There are two main historical texts we can use to read about Shinto gods, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. Both were commissioned by Emperor Tenmu during his reign from 673 to 686 CE. They were also both compiled by O no Yasumaro. People with an interest in mythology tend to read them as a kind of collection of myths and legends disconnected from their use as a political tool. However, you, clever reader, are undoubtedly fascinated by the political and social agendas of the 7th century incorporated into these texts, so I will briefly explain them below.
The title of the Kojiki, means 古 (old) 事 (thing) 記 (record), and is usually translated as “Record of Ancient Matters.” It was a chronicle commissioned by Emperor Tenmu and completed during the reign of Empress Genmei in 712 CE. The original manuscript was lost to history, but there are a number of remaining copies from later centuries. According to Japanese Wikipedia, the oldest copy currently in existence is from 1371 CE.
There are also apocryphal versions floating around, but are generally easy to spot because they contain stories about kami or types of grammar and writing that did not exist until later periods.
The chronicle is divided into 3 parts, the first two focus on the kami (or gods) and the last section is a chronicle of history under the emperors in the 7th and 8th centuries tracing the emperor’s genealogy to the gods. It is the oldest known written record of history in Japan.
However, the Kojiki has some contradictions with folklore and Shinto practices (discussed in individual posts). So while there is some sentiment that the purpose of the Kojiki was to preserve the history of Japan for future generations, it seems much more likely that the Kojiki was a political text commissioned to support the Emperor’s claim to divine right to rule.
And in both texts, the author does some impressive genealogical acrobatics to show that the current emperor is descended from the Shinto Gods (i.e. shut up peasants, we’re not taking a vote).
If you know a little bit about Emperor Tenmu, this will make more sense to you. He raised an army to usurp the throne from his nephew (who then committed seppuku at the ripe old age of 24). So you can see why legitimacy might have been a thing for him.
The other famous ancient text in Japan is the Nihon Shoki.
This collection was also commissioned by Emperor Tenmu and was completed in 720 CE. The Nihon Shoki has 30 sections and ends with Empress Jito (Tenmu’s wife). Scholars generally agree that the Nihon Shoki is a more politically motivated work than the Kojiki. The Nihon Shoki is thought to have been written in response to Chinese histories and was meant to solidify Japan’s identity as a sovereign state.
Around 663 CE, Japan inexplicably decided to side with the Korean Baekje kingdom and suffered a humiliating defeat to Silla and Tang armies (Battle of Baekgang). I’m still not really sure why Japan thought that was a good idea, even in the Nihon Shoki, the leader of the disputed Korean territory was not exactly admirable. He’s noted for choosing to renovate his palace during a famine rather than help the starving people (ancestor to current N. Korean leaders??).
Japan’s weakened position after that defeat was the closest Japan ever came to a foreign occupation prior to WWII. In response, the ruling class began to strengthen central rule, and the Nihon Shoki is thought to be part of that.
In theory, the country Wakoku or Yamato (old names for Japan) was ruled by a ruling family, but they didn’t have any real centralized or legitimate ruling authority. Local lords tended to do as they pleased, which was partially why they lost so badly at Baekgang when fighting the more strictly disciplined Tang and Silla forces.
To remedy that, Japan strengthened their shorelines and endeavored to become a more unified state. Under Emperors Tenji and Tenmu, the name was changed to Nihon (from Wakoku or Yamato) and the Asuka Kiyomihara Code (governing rules, etc…) was implemented.
Most scholars write that the Nihon Shoki is a chronicle of Japan that was created with the intention of building a common base regarding the country’s history and legitimacy.
For these reasons, I usually reference the Kojiki in my posts on Shinto gods rather than the Nihon Shoki. However, I will try to indicate when the accounts differ in the two texts for major deities.
Some notes on the Kojiki:
The Kojiki was written over 1,300 years ago. The Japanese in it is a mess of Chinese characters used for meaning and also pronunciation (if they couldn’t find a character for the word they wanted, they strung together characters that when pronounced together would sound like the correct word).
So naturally, I am basing my posts on translations into modern Japanese (I don’t read classical Japanese…yet).
The versions I’m reading are as follows:
古事記 現代語訳 武田祐吉
Kojiki Modern Translation by Yukichi Takeda (circa 1940, public domain)
(so far so good, in my opinion, he writes the gods names in katakana, which drives me batsh*t, but it seems to be a complete translation ― try to ignore his fascist leanings)
Kojiki Monogatari by Miekichi Suzuki ―1920, public domain
(I’ve noticed he skips parts he thinks will be unpalatable, so I don’t really recommend it for serious students)
Japanese Mythology: Beginner’s Guide to the Kojiki by Eigo Kawaguchii ― 2014
(this is an easy read and the author provides helpful commentary for modern readers, however, he skips some parts as well, so once again, it’s prob not great for people wanting the complete text)
As far as I know, there are only 2 versions in English.
One by Basil Hall Chamberlain in 1882 and one by Donald Philippi in 1977.
The Chamberlain version is cumbersome and is clearly written in the period of colonialism (#savages), but does seem to cover the main points from what I’ve read of it. And to his credit, he takes pains to include numerous footnotes that help sort out some of the complexity. He also translated all the scandalous parts into Latin rather than English, which is a little prudish (there will be no such shenanigans on this blog).
The whole thing is available here: http://sacred-texts.com/shi/kj/index.htm
The person who put it up did a great job, so I encourage you to read it if you want more info.
The Philippi version is supposedly better, but as no copy is available at a price I’m willing to pay, I can’t offer an opinion on it.