3rd century: Powerful priest kings of Yamato and sacred Mt Miwa

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.

14 responses to “3rd century: Powerful priest kings of Yamato and sacred Mt Miwa

  1. Umm… It is wrong information that ancient Japan established dynasty in the Korean peninsula. Some evidence that proves it are not obvious and have less credibility.
    So, I want you to correct this wrong information.

    • There is no suggestion in this piece of work that Japan established a dynasty in the Korea peninsula. The entire piece refers to expansion of the Yamato dynasty within Japan, with the exception of the phrase ” to undertake military campaigns into the Korean peninsula” … there is sufficient evidence that the various Yamato powers were asked to provide military troops to help their Korean allies at different times…including mention of the grave loss of Japanese ships at one point. I do suggest that the Yamato powers had considerable military capability at this point to be undertaking military expeditions — but I leave it an open question as to whether Japan supplied troops and logistical supplies as offers of military assistance or whether greater ambitious campaigns were intended. Nowhere in this website have I suggested that Japan had successfully established a dynasty in the Korean peninsula. It is however a raging controversy that I am aware of, and may take up in a piece in future to outline the various views taken by historians on both the Japanese and Korean sides.

    • Hello Lim, welcome to YAP prevelant Yamato!

      Hovering high in the sky, Yamato Takeru sung:
      “Yamato – the Forum of the State, fenced by green hedgerow of ridges,
      Yamato is glorius.”
      We were boarderless in ancient times.

  2. Meanwhile, as to “Isonokami’s divine treasures”, this is in the yard of a shrine of same name and situated near the river “Furu”. There is a Furu River or Hun River in Koguryo head city Jian http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ji%27an,_Jilin Hence I think that the Mononobe is from the same place as the Jian builders.

  3. Mt. Miwa https://heritageofjapan.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/saki-nara-basin-tumuliareas.jpg
    is similar in shape to a bamboo hat or a kereksur. It is believed to contain the soul of the land. The soul of the land was attended by the highest priestess of the country. Miwa Shrine is the shrine dedicated to major Japanese highest priestesses of the age. One exception to this rule was the 10th Emperor Sujin’s
    appointment of male priest Otataneko to the post of the guardian of the landsoul.

    • 1st emperor Jimme was a believer of Sky God and guided by Salt God for sailing, not a believer of Snake (the land). 10th Emperor Sujin’s polycy of making Mt. Miwa as the center of the land was a great change from Jimmu’s Sky god, bird totem belief. Transbaikal deer herders’ influence may have become stronger.

      • Jimmu is called the 1st emperor since he was the 1 st to govern Inland Sea arera and Sujin is also called the 1st emperor but he governed about half the present Japan, from Kyushu to Kanto, and built then greatest and epoch making Hashiuhaka for Himiko.

    • I think there is a stronger contender and better fit for Mt Miwa and Japanese mountain worship system than Siberian or Tuvan ones (according to some sources – some of the shamanic songs and stories told in Tuva have derivative characters from Tibet) – Tibetan mountain god belief systems. From the excerpts below – you might see that every element and mythological motif is spot on and consonant with shinto beliefs and shrine legends in Japan as well as Kojiki and Nihongi myths – especially creation myths, and earliest gods hierarchy and mythical emperors. There is also the heavenly rope and sacred tree rope; snake shape-shifters of Miwa…the mountain goddess (chief shrine maiden) riding stag; spear, gems (of mountain god) mirror (wife goddess); bird that brings fertility (Yayoi as well as Kofun period totems); animal sacrifices … all in all very good fit, together with a look at the incoming migratory gene pool contributions from the region. Only thing is I would like to know how far back this could have gone … to Himiko?
      “In Tibetan historiography, the mountain god yar-lha-sham-po is often called the royal god, and represents the power of the royal family. At the beginning of the spread of Buddhism into Tibet, many members of the royal house, adherents of the native Tibetan religion, Bon-po, remained averse to
      Buddhism. This situation gave rise to the story of how the Buddhist deity pad-ma-vdyung-gnas encountered resistance from yar-lha-sham-po, who caused a flood to destroy a Buddhist palace. The emergence and triumph of yar-lha-sham-po as the supreme mountain god is also the history of the
      development and strength of the yar-lung tribe. Absent a unified Tibetan power and a wise king skilled in military strategy, the Tibetan mountain god yar-lha-sham-po would not have become such a preeminent fixture.
      A distinctive feature of Tibetan mythology is that the images of mountain gods are based on religious elements other than the physical mountains themselves. They are often embodied as animals or totems.
      “At this time, sku-gnyan-thang-lha is the testing master.
      He stretches his head to the region of gru-gu;
      His tail fills up the possession sog-chu-gyer-thang.
      A white snake blocks the road,
      The master puts the stick onto the waist of the snake, and says:
      “You are the Dragon King ne-le-thod-dkar,
      dri zavi rgyal po sur phud lnga pa zhes.
      gnyan-chen is the son of the mountain god vod-de-gung-rgyal and the single-winged jade bird, and is the chief of the gnyan gods. The place where the god lives is called vdam-shon;5 the jade-green bird brings vitality and the greenness of spring even to the snowy mountains in wintertime….
      the mountain god is described as wearing armor and a white fighting gown studded with decorative gems. He is often pictured waving a spear with a fixed flag in his left hand, while holding a magic bowl full of gems his right hand.””

