Who was Queen Himiko?
Queen Himiko was the queen of Yamatai kingdom or “country” (or state) who symbolized the unity of the Yayoi people.
Yamatai kingdom’s Queen Himiko (Illustration copyright: Newton Graphic Science Magazine “Nihon no ruutsu”)
Earlier Chinese ca. 432 CE Hou Han Shu (Book of Later/Eastern Han) accounts had described the land of Wa (Japan) as such:
“In the middle of the Lo-lang sea there are the Wa people. They are subdivided into more than a hundred ‘countries'[called communities in some translations]. Depending on the season they come and offer tribute”.
Thirty of these countries were known to have had direct contact with China. Historians equate these “countries” with chiefdoms.
The Chinese Wei Zhi accounts in 297 A.D. asserted that Yamatai kingdom was the strongest of those countries. Yamatai country was victorious after years of warfare. Gishi no Wajinden noted decades of warfare had ensued until “the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler”, i.e. when Queen Himiko came to the throne. Towards the end of 2nd century, around 30 small chiefdoms had allied with each other to form a confederated kingdom or state known as “Yamatai country” (Yamatai koku) with Queen Himiko at the helm.
Queen Himiko was known to the Chinese because her government had sent a diplomatic mission in the year 238 A.D. to the Wei emperor, Cao Rui’s court, and the delegation was received as presenting tribute to the Chinese emperor. As such, Queen Himiko was recognized as the ruler of Wa :
“Herein we address Himiko (Pimiko is used), Queen of Wa, whom we now officially call a friend of Wei … [Your ambassadors] have arrived here with your tribute, consisting of four male slaves and six female slaves, together with two pieces of cloth with designs, each twenty feet in length. You live very far away across the sea; yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety we appreciate exceedingly. We confer upon you, therefore, the title “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei”.”
Queen Himiko may have held the ceremonial role of a shaman priestess, prophetess or perhaps, a pre-eminent shrine maiden with proxy access to the gods for the people. Gishi no Wajinden described her as a having “occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people”. Shrouded in mystery, Queen Himiko was said to have controlled the kingdoms by sorcery and magic. She was seldom seen in public and was attended by “one thousand attendants, but only one man”.
Although Queen Himiko left the execution of the affairs of state to her younger brother, Queen Himiko very likely held actual power in addition to her ceremonial and religious role. She was guarded by a large army and the Chinese thought of her as a ruler with extraordinary power.
Yamatai kingdom prospered under Queen Himiko’s rule and was observed in the Gishi no Wajinden records to have had more than seventy thousand households, well-organized laws and taxation system and thriving trade. Her people were noted to have been mainly gentle and peace-loving.
The Wajinden records that 29 different kuni or “countries” existed and that three of these were ruled by “kings”. One of them was Ito where “there have been kings for generations, subject to the queen’s kuni [Yama’ichi] they rule”. Experts have identified Ito to be Itoshima peninsula and the Hirabaru mound site is thought to contain the grave of Ito‘s king or queen (because it contained 39 bronze mirrors and other rich burial grave goods associated with rulers of the highest order). The Wajinden also hints to us how Himiko ruled:
” high [ranking] Wa are sent to inspect [the trade of the different kuni]. A high leader was especially sent to to the region] north of the queen’s land. He inspects all the kuni there. Regularly he rules in Ito.”
Thus Ito held an important role in international relations.
During her reign, Queen Himiko sent envoys to Gi to limit the influence of a rival power, the “king” of Kunu whose country of Kuna (Kuna no Koku) lay to the south of Wa. In 239 A.D., an emperor of Gi granted the Yamatai kingdom a honorable title “Sin Gi Wa O” along with a gift of 100 bronze mirrors. By 247 A.D. Queen Himiko’s realm and that of the country of Kuna were at odds, but the outcome of that conflict is not known, only that she sought Chinese imperial support and that she died likely in the year following that.
When Queen Himiko died, her people constructed a large burial mound (about 100 meters in diameter) for her. One thousand female and male attendants were sacrificed for burial along with their queen. She had lived between A.D. 183 and 248 without having ever married.
Upon her death, the male ruler who took her place did not last long and the chiefdoms fell into disunity and fighting. “Assassination and murder followed; more than one thousand were thus slain” according to Gishi no Wajinden. When Iyo, a 13-year old girl related to Himiko was placed on the throne, peace was restored and the fighting ended.
The location of Yamatai kingdom (as well as that of the burial mound of Queen Himiko) remains a mystery and is the subject of a huge academic controversy as to whether northern Kyushu or Kinai had been the actual headquarters of Queen Himiko.
Further reading: The Yamatai Puzzle: Where were Himiko’s headquarters?
Sources and references:
The Chronicles of Wa | Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd
Wa (Japan), Wikipedia
“第59回 交易の民アイヌ Ⅶ 元との戦い” (in Japanese). Asahikawa City. June 2, 2010.
Could the Hashihaka burial mound in Sakurai, Nara be Queen Himiko’s? (Heritage of Japan)
Dig in Nara, not Kyushu, yields palatial ruins possibly of Himiko (Japan Times, Nov 12, 2009)
The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 1 edited by Delmer M. Brown
Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai: Archaeology, History and Mythology by J. Edward Kidder, Jr.
State Formation in Japan: Emergence of a 4th-Century Ruling Elite by Gina Lee Barnes pp. 104-128. Barnes does a detailed job examining the different types of mounded/moated and various types of tombs of the 3rd- 4th centuries, the correlation with pottery types, with a focus on the excavations and artefacts from the Hirabaru mound and the Hokenoyama and Hashihaka tomb mounds in the Makimuku tomb cluster mounds. In so doing, she evinces a conclusion from the evolution of tomb forms and by deriving a general picture of social interaction patterns and the state of power relations by analyzing the trade missions and relations as well as tomb structures, material wealth and grave goods available to ruling powers of the time.
Sources of Japanese Tradition: Volume 1: From Earliest Times to 1600 by William Theodore De Bary, Yoshiko Kurata Dykstra