Dissertation Part 2: Introduction


(It goes without saying that this work is my own. It is copyrighted both to myself and to SOAS University; any personal use of this material must be authorised by myself first. Thanks.)



Various English-language scholars working within the fields of Japanese geo-historiography and literature argue that the authors of ancient and classical Japanese literature defined ‘foreign’ cultures as ‘other’ in order to define the Japanese aristocratic state as ‘self’.1 It is generally agreed that Japan’s first written legal constitution (ca. 604 C. E.) and its later amendments (the Taika Reforms, 645) were the earliest seeds of a statehood-as-self ideology in Japan, and were modelled on the polity of contemporary imperial Tang China: the ‘middle kingdom’ of Sinocentric East Asia to which Japan had long been a tributary state.2 By appropriating Tang China’s frameworks of rulership, the ancient Japanese Yamato court (250 – 710 C.E.) attempted to break away from this tributary identity, and be recognized by China on equal terms. Adopting the Tang geo-spatial boundaries of self as the imperial centre (kinai) and other as ‘beyond’ (kegai)3 allowed the Yamato and Nara (710 – 794 C.E.) courts to justify their territorial expansion into kegai lands as a process of state-building.4 They not only defined peoples and lands abroad as kegai, but any which were beyond their centre and surrounding “transformed” – culturally and ethnically similar – locales (kanai):5 the further people lived from the divine geo-spatial reach of the Japanese Emperor, the more inherently inferior they were believed to have been.

Particularly recipient to this kegai signification was the most distant region from the capital, north-eastern Michinoku. This enormous region’s various communities who rebelled against Yamato and Nara colonisation for centuries became ‘the other’ in pre-modern Japanese literature: a ‘barbaric’ collective in contrast to who the Japanese could elevate their own Chinese-styled civility. Whilst court-commissioned narratives detail the assimilation and subjugation of their north-eastern ‘barbarians’ co-ordinated by the divine-led Emperor, a plethora of historical and archaeological evidence contests them. This contradiction between Japan’s classical notions of state as expressed through literary representation and a different reality proven by archaeology is our pre-requisite to understanding how the classical Heian court (794 – 1186), our court of interest, came to view and write Michinoku into their literature through an internalized self/other binary. I have chosen to focus mostly on the Heian period’s courtly ideas about Michinoku because, as we shall see, a great many political developments took place at this time which greatly altered the Japanese state’s centre/ peripheral relations; although English-language studies have explored classical Japanese textual treatments of continental peripheries,6 still no such exploration for Heian Japan’s literary representations of Michinoku yet exists.

I hope to begin addressing this gap. First, I will demonstrate how Japanese state-building prior to the Heian period formed early Michinoku-Japanese relations, and how historical evidence contradicts the ancient state’s literary representations of them. Next, I will discuss the topographic poetic device utamakura (poetic word-play created through the use of place-names) and its uses towards state-building and othering. I will compare how two uta monogatari (poem-tales which employ utamakura), the Ise monogatari (ca. 850 – ca. 1011) and Saigyo monogatari (post 1185), utilize Michinoku as a setting for their narratives to demonstrate how over time, the symbolic ‘Michinoku’ was used first to critique the periphery and later the centre state, in response to changes in rulership throughout the late Heian and early Kamakura periods. Given the long periods and multiple authorships of both these works, they offer us a wider breadth of Heian attitudes than others might.

To analyse here all of the existing Heian literary representations of Michinoku is a task too large; nevertheless, I hope to give this new topic a good grounding, and enable further enquiry. As such, I hope this study will make a relevant contribution to English-language scholarship on pre-modern Japanese literature.


1Takahashi Tomio, 2006. ‘The Classical Polity and its Frontier’, trans. Friday, Karl, in Capital and Countryside, ed. Piggott, Joan R., pp. 128-145

2Mark Edward Lewis, 2006. The Construction of Space in Early China. USA: State University of New York Press.

3Takahashi, Frontier, p. 130

4Mark J. Hudson, 1999. Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenisis in the Japanese Islands. USA: University of Hawai’i Press,p. 194

5Takahashi, Frontier, p. 130

6Edward Kamens, 2007. ‘Terrains of Text in Mid-Heian Court Culture’. In Heian Japan, Centers and Peripheries. ed. Mikael Adolphson, Edward Kamens, Stacie Matsumoto. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, pp.129 – 152


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