The Yamatai Puzzle: Where were Himiko’s headquarters?

The only written record of the location of Queen Himiko’s Yamatai kingdom (Yamatai koku ) is to be found in the Wei Zhi (History of Wei) Chinese accounts. But descriptions given in the Wei Zhi records befuddle historians and archaeologists trying to pinpoint Yamatai’s location today.

Model of Himiko's headquarters (imaginary), Osaka Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture

Model of Yamatai (conjectural), Osaka Prefectural Museum of Yayoi Culture

The early Chinese compilers of histories liked to use large round numbers … distances were given in hundreds or thousands of li   and following the vague directions in Wei Zhi to Yamatai kingdom would leave unfortunately leave one … well, in the middle of the ocean.

To reach Yamatai, travelers leaving Tai-fang (or Inchon on the west coast of Korea as it is known today) had to sail south and then across the strait by way of the islands of Tsushima and Iki to Matsuura, Ito, Na and Fumi … all places known to be in North Kyushu.

But the trip from there to Yamatai begins to present problems because the journey would require another ten days by sea and thirty by land. That further leg of the journey appears to eliminate north Kyushu as the location of Yamatai kingdom.

Many historians would, however, like to believe that Yamatai was located in Kyushu because the large sized moated Yoshinogari settlement fits the description of Yamatai.  Such historians think that Yamatai capital was first established in Kyushu and then the Yamato clan decided to move north and east toward the area where the first government was formed in the Yamato area. Shinto legends suggest this political move. But that last leg of the required journal pokes a hole in this theory.

There is another problem with the Kyushu-Yamatai theory. It was recorded that the Chinese emperor had presented Queen Himiko’s envoy with a hundred bronze mirrors and for a long time, but few bronze mirrors had been recovered in Kyushu.

As archaeological evidence goes, large finds of bronze mirrors had always been found in the Osaka-Nara area (Kurozuka mound in Tenri city) …that is, until the discovery of 39 bronze mirrors in the Hirabaru mound in Kyushu. It would have been likely that some, if not all, of the Chinese emperor’s gift of the hundred bronze mirrors, would have been buried along with Queen Himiko’s tomb.

In the search of Himiko’s hundred mirrors, the 39 bronze mirrors that turned up in excavations of the Hirabaru mound site in Itoshima, Northern Kyushu is the latest and most important regional find generating great interest and research in the Yayoi-Kofun mounds.  The mirror finds are regarded as a key to the puzzle and the distribution of the mirrors, including those presumably received as the Wei court’s gift, was regarded as a symbolic instrument for cementing political alliances.

Ito (or Itoshima as it is known today) was an important stopover point for envoys visiting China or returning to Yamatai. According to Wajinden:

“”When envoys are coming [to the queen’s land] from the Taifang commandery, or going back [from Yama’ichi to Taifang] they usually stop [in Ito].”

However, as a stopover to Yamatai, it is clear that Ito was not Yamatai. After Ito, the next stop was Na (Fukuoka city).

Others believe that Yamatai kingdom was more likely to be located in the Kinai area where the Yamato imperial court and government was first established a century later. But that Wei Zhi’s account of the journey to Yamatai is at odds with that view too … because the journey to Kinai is … in the wrong direction.

The search is on for Queen Himiko’s tomb mound – some candidates include the the Hashihaka, Hokenoyama and Kurozuka mounds in the Nara area.

Thus the puzzle remains unsolved today, and so too, the challenge to modern-day treasure-hunters in search of Himiko’s hundred mirrors.



Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai: Archaeology, History and Mythology by J. Edward Kidder, Jr.

Brown, D. M. (1993) ‘The Yamato Kingdom,’ in Brown, D. M. ed. The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 1, Ancient Japan, Cambridge University Press, pp. 108-162.

Farris, W. W. (1998) Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures – Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan, pp. 9-54

The Earliest Kofuns in the Southeastern Part of the Nara Basin by Ogata Noboru notes the association of Himiko of the Nihon shoki with the Hashihaka tomb burial. Nihon-shoki, a chronicle of Japan compiled in the 8th century, contains the following old legend about the woman buried in Hashihaka. Yamato-Totohi-Momoso-Hime, aunt of the king of Yamato (Emperor Sujin), was wife of the deity of Mt. Miwa and a priestess able to transmit the deity’s words to the king. Because she offended the deity, she was killed and buried in Hashihaka.

Wakoku: Yamatai and the Yamato Kingdom (Kyoto National Museum) in Japanese

The Hirabaru Site and Wajinden Research Notes on the Archaeology of the Kings of Ito by Barbara Seyock

「邪馬台国五文字の謎」 (The Puzzle of Yamataikoku)角田彰男

Mirrors to Japanese History Archaeology, Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998 by Walter Edwards

Wealth and Power in the Yayoi Period Northern Kyushu by Ken Stark This thesis paper concluded that a well-developed, regional hierarchy of wealth control was present only in Region 2 (centering on Itazuke site in Fukuoka), of Kyushu, which was also the center of bronze control, and that this was also the region that showed great upheavals at the end of the Late Yayoi Period. It also concluded that communities with  large interments of bronze objects, especially bronze mirrors, occupied the top of the regional wealth hierarchy, and that the mortuary rituals and accumulations of bronze prestige objects showed intra-community competitive interactions.

2 responses to “The Yamatai Puzzle: Where were Himiko’s headquarters?

  1. So my first question is, when was this article posted, and my second question is, has Yamatai been found or not at this point, and if not do historians also consider Yamatai to be an island that has not bben debated for example something other than Yamato or North Kyushu?

  2. Maybe yamatai is like Atlantis? An advanced culture whose island sunk underneath?

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