Jimmu Tenno: Legendary First Emperor of Japan

Who was Emperor Jimmu Tenno

Jimmu Tenno is in Japanese legend and history, the first emperor of Japan and one of its greatest early heroes.

Jimmu Tenno: Legendary First Emperor of Japan
Jimmu Tenno, guided by the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu

According to legend, in 660 BCE, Jimmu established the Japanese imperial dynasty that has continued unbroken to this day, spanning the reign of 126 emperors and more than 2500 years.

Jimmu Tenno’s name can be literally translated as “divine warrior,” and that is a good description of him. However, he received this name only after his death.

Previously, he was known as Toyo-Mike-Nu and Kamu-Yamato-Iware-Hiko. He was the son of Hikohodemi and a descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess. Tradition says that he became ruler of Japan in 660 B.C.

Did Emperor Jimmu Tenno really exist?

The tales of Jimmu’s exploits are legends, and there is considerable doubt about whether he existed at all.

The date provided for his rule in the ancient texts (660 B.C.) is considered too early by most experts for an emperor to have ruled a unified Japan.

Still, there must have been a first emperor of Japan. Such a leader would naturally be viewed as a great hero, though the details in stories told about him long after his death may not have been based
entirely on fact.

Historians believe that the Japanese emperors came from a clan that consolidated power in the fourth to fifth centuries A.D. They are associated with Yamato, a region in Honshu. Thus, by historical accounts, the first known Emperor of Japan that is historically agreed to have existed is Emperor Anko (401-456 AD).

How Jimmu Tenno became first Emperor of Japan

Jimmu Tenno (“divine warrior”) spent his youth on the western island of Kyushu where his grandfather Hikohoho had made his home.

By tradition Jimmu and his imperial descendants can trace their ancestry right hack to the first days of creation, for Jimmu’s ancestor was great Izanagi himself. Jimmu was linked to him through the descendants of Amaterasu, Izanagi’s daughter, thus confirming his legitimacy and right to rule.

Later, as an adult, he called his brothers and children together and announced that he would continue the heavenly task begun by Amaterasu and extend the glories of imperial rule to the region of Yamato, on the island of Honshu.

In the Kojiki, Jimmu is presented as a historical figure. In reality, though, he was legendary, and scholars cannot agree on the facts behind the myth.

The traditional date given lor Jimmu’s accession is 660 BC.

According to the Nihongi, the emperor was forty-five when he began his journey of conquest and settlement.

From Kyushu he proceeded resolutely, with great military might, by land and sea.

On the waves Jimmu, at the head of a large fleet, met a deity astride a tortoise’s back, who agreed to be his guide along the sea routes.

In places Jimmu was welcomed and feasted by local rulers who pledged themselves to his service.

Many harbours, rivers and settlements in Japan took their names from events that occurred on Jimmu’s march.

He met and subdued many deities who subsequently became the ancestors of important Japanese clans.

Battle of Kusaka and death of Itsuse, Jimmu’s brother

At the Hill of Kusaka, Jimmu’s troops encountered a fierce force, well led by Nagasunekiho, a local prince.

It was a brutal battle, the armies were evenly matched, and Jimmu’s elder brother Itsuse was wounded.

Jimmu resolved to retreat, for the sun was low in the sky and his army was fighting into the Sunlight, which was not fitting for a descendant of the sun goddess.

He planned to attack at a later time in another place with the sunlight at their backs. It would symbolize for his men the great power of the goddess’s dynasty.

The army accordingly withdrew and moved on. All this time, Itsuse was suffering keenly from his deep arrow wound.

He did not pity himself, however, but donned heavy armour so that all could witness his bravery and recognize his steadfast spirit. But his strength continued to dwindle and finally, when the army came to Mount Kama, he died and was buried with great honour.

Some scholars believe that in ancient tradition Itsuse may have been Jimmu’s predecessor as emperor.

In the Kojiki the ideogram used to describe the moment of his death is the one reserved for the death of an emperor.

Also, the fact that several generations intervened between Honiningi and Jimmu reflects a period of consolidation by the invaders in Kyushu before they went eastwards.

Futsu no Milama, the Wonder Sword

The army observed the proper period of mourning, then travelled resolutely on.

After surviving a storm at sea, they came to the region of Kumano.

There, as the men set up camp, they saw a great bear prowling close by; its roar made them shiver.

That night terrible weakness afflicted the soldiers and their emperor, as if their food or the air they breathed had been poisoned.

In truth the region’s unruly gods had created a vapour that drained the men’s strength. But help was at hand from the army’s celestial patron, Amaterasu.

A man named Takakuraji had troubled dreams that night. He saw Amaterasu and a thunder deity, Take-mikazuchi, in conference on the heavenly plain.

