Research Project


The rationalization of discourse on divination in Early Modern Japan (17th-18th century): Nishikawa Joken and Baba Nobutake.

Prof. Dr. Matthias Hayek

From the late 17th century in Japan, printed books targeted at professional diviners and introducing new techniques often based on Ming texts, were compiled by a new type of lay literatus, who started to produce a new discourse justifying their endeavor, while criticizing ill-tutored diviners. Meanwhile, hemerological lore was becoming a kind of staple knowledge included in the household encyclopediae that were cherished by commoners. At the same time, other literati attempted to dismiss the traditional correlative thinking, or at least some of its divinatory applications that they judged to be ′arbitrary′ and deceptive, and to operate distinctions between astronomy (tenmon), the calendar (rekishô) and hemerology (rekisen). Such debates are not unlike those that took place in Europe around the same time regarding the divinatory use of astrology.

During my stay at IKGF, I would like to focus on two Japanese literati who stand at opposite ends of the spectrum - one being a writer of divination books, and the other an early conveyer of Western knowledge and critic of hemerology and astrology - who yet appear to share much common ground: Baba Nobutake (?-1715?), and Nishikawa Joken (1648-1724). Baba, who spent most of his later life ′vulgarizing′ Chinese knowledge, with an emphasis on divination techniques, was also among the first to introduce new astronomical views influenced by Western knowledge, written in vernacular Japanese in his Shogaku tenmon shinan 初学天文指南 (1712). In his personal notes, Shosetsu bendan 諸説辨断 (1715), Baba exposes a highly nuanced discourse on divination and astronomy, expressing harsh criticism of popular diviners. Nishikawa, on the other hand, although frequently vilipending popular divination in several of his well-known works, felt compelled to produce a whole treatise on the calendar ′to teach children′, Kyôdô rekidan 教童暦談 (1714), in which he introduces the cosmological system used in hemerology, yet with a critical eye. Thus, both authors, although they might have had different agendas, demonstrated a tendency to try to ′rationalize′ the framework within which divination was conducted, whether by professionals or commoners. Through undertaking a detailed study of these two texts, I will attempt to show what kind of paradigm these two influential authors aimed to refresh, and how such a change can be included within a broader transformation of the perception of fate and of the means of predicting the future or to explaining the relations between humans and the world around them.