Archeologists Discover Tomb of Legendary Japanese Queen Himiko

  June 15, 2009 at 12:35 pm by

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According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, a team of archaeologists have examined artifacts from near Hashihaka, a 280-meter key-hole shaped burial mound, and have discovered evidence that the ancient tomb may belong to Himiko or, in Chinese: Pimiko, the legendary third-century shaman queen of the Yamatai kingdom in Japan. Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers found out that clay fragments from the rim of the mound were made between 240 and 260 A.D., just the time around which the queen is reported by Chinese sources to have died. In addition, an ancient Chinese chronicle, the “Records of Wei”, says: “When Pimiko passed away, a great mound was raised, more than a hundred paces in diameter. Over a hundred male and female attendants followed her to the grave.” And the burial mound, that is situated in the town of Sakurai, near the ancient capital of Nara in central Japan, is, in fact, much larger than other ancient tombs built before or at the same time in Japan. The nearest one in size measures just 110 meters in length. Article

The discovery is likely to provoke new debate over Japanese history and the royal family, which the Imperial Household Agency still claims is descended from the mythical sun goddess Amaterasu. Queen Himiko is mentioned several times in records from the Chinese court, with which the Yamatai kingdom had links, but the earliest Japanese sources, compiled in the 8th century, fail to mention her, with but one remarkable exception.

The “Nihon Shoki“, an 8th-century Japanese source, quotes the Chinese “Records of Wei” three times, mentioning shortly a “queen” or “ruler of Wa”. (“Wa”, probably meaning “dwarf”, was the Chinese-Korean ancient term for the Japanese people.) But, strikingly, the “Nihon Shoki” omits the queen’s name and further colourful particulars that the original Chinese source includes. The “Records of Wei“, that make part of the Chinese third-century classic text “Records of Three Kingdoms“, describe how Himiko came to rule:

“The country formerly had a man as ruler. For some seventy or eighty years after that there were disturbances and warfare. Thereupon the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler. Her name was Pimiko. 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.”

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Queen Himiko is claimed as ancestress by Japan’s imperial family but it would be difficult to give a clear account in which way. According to one theory, the grandfather of Jimmu, the legendary founder of the Japanese imperial dynasty, came as a pirate trader from Korea to Kyushu in Japan and married the granddaughter of one of the local sun priestesses, Pimeko, the head of a company of shamans whose power depended on possession of the community’s magic tokens: a mirror, a sword and a necklace of shells (the very items comprising Japan’s imperial regalia to the present day). This story would also explain to the more secular-minded why the tenno claims descent from the sun goddess. Also in ancient Europe, the children of a priestess would sometimes be seen as the children of the deity she was serving. But, on the other hand, it also becomes very clear why Japanese traditionalists, and, especially, the Imperial Household Agency, have a dislike for historical research. The mere thought of Korean provenance of the Japanese dynasty must seem to them highly distasteful. In addition, although this story may offer solutions to many questions, it also would raise a lot of new ones.

For example, according to the (still) official genealogy of the imperial house, the first tenno, Jimmu, founded the monarchy in 660 B.C.. So, it would have to be asked how he could possibly have descended from a sun priestess who lived in the third century A.D.? It is true, though, that no serious historian would give this question a second thought as the 660 B.C. date is very obviously made up. The authors of Japan´s first historical records, the “Kojiki” (712 A.D.) and the “Nihongi” (720 A.D.), quite simply used Chinese astrological and genealogical tables, calculating that 1260 lunar years had passed since the reign of the first (Chinese) emperors. Taking 600 A.D. as their starting point and subtracting 1260, they concluded that the first Japanese emperor ought to have ascended the throne in 660 B.C.. Undoubtedly, this appears to be an exceptionally unscientific calculation that no historian nowadays would rely on.

It would further have to be considered that, although the circumstances under which the “Kojiki” and the “Nihongi” were written is a matter of unending debate, it seems, at least, to be clear that it was one of their main purposes to provide the by-then established “tenno”-dynasty with a historical and mythological background that would serve to justify their ruling claim and to stabilize their position of dominance. In order to achieve this purpose, the authors tried to imitate in their description the much admired example of China as a powerful unified country, ruled by an ancient dynasty claiming heavenly descent. So, it might well be possible that the authors purposefully decided not to mention Himiko, as her existence would only have served to disturb the story they were trying to tell: the story of the glorious reign of their dynasty that, up to their time, had remained unbroken for more than a thousand years. This presumption is rendered even more probable by the fact that historians nowadays agree that a character like Jimmu, a sort of tribal chief who was putting together political hegemony over large areas of Japan, could not have appeared before around the fourth century as, before that time, Japan, in the sense of an unified country, did not exist. Likewise, it is well known, at least to historians, that around the first 10 to 15 emperors listed in ancient histories are legendary characters, and although they oftentimes bear symbolic significance, representing the various stages leading to the monarchy’s final establishment, it is very uncertain if they have ever existed as individually recognizable persons.

