Tuesday, June 19, 2012

III – Bialock’s focus on “Apocryphal History”


In an attempt to be fair and not utterly dismissive of the work of Mr. Bialock, it should be pointed out that he does recognize that the material he is focusing on is apocryphal in nature, by which he means unofficial, based on rumor and hearsay, esoteric, etc.


 On the other hand, he mischaracterizes the historical context of some works, and would seem to be intent on deriving some elevated status for the inferences he attempts to make from the apocryphal sources, in a move that again almost seems aimed at negating the studied socio-historical context and understanding of the people and events concerned as found in what I will simply try to characterize as non-apocryphal sources for the sake of argument.


I read the historical novel of the Tale of the Heiki (Heian period), and  have purchased the English translation by Hell McCulough of the account called the Tai-Heike (14th century), but I won’t have time to get to that, as there are other tasks with a higher priority, such as finishing some earlier posts that I have basically just outlined and never gotten around to filling in at all.


 In the next (i.e., last) blog post on Bialock’s book, however, I will simply recall an important scene from the tale for use in illustrating that:

Bialock basically seems to be intent on obfuscating the role of reason in Japanese history

And I find that to be an astonishing thing in an academic text published by a highly regarded American university at which the distinguished British Japan scholar George Sansom once taught.


 The Euro cup is underway, and I like watching the national teams play. 

And that is taking a toll, as the time in Japan when the games start at 3:45 AM. And just when the games end, our son is waking up, which is fun, but equates with further sleep deprivation...


On p. 295, in the paragraph before the beginning of the section with the Heading “Heterodox Speech and Secret Traditions”, Bialock writes,

…But the Kakuichi and Genpei josuiki variants that make Kiyomori the offspring of an emperor and a mother of probable outcast stateus most likely originated among those who lived and worked in and about the Taira’s Rokuhara compound. Kiyomori’s apocryphal history was also the story of the outcasts who once lived under his patronage and authority.

Then, on p. 296 he writes

…In Chapter 5, I suggested that rumor and gossip gave rise to new forms of vernacular history as it invaded the sphere of historical narrative in works like Okagami.

Here, the text Okagami was a text that originated from sources within or close to the court as a result of Daigo’s ordering of the destruction of official records during the period affected by the plot against Sugawara no Michizane. In that regard, though it is not an official court sanctioned document per se, it arose from the intellectuals in reaction to censorship, and not as some esoteric or spurious text. It is one of the few surviving records of the history of personages involved in the incidents at court during the period in question, which perhaps amplifies its importance in the eyes of the historian. In other words, it is not a misappropriation and representation of the events in question that has a clearly ideological or doctrinaire bias. On the other hand, many of the texts Bialock addresses present interpretations that are explicitly derived from some religious doctrine in order to cast history and events in light of that doctrine, thereby giving credence to the doctrine and the proponents of the religious sect and its priest caste.

So, while it is not incorrect to categorize Okagami as a form of vernacular history, it is incorrect to claim that it is based on rumor, etc. It is a text that was produced by intellectuals concerned with passing on an account of events in response to censorship, which I take as a sign that the court was already in disarray and that the social order of Heian Kyoto was in decline. It should be noted that on p. 368 in the footnotes Bialock cites various theories on the critical nature of Okagami, etc. I may have to come back to this text again at some point, as there is a substantial amount of scholarship.

This is another reason that Borgen’s book is important, and that Bialock’s citing only the following passage is suspect: on pp. 140-41, Bialock writes

…According to the Shomonki, the rebellion of Masakado…was authorized by an oracle spoken by a female shaman claiming the authority of Sugawara’s spirit:

During the proceedings a shamaness appeared and uttered the following statement: “I am the messenger of the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman. I hereby confer upon my son Masakado the title of emperor. The spirit of the Minister of the Right Fujiwara no Ason, holder of the senior rank has presented in writing the Certificate of Conferment of Rank wherein are written these words: ‘The aforesaid great Bodhisattva Hachiman hereby  calls together eighty thousand soldiers and confers upon Masakado the title of emperor.’ With the Hymn of the Thirty-Two Signs, we must now welcome the emperor without delay.”

It might seem strange that Masakado should seek legitimacy for his revolt in an oracle spoken in the name of Sugawara, but we must remember that at this time Sugawara’s spirit had not yet been appeased. As Robet Borgen notes, the “incident is in keeping with Michizane’s mortal duties of as a drafter of government documents and with his posthumous activities opposing the dominant faction at court.” It also shows, continues Borgen, “that by 940 an awareness of Michizane’s ghost as an enemy of the court had spread all the way to the then remote Kanto plain.” This later point captures the peril posed to the court by the volatility of sacred rumor and the nomadic speech of wandering shamans. Interestingly, a variant account of the oracle, recorded in Kujo Kanezane’s Gyokuyo (Jeweled Leaves), makes no mention of Michizane’s vengeful spirit. In discussing this point, Higuchi Kunio surmises that those responsible for the extant version of Shimonki may have grafted a Kinai version of the legend onto what had originally been a local account. If this is the case, then the 827 suppression of shaman guilds in the Togoku region, discussed earlier, may well have been a reaction to political resistance authorized by local shaman cults, foreshadowing the later regional Masakado legend cited in Kanezane’s Gyokuyo… oracular speech that threatens the center becomes the source of Masakado’s regional authority as tenno.

