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The Tale of the Heike and Modern Japan
-A Fabricated “National Epic”-

Yuichi Otsu
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

If you look up “The Tale of the Heike” in The Kojien dictionary, the entry reads, “War chronicle. A type of epic poem in prose style describing the glory of the Taira clan and its fall and ruin, based on the Buddhist concepts of karma and impermanence, and consisting of rhythmical wakan konkobun (mixed Japanese and Chinese text) interspersed with dialogue.” “A type of epic poem in prose style,” however, is an odd expression. Poems are in verse, not prose. There is no such thing as an epic poem in prose style—hence the insertion of the phrase “type of.” Why is there a description like this in a dictionary?

The Birth of Japanese Literature

The Meiji Constitution was promulgated in 1889 (Meiji 22), and an election was held and a regular session of the Diet convened the year after. Japan had somehow managed to acquire the features of a modern nation. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for the Civilization and Enlightenment Movement was already waning, triggering a swing toward conservatism in Japanese society and a mounting call for a return to tradition. The establishment of a department of Japanese literature at the College of Letters, Tokyo Imperial University (currently the Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo) in 1889 was a manifestation of this trend, and the birth of Japanese literature as an institution occurred at this time. One of the urgent tasks of the Meiji government was to train standardized citizens. Japanese literature emerged in response to this demand, to educate citizens about the traditions of Japanese culture. The following year, in 1890, Kinkodo published the first full-fledged history of Japanese literature—The History of Japanese Literature [Nihon Bungakushi] (Kinkodo) by Sanji Mikami and Kuwasaburo Takatsu—and Hakubunkan published the first anthology of Japanese classical literature, the 24-volume Complete Works of Japanese Literature [Nihon Bungaku Zensho].

The Desire for Epic Poetry

In this manner, the Japanese “canon” was born, and the traditions of Japanese literature took shape. There was one troubling problem, however. Japan did not have “poetry” like that found in the West. Poetry was the most highly regarded literary genre in the West, so there was a rush in Japan to create poetry that would compare favorably with Western poetry. Lyric poetry had developed in its own way in Japan. However, high-quality epic poetry had never emerged. This was a serious problem. Epic poetry began with the Iliad and the Odyssey recited by the Ancient Greek poet Homer. It was long heroic epics like these that sung of the history of a people and the deeds of their heroes that represented a people in their totality.

After Japan’s 1895 victory in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Triple Intervention of Russia, Germany and France despite that victory, Japan was forced to give up the Liaodong Peninsula. This fact rapidly inflamed Japanese nationalism. In May 1896, an editorial in The People’s Friend [Kokumin no Tomo], a magazine published by Minyusha that was very influential at the time, lamented how “utterly deplorable” it was that no figure in Japan could compose epic poetry, despite the abundance of heroic events and battles and all the other ingredients found in epic poetry, including unique incidents not found in the West. While Japan was catching up with the major Western powers, the fact that it lacked epic poetry was intolerable. There was a deep concern that, at this rate, Japan would forever remain a “second-rate power.” Even after this point, however, the desired epic poetry failed to appear.

The “Discovery” of the epic poem The Tale of the Heike

The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in May 1905. Leaving aside the substance of the treaty, the fact that Japan had defeated a Western power further fanned the flames of Japanese nationalism. Against this backdrop, an epic poem was “discovered.” The name of the “discoverer” was Koji Ikuta. He would later become an active social critic under the name of “Choko.” After graduating from the philosophy department of Tokyo Imperial University in 1906, he published “The Tale of the Heike as a National Epic [Kokuminteki Jojishi to Shite no Heike Monogatari]” in the March-May issue of Imperial Literature [Teikoku Bungaku] that same year. In the article, he argued that The Tale of the Heike, which portrays a transitional period experienced by the Japanese people between the age of nobility and the age of the samurai through the deeds of heroes like Minamoto no Yoshitsune, and was recited to the accompaniment of a biwa (Japanese lute), was the national epic of Japan. With no prospects of epic poems being newly created, a buried treasure was “discovered” from the past. The “discovery” was welcomed with open arms, and The Tale of the Heike was enthusiastically discussed as a long epic poem equal to—in fact, superior to—those from the West.

Of course, this was not a “discovery,” but a “fabrication.” The Tale of the Heike is a story, not a poem. This is an obvious fact. In “Thoughts on Rhetoric [Biji Ronko]” published in 1893, Shoyo Tsubouchi clearly concludes that The Tale of the Heike is not an epic poem, but a type of “unofficial history” (privately written history). Like Tsubouchi, those who had studied Western literature found it absolutely impossible to accept that The Tale of the Heike was an epic poem. So naturally there were some very respectable counterarguments asking how this piece of literature could be called a poem despite its lack of rhyme. These voices, however, were drowned out by patriotic voices claiming that poetry was not about form but essence, and that those saying Japan had no epic poetry were appallingly bigoted. Thus, The Tale of the Heike was reinvented as a national epic at the end of the Meiji period to gratify national pride.

Furthermore, this “fabrication” has never been rejected since. As a result, the editors of the Kojien dictionary are forced to provide the awkwardly-worded description, “a type of epic poem in prose style.”

The classics are interpreted to suit the demands of the times.

Yuichi Otsu
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Otsu was born in 1954. He completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Letters, Waseda University without receiving his degree. He holds a Ph.D. in Literature. He is the author of War Chronicles and the Ideology of Royalty [Gunki to Oken no Ideorogi] (Kanrin Shobo, 2005) and The Reincarnation of The Tale of the Heike: A Invented National Epic [Heike Monogatari no Saitan: Tsukurareta Kokumin Jojishi] (NHK Publishing, 2013), co-author of The Complete Collection of Japanese Classical Literature, New Edition: The Tale of the Soga Brothers [Shimpen Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshu Soga Monogatari] (Shogakukan, 2002), and co-editor of the Encyclopedic Dictionary of The Tale of the Heike (Tokyo Shoseki, 2010).