The 'Egyptian Civilisation' and the Self-identification of the Japanese

Koji Mizoguchi (Institute of Archaeology, University College London)

I. Introduction

It can widely be observed that the "past" functions as a discursive space in the present in which people "discover" stable "referential points" and "identify" themselves by relating themselves to these points. These referential points can be and may be anything; the past was "done", therefore anything to do with the past is stable as well as durable, in contrast to everything in the present, that are ephemeral, unstable and fluid.

That everything feels like/looks like ephemeral, unstable and fluid, as widely argued, is a significant element of the reality of Post-Modernity. The feeling is also widely shared by the general public of Japan. In Japan, the Egyptian "Civilisation" has ever been the subject of fascination: a number of exhibitions on Ancient Egypt have been organised with a measurable success, and a picture of the great pyramids of Giza is a regular feature of school textbooks as well as popular literature. It is worthy of note that many of the exhibitions took place in high-street department stores: this fact alone well illustrates how Japanese people not only are deeply fascinated by Ancient Egypt but also feel close to it for some reason. It can be inferred that it is the feelings of stability and durability as well as that of mystery and distance which the image of the great pyramids for instance evokes that is the source of the popular appeal of Ancient Egypt. However, this inference cannot entirely explain the phenomenon: why do Japanese people feel close to Ancient Egypt?

As is illustrated below, we the Japanese have been exposed to images of Ancient Egypt a great deal. Some images have been strategically appropriated for ideological representations. Some images are tacitly chosen to trace the outline of common self-images of the Japanese. In all, we the Japanese feel close to Ancient Egypt because we habituate ourselves/are habituated to refer occasionally to images of Ancient Egypt when we identify what we are and when we make sense of why we do things in the way we do them. Ancient Egypt, in that sense, is a source of our self-identification.

In what follows I will attempt to elucidate the way(s) in which images of Ancient Egypt are appropriated for the reproduction of particular types of social discourse and of the identity of the Japanese by investigating two particular examples.

II. The creation and appropriation of images

(1) The pyramid and the emperor

The image of the great pyramids of Giza is a dominant visual representation in Japanese popular discourse on Ancient Egypt: as mentioned, a picture of them has been a regular feature of school textbooks, and recently Waseda University team conducted a non-destructive examination of the internal structure of the Great Pyramid by using "high-tech" equipment. The latter was made into a popular scientific TV documentary (to be touched upon later).

Why pyramids? The way the Great Pyramid of Giza used to be featured in primary and secondary school textbooks gives us a clue: the ground plans of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the largest keyhole-shaped tumulus of the Kofun (mounded-tomb) period of Japan, designated by the Imperial household agency to be the "mausoleum" of the emperor Nintoku, were put side by side in the figure, and it was claimed that the latter, as far as the ground plan was concerned, was the largest tomb in the world.

It is a peculiar claim in many ways. It is somewhat a meaningless claim that the mausoleum of the emperor Nintoku is the "largest" tomb in the world by comparing it with the Great Pyramid of Giza: the former is an earthen mound, while the latter is built of carefully shaped stones. Various tentative calculations about the amount of labour force involved in the construction of them have been put forward, but they are not mentioned in the claim as well. Regarding a very strict control, often compared to "censorship", imposed by the Ministry of Education upon the selection of data and items featured in school textbooks, those points of ambiguity make it bizarre to have a figure like this to be allowed to be featured in the textbooks in the first place. Besides, why comparing the "mausoleum of the emperor Nintoku" with a pyramid of Egypt, why not with the mounded-tombs of ancient Chinese emperors, some of which look as spectacular as Egyptian pyramids? It is also strange that there was no description of the social organisations behind the construction of those monumental tombs.

We can only speculate what was behind the decision by the authors of the textbooks to features such a bizarre diagram and by the Ministry of Education to allow this, but it seems to me certain that the diagram was featured in order to illustrate the nature and character of the Kofun (mounded-tomb) period of Japan in a specific manner. What manner? That is to characterise the nature of the power and authority of the supreme chiefs buried in gigantic keyhole-shaped tumuli such as the "mausoleum of the emperor Nintoku" to be great, distant and mysterious, and I would contend that this characterisation is releted to the way in which the emperors since the end of W.W.II have been characterised. Before the end of W.W.II, the status of the emperor was that of the absolute sovereign, defined so in the "Meiji" constitution. After the war, the status of the emperor is defined in the new ("Showa") constitution as the "symbol of the integration of the nation". Legally speaking, the transformation from the former to the latter is significant. However, what is relevant to the current investigation is the fact that the status of the emperor is somewhat undefinable/vague in both constitutions. In the "Meiji" constitution, as mentioned, the status of the emperor was defined as the absolute sovereign. His status was defined in the constitution as at the same time he stood outside (/above) the domain in which the rule of the constitution was applied. This was an obvious paradox, and it was de-paradoxised by portraying the emperor as a living God (publicly described "Arahito-gami": arahito means taking-a-human-shape, gami means God). In the "Showa" constitution, the emperor’s status is contained within the framework of the constitution. However, the vagueness of the definition as the "symbol of the integration of the nation" also puts his position outside of the domain of rigid logical comprehension.

Before the end of W.W.II, the paradoxical nature of the social existence of the emperor could be de-paradoxised with a bold representation of itself to be "god-given" through state pageants, propaganda and education. After the defeat in W.W.II and subsequent demilitarisation led by an American-led allied occupying force, a new "technology" for the deparadoxisation of the social existence of the emperor had to be invented, and portraying the source/foundation of the social existence of the emperor to be remote, great and mysterious would have been one of them.

