How Did Fairy Tales And Folklore Play A Role In Japanese Nation Building?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

Folk tales and Shinto myths have contributed to the development of a distinct Japanese identity, highlighting virtues such as bravery and loyalty.

Japanese literary nationalism encompasses a rich tradition that can be traced back to the earliest written historical documents from that region. The Kojiki, dating back to 712, and the Nihongi, completed in 720, serve as prime examples of texts with mythological origins that were strategically compiled to establish and legitimize the power of the imperial house. These texts amalgamated various myth, legend, and fairy tale materials into a cohesive narrative, serving a political and legitimizing purpose.

Consequently, these tales came to be regarded as not only a cultural foundation, but also a manifestation of the Japanese essence, particularly within traditional Shinto circles. The historical and cultural context surrounding Japanese literary nationalism, along with its legacy, is reflected in Japan’s nation building through folk culture and education.


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Emperor Meiji’s Imperial Rescript on Education

As the idea of Japan and its values shifted, Japanese literary nationalism emerged as a significant component of cultural and educational reforms in Japan during the late 19th century. One of the key instruments of this movement was the issuance of the “Imperial Rescript on Education” in October 1890. This document aimed to establish a set of ethical values and moral standards to drive the nation’s modernization efforts, by outlining the primary objective of the Japanese education system, which was to instill a sense of patriotism in children.

Education became a tool for modernization through the “Imperial Rescript on Education”. (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

It regulated the educational principles in primary schools, placing strong emphasis on obligatory moral instruction (shushin) to shape and manifest the spiritual essence of Japan, known as kokutai. This was important, as the nation’s foundations were transitioning due to exposure to the West. The school system played a pivotal role in disseminating nationalistic education, fostering a sense of national pride and a collective identity among the Japanese population.

Fairy tales, including the popular story of “Momotaro,” were incorporated into primary education readers from the 1890s until the end of World War II, serving as widely recognized narratives that contributed to the cultivation of a shared national consciousness. Through these tales, children were introduced to the fundamental elements of Japan’s national tradition, as perceived and promoted by the country’s political leadership.

Also Read: Why Did The Samurai Class Decline In Japan During The Meiji Period?

Momotaro

Momotaro is a Japanese folktale about a boy born from a peach who grows up to become a hero. With the help of animal companions, he defeats demons on Demon Island, representing foreign enemies. The story emphasizes bravery, filial piety, the significance of family bonds, and the triumph of good over evil. The story of Momotaro, including its variation “Peach Boy,” has historically played multiple roles that make it an ideal choice for fostering nationalist sentiments.

Momotaro was born out of a peach. (Credits: openclipart.org)

Momotaro is explicitly set in Japan, which aligns it with notions of national identity. The protagonist, Momotaro, is portrayed as having divine or divine-like origins, emphasizing his connection to the supposed divinity of the imperial family. Similarly, Shinto myths, deeply embedded in Japan’s indigenous religion, including the stories of kami and the imperial lineage, serve as narratives that reinforce a distinct Japanese identity and a shared heritage.

Momotaro symbolized Japan, while the demons of Demon Island represented foreign enemies, typical to ideas of nationalism of the times, which hinged on portraying an Other. By defeating this Other, the nation would be secure, and its interests would be protected. Notably, Demon Island in popular imagination took on different identities as a political allegory, such as Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, or even Hawaii.

Something similar is seen with, “The Race between the Fox and Tiger”, where the well-recognized symbol of the clever fox symbolized Japan and its aspirations against the shifting identity of the cunning tiger. (what’s your source for this? Add a hyperlink)

Momotaro defeating the symbolic demons. (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Shinto myths and legends

The consciousness of the nation of Japan, influenced by Shinto myths and nationalism, has been instrumental in shaping the country’s identity, particularly during the pre-war era. Factors such as perceived cultural homogeneity, geographical boundaries, and historical isolation have contributed to the development of a strong national consciousness. The revered imperial house, deeply rooted in Shinto beliefs, has further reinforced the notion of a unified national identity.

Shinto myths, with their emphasis on divine origins and connection to the land, have played a significant role in fostering this national consciousness. Legends like the myth of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ancestor of the imperial family, highlight the divine lineage of the emperor and his role as a unifying figure. Rituals at Ise Grand Shrine, dedicated to Amaterasu, underscore the religious and national significance of the imperial institution.

Susanoo, the storm god, whose character became collated with Japan’s. (Credits: Picryl.com)

The myth of Susanoo, the storm god, symbolizes Japan’s ability to overcome challenges and protect its people. This narrative of triumph resonates with the nation, portraying Japan as resilient and capable of facing external threats; such a sentiment has carried the nation through its hardest lows, during devastating wars and economic overhauls alike.

The concept of “Yamato-damashii,” representing loyalty, self-sacrifice, and devotion to the nation, has emerged from these myths and played a central role in promoting nationalism. Legends such as the Forty-Seven Ronin exemplify these virtues and have been celebrated as ideals of a patriotic and unified Japanese society.

Conclusion

Japanese folklore has left a lasting imprint on Japanese nationalism, shaping its core identity and values. Legends and mythical narratives, along with indigenous traditions, have instilled a sense of pride, loyalty, and unity among the Japanese people. This has carried forward and kept the lore relevant through various forms of media, with anime and manga bringing it to the wider world.

Also Read: Why Did The Grimm’s Fairy Tales Get Linked To Nationalism?

The intertwining of folklore, nationalism, and Shinto beliefs has and continues to play a significant role in shaping Japan’s cultural and ideological landscape by uniting the people in times of great economic, political or social changes.

References (click to expand)
  1. K Antoni. (1991) Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese .... JSTOR
  2. IM Sayer. (2018) Fairy Tale as a Medium for Children's Character .... journal.tarbiyahiainib.ac.id
  3. Tales of magic in Japan and Norway - urn.nb.no
About the Author

Shreya Sethi is currently a student at NALSAR University, Hyderabad. She likes to believe that she was born with a book in her hand and that she has subsequently only replaced it occasionally to suit her reading list. She also enjoys a good cup of tea as she watches a better sunset. She is passionate about history, arguably, the greatest story ever told

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