Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945: The Age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu


256 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7748-0644-3
DDC 952'.01'072





Reviewed by Patricia Morley

Patricia Morley is professor emerita of English and Canadian Studies at
Concordia University and an avid outdoor recreationist. She is also the
author of The Mountain Is Moving: Japanese Women’s Lives, Kurlek, and
Margaret Laurence: The Long Journey Hom


Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600–1945, is the first
comprehensive study of modern Japanese historians and their relation to
nationalism. John Brownlee has broken new ground and provided startling
insights into Japan’s intellectual development as a nation over the
last century.

The sovereignty of Japan’s emperors was based on ancient myths until
the country’s defeat in 1945 and the ostensible end of the imperial
state. The myths tell of the creation of Japan by deities, followed by
the Age of Gods, the founding of the imperial line by the Sun Goddess,
and the reign of the first human emperor, Jinmu, her direct descendant.

The myths went unchallenged until the Tokugawa period before the Meiji
Restoration of 1868. With the Meiji Constitution, however, official
ideology insisted on the literal truth of the myths. Scholars who
disagreed were suppressed. Japanese identity and the imperial line’s
origins were based on the myths, and Japanese historians came to
understand that history was a science in service to their nation.

Brownlee’s study illumines modern political ideology, nationalism,
and censorship as well as ancient myths. He writes that his purpose is
to explain “not the origins of Japan but the thought of the historians
who dealt with those origins.” He compares the Japanese struggle, in
its outward form only, with the 19th-century ideological struggle in the
West between science and the Bible over the evolution of species.

This impressive, well-documented study affords a fascinating and fresh
perspective on Japanese intellectual history and its relation to the
events of the last century.


Brownlee, John S., “Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945: The Age of the Gods and Emperor Jinmu,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 13, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/3129.