by it we shall have to speak later on; but of the work itself it may be said now that the translator claims it to be “the earliest authentic connected literary product of that large division of the human race which has been variously denominated Turanian, Scythian, and Altaic, and it even precedes by at least a century the most ancient extant literary compositions of non-Aryan India.” Indeed more than this may be said; for if the claim of Accadian to be an Altaic language be not substantiated, not only the archaic literature of Japan (to which the Kojiki belongs), but also its classical literature, precedes by several centuries the earliest extant documents of any other Altaic tongue. This alone would render the work an object of much interest, but it derives additional importance from its contents as well as from the period at which it was written. It is the earliest record of the language, customs, mythology, and history of ancient Japan, and soon after the date of its compilation, as Mr. Chamberlain points out, most of the salient features of distinctive Japanese nationality were buried under a superincumbent mass of Chinese culture; it is therefore to these “Records” and one or two other ancient works that the investigator must look if he would not be misled at every step into attributing originality to modern customs and ideas which have simply been borrowed wholesale from the neighbouring continent. It appears beyond doubt that, though the work existed in tradition for some years before that period, it was not committed to writing till the year 712 of our era, and from it a picture can be formed of the Japanese of that remote epoch. It is to the sections devoted by the translator to the manners and customs of the early Japanese and their political and social ideas that we propose to direct special attention now.

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