In this book, each reign of emperors ranging from the mythological period to the enthronement of Go-Murakami are described with personal perspective of Kitabatake based on his own political and ethical notions, thereby attempting to justify the legitimacy of the Southern Court. Moreover, he uses the chronicles as a context to expound his views about appropriate conduct for Japanese sovereigns.
It is believed that the major portions of the text were plausibly drafted in autumn of 1339 at the time when Go-Daigo passed away and Go-Murakami was enthroned. Current scholarship accepts that that the original text is missing, and thus all extant versions of the text are manuscript versions which differ slightly from the original one. At the last page of this work, a curious sentence was added: "This book is directed for some child." A sense of immediacy and does seem to inform the writing, and perhaps this is because narrative had a specific, more narrowly focused purpose -- to instruct the young Emperor Go-Murakami (r. 1339-1368).It has been suggested that this dedication may be directed either to Go-Murakami or to
This book greatly encouraged those who were supporting the Southern Court during the Nanboku-chō period. Kitabatake's work was all the more important because of the relative weakness of the Southern Court in its extended military military campaign against the Northern Court armies.
Kitabatake had been a researcher for the book Nihon Shoki (日本書紀, "The Chronicles of Japan"), and this background is reflected in the narrative structure of his Jinnō Shōtōki. Kitabatake was also well acquainted with Watarai Ieyuki (度会家行), a prominent Shinto priest at the Ise Shrine. Watarai's life of study had added significantly to clarifying the theory of Ise Shintoism; and this point-of-view is reflected in the tone of Jinnō Shōtōki. The book was early recognized as a compelling and subtle analysis of the history of Japan and its emperors. From the very beginning, this book was read not only by adherents of the Southern Court, but also by the supporters of the Northern Court. However, criticism of Takauji Ashikaga was not well received in Northern Court circles; and that section of the original text was omitted in manuscript copies which were circulated outside the ambit of the Southern Court.
In his book, Kitabatake argued that possessing the Imperial Regalia of Japan is an absolute and indispensable condition for being recognized as a Japanese monarch. Kitabatake contended that much about the Japanese form of government was demonstrably ideal, and that it is both appropriate and beneficial for the emperor and court nobles to rule and for the samurais and others to be led by them.
After the Northern and Southern courts were reunited, a curious, self-styled 'sequel" to Jinnō Shōtōki was circulated. The book, written by Ozuki Harutomi (小槻晴富), was created under the influence of the Ashikaga Shogunate for the purpose of justifying the legitimacy of Northern Court.
Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the Edo period daimyo of the Mito Domain, did highly value Kitabatake's work; and he expressed that view in the Japanese chronicle Dai Nihon Shi (大日本史): "History of Great Japan"). Accordingly, his patronage ensured that the perspectives and ideology of Jinnō Shōtōki would have been propounded at the Mito Academy (水戸学). These pre-Meiji influences affected the historical analysis of Kou Koku Shi Kan (皇国史観) in which Japan is regarded as divine nation governed by emperors in a single family line from its beginning. These concepts became even more important in the context of an ideology about the nation under the militarism of Japan in World War II.
The text begins with these statements as prologue:
Today, Jinnō Shōtōki unquestionably stands on its own literary and historical merits; but it also has taken on an added value over the course of centuries. Kitabatake's work manages to inspire; and because it does, the book effectively mirrors the serial responses of readers and thinkers throughout the periods in which it has been studied and pondered. Alternately, the work's value may have accrued because a gifted, original and mature mind "made its way onto the level of secular historical explanation.