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In Session: Genre Trouble: Subverting Norms in Premodern Japanese Poetry
1: Redefining “History”: Japanese Poetry and the Origins of Japan
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
University of Florida, United States
In the mid-twelfth century, citations of the text Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, 720) in Japanese poetic treaties went from relatively obscure to widespread in only a few decades. This increase was driven by demand for origin anecdotes that explained when and why particular poems were written, knowledge of which demonstrated poetic expertise. Learned courtiers adapted the oral tradition of anecdotal stories (setsuwa) into a written medium, and citations of Nihongi and other works functioned as markers of authority. However, many of these Nihongi citations describe episodes that are not actually in the text, and are instead found in works like the Shiji (Chronicles of the Grand Historian). For the writers of these treatises, the “Nihongi” was not a single text, but rather a stand-in for the genre of history, encompassing both China and Japan. Since the histories of both were written in Literary Sinitic and studied in the same division of the Imperial Academy, this is unsurprising. But treatment of Nihongi in these treatises is not perfectly uniform. On rare occasions, commentators distinguish between “local” (honchō) history and Chinese history, violating their own adopted model of categorization. I argue that this bifurcation emerges because it already existed in the poetic tradition, in the bracketing of Chinese poems composed in Japan. The distinction converted Nihongi from being the genre of history to being the genre of Japanese history, and it anticipated the parallel treatment of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese origins that would become commonplace in medieval Japan.