The goddess noted that her descendant was struggling in his divinely ordained task and urged her fellow deity to descend to Earth and pacify the emperor’s enemies.

Take-mikazuchi replied that he did not need to go down there himself for he could send his sword Futsu no Mitama; it would bring unstoppable force to the imperial army.

Then he instructed the dreamer to look in his storehouse on waking the following morning, for he would find the sacred sword there.

Takakuraji did as he was told and sure enough found a great sword. The sword was somehow balanced on its hilt, with the blade – sparkling with heavenly light – pointing upwards.

He took it and brought it to Jimmu who at that moment awoke from his slumbers.

With the wonder sword the local deities were vanquished. Swiftly the army returned to strength and massed once more to march.

The Divine Sun Crow and founding the Dynasty

Jimmu’s force climbed high into the mountains, but the route was so treacherous that they had to call a halt.

Then Amaterasu intervened, appearing in a dream and promising to send Jimmu a divine guide in the shape of a red bird with three claws, named Yatagarasu or the “Sun Crow”.

The crow descended and guided the imperial army across the peaks and slopes to the region of Uda, governed by two brothers named Ukeshi.

Here Jimmu was greeted by the younger of them, who prostrated himself and revealed that his older brother was plotting to resist.

He said that Ukeshi the Elder had raised an army, but on seeing the size of the imperial forces had been frightened and turned back.

Now he had built a hall that concealed a murderous machine. His plan was to invite Jmmu to dine and then lead him into the room, where the device would end his life.

Jimmu sent a loyal soldier, Michi-no-omi, to scout.

He encountered Ukeshi the Elder and denounced him for his treachery; then, enraged, Michi-no-omi drew his weapon and charged, driving the dishonourable Ukeshi into the hall he had prepared.

Ukeshi blundered into the deadly machine and was killed.

Michi-no-omi dragged out the body and hacked off its head, releasing a river of blood that lapped up to his ankles before draining away.

Ever after the place was known as Uda no Chi-hara (“The Bloody Plain of Uda”).

Ukeshi the Younger then laid on a feast of beef and sake for the troops, and Jimmu entertained his men by singing a traditional humorous song describing how each man gives his youngest wife the finest cuts of meat and expects the old wife to make do with a meagre serving.

Jimmu proceeded on his way, violently overcoming opposition and imposing the rule of law wherever he went.

Finally, when he had routed all the enemies of order, he built a wonderful palace at Kasipara in Yamato.

There he married a local beauty, Apirahime, but he still sought another maiden to be his principal wife.

One day he heard tell of a young woman named Isuke-yori-hime who had divine blood in her veins.

The divine origin of Isuke-yori-hime

The story was that her mother’s beauty had drawn the attention of the god Omononushi.

Jimmu could not forget her and followed one day when she went to relieve herself.

Transforming himself into a red arrow, he fell into the water and was washed up beside her.

She carried the arrow home, and that night she discovered that it had become a young man.

She took him as her husband and their child was Isuke-yori-hime.

Jimmu marries Isuke-yori-hime

Another day, Jimmu met Isuke-yori-hime near the palace and was deeply impressed with her modesty and beauty.

They began a courtship and in time she became his honoured wife, bearing him three fine sons.

Emperor Jimmu then continued to reign until his death at the age of 127.

After Jimmu’s death, Isuke-yori-hime had to save their sons from the evil attentions of their half-brother, Tagishi-mimi, a son by Apirahime, who wanted to remove the boys to Yomi so that he could take power on Earth.

Unable to speak out openly, Isuke-yori-hime warned the children to be on their guard by singing songs about brooding nature and the massing of dark clouds on the mountain.

One son, Take-nunakawa, then killed Tagishi-mimi and thereby saved the legitimate imperial line.

Take-nunakawa then took the title of Emperor Suisei and succeeded Jimmu and consolidated the dynasty, which, according to tradition, has continued unbroken down to the present day.

Symbols of Jimmu

The tortoise

Servant of Jimmu during his long trek, the tortoise is a symbol of longevity and a guardian of the northern signs of the Japanese zodiac.

The crow

Crows were revered in ancient Japan as symbols of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and were also a symbol of Jimmu since a crow guided him through unknown lands.


Sources:

  • The Mythology of all races – Japanese by Louis Herbert Gray and Masahuru Anesaki
  • Legend in Japanese Art by Henry L. Joli
  • Kojiki
  • Manyoshu
  • Nihongi
  • Myths of China and Japan by Donald Alexander Mackenzie
  • Myths and legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis
  • Old-world Japan : legends of the land of the gods by Frank Rinder
  • Gods and heroes of old Japan by Violet M Pasteur & Ada Galton
  • Ancient Tales & Folklore of Japan by Richard Gordon Smith
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