I come from an ancient hereditary tribe of “katari-be”. In English, it can be translated as a “raconteur”; and, as the word suggests, I am a storyteller.
From generation to generation, my ancestors bore the responsibility of passing down the stories of the Creation of Japan; the great feats of the country’s rulers and the heroic achievements of epic characters. For centuries, we were the only repository of the country’s annals. It was a function we held proudly and executed with utmost exaltation. No audience was too small or too large to deserve a good story; told as a fable, as a poem, as prose, accompanied by a musical instrument or just a glass of a good wine to help the flow of the narrative. And, as no art has value if it does not convey the ideas and feelings of the artist, each set of raconteurs aggrandised the language of their predecessors, incrementing it with further imaginary characters, and inserting aspects that belonged more to the realm of romance rather than to history itself. But our audience accepted it or conformed with it. After all, whose expertise was so powerful as to draw a seamless line between history and a good story?
By the fourth century, we had learned from our Chinese neighbours, a much more advanced culture, that apart from the brain we could rely on another technology to record our chronicles – the written language. Alas, it was a goal more easily considered than accomplished. Applying the written Chinese ideographs to the Japanese spoken language was a procedure akin to writing in English using the Arabic alphabet. Characters could be cherry picked from the Chinese ideographs to match a Japanese word meaning; however, the phonetics were far too different to be converted without further thought. But fear not, after many years we had attained a great degree of proficiency. Not limited to that, by the eighth century my tribe had invented its own, much simplified, alphabet – two of them, to be precise: the katakana and the hiragana. There was only one problem – we decided to keep the Chinese ideographs too.
We reckoned that our alphabet had become an orgy of semantics, grammar and syntaxes supported by three alphabets, amounting to an excess of two thousand characters. A linguistic carousel or not, we still carry our vanity of raconteurs; and will do so for many centuries to come.
The story that will follow took place in the second and third centuries of the Common Era, when we were known to China and to the Three Kingdoms of Korea as the ’Land of Wa’. Therefore, it was some time before we were able to write down our own history. Fortunately, the Chinese raconteurs documented it on our behalf; nevertheless, by today’s standards we must concede that these annals have some blank spots and ambiguous grey areas. This fact only confirms that, like my ancestors’ work, the written Chinese chronicles were also susceptible to the whims of the storyteller.
Please refer to the end of the book for a Glossary of Terms.
However, if you wish some further information on historical characters or locations (with illustrations), most of them can be found in my website: https://www.kazukonishimura.com/