Queen of Yamataikoku Classical portrait painting by Yasuda Yukihiko

In my research, I’ve discovered that Japan seemed to hold a special place in their society for women that I haven’t seen a lot of other places in the ancient world. One just has to trace back the lineage of the Japanese Imperial Family to discover their claim as the ancestors of their sun goddess. And there were more women who held the title of Empress (or Tenno) in their own right in earlier times in Japan then at any time in the recent several hundred years (especially when you consider that in Japan right now, a woman cannot take the throne).

So in my second blog on the series of historical women to know, I’m talking about an ancient queen that has recently captured Japan’s and the world’s imaginations and love.

The Sun Queen, Himiko: Queen of Wa (or Yamatai)

Himiko (as we’ll call her, different translations call her Pimiko) holds the honor of being not only a confirmed person from the 3rd century, but she also is the first recognized woman from Japanese history. She lived during a transitional time in history, the Yayoi (300 BC-300 AD) and the Kofun (250-538 AD) periods where Japan at the time was split into hundreds of little warring states.

Although you would think we know her from Japanese sources, we actually know her from Chinese and Korean sources. We’re not sure why exactly neither of Japan’s ancient historical/mythological books mention her, despite that they mention several other important women. From China, we know her from the History of the Kingdom of Wei (297 AD), and from Korea from the Records of the Three Kingdoms (1145 AD).

At the time, China referred to itself as Wei and to Japan (roughly) as Wa. And when Himiko arrived on the scene “Wa”, was actually the kingdom of “Yamatai” or “Yamato”.

Anyways, the Chinese sources say that due to the lack of a good ruler, the “Land of Wa” was throw into a civil war. And eventually, the people chose an unmarried, young woman named Himiko to rule and as a shamaness, she apparently had bewitched the people.

She was placed in a palace (where after, she was rarely seen) with armed guards and towers, and served by a 1,000 female attendants with her “brother” acting as her medium of communication and serving her food and drink. I put “brother” into quotes because we’re not sure if he was actually her brother or not and some translations say there two men instead of one.

Regardless, she restored order over the land and sent delegations to China. The Chinese in turn, acknowledged her as the true Queen and called her a “Queen of Wa, friend of Wei”. She sent tributes of four male slaves, six female slaves, and two pieces of designed cloth, each twenty feet in length. They in return, gave her a golden seal, a purple ribbon, and over 100 bronze mirrors which were a status of power back then.

The “Records of Wei” also go on to say that she reigned for nearly 80 years and that when she died a great mound was raised. And like other ancient societies, her attendants followed her to the grave (apparently over a 100 male and female attendants). But a king was placed on the throne and he must have been heavily disliked because the people wouldn’t obey him. He was assassinated and over a thousand was slain in the conflict.

After that chaos, a relative of Himiko’s, “a girl of thirteen” named Iyo, was made Queen and peace was restored. Unfortunately, we don’t know much else about Iyo or if she was even a real queen. I haven’t been able to find much else on her other then that.

Well remember that “great mound” I mentioned a little bit ago? These burial mounds are called a Kofun (hence the period named for them) and in 2009, archaeologists announced that they had discovered a burial mound in the town of Sakurai, near the ancient capital of Nara in central Japan, that they say is the resting place of Queen Himiko. They discovered near the site, clay artifacts that according to radiocarbon dating says were made in between 240 AD and 260 AD. And according to those Chinese records, Himiko died sometime around 250 AD. The tomb is also nearly three times the size of other mounds nearby.

Despite being clearly mentioned in Chinese records, Himiko wasn’t well known until the Edo Period (1500s-late 1800s) until the philosopher Arai Hakuseki and scholar Motoori Norinaga started to debate where exactly Himiko’s kingdom was located. After that and especially after 1950s, Himiko was shot to Japanese national spotlight and now around 90% of Japanese school children can recognize her. She’s become a mascot for several towns, statues, the center of a beauty contest, and the character in numerous films, games, and books since then. (I also wrote some short stories this year centering on her and Iyo.) 

History of Japan Podcast: The Sun Queen
Wikipedia: Himiko
Tofugu: Queen Himiko
Heritage of Japan: Queen Himiko
Telegraph: Queen Himiko’s Tomb Found
Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai: Archaeology, History and Mythology by J. Edward Kidder, Jr.

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