Himiko Rules the Yamatai Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Himiko, the legendary sovereign/shaman of Yamatai, was duly recognized by the Chinese emperor as ruler of Wa, or Japan.

Summary of Event

Much of Japanese history before the sixth century c.e. is shrouded in uncertainty, including the question of the precise origins of the Japanese people. Because writing came late to Japan, no indigenous historical accounts of this period exist, but there are references in Chinese chronicles to Wa (the archaic name given to Japan), beginning in 57 c.e. One of the most significant descriptions of early Japan occurs in the Wei Zhi (written between 280 and 297 c.e.; “The History of the Wei Kingdom,” 1951). According to these annals, the kingdom of Wa, consisting of more than thirty domains, previously had a male sovereign in the second century, but for some seventy years afterward, there was chaos and conflict. The people agreed on a woman as ruler, Himiko (also Pimiko or Pimeho) of the domain of Yamatai, described in the chronicle as “the Queen’s country,” an area within Japan identified as being either in the Yamato region located in modern-day Nara Prefecture on the main island of Honshū or somewhere in the northern portion of Kyūshū Island. Himiko was adept at sorcery (kido: the way of occult magic), with which she mesmerized the people. She remained unmarried and reigned with a thousand female servants in attendance but only one man, who served her meals and functioned as her liaison with the outside world. While she remained cloistered in her palace conducting rites, her younger brother aided her in the day-to-day matters of governing. The chronicle describes her palace as consisting of fortified buildings with watchtowers and stockades presided over by guards. Himiko

In 238 c.e., Himiko sent a delegation to the Wei emperor in China, who formally accepted her tribute of slaves and textiles. In the following year, he issued an edict in which he bestowed on Himiko the title “Queen of Wa, Friend of the Wei Kingdom,” sent her presents, including bronze mirrors, and admonished her to rule her people peaceably. She sent other emissaries to China subsequently to request aid in her battle with Kuna, a rival domain.

When Himiko died, a funerary tumulus or tomb mound was erected, said to be more than 164 yards (150 meters) across. One hundred male and female attendants accompanied her to the grave. After her death, a king was enthroned, but once more civil strife and violence ensued. In his stead, Iyo, a young girl said to be a relative of Himiko, was named as ruler and peace was reestablished.


The story of Himiko raises a number of issues, the first having to do with the nature of early Japan. Speculating about the origins of Japan, scholars have sought to link Himiko and early Japanese society with various other shamanistic cultures on the continent of Asia. Also the question remains whether the narrative of Himiko should be considered legend, history, or a combination of the two. The two earliest Japanese histories, the Kojiki (712 c.e.; Records of Ancient Matters, 1883) and the Nihon shoki (compiled 720 c.e.; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to a.d. 697, 1896), generally ignore the Chinese accounts of the Yamatai state. The latter, however, quotes passages from the Wei Zhi but attributes them to another ruler, Empress Jingū, who putatively ruled in the third century c.e. and is referred to as the Queen of Wa. This identification of Himiko with Empress Jingū was later debunked by historians but suggests how powerful the mystique of an inviolable and powerful queen was in establishing the authenticity of the early Japanese nation. The linking between political and sacerdotal power in the early Japanese state develops eventually into the institution of the imperial line, in which the emperor of Japan until 1945 functioned both as an earthly ruler and as the divine shaman-priest of the nation.

Feminists have viewed the description of Himiko as attesting to the importance of women in early Japan, which some scholars have suggested was matrilineal and matriarchal. A number of parallels have been drawn with Amaterasu, the sun goddess who is the central figure of the Shinto pantheon. Like Himiko, Amaterasu is described as being supreme, performing various esoteric magical rituals and also possessing a younger brother, the deity Susanoo, who is subservient to her.

Finally, there remains the question of identifying the country of Yamatai. Scholars have debated whether Yamatai, based on the description in the Wei Zhi, was located in the northern part of Kyūshū or if it was located in the area known as Yamato (thought to be cognate with Yamatai) on the main island of Honshū. Although the description corresponds more closely with the Kyūshū venue, the funerary tumulus mentioned in connection with Himiko’s burial provides some evidence for the Yamato site because that kind of burial mound had generally been unearthed on the main island.

During the last decades of the twentieth century, archaeological evidence was uncovered in Kyūshū, specifically in Yoshinogari (present-day Saga Prefecture) that includes a double moat, watchtowers, and storehouses as well as clothing and jewelry from a burial mound said to be nearly two thousand years old, prompting some scholars to argue that this might have been the center of the Yamatai domain. To complicate matters, in the early twenty-first century, researchers have claimed to found the remains of Yamatai in a burial mound in Nara Prefecture, Katsuyama Mound in Makimuku, ascertained as the oldest in the country, and another in the Nara region, the Hokenoyama burial mound in Sakurai, which dates to the middle of the third century. Whether any of these can be categorically demonstrated to be the site of Himiko’s palaces in Yamatai remains to be seen.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aoki, Michiko. “Empress Jingū: The Shamaness Ruler.” In Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan, edited by Chieko Irie Mulhern. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1991. Focuses on the legend of the Empress Jingū and possible connections with Pimiko (Himiko) and Amaterasu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwards, Walter. “In Pursuit of Himiko: Postwar Archaeology and the Location of Yamatai.” Monumenta Nipponica 51, no. 1 (1996): 53-79. Scholarly analysis of archaeological remains that have been linked to Himiko and Yamatai.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsunoda, Ryusaku, et al., eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. Translation of portions of the Wei Zhi and other Chinese chronicles dealing with early Japan and the story of Himiko.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, John. The Location of Yamatai: A Case Study in Japanese Historiography, 720-1945. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958. Historical examination of various theories about Yamatai and the identity of Himiko.
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Categories: History