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The Recurrence of both Violence and its Renunciation in Japan Since the Kojiki

F.E.J. Linton
Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06459 USA

Presented Tues., April 23, 2002, at Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, USA

© F.E.J. Linton, 2002-2003.


Thank you very much.

It’s a pleasure to be back at Elon once again, to take part in yet another of
these intriguing conferences that the Professors Chakrabarti, with their
customary boundless energy and enthusiasm, have been in the habit of
organizing. So let me express my gratitude to them for all their efforts to
bring these things about.

What I am about to tell you has to do with the Kojiki, which is a kind of
sacred book of the origins of Japan — really, a chronicle of the early history,
and pre-history, of Japan — assembled at the behest of a Japanese empress of
the early eighth century, recording in written form all the historical facts,
folklore, and legends that, until then, had been handed down and passed on in
oral form only, tracing the origin of the known world and the divine lineage of
the chain of rulers of Japan.

Of course, until my wife, enchanted by the performances of a religious dance-
drama-ritual re-enacting selected scenes or events from the Kojiki, began to
write her book [2] on the place of mimesis — especially, mimetic violence,
and what René Girard would call victimage — in the Kojiki, I had no more of
an inkling what was really in there than I suspect most of my audience has.
So I intend to go easy on you all, and I hope those few who *are* more familiar
with the Kojiki will forgive me for all the slipshod superficialities I may
seem to engage in, in my attempt to avoid overwhelming everyone else. What I
do say will be drawn largely from that book-in-progress of my wife’s (which, I
may add, if you’ll allow me a short commercial plug, should be ready before the
year has ended), and from one particular translation [3] of the Kojiki itself.


My concern is with Japan and its position vis-à-vis violence or non-violence.

Stereotypical influences shaping my initial impressions include, of course: all
those films of directors like Akira Kurosawa, depicting the violent lives of
the Samurai and Shoguns of centuries past; the very existence of such martial
arts forms as Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, and the like; such snippets of history
as the Rape of Nanking, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the role in World War Two’s
Pacific theater of the Japanese “zero” suicide fighter-bomber planes and their
Kami-Kaze pilots; the atrocities of the prison-labor camps involved in building
the infamous railroad bridge over the River Kwai; and, more recently, the Aum
Shin Rikyo action of releasing toxic Sarin nerve-gas in the Tokyo subway.

Countervailing stereotypes include the serene character of Aikido, also thought
of as a martial art form, but in fact of an unexpectedly tranquil, peaceful,
calming sort; the withdrawal from battle and entry into a kind of monastic,
sage-like hermit-dom of older, battle-weary Samurai, turned philosopher or poet
or painter in their retirement; the general feeling of a widespread sense of
pacifism and non-militarism in post-World-War-Two Japan, growing somehow out of
shock at the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; even the simple
fact, which I learned in an amusing way on my first trip to Japan, that there
is a brand of cigarettes with the name “Peace” —

Let me tell you that story. Mathematician that I am in my day job at Wesleyan,
I had gone to Japan to take part in a math conference. One of the local
participants, Japanese, also a smoker, becoming aware that my cigarettes were
of the unfiltered variety, suggested that I might have trouble finding
Japanese unfiltered cigarettes if I didn’t know what to look for. So he gave
me his advice: “Yu asiku fo Pissu ... Pissu inna kanu ... kanna Pissu” —
meaning, “Ask for Peace; Peace in the can; a can of Peace,” in other words,
--> THESE <-- . (Not Life, not Merit, not Liberty or Victory or Wings, but


Well, back to the Kojiki.

This begins at the very beginning, with the coming into existence, one after
the other, of the five so-called “Separate Heavenly Deities,” followed by the
coming into existence of seven further Generations of Gods, first one deity,
then another one, and then five more pairs of deities. But there’s no real
action until the seventh of these Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods,
which consists of the two deities Izanagi and his wife Izanami, who are given
the mission to descend from heaven, and solidify and populate the land.

By their efforts, various islands and numerous earthly deities are spawned,
but poor Izanami is ultimately taken away, dying after bearing her last
child, a certain Fire Deity, of the burns he inflicted during his birth.
This mortal violence inflicted by the newborn on its mother is repaid in kind:
Izanagi, angry at it for having caused his wife’s death, whacks off its head,
and then, like Orpheus, heads off to the Land of the Dead to try to bring his
wife back. No luck. though: he is just chased back to *his* land, aggressively
pursued by angry demons.

In full flight, he undoes the vine that serves him as headband, and flings it
to the ground. Immediately, it magically bears grapes, which his pursuers
pause to pick and eat — and, alas, return to their pursuit of Izanagi. Next,
he throws to the ground the comb that he had been wearing in his hair. This
immediately sprouts bamboo shoots, which, once again, his pursuers pause to
pick and eat — and again, alas, take up their pursuit.

