Himiko: the most significant debate over the ancient history of Japan

Statue of Queen Himiko in front of Kanzaki Station (north exit). She was a shamaness-queen of Yamatai-koku (170–248 CE) in Wakoku (part of ancient Japan).

Himiko was a shamaness-queen ( Shamanism is a religious practice that involves a practitioner, a shaman, who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance.) of Yamatai-koku in early japan. Early Chinese histories record exhibits alliance between Queen Himiko and the Cao Wei Kingdom (220–265), and record that the Yayoi period people chose her as leader following decades of warfare among the kings of Wa. Early Japanese histories do not specify Himiko, but historians compare her with legendary figures such as Empress Consort Jingū, who was regent (c. 200–269) in roughly the same era as Himiko. Scholarly disputes the identity of Himiko and the place of her area, Yamatai, have exploded since the late Edo period, with opinions divided between northern Kyūshū or traditional Yamato region in present-day Kinki. The Yamatai controversy is the most significant debate over the ancient history of Japan.

Chinese sources

The first historical records of Himiko are available in a Chinese classic text, the c. 297 Records of the Three Kingdoms.

This early history describes how Himiko came to the throne:

“The country previously had a man as a ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that, there were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler. Her name was Himiko. She occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she remained unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, few saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and fences, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.” (tr. Tsunoda 1951:13)

The “Records of Wei” also records envoys traveling between the Wa and Wei courts. Himiko’s emissaries first visited the Court of Wei emperor Cao Rui in 238, and he replied:

“Herein, we address Himiko, Queen of Wa, whom we now officially call a friend of Wei. […Your envoys] have arrived here with your tribute, consisting of four male slaves and six female slaves, together with two pieces of cloth with designs, every twenty feet in length. You live very far away across the sea, yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety we appreciate exceedingly. Therefore, we confer upon you the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei,” together with the decoration of the gold seal with purple ribbon. The latter, adequately encased, is to be sent to you through the Governor. We expect you, O Queen, to rule your people in peace and endeavor to be devoted and obedient”. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:14)

Finally, the “Records of Wei” (tr. Tsunoda 1951:15) records that in 247 when a new governor arrived at Daifang Commandery in Korea, Queen Himiko officially complained of hostilities with Himikuku (卑弥弓呼, or Pimikuku), the king of Kunu (狗奴, literally “dog slave”), one of the other Wa states. The Governor dispatched “Chang Chêng, acting Secretary of the Border Guard” with a “proclamation advising reconciliation” and, subsequently, the following:

“When Himiko passed away, a grand mound was raised over a hundred paces in diameter. Over a hundred male and female attendants followed her to the grave. Then a king was placed on the throne, but the people would not obey him. Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain. A relative of Himiko named Iyo, a girl of thirteen, was made Queen and order was restored. Chêng proclaimed to the effect that Iyo was the ruler.” (tr. Tsunoda 1951:16)

Japanese sources

None of the two oldest Japanese histories – the c. 712 Kojiki nor c. 720 Nihon Shoki – mentions Queen Himiko. The circumstances under which these books were written are a matter of constant debate. Even if Himiko were known to the authors, they might have purposefully decided not to include her. However, they include three imperial-family shamans identified with her: Yamatototohimomosohime-no-Mikoto, the aunt of Emperor Sujin (legendary 10th Japanese Emperor, r. 97-30 BC) and daughter of Emperor Kōrei; Yamatohime-no-Mikoto, the daughter of Emperor Suinin (legendary 11th, r. 29 BC-70 AD); and Empress Jingū (r. c. 209-269 AD), the wife of Emperor Chūai (legendary 14th emperor, r. 192-200 AD). These dates, however, are not historically verified.

One remarkable privilege to early Japanese histories overlooking Himiko is the Nihon Shoki quoting the Wei Zhi three times. In 239, “the queen of Wa” sent envoys to Wei; in 240, they returned “charged with an Imperial rescript and a seal and ribbon;” and in 243, “the ruler of Wa again sent high officers as envoys with the tribute” (tr. Aston 1924:245-6). It is revealing that the Nihon Shoki editors chose to omit the Wei Zhi particulars about Himiko.

Yamato Totohi Momoso Himiko, the shaman aunt of Emperor Sujin, supposedly committed suicide after learning her husband was a trickster snake-god. The Kojiki does not mention her, but the Nihon Shoki describes her as “the Emperor’s aunt by the father’s side, a shrewd and intelligent person, who could foresee the future” (tr. Aston 1924:156). After a series of national calamities, the Emperor “assembled the 80 myriads of Deities” and inquired by divination. Yamato-totohi-momo so was inspired by Ōmononushi-nushi (“Great Deity of All Deities and Spirits”, tr. Hori 1968:193) to say. “Why is the Emperor grieved at the disordered state of the country? If he duly did us reverent worship, it would assuredly become pacified of itself.” The Emperor inquired, saying: “What God is it that thus instructs me?” The answer was: “I am the God who dwells within the borders of Yamato’s land, and my name is Oho-mono-nushi no Kami.” (tr. Aston 1924:152) While imperial worship of this god (from Mount Miwa) was “without effect,” Yamato-totohi-momoso later married him.

