The Imperial Edicts in the Shoku Nihongi: A Translation with Text and Transliteration

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My new book The Imperial Edicts in the Shoku Nihongi: A Translation with Text and Transliteration is available for pre-order at Amazon. It is the first complete English translation of the edicts, and is dedicated to Alexander Vovin.

The Imperial Edicts in the Shoku Nihongi


The imperial edicts from the eighth century comprise a magnificent collection of ancient Japanese prose. Known as the senmyō, they were inscribed in Old Japanese in the court history Shoku Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, Continued), the language of whose narrative was classical Chinese. As oracular pronouncements of monarchs who considered themselves living gods, they are an invaluable source for early Japanese history, religion, and linguistics. It was these edicts that attracted the attention of the great 18th century philologist Motoori Norinaga, who published a lengthy commentary on these venerable documents. Norinaga was greatly interested in the apparent purity of the ancient Japanese language found in these edicts as well as in the Kojiki and Man’yōshū; his commentary identified the sixty-two senmyō now comprising the canon, and his readings still form the foundation for the study of these texts to the present day.

The senmyō were introduced to the world of Western scholarship in Sir George Sansom’s pioneering but unfinished translation “The Imperial Edicts in the Shoku Nihongi” (1924), and since that time little attention has been paid to them in the West, although there is a complete German translation by Herbert Zachert (1950). Also in 1950 John Kenneth Linn produced a literal translation of Edicts 30-62 in a Yale dissertation. Readers interested in a detailed introduction to the edicts should consult my The Edicts of the Last Empress of Nara Japan, 749-770 (2015).

                The present volume is the first complete English translation. An appendix gives the texts and a romanized transliteration. The texts follow the standard edition of the edicts (Kitagawa Kazuhide 1982); they were typed by Keiko and Matt McNicoll and are provided courtesy of their teacher Alexander Vovin. My transliteration follows Kitagawa’s furigana readings and does not attempt to provide hypothetical readings for Old Japanese, for which at present there is no standard romanization system. Interested readers may consult the Oxford Corpus of Old Japanese Texts for one version. Alexander Vovin’s ongoing translation of the Man’yōshū provides the most systematic and detailed transliteration of Old Japanese. It offers copious notes on the grammar as well as extensive commentary and is recommended as a textbook for learning the language.

Ross Bender