Jimmu Tennō Becomes the First Emperor of Japan Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Traditionally, Japanese people consider the legendary Jimmu to be the first emperor of their nation and celebrate the day of his mythical assumption of imperial dignity, February 11, as a national holiday.

Summary of Event

According to Japanese tradition, Jimmu founded the Japanese empire on the first day of the first month of the Japanese calendar in the year 660 b.c.e., when he enthroned himself in the Kashihara Palace, believed to have stood near the contemporary city of Nara on Japan’s central island of Honshū. Until the end of World War II, most Japanese took this event and the legendary struggles leading up to it as true history, discounting strong scholarly evidence that Jimmu was most likely a mythical figure, comparable to King Arthur in the Western world. Although February 11, the day of Jimmu’s coronation in the Western calendar, was made a holiday again in 1967 after being abolished in 1945, the popular consensus in Japan treats Jimmu’s accession to the throne as a legend based on some historical fact. Jimmu Tennō Nagasune Hiko Michi no Omi Hime Tatatara Isuzu Hime no Mikoto

Traditionally, Kamu Yamato Iware Hiko no Mikoto was born in 711 b.c.e. on the southwestern Japanese island of Kyūshū. His father was a great-grandson of the sun goddess, Amaterasu Ōmikami, and his mother was a daughter of the sea god. The name of Jimmu, meaning “divine valor,” was given to him much later, long after his death, in the eighth century c.e., but it is the name that he has been known by ever since. In 694 b.c.e., Jimmu inherited the throne of his local kingdom. He married Ahiratsu Hime, a beautiful young local noblewoman, as a consort, and they had two children.

Historically, there is evidence of the pottery-producing Yayoi culture inhabiting Kyūshū in the third century b.c.e., and Chinese sources of the period mention a feudal society existing on the island. Hence scholars believe this much later period to be closer in time to when the man who might have been Japan’s first emperor actually lived.

According to tradition, in 667 b.c.e., Jimmu gathered his household and revealed his plan to conquer the Yamato region, around the present city of Nara. He justified his invasion with a divine mandate that called for him to subjugate the plain of Nara, believed to be the center of the universe. Historically, there is evidence for the invasion of Yamato (now the Kinki region in Japan) by peoples from the southwest and the subsequent establishment of a strong central authority.

As Jimmu’s expedition made its way eastward from Kyūshū across the Inland Sea to its subsequent landfall near modern-day Ōsaka, the future emperor picked up more followers, who would become the ancestors of Japan’s noble families ruling in the seventh and eighth centuries, when the story of Jimmu’s accession was first written down. For three years, until 663 b.c.e., Jimmu rested in fortified camps and built a huge fleet. Then he took on his powerful adversary Nagasune Hiko, who ruled the fertile Nara plains.

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In the first battle, Jimmu’s forces were defeated at Ōsaka, and his brother Itsuse was mortally wounded by an arrow from a lowly enemy foot soldier. Retreating south by sea toward the tip of the Wakayama peninsula, Jimmu lost his remaining two brothers to the ferocious sea that swallowed them. Trying to advance toward Nara from the south, Jimmu’s army was enshrouded by a poisonous vapor. The mist was lifted by the intervention of the sun goddess Amaterasu, who also sent Jimmu a three-legged sun crow, Yatagarasu, to lead his army out of the mountainous wilderness near the shore and bring it into contact with the enemy.

By force and trickery, Jimmu and his most able officer, Michi no Omi, succeeded in subduing their various enemies. Late in 663 b.c.e., Jimmu met up again with Nagasune Hiko. Their battles were inconclusive until a golden kite descended from heaven and blinded Hiko’s soldiers, who abandoned the battlefield. As Nagasune Hiko asked for mercy, he was killed by his brother-in-law, who then submitted their army to the victorious Jimmu.