      His wife is the goddess rma-chen…She originally lived on the anyesrmachen mountain and was considered the greatest of the twelve goddesses Tibetan ritual texts describe her in this way: she rides a stag as white as a conch, and her body is as white as the snowy mountains.
      She is extremely beautiful, and her hair is plaited with colorful ribbons. In her right hand she holds a magical mirror, in her left a lasso and an iron hook. Dressed in a silk coat, she is adorned with a golden crown decorated with diverse gems atop her head. She also wears a pearl necklace, bracelets,
      and anklets; a shining bell is fixed to the belt around her waist.”
      In Tibetan mythology, the mountain gods have immense power and rule all other deities; this power stems from their control of weather phenomena—the wind, the clouds, thunder, hail, and so on. Accordingly, they have become the principal gods of Tibetan mythology, and their veneration is the most important form of nature worship in Tibet.
      Because of their massive “bodies” and because of the illusions created by the weather around the peaks, mountain gods have changeable images in ritual. In time an amalgamation of mountain god worship with animal worship occurred: animals such as sheep, yaks, and wild horses all but replaced the old images. This animal imagery in turn gave way to anthropomorphism, as the animal forms became accompanying gods or the beasts that the mountain god rides. Changes in ritual imagery notwithstanding, the preeminence of the mountain gods in Tibetan mythology is unquestioned. Sacrifices to them are a collective rather than an individual matter, for a mountain god is not usually considered to be an
      individual guardian; instead, he or she is the guardian of a particular tribe or even an entire people.
      “ancient Tibetans connected the mountain gods to the more abstract conceptual class of heavenly gods, believing the peaks to be sites for passage from this world to the heavens above, sites where a rope (or step) was connected directly to heaven.
      Myths about this heavenly rope (dmu-thag in Tibetan) were, not surprisingly, especially prevalent among the various ethnic groups that lived near the mountains themselves.”
      “Early Tibetan mythology differentiated mountain gods from heavenly gods: heavenly gods were chiefly symbolic and less directly connected to the material life of early Tibet. Over time, however, the apparent physical proximity, together with similarities in ritual worship, led to increased identification between the mountain gods and the heavenly gods, the result being that the latter now possess a large measure of the features of the preeminent mountain gods; it is even held that mountain gods and heavenly gods can transform from one into the other. The mountain gods sometimes rise to the status of heavenly gods, and the heavenly gods sometimes descend to become mountain gods.
      Vod-de-gung-rgyal, for example, is a patriarchal god ranked among the so-called “nine creator-gods.” However, judging from the word vod-de-gung-rgyal, this mountain god is also a heavenly god, for in Tibetan, gung means “heaven,” and gung-rgyal signifies “heavenly king.”
      Here it may be appreciated that the way the Tibetans understand the heavenly gods is somewhat different from that of peoples who live in other geographical conditions. The Tibetans’ understanding of the heavenly gods developed on the basis of their mountain god worship. After developing the
      conception of the heavenly gods through this kind of worship, ancient Tibetans postulated a tie between the two sets of gods. Hence the myth of the heavenly rope.
      Tibeto-Burmese languages strongly suggests that mu- in Tibetan refers to “the heavenly god.” As for the word dmu-thag, I believe it to be closely connected to the Tibetan word for “rainbow” (vjav). A rainbow could well be understood by early societies as a rope connecting heaven to earth, a rope
      sent down by the heavenly gods. Literally, dmu-thag means “the heavenly gods’ rope….
      It is stretched by the wind, woven into threads, and wound round a tree. It is known as Dmuthag or g.yang thag (“fortune rope”).”16 This text clearly identifies dmuthag with the rainbow.”


