(This is the second part of a longer post. Here is the first part.)
In his introduction to the Great History of Japan, a man called Tokugawa Tsunaeda, the adopted son and heir of Tokugawa Mitsukuni (who was the second daimyō of the aristocratic family that ruled its territory in north-eastern Japan from the city that is today still known as Mito), tells the reader that, at the age of eighteen -- which means in or around the year 1630 -- his adoptive father read an account of the Chinese prince Po I in Sima Quian's history of the Chinese imperial dynasties, Shijiki, and "rose to his feet with the admiration he felt for Po I's high devotion to duty.
Fondling the book he said with a sigh, "If this book did not exist one could not find out about the history of early China. If one had no histories to rely on, one could not cause future ages to know what should be emulated." Hereupon he sighed and conceived the determination to compile a history."
Not immediately but eventually, Mitsukuni gathered a group of scholars and researchers and together they began to assemble their own History, following the format of the Shijiki, its tables, its lists, the way it traced the fortunes of the nation through chronological descriptions of its emperors, although the emperors Mitsukuni was writing about were his own, Japanese, not Chinese. The influence of Chinese thought on Japan at that time was so strong, however, that the book itself was written in Chinese. Educated Japanese used Chinese as European scholars used Latin; the language itself meant wise thoughts.
But where was the real start of this project, what rivers of thought ran through him before they emerged like this, where did those rivers come from, why those rivers and not others? Why did he love history, why did he think he knew what needed to be emulated, how did he think he could locate that knowledge, why did he like order and scholarship? Answers invisible! The adopted son chooses a moment of his father's life, at the age of eighteen, for a beginning; and the father must have told him that anecdote, he decided on that clear starting point, O there I was, he said, in love with a precedent, a book, that you can see, look, there it is, a beginning incarnate.
The moment was identifiable: he read the Shijiki and his feelings distinguished themselves. We are here, they said. He surely had, before that, a sympathy for the Confucian feelings that motivated Quian's Prince Po I, but for how long had those been percolating within him, where did they come from, and why -- who can say, but the Shijiki was a sign of them, and the most powerful thing to do was indicate the book and repeat, "Here it is, this represents the moment when I saw my feelings marshalled under a strong leadership, and they grew so strong and firm and pointed that I thought, I can explain them; they aren't vague now, look, here is a book that points to them; I will make my own book that points to them, and this pointing will be particular to me. I am confident that my feelings have a reason, a justification; here, I see the justification in front of me, a ghost in the air, I'll grab it and make it -- a book, solid, solid, solid. A project! and scholars'll travel for its sake, they'll research, as Quian did, my teacher, long dead."
The Great History was unfinished at Mitsukuni's death. Tsunaeda inherited the responsibility, and the group of scholars, which had become an established school, the Mitogaku. He didn't finish the manuscript either, but passed it on to his own heir. In 1906, after more than two hundred years, it was finally done. The Shijiki itself was a transgenerational project. Sima Quian inherited it from his father, Sima Tan, historian to the Han emperor Wu. Quian drew on records and old written accounts, he travelled, he interviewed people personally; the Shijiki was famous for the quality of its research as well as its prose and organisation.
Then the question comes back again, what made Quian decide to use those materials, and organise them in that way, as no one had done before, in spite of the written records being in existence for years? Through the various courses the book took after his death in 86 BC he passed the organisation on to Mitsukuni as unconsciously as the writers of records had passed their tools on to him, or as unconsciously as Ruskin handed himself on to Proust; and successive lords of Mito and their Mitogaku changed Quian's sensibility for their own ends, promoting and shaping the kind of Japanese imperial nationalism, that, during the mid-nineteenth century, helped to inspire a civil war, with various daimyō rebelling against the shogunate, which, they believed, was planning to depose the emperor.
The rebels were defeated, the Mito Rebellion of 1864-5 was suppressed with over a thousand soldiers dead, and the system that had supported the daimyō was disassembled, so that the countryside once owned and ruled by the Mito household was removed from its control and became part of the new prefecture named Ibaraki. The Meiji Restoration had begun, the imperial family moved from Kyoto to Edo, and Edo was rechristened Tokyo. The last shogun retired and feared assassination for the rest of his life. Mitsukuni himself became the subject of a serial prose story, then the serial became a novel, and then, in 1969, a television series. In 2003 it celebrated its one thousandth episode.
The activities of travel and research that went into the Great History are simplified for television like this: a retired civilian, who is Mitsukuni in disguise, goes on a journey through the countryside with two samurai companions, all three of them encountering and defeating oppressive bandits, thieves and bullies. At a crucial point in each episode one of them takes out the Tokugawa seal and displays it to the villains (it is a black lacquered container with a triple hollyhock crest worked in gold on one side), and at this unexpected proof of the old man's aristocratic blood kinship to the extended family of the Tokugawa shoguns the bandits cower, realising that he is not what they thought he was. They are mastered by this sign, but what, in their backgrounds, brought them to the point where they found themselves reacting to the sight of three stylised hollyhock leaves, and what made them bandits in the first place, what conducted them to this moment, staring at the old man and his black seal, and comprehending this conjunction in a certain understood way?
In old age Mitsukuni moved out of the city to a house in the country, where he died. When I visited the house I saw both ends of his existence. An indoor wall was covered with publicity shots from the television show, and nearby outside I found the grave of his placenta.*
* That's what the sign said anyway.
Tsunaeda's introduction was translated by John S. Brownlee for the book Japanese History and the National Myths, 1600-1945.
It seems worth pointing out that when people talk about Mitsukuni they usually refer to him as Mito Komōn, so if you're ever wanting to look him up that's the name to search for. Komōn is a reference to a courtly rank, gon-chūnagon, which he acquired in his sixties.