Ancient Japan

Nintoku: The Wealth of the Emperor

   Of the two major histories written in ancient Japan, the Nihongi has as its principle theme the special nature of Japan and its relationship to the divine. As a sub-theme of this argument is the exposition of the gradual evolution of Confucian principles and the spread of these principles across Japan. The key idea in Confucian political theory is that the emperor's principle role is to guarantee the welfare of the people. Heaven desires humans to be prosperous; in order to bring this about, Heaven appoints the Emperor to administer government in such a way to guarantee prosperity.

   While Western historians question the existence of the early emperors described in the Nihongi, the story of Nintoku's sacrifice in order to guarantee the people's prosperity is a defining moment in Japanese history for the ancient Japanese. The following story is, for the ancient Japanese, the moment in history when the proper role of the emperor was heroically asserted with the self-sacrifice of its most benevolent emperor.


   4th year, Spring, 2nd month, 6th day.
   The Emperor addressed his ministers, saying,
   "We ascended a lofty tower and looked far and wide, but no smoke arose in the land. From this we gather that the people are poor, and that in the houses there are none cooking their rice. We have heard that in the reigns of the wise sovereigns of antiquity, from every one was heard the sound of songs hymning their virtue, in every house there was the song, 'How happy we are!' But now when we observe the people for the past three years, no praise is heard; the smoke of cooking has become rarer and rarer. By this we know that the five grains1 do not come up, and that the people are in extreme want. Even in the Home provinces2 there are some who are not supplied; what must it be in the provinces outside of our domain? "
   3rd month, 2Ist day.
   The following decree was issued:
   "From this time forward, for the space of three years, let forced labor be entirely abolished, and let the people have rest from toil."
   From this day forth his robes of state and shoes did not wear out, and none were made. The warm food and hot broths did not become sour or putrid and were not renewed. He disciplined his heart and restrained his impulses so that he discharged his functions without effort.

   Therefore the Palace enclosure fell to ruin and was not rebuilt; the thatch decayed, and was not repaired; the wind and rain entered by the chinks and soaked the coverlets; the starlight filtered through the decayed places and exposed the bed-mats. After this the wind and rain came in due season and the five grains were produced in abundance. For the space of three autumns the people had plenty and the praises of the emperor's virtue filled the land, and the smoke of cooking was also thick.

   7th year, Summer, 4th month, Ist day.
   The Emperor was on his tower and looking far and wid; he saw smoke rising plentifully from the land. On this day he addressed the Empress, saying, "We are now prosperous. What can there be to grieve for? "

   The Empress answered and said," What do you mean by prosperity?"

   The Emperor said, "It is doubtless when the smoke fills the land, and the people freely attain to wealth."

   The Empress went on to say, "The Palace enclosure is crumbling down and there are no means of repairing it; the buildings are dilapidated so that all the furniture is exposed. Can this be called prosperity?"

   The Emperor said, "When Heaven establishes a Prince, it is for the sake of the people. The Prince must therefore make the people the foundation. For this reason the wise sovereigns of antiquity, if a single one of their subjects was cold and starving, cast the responsibility on themselves. Now the people's poverty is nothing other than Our poverty; the people's prosperity is nothing other than Our prosperity. There is no such thing as the people's being prosperous and yet the Prince in poverty."

Translated by W.G. Aston, Nihongi (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1896), 278-279

Introduction and edited by Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-13-97