All this time, of course, Izanagi has had with him the sword with which he had
cut off the head of that matricidal newborn Fire Deity. But he has not used it
against his pursuers. Even now, still in full flight from his pursuers, with
that sword merely extended behind him to help keep those pursuers at a certain
distance, Izanagi happens to find three peaches on the ground in his path. He
stops, picks them up, and holds them out to his pursuers, almost like a peace
offering, or a food-bribe — and, Lo! his pursuers fall back and return to the
Land of the Dead whence they had come.


What have we just been told? Violence (such as the matricide perpetrated by
the newborn Fire Deity) may well be repaid in violence; even righteous violence
(such as Izanagi’s avenging slaughter of the Fire Deity) carries with it the
threats of further retribution; but the peace-making gesture of offering food
puts an end to the threat of violence.

Yet the indirect consequences of Izanagi’s revenge against the Fire Deity are
still with him: he remains tainted by the pollution to which he was exposed
during his visit to the Land of the Dead, pollution he must rid himself of by
carrying out ablutions. I’ll spare you all the deities born from the various
garments and accessories he doffs or sets down as he prepares to purify himself
by cleansing his body in the River TatiBana, and all the further deities born
from the various ways he bathed, mentioning only the last three, known as
Izanagi’s three Noble Children, who arose from his finally rinsing clean his
left eye, his right eye, and his nose.

These are: the future sun-goddess Amaterasu, whom he will soon entrust with
ruling the heavens; the future moon-deity TsukiYomi, to be entrusted with ruling
the night; and the youngest brother Susanowo, who will later prove surprisingly
troublesome, to be entrusted with ruling the ocean.


Susanowo may, in fact, be the world’s first known juvenile delinquent. He
refuses to rule the ocean, weeping and wailing to be reunited with his mother,
and gets expelled from both Heaven and Earth. On the pretext of wanting to
bid goodbye to his sister Amaterasu, he ascends to Heaven, where he engages in
so many acts of sibling rivalry with her, plays so many cruel pranks, indulges
so many forbidden practices — in short, stirs up so much discord and disorder
and ill feeling — that Amaterasu is driven, in desperation, to shut herself up
in the seclusion of a heavenly rock-cave.

Everything now was completely dark. “Constant night reigned.” “All manner of
calamities arose.” So dire is this dark, cold, sunless emergency that all the
eight-hundred myriad deities¹ assemble to find a way to set things right again.

They set cocks to crowing, as cocks are wont to do before sunrise, but no dice:
Amaterasu doesn’t come out.

They prepare a mirror, and set it up in a tree ritually decorated with numerous
magical decorations, but again, no dice: Amaterasu doesn’t come out.

You’d think that, outnumbering Amaterasu by eight million to one, these deities
could just go in there, overpower her, and drag her out again by force. But no:
no force; they really hope to entice her to return of her own free will, without

Finally, the deity Ameno Uzume is prevailed upon to perform a dance before the
mouth of the cave in which Amaterasu is hiding, and this she does with such
verve and abandon that all the eight-hundred myriad assembled deities laugh
and cheer, causing Amaterasu to peek out in wonder at all this unexpected
merriment. At this point, the mirror is brought out in front of the cave mouth
and Amaterasu, seeing not the mirror itself but only the unexpected brightness
it reflected into her eyes — her own bright shining, in fact, that she doesn’t
recognize as such — Amaterasu, seeing all this and “thinking [it] more and
more strange,” comes out to investigate, and is immediately taken in hand and
prevented from withdrawing back into the cave; and thus was the light of the sun
restored to the world.

Note: no violence.

And the “evil brother” Susanowo once again gets banished from Heaven, and fined
“one thousand tables of restitutive gifts.”

Still, no violence.


Fast forward to the situation where, in what may be yet another indication of
the longlasting sibling rivalry between Amaterasu and Susanowo, the heavenly
deities, under Amaterasu’s lead, seek to wrest earthly rule from the Great
Land-Ruler deity Opo Kuni Nusi, great-great-great-great-grandson — and
probably protegé — of Susanowo.

Do they send an invasion force? No.

Amaterasu simply entrusts to one of her sons the mission to rule those lands,
and “causes him to descend from the heavens.” Halfway there, though, seeing
that life on earth “is in an uproar,” he turns back, explaining on his return
that the population of earthly deities is just too unruly to rule.

Council time again, with the eight-hundred myriad deities in deliberative
assembly: it is decided to send down another of Amaterasu’s suns — Ameno Popi
no Kami, by name — to subdue those “unruly earthly deities.” He descends,
but begins instead to “curry favor with Opo Kuni Nusi,” and is simply not heard
from again.

After three years of waiting, it is decided to send another emissary down, to
investigate why Ameno Popi didn’t return to report on his mission. They settle
on a certain Ameno Waka Piko, who indeed descends, but, engaging in even more
fraternization than his predecessor Ameno Popi, actually marries a daughter of
Opo Kuni Nusi, and begins to plot how to gain the land for himself. He too is
simply not heard from again.

