Beyond Japan Ep. #34: History & Myth in Ancient Texts with Prof Bryan Lowe

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As museums across Japan celebrate the 1,400th anniversary of the death of Prince Shōtoku Taishi, the legendary figure who brought Buddhism to Japan, the Sainsbury Institute together with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia is currently collaborating with major universities and museums in Japan to create a special exhibit commemorating the event. This Shōtoku Intervention will display the Sainsbury Centre’s collection of Japanese Buddhist and Shinto artefacts centred around a rare 13th century Kamakura period statue of a female Shinto deity. To better explain the significance of Shōtoku Taishi, Beyond Japan will be exploring over three episodes the religious, political and historical context of this dynamic period of East Asian history. We hope you enjoy our Shōtoku miniseries.

Our third and final Shōtoku interviewee is Bryan Lowe, Assistant Professor of Religion at Princeton University, with whom I will be getting to grips with the tricky task of reading history from mythology in such ancient texts as Japan’s Kojiki, or “An Account of Ancient Matters” written in 711 and Nihon Shoki, or “Japanese Chronicles” written in 720. Bryan begins by exploring why texts were written in this time and how some texts like Buddhist sutras were written and read for rituals rather than sharing information, yet we can still glean much about life in those times from the context in which they were written. In taking this approach, we try to make sense of legendary figures such as Prince Shōtoku Taishi, seeing what we can learn about the man the legend is based upon and what the legends themselves tell us.


Image credits

[L] Japan,  late Heian period – Further Discourses on the Supreme Truth (Abidharmakosha-Bhashya) – 1916.1060 – Cleveland Museum of Art.tif by anonymous is marked with CC0 1.0

[R] 聖徳太子 [Shōtoku Taishi] by jun560 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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