There is a fair amount of subject matter to thresh out from the above passage, and again, some obviously pertinent and well-known points that Bialock appears to have deliberately omitted are representative of the faults I find throughout the book that have led me to take it up here.

First, it’s necessary to examine the passage from Borgen’s book that Bialock cites. In the final chapter of his book, which details the deification of Micizane as the Tenjin god of scholarship and learning, Borgen writes on pp.314-15

The idea that Michizane’s ghost desired to punish his former enemies spread rapidly and appeared next in a surprising context. In 939, when the warrior Taira no Masakado (d.940) turned from quarreling with his neighbors in the Kanto region to outright rebellion, a prostitute is said to have received an oracle from Hachiman, the god of war, naming Masakado the new emperor. According to the oracle, Michizane’s ghost had composed the proclamation. This incident…(first portion quoted by Bialock)… It is recorded in Shomonki (A chronicle of Masakado), an account of the rebellion thought to have been compiled in 940 by Buddhist monks in the Kanto region. Even though this particular anecdote may be a creation of Shomonki’s compilers, it remains significant, for it shows that by 940…(second portion quoted by Bialock)… Several shrines dedicated to Tenjin there are thought to trace their origins to this incident.

First, it should be noted that Masakado was a Taira (i.e. Heike), as mentioned by Borgen. Secondly, it should also be pointed out that Kujo no Kanezane was a Fujiwara, and the Kujo were one of the five regent houses. Refer to the Wikipedia links below.


In his discussion of Kiyomori, Borgen emphasizes the fictional (apocryphal) account that Kiyomori was actually the son of Shirakawa Tenno, so it is probably the case that the reason he chooses to not even mention Masakado’s family name is because he doesn’t want to draw attention to the actual lineage of the Taira.

Next, he refers to a theory by a Japanese scholar (Higuchi) in relation to an interpretation that the “extant” Shomonki may be a version that was altered from a local account to one having a “Kinai” version grafted onto it. This is rather confusing—maybe deliberately misleading—for several reasons.

First, the incident took place in Kanto (i.e., modern day Tokyo region), and the translation of the oracle that Bialock cites contains the references to Michizane that are not found in Kujo’s account. The Kinai region refers to the Kyoto and the immediate surrounding areas. Kujo Kanezane was a twelfth century Kyoto courtier and member of the Fujiwara clan, which was the primary object of Michizane’s wrath. 

Bialock doesn’t even mention the fact that Kujo Kanezane was a Fujiwara regent; Bialock present him simply as some sort of literary figure. It probably doesn't need repeating--if you've read related posts--but the Fujiwara (Tokihira et al.) were behind the plot against Michizane, and as Borgen mentioned, they attempted to acquire control of the Tenjin cult to the deified Michizane once it had been established, claiming some sort of Shinto priest caste seniority over the Sugawara family, but the emperor quashed that basically unconscionable maneuver on the part of the Fujiwara.

Next, if you compare Borgen’s text to Bialock’s text incorporating passages from Borgen, it becomes apparent that Bialock is sort of appropriating Boregen’s quotes in an attempt to misidentify his work as being in accord with Borgen’s, while it is clear from Borgen’s discussion of the oracle, for example, the difference in Bialocks discussion of “shaman guilds” or his associative categorization of the woman delivering the oracle as a “wandering shamaness” against Borgen’s provision of the account that a she was said to be a “prostitute” is stark, and the origin of the “extant” text is described by Borgen as being attributed to Buddhist monks in the Kanto region dating from circa 940 (i.e., the time of the incident).

Moreover, Borgen also recounts that the entire account of the oracle may have been a fabrication added by the monks, which certainly leads no credence to the theory of a wandering shamaness, etc. There are also other accounts of the Fujiwara clan trying to use women in the role of shamaness as a source of religious authority to counteract that of Buddhism; in particular, with regard to oracles from the Kasuga Daijin deity.

Why would Bialock quote an obscure Japanese scholar by name—as opposed to in a footnote—in relation to what appears to be an incoherent statement regarding the “extant” version and a Kinai version with respect to a Kujo Kanezane account of the oracle that omits Michizane, which is one of the main points being addressed, while circumventing directly pertinent points found in the neighboring text of the passages quoted from Borgen?

At the very least, it would seem that Bialock has deliberately obfuscated critical points of fact in order to facilitate an appropriation of the quotes from Borgen in order to add credence to a theory he is trying to establish regarding “oracular speech that threatens the center becomes the source of …regional authority” that would not necessarily be in accord with the import of Borgen’s work.

Borgen’s work represents scholarship trying to provide as much of what is known or is surmised to have been the case in consideration of all that is known, whereas Bialock seems to be selectively omitting points in order to establish a undue prominent role for unsubstantiated marginalia and superstition-based quasi-religious figures as well as the authority of shamanism guilds and the Fujiwara regents.

Again, I have to wonder how this got through the fact checking process at Stanford University Press.

Anyway, this post has been composed in a somewhat haphazard off the cuff manner, so I will revisit it at some point to straighten it out, etc. Hopefully the information presented is coherent enough to allow anyone interested in this topic to follow it up.

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