      The Mythology of Tibetan Mountain Gods: An Overview by Xie Jisheng
      Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001): 343-363

      Click to access Xie_Jisheng.pdf

  4. I think Himiko’ father Emperor Korei was a camp dweller, residing near Hashihaka. They got
    stronghold in downhills of Katuragi in later years. Their predecessors Yasotakeru, the bronzeworkers, however, might have reached there eralier than Jimmu.

  5. Japanese festoon archipelago is between Eurasia and Pacific Ocean, high anticyclone and depression. Screens of high backbone ridges separate snowy north-west and sunny southeast, causing seasonal migration like transhumance. Hence Eurasian pasturalist transhumance governance was the best fit for the first broad range state to adopt as the principal rule of governance on complementarity principle for a paddy rice farmer dominant country. The rule of governance in the Altai rigion where the steppe and the plateau was thus best applied in Japan.

    • Was it really best applied in Japan? I think it was best adapted and changed in Japan. I think of the Kofun Period as the Dark Ages of Japan – we can credit pasturalist transhumance influences for the greatest turmoil and turbulence of society in the prehistoric to protohistoric periods of Japan. . See Pasturalism in Turkestan: Its decline and its persistence “where pasturalism traditionally involved larger numbers of people such clashes of values [viz centralized authority of sedentary paddy civilization] have been magnified. In addition, kinship ties and tribal loyalties among pasturalists have posed a threat to the political authority of territorially organized state powers.” The Chinese account of Himiko’s rule emphasized the chaos of the times she lived in – the widespread fighting before and after her rule – we know that Yayoi period was a time of tremendous battling between villages probably over scarce prime land needed for agriculture – we know that the Yayoi period was the age of the sword and that all the various legends of swords stemmed from that era onwards – we know that Kofun Period was a time for the formation of a tighter system of alliances between various centres of power – we have accounts from the time of the “the five kings” – and from archaeology, of the centres of territorial power from which they controlled prestige goods and resources and carried on industry – we know that the building of the highly standardized burial mounds was evidence of the balance of provincial powers allied with centralized centres of power and that the system of burial mounds showed the hierarchical importance of local centres radiating from the emergent centralized power of kingly authority. From accounts of Temmu’s attempts to get in touch with and secure the support of provincial governors and clan chieftains (in 672) – we are given indications that the ruling powers were aware how fragile centralized authority was (that is until the Chinese continental style of centralized administration could take root). That PT governance took root if you can call Kofun society that – that any Altai migrants integrated or penetrated Japan was due to a combination of factors, like chaos on the continent, clever adaptation strategies of incoming elite migrants and the many military campaigns (and political marriages to clan princesses) through to 7th c. had to do with the controlling of key power bases and the control of clan bases that controlled the key trading routes (land and sea) to the sources of precious resources. We know that the leaders of Kofun society were constantly preoccupied about how to make a stronger Yamato (Kings Nintoku and Ojin were preoccupied with agricultural strategies like ditch, pond and canal construction and with channeling water to irrigate the uncultivated areas of four Kawachi district(Cambridge History) and they succeeded as kings on account of the accruing agricultural wealth from those policies. I also think the arriving elites from Korea had learned their lessons of how the weaknesses of the Altai-inspired kinship-tribal governance had caused many of the fractured Korean kingdoms to fall, and Silla and/ Paekche scholars and experts learnt to apply Chinese centralized systems of control to ameliorate the deficiencies of the Altai-style governance system. The Nara period Kojiki and Nihongi Chronicles embodying the patchwork of creation myths, imperial line myths and regional myths, were likely one of the important concrete means of giving greater legitimacy to that adapted system of centralized imperial line of authority supported by regional authority.
      that they took into account how kinship ties and provincial loyalties had failed

  6. In part of immigrants, adaptation from pastoral nomadism to agrarian autocracy might have been called for yet along shady side of the Chinese Wall and Yan Wall and in Han 4 Commanderies, and mandatory until they found a retreat in Shilla and Gaya, west of Tsushima and settled to build royal graves there. When, by chance, given allowance to serve under Wa king, there would have benn few possibility for them to do anthing as they wish. Anyway, solidification of agrarian autocracy was in progress.

    • This sounds about right. Archaeology of the Kofun Period shows a great deal of Gaya (or Kaya as J. tend to say it) objects or influence – pottery, haniwa and armor, weapons; followed by Silla, Koguryo and Paekche ones.

  7. I am a bit confused about the rise of the Yamato clan, the kofun, and the naniwa palace in Osaka. How does all that come together? Was power centered in Osaka?

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