Indeed, eight years pass with no more news. So it is decided to send down the
pheasant-messenger Naki-Me, to ask Waka Piko why he hasn’t reported back yet,
and to return with his reply. She flies down, perches near Waka Piko’s door,
and asks as she was instructed. Her words, however, are heard not by Waka Piko
but by an ill-willed woman who reports the bird’s words to Waka Piko, advising
that he should “shoot the bird to death.”

This Waka Piko does, using one of the heavenly deer-slaying arrows he had been
given by the heavenly deities before his descent. But this arrow, after
“passing through the pheasant’s breast,” continues on its upward trajectory
until, penetrating into Heaven, it comes to rest at the feet of Amaterasu. With
an accuracy putting contemporary ballistic and hematological forensics to shame,
this arrow is recognized as being one of those presented to Waka Piko on the
occasion of his descent, and the traces of blood on its feathers are recognized
as belonging to the messenger-pheasant Naki-Me. So it is decided to return the
arrow to its owner, with the imprecation that it not strike him unless he had
released it “in treachery.”

Waka Piko dies, of course: the returning arrow pierces his chest as he lies
sleeping in his bed. And of course no pheasant ever returns with any message.

Time once again to send down yet another emissary, to accomplish all that was
to have been — but had not yet gotten — accomplished. Chosen this time is
none other than Take Mika Duti no Kami, the sixth son of the sword with which
Izanagi had slain the Fire Deity².

Take Mika Duti does indeed descend and, after what I might simply call arduous
negotiations with Opo Kuni Nusi and his two sons, obtains Opo Kuni Nusi’s
agreement to surrender control of his earthly realm, and returns to Heaven with
the report that “the pacification” of that realm has been accomplished.

Once more Amaterasu approaches the son whom she had originally hoped to send
with the mission of ruling the earthly lands. But he demurs now, proposing
that Ninigi, the son that had been born to him in the meantime, should descend
in his stead. This proposal is accepted, Ninigi descends, and among his
descendants are to be found all the early divine Japanese imperial families.

All this, once again, with no trace of violent confrontation, save the killing
of the pheasant Naki-Me, and its retribution in kind against Waka Piko. Only
fraternization, on the part of those who failed in their missions, and what we
may call hard bargaining on the part of the emissary who succeeded.

All sorts of violence, bloodshed, and assorted mayhem are to be found depicted
in later portions of the Kojiki, of course, and may well deserve our attention,
too, but perhaps this has been enough for today.


I’ll just close with some more plugs and acknowledgements.

First, the Kojiki translation I know and have relied on here is the one [3]
by Donald L. Philippi, a University of Tokyo publication, that my wife has
been relying on in writing her book [2]. Second, there is that book itself,
Victimage in the Kojiki of Japan — which it has fallen my lot to polish —
along with all the mimetic analysis it contains. Third, there’s a heavy burden
of grateful indebtedness to Professor René Girard, literary critic and social
analyst now Emeritus from Stanford, for the whole mimetic theory [1] that
underlies the analysis of the Kojiki that my wife’s book attempts to undertake.

And finally: Thank you, for listening. And: Kon Nichi Wa.

VIII. References.

[1] Girard, René: Violence and the Sacred (trans. Patrick Gregory). Johns
Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977, 1992 (ISBN: 0-8018-1963-6 and

[2] Mikolajewska, Barbara: Victimage in the Kojiki of Japan. In preparation,
expected late 2003 (ISBN: 1-929865-05-8).

[3] Philippi, Donald L. (trans.): Kojiki. University of Tokyo Press, Tokyo,
1968, 1992 (ISBN: 0-86008-320-9 and (in Japan) 4-13-087004-1).


¹ In the original (to indulge in a digression that perhaps only a mathematician
could love), the phrase rendered as eight-hundred myriad is Ya-po-Yorodu, which,
like its contemporary counterpart Hachi-Hyaku-Man, has the literal meaning
“eight hundred ten-thousand,” that is, eight million. Somehow, the Japanese
linguistic psychology focusses on hundreds (Hyaku), and hundreds of hundreds
(Man), so that million becomes Hyaku-Man, while English linguistic psychology
focusses instead on thousands, and develops a term — million — for a thousand
thousands (as well as a term — gross — for a dozen dozens). When we say that
someone can come up with a million excuses, though, we don’t mean literally a
million: we mean rather something like “countless.” And so it is with Japanese
ten-thousand, or Man, or Yorodu, whence the translator’s choice to render what
might literally have been “eight million” as “eight hundred myriad.” return to text

² Actually, the sixth of the sons of Izanagi said to be “born by the sword,” that is,
born actually of one of the drops of blood of the slain Fire Deity as it dripped
off the sword and onto the ground. The sword itself, like our Samurai-turned-
philosopher, is now in retirement, and therefore unwilling to take on this mission;
it was offered him, but he refused, proposing this son instead. return to text

© F.E.J. Linton, 2002-2003. All rights reserved. Last updated 26 February 2006.

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