Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇 Jimmu-Tenno), whose name means “Divine Might” is the legendary founder of Japan’s Imperial House and a direct descendent of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. His rule is said to have been between 660 and 585 BC. Today, Emperor Akihito can claim, through an unbroken line of succession, direct descent from Jimmu. Jimmu himself is shrouded in legend and many modern scholars doubt whether he ever actually existed. The story of Emperor Jimmu has been passed to us from the Kojiki (古事記 Record of Ancient Matters). The Kojiki is a collection of the myths and legends of the Japanese islands, much of it forms the backbone of the Shinto rites of worship. The story of Jimmu, as related by the Kojiki, tells of Jimmu and his brothers migrating with a large following to the main Japanese island of Honshu. Jimmu lands on the Kii peninsula and subsequently defeats the native kings and declares himself the ruler of Japan. Jimmu died aged 126 and, on his death he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Suizei. It is not know where Jimmu was buried, however, his kami (spirit) is worshipped at the Kashihara shrine in Nara prefecture.
As mentioned previously most modern scholars do not believe that Emperor Jimmu ever existed. Indeed the first 9 Emperors of Japan are all disputed. The first Emperor who is universally recognized to have existed is the 10th Emperor, Sujin, in the 1st century BC. However, some (predominantly Chinese) scholars have made links between the legend of Emperor Jimmu and a Chinese explorer called Xu Fu. It is worth noting that there are some people who believe that the Jimmu story is a Japanese version of the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus (see previous article on the Japanese as the Lost Tribe of Israel).
Xu Fu is also worshipped in Japan as a deity known as Jofuku (徐福). Born in 255 BC Xu Fu was the court sorcerer to the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (see previous article on his mausoleum). Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with his own mortality and sought to find the elixir of immortality. This quest would eventually lead to his premature demise due to the Chinese belief that pills of mercury could prolong life. Xu Fu, as a prominent mystic at the court, was entrusted with a mission to sail east and find the legendary Penglai mountain where there lived a legendary sage called Anqi Sheng who was more than 1000 years old. Xu Fu first set out in 219 BC and searched for several years before returning to China empty-handed. When questioned by the Emperor Xu Fu reported that his way to the mountain had been blocked by a giant fish blocking his path. He requested archers with which to dispatch the monsters. Qin Shi Huang agreed and Xu Fu set out again in 210 BC with 60 barques, 3000 men, and 2000 women. He was never heard from again. It is likely that Xu Fu realized that returning empty-handed again would undoubtedly result in his death. Ancient Chinese legends speculate that he landed on a foreign island and made himself a king (presumably with the help of the archers that Qin Shi Huang gave him).
The Japanese themselves believe that Xu Fu landed in Japan (like Jimmu he also is said to have landed on the Kii peninsula) believing that Mt Fuji was the Penglai mountain. Japanese legend relates how Xu Fu introduced agriculture and medicinal plants to Japan hence he is venerated as the god of farming and medicine. A Japanese Scholar Ino Okifu formed a theory that merged the two countries’ respective legends on Xu Fu and came to the conclusion that Xu Fu and Emperor Jimmu were one and the same . It is also curious that around the time of Xu Fu’s supposed arrival in Japan the indigenous Jomon period gave way to the Yayoi period (equivalent to the iron age). Xu Fu’s time period of the 3rd century BC would also seem to make more sense as the start point of Japan’s monarchy than the traditional date of the 7th-6th century BC as it would condense the list of Japanese Emperors; the first couple of whom reign for ridiculously long periods of time. It is also important to note that the up until the Heian (8th century AD) the official court language was Chinese and that the ancient capital of Nara was based in design on Qin Shi Huang’s capital of Chang’an (although these links to China may have come long after Xu Fu).
Were the theory about Xu Fu true it would have startling consequences for Japan’s sense of identity. For a start the Japanese would not be the descendants of the Sun Goddess but rather of Chinese refugees. Similarly the Shinto religion would have, in effect, been founded by a Chinese man. In part this was the motivation for Ino Okifu formulate his theory: he was worried that the Japanese belief that they were a divine race was dangerous in the extreme and that the atrocities of World War II might repeat if they continued to believe it. Therefore he felt that it was necessary to cast a speculative light on the origins of the Imperial House.
Many Japanese scholars have cast this theory off as nonsense, however, it does raise the question of the truth behind Japan’s origins narrative. Whilst we don’t know where Jimmu is buried there are graves that are said to belong to his descendants. However, archaeology is forbidden on these ancient burial mounds out of respect for the former emperors and empresses. The first emperor whose reign is accurately recorded is the 29th emperor, Kinmei who ruled in the 6th century AD. As for his predecessors the best we can rely on is legend and tradition.
Whether Xu Fu is the historical Emperor Jimmu may never come to light and is doomed to remain speculation for eternity. However, what is certain is that he is, most likely, the first Chinese man to make contact with Japan; and so started centuries of Sino-Japanese relations. Perhaps it is fitting that he is revered as a god in his own right.