In 662 b.c.e., Jimmu cleaned the Nara area of bandits, among them some hideous earth spider people, who were summarily executed. In spring, he decided to found a genuine empire and civilize the land and his people. In 661 b.c.e., Jimmu married Hime Tatatara Isuzu Hime no Mikoto, a noblewoman with a divine father from Nara plains.

In 660 b.c.e., in the new palace at Kashihara near modern-day Nara, Jimmu enthroned himself and his wife as Japan’s first emperor and empress. At this point, the country was considered unified, and the Japanese nation was born.

Subsequently, Jimmu rewarded his followers and had two more children, one of whom would succeed him on the throne. According to tradition, he reigned for seventy-four more years, as the country prospered and grew. Jimmu reportedly died in 585 b.c.e., at the age of 126.

Significance

Since the legend of Jimmu was written down in the seventh and eighth centuries b.c.e., it has been a source of pride for many Japanese, who have held that the imperial line descended from ancient times unbroken into the present. Historically, the legend of Jimmu became important as Japanese civilization came into its own, imperial rule solidified, and the young nation sought to establish a worthy native counterpart to the much older Chinese culture.

After writing was introduced to Japan via China and Korea around 404 c.e., its rulers felt a need for a written history. In the seventh century, imperial authorities wanted a history that depicted a stable rule, not civil wars and disruptions. A second major role of the written history was to establish a genealogy for the noble families that would legitimize their social rank and position, for some enterprising families had forged ancient origins. The Jimmu legend neatly fulfilled these functions. In 621 c.e., the first history of Japan was written, yet it did not survive the burning of the imperial library two decades later. It was not until 712 and 720 c.e. that the first surviving Japanese histories were written, fixing the legendary events of Jimmu’s reign. These histories were 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).

The traditional date of Jimmu’s accession as emperor is based on Chinese numerology rather than history. Calculating backward from the eighth century, 660 b.c.e. was considered a grand kanoto tori, a year in which universe-shaping events would take place. Consequently, the foundation of the Japanese nation was put into this special year.

Contemporary historians have come to associate Jimmu with the legendary empire-building tenth emperor, Sujin, who traditionally ruled from 97 to 30 b.c.e., still probably much earlier than reality. Some believe that Sujin, although he must have ruled much later, may have been a real ruler on whom Jimmu was later modeled. Another theory holds that Jimmu is a mythical projection of the genuine twenty-sixth historical emperor Keitai>, who also had to fight his way into Yamato before he was enthroned in the sixth century.

Regardless of the rather shaky historical basis for the legend of Jimmu, the story of Japan’s first emperor has enjoyed great popularity in Japan for many centuries. It helped to install pride and confidence in the young island nation and later served as a substantial pillar of national identity. Misused by the militarists before and during World War II, the Jimmu legend was criticized in the postwar period. In its revived and revised form, it serves to remind the Japanese people of the long duration of their culture and preserves a nostalgic notion of an ancient, mythical past.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan, from the Earliest Times to a.d. 697. 1896. Reprint. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1956. Still the only translation of the Nihon shoki, originally compiled in 720, which contains one of the two original accounts of Jimmu’s accession to the imperial throne of Japan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Delmer M., ed. Ancient Japan. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A collection of contemporary essays covering the latest scholarship on the rise of early imperial Japan, with an interesting reflection on ancient Japanese historical consciousness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lu, David J. Japan: A Documentary History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Contains an abridged account of Jimmu’s accession to Japan’s throne and related historical documents of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Philippi, Donald L., trans. Kojiki. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. An English translation of the first Japanese account of Jimmu’s rise to power, published in 712. Philippi uses an unusual romanization system for Japanese words, which alters the spelling of many familiar names, but no other complete English translation is available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reischauer, Robert Karl. Early Japanese History: Part A. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1937. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1967. A pre-World War II compilation of Japanese sources describing mostly legendary events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sansom, George B. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1958. Still valuable study of the earliest, legendary period of Japanese history.
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