Varieties of Shinkoku

Whether in 1855 or earlier, major earthquakes were sufficiently traumatic to prompt reassuring talk of Japan as a shinkoku of great vintage. This term, usually translated as “divine country,” became a key component of nationalist ideology and rhetoric in the modern era. Therefore, it is essential to consider the origins and major changes in meaning of the term shinkoku over the centuries, with particular attention to the possible meanings of the term during the early and middle nineteenth century. The first extant appearance of shinkoku was in the Chronicles of Japan (Nihongi or Nihonshoki) in the context of Empress Jingū's military campaigns in the Korean peninsula. Until approximately the eleventh century, the conception of shinkoku was closely connected with the veneration of the deities of heaven and earth (jingi) by the imperial court. The basic idea was that these deities would preserve the imperial line. The late seventh-century move by sovereigns to style themselves “emperor” (tennō) instead of “great lord” (ōkimi) was part of an attempt to place themselves categorically above the other noble clans. One result of this move was the merging of the various clan deities, which had hitherto been independent, into a hierarchy with the solar kami Amaterasu at the top. Therefore, the basic early meaning of shinkoku was imperial veneration the kami, of whom Amaterasu ranked highest and protected the imperial court.[1]

Beginning in the late eleventh century, corresponding approximately to the rise to power of cloistered emperors, shinkoku became part of Buddhism. The basic idea was that Japan was a remote land (hendo) in a degenerate age (mappō). In this context, shinkoku often meant a “barbarian” or an “underdeveloped” country. To take a twelfth-century example, “Our country is a shinkoku that has not yet heard Buddhist teachings. It is a land in which day and night people engage in hunting and fishing. What can enlighten it?”[2] There being otherwise no hope for such a place, the compassionate buddhas and bodhisattvas on the “other shore” (higan) manifested themselves in Japan as kami. These kami used rewards and punishments to make people's behavior conform to basic Buddhist norms and guide them toward enlightenment. The idea of shinkoku became inextricably linked with the Buddhist concept of foundation and manifest traces (honji-suijaku). In this view, Amaterasu became a manifestation of Mahavairocana (Dainichi), the solar Buddha. Although the mainstream tendency was to regard Japan's status as a shinkoku as a sign that the country needed extraordinary assistance, especially after the Mongol incursions, a countervailing interpretation within the same framework held that Japan was actually superior to other lands because it alone enjoyed the benefits of thousands of manifest kami.[3] Kitai Toshio argues that the Warring States era, roughly 1470–1580, was a major turning point in shinkoku discourse. His basic argument is that Yoshida Kanetomo's (1435–1511) Yūitsu Shintō (One and only Shintō) turned older ideas on their head. Yoshida claimed that Shintō in Japan gave birth to Confucianism and Buddhism in China and India, and that Shintō was the root, Confucianism the branches, and Buddhism the flowers on those branches. According to a Yūitsu text, “Our country is a shinkoku. Its way is Shintō. Its ruler is the divine emperor. Its ancestor is Amaterasu Ōmikami.” Moreover, according to Kanetomo, all of the residents of the Japanese islands are united as descendants of the kami.[4] Precisely at the low point of actual imperial power and prestige, the emperor became a deity in the realm of rhetoric. For obvious reasons, many members of the imperial court embraced Kanetomo's teachings, which spread via daimyō of the Warring States era. Indeed, this same logic lay behind the considerable resources Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu spent to deify themselves. Many of these Yūitsu Shintō ideas carried over into early modern shinkoku discourse.[5] Satō Hiroo points out that in the middle ages, shinkoku referred to Japan's peculiar circumstances, whereas in early modern discourse it was often a statement of Japanese superiority. Moreover, early modern shinkoku discourse lost sight of the “other shore”— that is, the world of foundation (honji) buddhas. Therefore, the kami and buddhas in early modern Japan tended to exist independently of any universal principles or cosmology.

Shinkoku discourse in early modern Japan is often associated with nativism (kokugaku), one of the schools of thought modern scholars often apply to the Tokugawa period. As Anna Beerens has demonstrated in her innovative study of mid-Tokugawa intellectual networks, however, there was extensive interaction and association between people supposedly located in opposing intellectual camps.[6] Shinkoku, whether stated explicitly or in terms of ideas associated with it, was widespread throughout academic and popular discourse, as we have seen in examples from Perry's visit and from earthquake rhetoric. The frequency with which the term shinkoku and its associated ideas appear in discourse can serve as a rough barometer of the times. Increased frequency indicates widespread anxiety or a sense of crisis, not the influence of a particular academic school. With this caveat in mind, a very brief look at the shinkoku ideas of two scholars often associated with nativism is helpful for our understanding of the term and in contrasting academic conceptions of it with popular discourse.

