Last week, while telling you about the Kofun period, I wrote a little bit about the beginning of Japan's imperial family. I told you how this is the same family that sits on the throne today, and that it is the oldest continual monarchy in the world. However, there is a discrepancy in the start of the line, since there is little evidence to suggest that the first nine emperors existed. They are, as it were, legendary figures. However, they are still present on the list of emperors, the official date of Japan's foundation is still 660 BCE, and Emperor Jimmu is still venerated as the first emperor of Japan. So how can we reconcile these two lines, the verifiable facts and the mythic history?
The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) is a document written around 712, in the Nara period. "Hey, we haven't gotten to the Nara period!" I know guys, it's cool, the Kojiki tells us about the legendary and ancient times, including the Kofun. This document is the oldest source for many Japanese historical events, along with the Nihon Shoki (721). The Kojiki is broken into three parts, starting with the Kamitsumaki which deals with the age of the gods. Among other things, it tells how the gods (or kami) came into existence, and how Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu (the sun goddess), came to Japan from heaven.
According to the Nihon Shoki, Amaterasu gave her grandson three items to prove that he was her descendant. These were a sword (Kusanagi), representing valor; a mirror (Yata no Kagami) representing wisdom; and a jewel (Yasakani no Magatama), representing benevolence. These items were to become the regalia of the Imperial Family, for which Ninigi-no-Mikoto was the progenitor.
With the exception of the sword (which was lost during a battle in 1185 and reforged), these original regalia are still used in the crowning ceremony today. However, these items are only ever viewed by the Emperor and a few special priests, so we don't know exactly what they look like. In fact, according to legend, in the same battle that the sword was lost, a soldier tried to force open the box that contained the jewel and was struck blind. So, you know, I wouldn't risk it. Traditionally they are said to be housed in three separate locations, the sword at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, the mirror at the Three Palace Sanctuaries in Kokyo (the Imperial Palace), and the jewel in the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. The last time they were brought together was for the enthronement of Emperor Akihito in 1993.
Oh jeez, I haven't even gotten to the first emperor, this is going to be a long post. I didn't realize that the Imperial Regalia were so interesting...
The second part of the Kojiki, The Nakatsumaki, records the years between 660 BCE and 310 CE. It begins with the story of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. Not only was Jimmu the great grandson of Ninigi-no-Mikoto (and therefore a direct descendant of Amaterasu), but also the great grandson of Ryujin the sea god (a dragon). That is quite the pedigree. Jimmu was the last of four sons and his given name was actually Kan'yamato Iwarebiko, Jimmu being his posthumous name. He and his brothers were originally from Takachiho in the southern part of Kyushu, but since they were the descendants of Amaterasu, and were supposed to be ruling the whole country, they decided to move to a more central location.
Of course, that central location was inhabited. These people already had a ruler, Nagasunehiko, a chieftain who apparently had very long legs (not sure that's relevant, but that's what his name translates to). When the brothers reached present day Osaka they met Nagasunehiko in battle. Those long legs seem to have given him an edge after all, because he kicked their butts and slew the eldest brother. But Jimmu wasn't going to give up just like that and concluded that they had lost the battle because they were coming from the west and were battling against the sun (remember that this was in a time where sunglasses were not fashionable).
So Jimmu took over and lead his people around to the Kii peninsula, now having the sun to their backs (not exactly sure how that helps since the sun moves during the day...). With the help of a three legged crow, Yatagarasu, Jimmu brought his people to Yamato (you remember Yamato, right?). Here they once again faced Nagasunehiko, only this time it was Jimmu who did the butt kicking. And so Jimmu ascended to the throne of Japan and became the first Emperor. He died at the ripe old age of 126, having reined for seventy five years. His son, Suizei inherited the throne.
Okay, so right away you will see some holes in this story from the point of view of a historian. A) 126 is a very ripe old age, like too damn ripe. B) he is supposed to have done all this between 660 BCE and 585 BCE, which as you know was during the Jomon period, and there is no archeological evidence that Yamato was so old. I mean, the people living in Japan during this time weren't even the same ethnicity. I totally don't knock the whole descended from gods thing, because who am I to say whether that's true, but something about the whole time line doesn't quite add up.
Japan certainly isn't the only country with legendary kings (Hello Britain, is King Arthur back yet?). However, since there is an unbroken lineage linked to Jimmu and the following eight emperors (who don't have any verification papers either), I think it's an interesting question. To my mind there are three possible answers. The most obvious is that Jimmu and his eight successors are simply mythic, as in only real in the form of a great story. The second, and possibly harder for modern westerners to accept, is that it's all true, that the first nine emperors existed and either the dates are a little off, or they had long life spans. This would suggest that there simply hasn't been any proof found yet, and maybe in the future they'll find some.
The third option I'm going to present you with is one that I found while researching this post. The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki both have very little to say about emperors two through nine, only really giving their names and dates, in fact, they're sometimes called the "eight undocumented monarchs". For this, and other reasons, some scholars believe that these eight were invented as a means to push Jimmu's rein back to the year 660 BCE. If this is the case, the imperial family may have actually been founded by Jimmu, only later. Possibly this would have been just before 97 BCE, since that was when Emperor Sujin is supposed to have taken the throne and he is the first emperor that scholars think could have existed. Or maybe Jimmu was later or earlier. The sad fact is, we will probably never know.
But whether Jimmu and his nine successors were real people, or simply a story told for generations before being written down in the Kojiki, they certainly make an interesting story. For my part, I will always prefer to think of them as real, larger than life, legendary rulers, who were descended from the gods. It's just more interesting that way.
And so my question to you is, what do you think? Legend, history, or somewhere in between? Does it matter? Let me know in the comment section below (seriously, I love to hear from you guys!).
P.S. These are the other eight emperors who may not have existed. They are Emperor Suizei (581-549 BCE), Emperor Annei (549-511 BCE), Emperor Itoku (510-476 BCE), Emperor Kosho (475-393 BCE), Emperor Koan (392-291 BCE), Emperor Korei (290-215 BCE), Emperor Kogen (214-158 BCE), and Emperor Kaika (157-98 BCE).
P.P.S. You might have noticed that this is Nihon Day instead of Nippon Day. This is because in my studies of the Japanese language I have discovered that Japan can either be said Nippon or Nihon. I have decided I like Nihon better and will therefore be switching.