The Shaman Queen of Yamatai

Queen Himiko of Yamatai

Quick note: My Japanese is not very good and my written Japanese is even worse and so please forgive any mistakes made in spelling and meanings of various names.

Japan has an ancient history which is intimately connected with the time when gods inhabited the Earth. The line of Emperors to this day is considered an unbroken line of succession to the sun Goddess Amaterasu. One of the most obscure and intriguing legends is that of Queen Himiko of Yamatai.

The records of Himiko appear solely in Chinese sources and there is no record of her in early Japanese texts. The principle of these comes from the heroic epic of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (a Chinese Iliad and a great read). The Romance of the three kingdoms is about the battle between the kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu following the fall of the Han Emperor and was penned in the 4th century AD. Himiko appears in the story of the kingdom of Wei.

This narrative describes the island nation of Wa which “dwells in the middle of the ocean on the mountainous islands southeast of [the prefecture of] Tai-fang. They formerly comprised more than one hundred communities. During the Han dynasty, [Wa envoys] appeared at the Court; today, thirty of their communities maintain intercourse [with us] through envoys and scribes…The country formerly had a man as 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, there were few who 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 stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance”.

Himiko’s kingdom of Yamatai is equivalent to King Arthur’s mystical court at Camelot in terms of of discerning its location. A variety of locations have been offered ranging from Okinawa to Yamato province. Yamato is the name of the modern Japanese race in contrast to the Ainu, a different racial group who inhabited Japan before the arrival of the Yamato; or the Kumasu who inhabited the island of Kyushu among others. As such it would seem that there might have been some confusion among the Chinese writers of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Chinese description of Himiko as being Queen of Yamatai could be a misspelling alluding to Himiko as being the Queen of the Yamato people on the islands of Wa (Japan). They were confusing a people for a kingdom.

Throughout the centuries there have been several attempts to reconcile the history of China with that of Japan in relation to Himiko. The Chinese sources portrayed as a mighty sorceress and there are several such characters in Japanese history who could fulfill that role. The main suspect however, is Empress Jingu due to a rough correlation of dates and the similarity of their names, Jingu’s Okinagatarashi-hime (However the characters used to write the names are considerably different: 息長帯比売; Himiko – 卑彌呼).

A consort to the 14th Emperor, Chuai, Empress Jingu became the defacto ruler of Japan in 201 AD ruling for the next 68 years until her death at the age of 100. All of these dates have to be taken with more than a pinch of salt as early Japanese history is mostly lost or non-existent. Controversy exists over Empress Jingu’s reign the most interesting of which is the fact that she could represent the first break in the officially unbroken Imperial line. Legend claims that her son an future Emperor, Ojin, was conceived just before Emperor Chuai died but was kept in the womb for three years after Chuai had died. It would seem, therefore, that Emperor Ojin was not the legitimate son of the late Emperor but one of Empress Jingu’s lovers and therefore not a descendant of the Sun Goddess.

There is also the contentious issue of the legend that Empress Jingu invaded Korea and returned home victorious. Whilst this legend has largely been rejected due to the lack of historical evidence for any Japanese presence in Korea at this time, this legend has become controversial as it was used for propaganda purposed to whip up support for Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1905.

However, the theory of Jingu and Himiko falls into difficulty as the Chinese sources claim that when Himiko died there was a prolonged period of civil war which ended in the Yamatai making another woman their Shaman-Queen, a woman called Iyo (壹與). However, we know that Empress Jingu was succeeded by her (possibly illegitimate) son, Ojin, who was a legendary Emperor in his own right and is said to have ruled for 40 years (he in turn was succeeded by Emperor Nintoku).

There is another theory that the name Himiko is in fact a title and not a name. It is theorized that it is in fact a misspelling of hime-ko meaning “princess” meaning that the Chinese were in fact referring to a an unnamed Japanese princess (or Queen) of the Yamato people. Another theory, in relation to Himiko’s reputation as a powerful sorceress, is that Himiko is a combination of hi meaning sun (日) and miko meaning shamaness (巫女)  therefore insinuating that Himiko was a priestess of the Sun Goddess (and origin of the Imperial line) Amaterasu.

Whoever Himiko was she has earned her place in Japanese legend in a similar manner to King Arthur in the West. She has also become a feminist symbol as a powerful Queen in a patriarchal society. She also recently became the subject of the new Tomb Raider game which sees Lara Croft stranded on Yamatai which is portrayed as a mythical island off the south coast of Japan. Regardless, Himiko remains an enigmatic and interesting character in a period of Japanese history which exists largely in the realm of legends and myths.

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3 comments

  1. really wish i knew if it was real or not

  2. A woman at my college was nicknamed Himiko. She was the president of a taiko group, called Yamatai, because of this legend.

  3. I read this post and it was quite interesting! However, you write her name with the following kanjis 卑彌呼, while in general it’s written like this 卑弥呼. Which form is correct?

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