During the Kofun period, the leaders of Yamato held sacred roles as powerful priest kings. Explosive agricultural growth during the last part of the third century, and the fruits thereof, gave the Yamato kings the ability to marshal the human and physical resources needed for constructing huge mounds … and to undertake military campaigns into the Korean peninsula.
(Left: King from the Early Kofun period, Azuchi-hyotanyama kofun; Middle: King from the Middle Kofun period, Shinkai kofun; Right: King from the Late Kofun period, Kamoinariyama kofun)
Six huge burial mounds (each more than twice as large as any mound found in Korea) have been found located at the foot of Mt Miwa. King Suijin, is believed to be buried in the fifth of the six Shiki mounds.
There existed a close link between Yamato’s first kings and the worship of a local deity (called kami) residing on Mt Miwa. This can be seen from the investigations into the Mt Miwa site and the myths, traditions as well as offerings and religious symbols around the sacred mountain.
Omiwa shrine – became the major religious institution for the worship of the Mt Miwa kami – a place where ancient rites have been performed since Suijin’s time.
The sacred role of the Yamato kings and the worship of Mt Miwa’s kami is revealed by the myth according to Nihon Shoki (a.k.a. Nihongi) as follows:
In the early days of King Suijin’s reign, a number of calamities befell his kingdom. Now, King Suijin was a ruler who gave serious attention “to the worship of kami and to his heavenly duties“. This state of things led King Suijin to seek the advice and assistance from the kami upon which he received a revelation, transmitted through a shaman princess, that the calamities would cease if the kami were to be worshipped. Suijin asked which kami was speaking and received the following response, “I am Omono Nushi no Kami worshipped within the borders of Yamato and residing on Mt Miwa.” – Nihongi)
Yamato’s shrine shifts to Saki area
During the last half of the 4th century, the Yamato kings became deeply involved in kami worship at a different shrine: the Isonokami.
Isonokami became the leading Yamato shrine after the kings became tied to the strong uji clans in the Saki area as palaces and mounds became built farther and farther north (although the kami at Mt Miwa continued to be worshipped).
However, archaeological evidence shows that the Isonokami Shrine did not become important until the locus of Yamato power had shifted to the Saki area.
The burial mounds of Saki include Gosashi mound, also known as the tomb of Empress Jingu who, according to legend, ruled as regent for her son around AD 200. The Gosashi mound (according to National Geographic) the tomb was opened to examinations by experts for the first time just in April 2008.
Mounds of monumental proportions: A sign of divine authority
Yamato had prospered under the rule of Saki kings, control of territorial borders expanded, so that the sum of their accumulated wealth, power and authority was now passed down to the line of descendants. The mounds had thus come to symbolize and affirm the divine authority transmitted to living successors, the mound builders. The kings buried in the Saki mounds had inherited the authority of earlier Shiki kings. Thus Saki mounds were built successively not simply to honour the souls of the deceased Yamato kings, but also as a symbol of hereditary authority.
As the Yamato kings expanded into other regions of Japan, during the last years of the 4th century, they brought the lands in the west, and in the northeast under Yamato control. Yamato Takeru no Mikoto’s military campaigns are noted in the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki along with mention of the divine assistance received from kami and other supernatural beings.
The military interests and exploits of King Suinin’s successors, his two sons, were also woven into legends to:
– to legitimise the affirm the sacred connections between the Yamato king and his son;
– to affirm the sacred role of Yamato warrior-king and their role as custodians of the sacred “military” treasures. Nihon shoki states that king Suinin’s eldest son (Prince Inishiki no Mikoto) had a thousand swords made and that he was placed in charge of Isonokami’s divine treasures. The records also allege that he founded the Mononobe clan and thenceforth a succession of Mononobe clan chieftains served as custodians of Isonokami treasures.
Though the Nihon Shoki entries were obviously revisions to mythology to legitimise the line of authority, they must also reflect the reality of a rapid expansion of the Yamato realm and the extensive use of iron weapons at a time when many military campaigns were carried out.