Kashihara- History in Layers
Over a long period of time covering 2013, I stopped posting here, and just put photos up for a smaller contingent of friends and family on Facebook. Eventually, I got tired of the site’s lossy image re-sizing and photo ownership policy, and wanted to share things with more people (I keep my FB profile private).
I saw and photographed some cool stuff in 2013, so it would be a shame not to put it up here.
From reading my posts, you may have gathered Nara Prefecture is a place where a lot has happened, the traditional heartland of Japan.
The city of Kashihara, on the other hand, is a very modern invention. An unremarkable semi-rural suburb of Osaka on the south end of the Nara plains, it was created by merger in the 1950s from older towns. The area, however, has a significance in Japanese history that goes back thousands of years.
For one, this is the place where the Age of Gods ended and Japan was founded.
Well…in the annals of mythology, that is.
The 8th century CE creation myths Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the two earliest known pieces of Japanese writing, tell of a man named Kamu Yamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto (people had very long names in early ancient Japan). He was a mortal man born of the gods in the 8th century BCE, the direct heir to the sun goddess Amaterasu. He sailed with his people from southern Kyushu to find a new home, made landfall in the Kinki area, and conquered it. With this he became Japan’s first emperor. This marked the end of the Age of Gods and dawn of the Age of Men. He was posthumously named Jinmu, the name by which he is known nowadays.
This all was very important to the 19th century Meiji government, who were promulgating a Shintoist nation-state centered around the emperor. They established February 11th, the supposed date of Jinmu’s ascension as a major national holiday celebrating the foundation of Japan, and built Kashihara Shrine to enshrine him in 1890, at the base of Mt. Unebi where Jinmu is said to have died.
With its connection to the mythos of the imperial state, the holiday was abolished after World War II. It was reinstated in 1966 as Foundation Day, only with vastly reduced significance, festivities, and overt political-religious tones. Nowadays, it’s mostly only hard-right nationalist groups who make a big deal about tying Kashihara, Jinmu, and Foundation Day together.
Of course, Jinmu’s very existence is unproven, and the account of his life is pure myth. Even if he actually existed and was a seminal leader of his people, calling him the first emperor would be a bit of a stretch, since the ancient conception of a chief or ruler of the Yamato tribe was undoubtedly very different from even the 8th-century CE concept of an Emperor of Japan, let alone the 19th-century interpretation.
Certain elements of the myth do ring true however, such as the likely migration of the Yamato clan from Kyushu, and the vital significance of the Nara region as the foundational cradle of the imperial state.
This early imperial state was semi-nomadic, with the emperor’s palace and thus the center of power burned down and moved around Yamato every time the emperor died, or omens and signs suggested it was time to change location.
When the Japanese state transitioned to a more Chinese-inspired administrative model in the 7th century, their first attempt at a fixed capital city wasn’t Kyoto or even Nara. It was here in Kashihara. Of course it wasn’t called that yet.
Fujiwara-kyo was the great capital city only briefly, however. A series of fires and illnesses was blamed on a vengeful spirit, and the site was completely abandoned for Heijo-kyo (Nara) in 710. Archaeological excavations still continue at the site, as its largely incomplete history is slowly filled in.
Think about it, though. If it weren’t for one angry ghost, Kashihara might have been the grand city, and Kyoto might have been a big grassy plain.
A thousand years later, Kashihara became significant in a rather different way. It was the site of Imai, a wealthy town of traders and merchants that served as a hub for traffic on the inland highways of Nara.
As foot and horse traffic through Nara lost its importance for the Japanese economy after the Meiji era, Imai faded from the scene. Perhaps because it was no longer significant, it was never developed or razed. Now the entire former town is a cultural property, a rectangle-shaped historic district on the east side of central Kashihara.
A few people still actually live and ply their trades there, though I’m sure there are lots of rules and regulations that come with historic preservation.