One theme that emerged in shinkoku theory during the Warring States era is that although Japan is a small country, it is culturally superior to other lands. Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) is famous for advancing a version of this argument, and he stated five reasons:

“(1) Being the land where the Sun Goddess [Amaterasu] was born, Japan was the fountainhead of all other nations.

(2) Japan's imperial line was unbroken since the beginning of time.

(3) Japan possessed the only classics containing the gods' true revelations.

(4) Japan produced the world's best rice.

(5) Japan had never been conquered by foreign powers.”[7]

Turning to popular discourse in the examples we have seen, Amaterasu was well known, either by that name or by synonyms such as Ise(-sama) or Tentō(-sama). However, the claim of Japan as a fountainhead of other nations was largely absent. Popular discourse reflected a vague sense of Japan's imperial line reaching far back into the past, but the specific claim of its being unbroken was not widespread outside of academic circles until the modern era. Norinaga's third reason was also limited to the realm of academic discourse. Variations of reasons four and five, however, appeared commonly in popular conceptions of Japan in the early nineteenth century. The divine wind that destroyed the Mongol fleet was well known, as was the notion that the major benefit of Japan's myriad deities was abundant harvests of grain.

Aizawa Seishisai (1782–1863) was a retainer in the Mito domain, a center for antiforeign sentiment. His New Theses (Shinron, 1825), written in classical Chinese, circulated privately from 1829, more widely in Japanese language editions during the 1850s, and was finally published in 1858. Many of Seishisai's ideas about Japan and its superiority overlap with Norinaga's five reasons. Seishisai, for example, argued that Amaterasu bestowed rice upon the people of Japan out of concern for their welfare.[8] This idea reverberated in popular discourse, as we have seen, albeit in the more general form of the kami and buddhas ensuring bountiful harvests of rice and other grains. Seishisai's opening sentences of Shinron reflect many of the Warring States era notions of Japan as a shinkoku, plus a geographic dimension to Japanese superiority: “Our Divine Realm is where the sun emerges. It is the source of the primordial vital force . . . sustaining all life and order. Our Emperors, descendants of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, have acceded to the Imperial Throne in each and every generation, a unique fact that will never change. Our Divine Realm rightly constitutes the head and shoulders of the world and controls all nations.”

Seishisai provided his own gloss on these statements: “The earth lies amid the heavenly firmament, is round in shape, and has no edges. All things exist as nature dictates. Thus, our Divine Realm is at the top of the world. Though not a very large country, it reigns over the Four Quarters because its Imperial Line has never known dynastic change. The Western barbarians represent the thighs, legs, and feet of the universe. This is why they sail hither and yon, indifferent to the distances involved. Moreover, the country they call America is located at the rear end of the world, so its inhabitants are stupid and incompetent.”[9]

In the late 1850s, Seishisai's worldview became a rallying cry for advocates of sonnō-jōi (revere the sovereign, expel the barbarians), a term that served more as an anti-bakufu slogan than as a description of a realistic policy choice. By contrast, popular shinkoku discourse of 1855 and earlier often implied Japanese superiority, but not in such strong terms. The chauvinistic antiforeignism of Seishisai and the activist samurai he inspired was often absent or muted in popular discourse. From their standpoint as observers of the events of the day, many of Edo's townspeople viewed the foreigners and their ships more with curiosity than with fear or disdain.

Popular commentary on Perry's visits had no influence on bakufu policy. Prints and other popular media linking Perry's visits with the Ansei Edo earthquake likewise had no immediate political significance. Nevertheless, the earthquake was a catalyst for the creation of broader webs of association, some of which did not bode well for the bakufu as it faced increasing challenges. Anxiety in the divine land helped weaken the bakuhan state from the bottom up.

  • [1] Kitai Toshio, Shinkokuron no keifu (Hōzōkan, 2006), 7–17 and Satō Hiroo, Shinkoku Nihon, Chikuma shinsho 591 (Chikuma shobō, 2006), 21–41.
  • [2] From Konjaku monogatarishū, quoted in Kitai, Shinkokuron, 20.
  • [3] The situation in medieval times was more complex and varied than this brief summary can indicate. For the full picture, see Kitani, Shinkokuron, 18–78 (esp. the typology of shinkoku meanings, pp. 16–25) and Satō, Shinkoku, 58–120.
  • [4] Kitani, Shinkokuron, 109–117, quoted passage, 112.
  • [5] Kitani, Shinkokuron, 117–180.
  • [6] Anna Beerens, Friends, Acquaintances, Pupils and Patrons, Japanese Intellectual Life in the Late Eighteenth Century: A Prosopographical Approach (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2006).
  • [7] Wakabayashi, Anti-Foreignism, 39.
  • [8] Wakabayashi, Anti-Foreignism, 125.
  • [9] Wakabayashi, Anti-Foreignism, 149.
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