As mentioned, neither the diagram featuring the ground plans of the great pyramid of Giza and the mausoleum of the emperor Nintoku nor the photograph of the latter in school textbooks were accompanied by the description of the social organisations behind them. The photograph of the mausoleum of the emperor Nintoku was often accompanied by sentences such as the size of the mausoleum reflected the hugeness of the authority of the "Yamato (the name of the area in the present Kansai region where the residences of the supreme chiefs of the Kofun period are believed to have been located) court" over regional chiefs and polities throughout the western portion and a part of the eastern portion of the archipelago. No description on how this authority was established and how relationships between the "Yamato court" and regional polities were structured was made. (The character of the authority of the supreme chiefs of the Kansai region has been a subject of lively debate in the disciplines of history and archaeology, and it is widely accepted that this was not one of "the Oriental despotism" but one of the confederacy of regional polities.)

This neglect of social organisation, it seems to me, was an intentional one. By not situating the significance of huge keyhole-shaped tumuli designated as Imperial mausolea by the Imperial House Agency in their socio-cultural/economic/political background, and instead by comparing them to the Egyptian pyramids, a network of the feelings of (both spatial and temporal) distance/remoteness, greatness and mystery, I would argue, was designed to be evoked, and the commonly shared image of Ancient Egypt as distant/remote, great and mysterious would have been "mobilised" as a strategic resource in the creation and spread of a political message in which the social existence of the emperor is loosely defined as such.

(2) The pyramid and the "high-tech"

Currently some Japanese teams are conducting field works in Egypt. Their research interests are wide-ranging, but there has emerged a tendency that those projects in which the application of "high-tech" equipment is involved attract intense media interest and coverage. A series of surveys conducted by the Institute of Egyptology of Waseda University on the pyramids of Giza has been made into a TV documentary, and a particular focus in the program was located upon the use of such "high-tech" equipment as an electromagnetic wave exploration system, a microgravity meter, a cosmic ray counter, an electric conductivity exploration system, a magnetic exploration system, and so on (web page:

Despite the fact that the main objective of the project was the investigation of the function of the pyramids as monuments as well as tombs, it is undeniable that the use of high-tech equipment and their effectiveness were at the centre of the spotlight in the program. An implicit story line was: the ancient high-tech meets the modern high-tech. The use of high-tech equipment, for specific research purposes, was de-contextualised, and interests in social structure/systems that enabled as well as necessitated the construction of the pyramids were excluded from the narrative. Instead, the project was portrayed as an attempt to make sense of ancient technology with the help of advanced modern technology.

A way to summarise the program favoured by the producers seems to be that it is narrated in a solemn voice that even the most advanced technical equipment of the modern world cannot fully make sense of ancient technology, i.e., how the great pyramid of Giza was built: the past was more modern than we would imagine! This "defeat of modern technology" image seems very important: the defeat implies that the endeavour has to go on, and Japanese scholars are toiling to make sense of the secret of a great ancient civilisation by using high-tech equipment which epitomises the success of post-W.W.II. Japan. The sense of remoteness/distance, greatness and mystery are fed back the way we the Japanese see ourselves: we the Japanese too have a great history which is epitomised by great ancient sites such as the gigantic imperial mausolea, we have come an extremely long way by getting over difficulties and setbacks since our great ancestors built them, and we now try to make sense of the mystery of this great civilisation by using cutting-edge technology, a fruit of our great modern civilisation! Within this closed, self-reflexive discursive formation, actual differences in time and space are obscured by an artificially created interchangeability between symbols of the past and those of the present.

III. Egyptian Civilisation as the same: Concluding arguments

This exclusion of anything to do with the social/political, illustrated by two examples, is a significant characteristic of Japanese popular discursive formation on Ancient Egypt. One reason for it might be that investigation into the social/political aspects of Ancient Egypt "unnecessarily" evokes the sense that Ancient Egypt is "different". In order to appropriate images of Ancient Egypt as a source of the self-identification of the Japanese in a most effective way, Ancient Egypt needs be "similar" to us: what the people of Ancient Egypt did needs be similar to what we are doing to such an extent as to allow ourselves to see the mirror images of ourselves in it.

Even when the everyday life of Ancient Egypt is displayed/featured in TV programs or at exhibitions, what is emphasised is how modern it was: even the belief systems which are very different from ours are artificially "familiarised" with a phrase such as: although the way they expressed was completely different from ours their feeling about matters of life and death was exactly similar to ours. Ancient Egyptians are portrayed as if we can immediately get along with each other very well should we be able to meet. I would argue that Ancient Egypt has to be portrayed this way because it is necessary; Ancient Egypt is distant, great and mysterious to us Japanese, i.e., Ancient Egypt is an ideal resource for the creation and reproduction of a discursive space in which an infinite number of sources for self identification can be found. In addition, the discursive space can be clearly marked out by spectacular artefacts/images and can be contained in such conspicuous public spaces as museums. In order for the Japanese fully to utilise Ancient Egypt this way, Ancient Egypt has to be "similar" to us. The examples of the appropriation of Ancient Egypt that we have seen above are made possible by this imposed similarity: Egyptian Civilisation is a great source of our self-identification, and in order to appropriate it that way, Ancient Egypt needs be portrayed as the "same".

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