After this Yamato-toto-hi-momo-so-bime, no Mikoto became the wife of Oho-mono-nushi no Kami. This god, however, was never seen in the day-time, but at night. Yamato-toto-hi-momo-so-bime no Mikoto said to her husband: “As my Lord is never seen in the day-time, I am unable to view his august countenance distinctly; I beseech him therefore to delay a while, that in the morning I may look upon the majesty of his beauty.” The Great God answered and said: “What thou sayest is clearly right. To-morrow morning I will enter thy toilet-case and stay there. I pray thee be not alarmed at my form.” Yamato-toto-hi-momo-so-bime no Mikoto wondered secretly in her heart at this. Waiting until daybreak, she looked into her toilet-case. There was a beautiful little snake, of the length and thickness of the cord of a garment. Thereupon she was frightened and uttered an exclamation. The Great God was ashamed and changing suddenly into human form, spake to his wife, and said: “Thou didst not contain thyself, but hast caused me shame; I will in my turn put thee to shame.” So treading the Great Void, he ascended to Mount Mimoro. Hereupon Yamato-toto-hi-momo-so-bime no Mikoto looked up and had remorse. She flopped down on a seat and with a chopstick, stabbed herself in the pudenda so that she died. She was buried at Oho-chi. Therefore the men of that time called her tomb the Hashi no haka.

The Hashihaka Kofun in Sakurai, Nara, is associated with this legend.

Yamatohime-no-Mikoto, the daughter of Emperor Suinin, supposedly founded the Ise Shrine to the sun-goddess Amaterasu. The Kojiki records her as the fourth of Suinin’s five children, “Her Augustness Yamato-hime, (was the high-priestess of the temple of the Great Deity of Ise)” (tr. Chamberlain 1919:227). The Nihon Shoki likewise records “Yamato-hime no Mikoto” (tr. Aston 1924:150) and provides more details. The Emperor assigned Yamatohime to find a permanent location for Amaterasu’s shrine. After wandering for years, the sun-goddess instructed her to build it at Ise “where she first descended from Heaven” (tr. Aston 1924:176).

Empress Consort Jingū (or Jingō 神功) supposedly served as regent after the death of her husband Emperor Chūai (c. 200) until the accession of her son Emperor Ōjin (legendary 15th emperor, r. 270-310). The Kojiki (Chamberlain 1919:283-332) and Nihon Shoki (Aston 1924:217-271) have similar accounts. Emperor Chūai wanted to invade Kumaso, and while he was consulting with his ministers, Jingū conveyed a shamanistic message that he should invade Silla instead. Compare these.

Her Augustness Princess Okinaga-tarashi, was at that time, divinely possessed … charged him with this instruction and counsel: “There is a land to the Westward, and in that land is an abundance of various treasures dazzling to the eye, from gold and silver downwards. I will now bestow this land upon thee.” (tr. Chamberlain 1919:284-5). At this time a certain God inspired the Empress and instructed her, saying: “Why should the Emperor be troubled because the Kumaso do not yield submission? It is a land wanting in the backbone. Is it worth while raising an army to attack it? There is a better land than this, a land of treasure, which may be compared to the aspect of a beautiful woman – the land of Mukatsu, dazzling to the eyes. In that land there are gold and silver and bright colours in plenty. It is called the Land of Silla of the coverlet of paper-mulberry. If thou worshippest me aright, the land will assuredly yield submission freely, and the edge of thy sword shall not be all stained with blood.” (tr. Aston 1924:221).

(The 2005:284 reprint of Chamberlain adds a footnote after “possessed”: “Himeko in the Chinese historical notices of Japan was skilled in magic, with which she deluded the people.”) The Emperor thought the gods were lying, said he had only seen ocean to the West, and then died, either immediately (Kojiki) or after invading Kumaso (Nihon Shoki). Jingū allegedly discovered she was pregnant, personally planned and led a successful conquest of Silla, gave birth to the future Emperor, and returned to rule Yamato. The Nihon Shoki (tr. Aston 1924:225) adds that since Jingū wanted to learn which gods had cursed Chūai, she constructed a shamanic “palace of worship”, “discharged in person the office of the priest”, and heard the gods reveal themselves as coming from Ise (Amaterasu) and Mukatsu (an unnamed Korean divinity). Although the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki myth-histories called Jingū first of the Japanese empresses, Meiji period historians removed her from the List of Emperors of Japan, leaving Empress Suiko (r. 593-628) as the first historically verifiable female Japanese ruler.

Source: Kidder, Jonathan Edward. 2007. Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai. University of Hawai’i Press, Wikipedia, Britanicca

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