The chronicle of Kipp's Washoku Project. Here you'll find posts about Japanese food and vulture.

Nippon Day Twenty One: Himiko the Queen of Yamataikoku

  Queen Himiko

Queen Himiko

As I promised after the last historical post, I am going to deviate away from the era posts to tell you about one of the most interesting leaders of the Yayoi period. If you haven't read that post I suggest you do so now (I promise it's good), but if you still don't want to, I will set the scene. I mentioned how Chinese records are an important source for understanding the early history of Japan, since the Japanese were yet to use written language. It is from here that we have the first mention of Wa, the name of ancient Japan. According to these records Wa was a land of scattered tribal settlements, though there was some hierarchical structure to them. The most notable was, for a long time, Na a state located around the modern city of Fukuoka. The Chinese emperor even sent a golden seal to the king of Na, officially taking it as a vassal state.

What exactly happened to Na is unclear (to me at least), but its influence apparently did not last past the third century CE. Indeed the Han dynasty that had sent the seal came to an end in 220 CE, giving way to the "Three Kingdoms Period" during which China was broken into (you guessed it) three kingdoms. One of these kingdoms was Cao Wei, and is where we first hear mention of Himiko, the queen of Yamataikoku. They describe how the island country of Wa was comprised of some one hundred communities, thirty of which were in contact with Cao Wei via scribes and envoys. They then go on to say that there used to be a king, but for seventy or eighty years they had been ruler-less and in constant war. But then a female shaman was chosen by the people to be the queen of Wa. Her name was Himiko.

According to this account, Himiko was fourteen when she took the throne, and was apparently accomplished in magic as she spent her time "bewitching the people". They said that she had a younger brother who assisted her, but she chose to remain unmarried. Surrounding herself with one thousand women attendants and one man, Himiko was seen by hardly any others. The palace that she lived in was protected by towers, walls, and many armed guards.

In 238 CE, Himiko sent envoys to the court of Emperor Cao Rui, bring with them a tribute of four males slaves, six female slaves, and two twenty foot long pieces of cloth with designs that were unfortunately not described. Cao Rui appreciated this filial gesture very much and sent back his thanks. He also gave her both the official title of "Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei" and a gold seal with "purple ribbon". Unfortunately both the seal and the ribbon have never been found.

  Emperess Jingu

Emperess Jingu

As for mentions of Himiko in ancient Japanese records, well there are hardly any. In fact they seem to have gone out of their way to leave her out. Whether this is because they didn't know about her, or more likely they didn't want her to be remembered is unclear, but it doesn't seem that historians today take this as a clue that Himiko did not exist. There were however, three other powerful and magical women written about from the same period who are often associated with Himiko. These are Yamato-totohi-momoso-hime-no-mikoto (what a mouth full), who was the aunt of the legendary 10th Emperor Sujin; Yamatohime-no-mikoto, the daughter of that same emperor; and Empress Jingu, the wife of the legendary 14th emperor Chuai.

These three women are said to have lived during the Yayoi period, though much about them is hard to verify. For instance, Yamato-totohi-momoso-hime-no-mikoto married a god who she didn't immediately realize was actually a snake. When she found out she feinted and landing on a chopstick was stabbed to death. She was somewhat comically buried in a tomb called Hashi no haka (chopstick tomb). There is a Hashihaka in  Sakurai, Nara, which is said to be the same tomb, but that is unconfirmed. Her grand-niece, Yamatohime-no-mikoto, is credited with founding Ise Shrine after wandering the Ohmi and Mino regions for twenty years looking for a suitable location. When she reached Ise, Amaterasu spoke to her and said that this was where she must build. Ise Shrine still stands today, though no one is entirely sure if the founding legend is true.

  Empress Jingu

Empress Jingu

As for Empress Jingu, she was the dutiful wife of Emperor Chuai until his death in 201 CE, whereupon she became the regent for 68 years. Her, presumably quite old son, took the chrysanthemum throne at this point. Until the Meiji period Jingu was officially acknowledged as the fifteenth ruler of Japan, but she was stripped of this title and instead her son is called the fifteenth emperor. Even if the fist twenty five emperors of Japan are concidered "legendary" since there isn't much in the way of firm evidence, that's still pretty rude. Empress Jingu is credited with invading Korea and defeating it after three years. However, there is no evidence for this in Korean records.

However, one thing that the Korean records do note is that Queen Himiko sent emissaries to King Adalla of Silla, in 173 CE. It is possible that the three other shamanic women from legend were inspired by Himiko, but that is hard to prove. For instance, none of these legendary accounts have the Himiko's trademarks of being unmarried, chosen by the people, having a younger brother helper, or one thousand female attendants. However, the presence of these four powerful females in the history (whether real or legendary) does seem to indicate that women had a better role in government than they would have in following periods.

When Himiko died, the Chinese records state that she was buried under a mound over a hundred paces in diameter and with over one hundred attendants following her. To my mind that shows just how powerful she must have been. The tomb was presumably in Yamataikoku, but scholars are still not sure where that kingdom was. Some actually assert that Hashihaka is her tomb as the dimensions match, but they aren't really sure. The Chinese records go on to say that a male took the thrown after her, but no one knows his name because he was greatly disliked and soon assassinated. The people apparently decided that what they needed was another young female ruler, because they put one of Himiko's relatives on the throne, a thirteen-year-old girl named Iyo (or possibly Toyo). The new emperor of China approved and proclaimed Iyo as the true ruler. What exactly happened to Iyo is unknown.

Next week we shall move on from the Yayoi period to the Kofun period, a time when Japan began recording its own history.

Until next time, rock on powerful women, rock on.