At this point, the question arises, on which grounds Japan’s imperial family can claim descent from a queen whom the relevant Japanese sources do not even mention. This question is so difficult that it might serve to increase the already strong desire of Japanese traditionalists to block scientific research even more. Eventually, it will probably turn out impossible to answer as long as the long row of sacred dogmas of Japanese monarchical history remains unquestioned. But historians have, nevertheless, struggled to reconcile Himiko/Pimiko between the Chinese and Japanese historical sources by associating her with legendary figures that are mentioned in the Japanese records, such as Yamato-totohi-momoso-hime-no-mikoto, the aunt of Emperor Sujin (legendary, 97-30 B.C.), Empress Jingū, the wife of Emperor Chūai (legendary,192-200 A.D.) and Yamatohime-no-mikoto, the daughter of Emperor Suinin (legendary, 29 B.C.-70 A.D.) who supposedly founded the Ise Shrine to the sun-goddess Amaterasu.

But obviously, the only one of these three women who is said to have lived in approximately the same time as Himiko, Empress Jingū, is described as a very different character than the shaman queen. Her husband, Emperor Chūai, had declared that the unborn child of his chief consort, Empress Jingū, should follow after him on the throne. Unfortunately, the emperor died before the child was even born. His widow, who obviously bore an ambitious and fierce character, led her troops into battle and “conquered the country of Shiragi”, in spite of her advanced pregnancy. When the imminent laying-in threatened to keep her from fighting before the war was won, she delayed it by putting “stones in her girdle” (however that may have worked). When comparing that story to the description of unmarried Queen Himiko who is said to have pacified the country, to have had a younger brother who helped her rule and who used to hide her face from the public, it seems impossible to assume that these two should have been the same person.

There may be several reasons why the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) still upholds their claim to Queen Himiko as ancestress of Japanese royals, but one of them is easy to guess: In spite of scientists’ appeals who crave to examine the more than 400 tombs the Government asserts hold the remains of emperors, empresses and their relatives, in spite of their declaration that the scientific gain of excavations would be immeasurable, as these tombs of Japanese rulers and nobles use to contain the richest materials of their times, and in spite of the fact that there is strong reason to believe that many of the tombs are misidentified, the IHA still refuses to grant archaeologists access. Officially, the IHA maintains this is simply a matter of not wanting to desecrate the graves of the emperor’s ancestors. And this might explain that they insist on claiming Queen Himiko as imperial ancestress. (Otherwise, they would have no pretext left for barring her tomb against research.) But the reasons for their lack of support to scientists are lying much deeper as the words of one retired IHA executive reveal: “The archaeologists’ job is to overturn the accepted, and this is the accepted history of Japan. If you let archaeologists in, it could cause confusion. Why is it so important to find out the truth?”

Far from being eager to find out the truth, Japan’s traditionalists do their very best to prevent the real facts from being discovered, and, if, in the individual case, that should prove to be unavoidable, they at least see to it that the broader public is kept ignorant of them. It may be common knowledge among academics that the first emperors were fabricated, but that is not necessarily so among the wider public. Right wingers still claim noisily that all the 124 emperors are not myth but history. And their obsession has not failed in bringing forth remarkable political consequences. In 2005, a government-appointed panel of experts recommended to change the succession law in order to allow princesses to ascend the Japanese throne. Powerful members of Japan’s “eternal” government party LDP strongly opposed the scheme, and in 2006, when Princess Kiko’s third pregnancy became public, the plans were shelved. This happened although, according to polls, still more than 60 per cent of Japanese were in favour of changing the law. One of the main arguments of those opposing the changes was the assertion of an unbroken lineage of the imperial dynasty that is said to have lasted 2,669 years. (This assumption, incidentally, is happily and thoughtlessly quoted also in many non-Japanese articles on the subject.)

The problem here is not only that the wider public is purposefully kept ignorant of the fact that, according to modern historical research, around 1,000 years would, in any case, have to be subtracted from the asserted 2,669, although every scholar nowadays is well aware of that. What would have to be called the real scandal consists in the event that even committed scientists have no chance at all to find out the truth that lies still hidden in the ancient tombs and imperial archives, well protected from the truth-searching desires of modern academics who show an impious lack of gratitude for the blessings of “accepted history”. “The problem for scholars is that we don’t even know what records they do and don’t have,” said Takehiko Yoshimura, a historian of ancient Japan at Meiji University in Tokyo. “It’s all kept in a mist.”

Read an article of the New York Times about Japan`s ancient tombs.

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