Japan

Organized Panel Session

3 - Comets, Disasters, and the Definition of Regime Change in Late Heian Japan

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Thurgood Marshall South, Mezzanine

Single-tailed comets, or “broom stars,” were considered dire warnings for ruling elites in late Heian Japan. According to the Tianwen lu text cited in astrological compendia, just as their name implied, “broom star” comets “swept out the old and deployed the new.” As evidenced by the appearance of comets in official records and diaries, this reading of comets was adopted by the Japanese court along with the rest of the apparatus of Chinese state astrology despite the fact that Japan lacked the historical cycles of dynastic rise and fall that underpinned the meaning of this omen in China. This paper uses the innovative 1106 astrological report by Nakahara Morotō, along with other, more traditional memorials, to investigate how the Japanese court interpreted the meaning of regime change in astronomical omens. Although single-tailed comets might be identified as other sorts of phenomena—such as multi-tailed comets or auroras—and although the danger they represented could be successfully warded off via apotropaic rituals, Morotō’s report outlining the meaning of 45 comets from Japanese history shows the ways in which personal, demographic, and political disasters were understood as forms of “regime change.” The interpretation of comets therefore provides a lens through which to examine the way that Chinese texts were re-interpreted as they were imported. It also calls into question the idea that the Mandate of Heaven had no relevance in the Japanese context.

Kristina Buhrman

Florida State University, Florida

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3 - Comets, Disasters, and the Definition of Regime Change in Late Heian Japan



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