The Mystery of Himiko

Yoshinaga Sayuri as Himiko in the film 'Moboroshi no Yamataikoku'

In the third century a Chinese envoy wrote of a visit to the land of Wa (as Japan was known).  At the time the country was divided into many small states, and he described how one of them called Yamatai was ruled by a shaman-queen called Himiko (or more probably Pimiko).  Amongst the customs of the country were polygamy, divination, the wearing of headbands, the clapping of hands during worship, tattooing of fishermen to avoid sea monsters, and the burial of the dead in a small mound with a mourning period of up to ten days.  There was little crime, and punishments were severe.  But most fascinating of all is the description of the ruler.  The state had been ruled by a man previously, but civil unrest over many years prompted the people to turn to a woman.  Here is a quotation from the Chinese account:

“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.”  (taken from Sources of Japanese Tradition)

The account clearly suggests a type of shaman who kept herself pure by remaining unmarried and whose oracular messages were interpreted by her ‘brother‘.  Historians see in this a female-male collaboration that was common in ancient times.  While the female is possessed by the kami, the male acts as interpreter of the oracle to the wider world.  The primacy of the female in Himiko’s time was to give way over time to the authority of the male priest, sanctioned by Confucianism.  In this way the female miko (originally a shaman) who spoke with the voice of the kami became relegated to the humble shrine attendant that she is today.

The mystery of Yamatai

The location of Yamatai has long been the subject of controversy: was it in Kyushu, or in Kansai?  It’s rather like the quest to locate Arthur’s Camelot in England.  In recent years it’s been claimed that Himiko’s grave has been identified. The burial place is known as Hashihaka, just fifteen minutes walk from Hibara Jinja near Omiwa (http://www.greenshinto.com/wp/2011/08/11/hibara-jinja-and-amaterasu/).  It has been dated from between 240 and 260 which would fit in perfectly with Himiko’s dates.

Hashihaka burial mound seen from below Hibara Jinja

 

Hashihaka has a keyhole shape and is the eleventh longest burial mound in Japan.  According to the Nihonshoki, it’s the grave of a daughter of Sujin who committed suicide by stabbing herself in the genitals with a pair of chopsticks – hence the name (hashi means chopsticks, haka is grave).  It’s a lurid story that has to do with her uncovering a snake-kami in her boudoir: the mythological equivalent of a tabloid sensation.  The imperial household supports the identification and hence the mound cannot be excavated because it would disturb an imperial ancestor.  Himiko on the other hand is not an imperial ancestor – which may explain the mystery as to why she doesn’t rate a single mention in the Kojiki or Nihon shoki.  How very intriguing!

The front of Hashihaka (Himiko's grave?)

When I visited the mound, a group of Japanese were being given a talk.  I was only able to catch the end of it, namely that Himiko could have been head of a clan that came into Japan from Korea searching for metals and trade opportunities.  It makes me think she could have brought Korean shamanism in with her (fear of unearthing Korean connections is supposedly a strong motivation of the imperial ban on excavating).

Not far from the tumulus is an archaeological site with claims to have been Himiko’s palace.  I went in search of it, full of anticipation at seeing where the legendary shamaness may have once lived.  But all I could find was a bare patch of land next to a single line rail track, looking like an empty rice field.  A local assured me it was indeed the right place.  Which just goes to show the virtue of leaving things to the imagination, for reality by contrast can be soooooo disappointing….

Tall white heron
Squawking with surprise –
Spring warmth

Eh? That's it?? A bare patch of land next to Makimuku railway station said to be the site of Himiko's palace

Welcome to Himiko country says a sign at Sakurai city, where the authorities have been quick to capitalise on the potential

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More information about the archaeologists’ view of the matter on the excellent Heritage of Japan site….
http://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/yayoi-era-yields-up-rice/the-advent-of-agriculture-and-the-rice-revolution/who-was-queen-himiko/the-yamatai-puzzle-where-was-himikos-headquarters/could-the-hashihaka-burial-mound-in-sakurai-nara-be-queen-himikos/ 

Also an article in the Japan Times about the possible discovery of Himiko’s palace at Makimuku:
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2 Responses to The Mystery of Himiko

  1. John D. says:

    On the front page of the heritage of japan website is this:
    http://heritageofjapan.wordpress.com/

    Newly discovered remains of possible palace ruins advances theory that Makimuku structure may have been Queen Himiko’s palace and centre of Yamataikoku
    Featured in today’s and yesterday’s news reports, is the new discovery of the ruins of a possible palace structure at Makimuku, Sakurai, Nara Prefecture. The finding bolsters the theory that the earlier discovered nearby Hashihaka keyhole-shaped tomb may be Queen Himiko’s….see Mainichi report below for details. The Daily Yomiuri also carries the same news (3rd-century structure unearthed in Nara Pref. (Nov 12)) and has the additional information that “Earthenware items produced in various regions from Kanto to Kyushu have been unearthed there” as well as “Each pillar is about 32 centimeters in diameter. It is likely that the structure had an elevated floor.” Japan Times also covers the news – see Japan Times: Dig in Nara, not Kyushu, yields palatial ruins possibly of Himiko.

    Recently excavated remains at the Makimuku ruins in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, might once have been a palace.
    ***
    Remains of large structure unearthed at Makimuku ruins in Nara
    The Makimuku ruins, where the remains of the structure were discovered, are pictured in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture on Nov. 5 in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter. (Mainichi)
    SAKURAI, Nara — The remains of a major structure from the third century — corresponding with the period in which the ancient Japanese queen Himiko lived — has been unearthed at the Makimuku ruins here, the Sakurai Municipal Board of Education has announced.

    The Makimuku ruins are believed to be the most likely location of the Yamataikoku kingdom that is associated with Himiko. Education board officials said that holes for pillars, extended 19.2 meters from north to south and 6.2 meters from east to west in an organized fashion, making it one of the largest buildings from the period.

    The newly discovered structure was designed to be symmetrical along a line running from east to west, lining up with three structures and a barrier line that were confirmed during past digs, and there is a possibility it was the palace of Himiko. The find is likely to advance the theory that Himiko’s realm was in the Yamato Province in the present-day Kinki region.

    Hironobu Ishino, head of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Archeology, said the find was a strong basis for concluding that the Yamataikoku kingdom was located at the site of the Makimuku ruins.

    “The building is of a size unparalleled for the same period. It is too big for a dwelling,” he said, adding that it probably corresponded to the “palace” of Himiko mentioned in ancient Chinese historical records.

    In 1978 a barrier and remains of a building were found, and starting from the point of these discoveries, and expanded survey was launched in February this year. The remains of a large building were later found in an eastern part of the site.

    The postholes at the newly discovered site were about 30 centimeters in diameter and were spaced at 4.8-meter intervals from north to south and were 3.1 meters apart from east to west. There were also small holes between the postholes running from east to west that were used to support floorboards.

    It is believed that the structure had a total floor space of about 238 square meters, about 1.5 times bigger that the main shrine at the Yoshinogari archeological site in Saga Prefecture, thought to be one of the biggest moat-surrounded settlements during the Yayoi Period.

    No earlier sites in which structures have been placed in a symmetrical east-west layout have been uncovered. The features of the structure are similar to those of palaces of the Asuka period (around the seventh century), and there is a high possibility that it was part of the center of a kingdom.

    Queen Himiko is believed to have died around 248.

    (Mainichi Japan) November 11, 2009

  2. taszies says:

    Yes, you are right about the Makimuku ruins. It may be the discovery of the century. Let’s hope Japan will allow more excavations in the future.

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