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Yamato Takeru


YAMATO TAKERU . Yamato Takeru, whose name means "brave man from the Yamato region," is a legendary character described in the records of the Yamato kingship, including the Nihonshoki (720 ce) and Kojiki (712 ce). According to the Nihonshoki and Kojiki, Yamato Takeru was the son of Keiko Tenno, the twelfth emperor. He laid the foundations for the Yamato kingship to rule almost all of the Japanese islands by conquering previously unsubjugated peoples, such as the Kumaso in the southwest and the Emishi in the northeast. Yamato Takeru's conquests finally ended when he died after his defeat by a mountain god just before returning to the Yamato region. Today, Yamato Takeru is not considered to have been an actual living person, but his character may reflect memories of Yuryaku Tenno, who lived during the fifth century.

The descriptions of Yamato Takeru's character are similar in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, but his relationship with his father, Keiko Tenno, is described very differently in the two books. In the Nihonshoki, Yamato Takeru is the one and only crown prince who is relied on by his father as a man of perfected character in terms of the ideal Chinese Confucian. But in the Kojiki, Yamato Takeru is just one of many princes, and he is hated by his father because of his extraordinary powers as a trickster-like character. Yamato Takeru's expedition is also described differently in the two books. In the Nihonshoki, he leads his father's army, whereas in the Kojiki he is forced to enter enemy territory almost alone, as if he had been expelled from the Yamato region, even though he had shown obedience to his father. The relationship described in the Kojiki could be thought of as an Oedipus complex in reverse, with the father showing hatred for the son regardless of the son's affection towards him.

Legends of Yamato Takeru are also found in the Fudoki, a compilation from the early eighth century ce explaining the origins of the names of places across the Japanese islands. There are some suggestions in the Fudoki that Yamato Takeru was classified as an emperor. From the evidence of the Nihonshoki, Kojiki, and Fudoki, there are at least three different types of legends concerning Yamato Takeru. Although they are not unified, all of these books concern the Yamato kingship.

In the medieval era, there were repeated attempts to unify the numerous records of Yamato Takeru. Most of the stories of the period, in the Heike monogatari and other works, were based on the Nihonshoki account. They emphasize the Yamato Takeru legend as a story about the miraculous powers of the Kusanagi sword, one of three items making up Japan's imperial regalia. This emphasis reflected the fact that at this point in history the warrior class controlled the political power of Japan, and the imperial family feared losing cultural power as well. Thus, the imperial family and their supporters sought to exemplify the family's strength and lineage through their possession of the legendary sword.

Beginning in the middle of the early modern period, Yamato Takeru came to be characterized as a figure with rich human emotions, especially the feeling of sorrow. Scholars of Japanese classical studies, such as Motoori Norinaga, drew more upon the Kojiki account. In the modern era and moving into World War II, the Japanese government used the figure of Yamato Takeru to represent and glorify the loyal subject, implying that it was honorable to die in war for the country and the emperor. After Japan's defeat, Marxists historians, such as Ishimoda Shō, re-presented the story of Yamato Takeru as crystallizing memories of pre-imperial Japan. Ishimoda believed that the national epics of Japan were equal to the Greek and Roman mythologies. They could be traced back to the stage before the construction of an artificial national identity through the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, when there was, according to Ishimoda, a pure national sensibility. The image of Yamato Takeru has been transformed through interpretive acts in every period of Japanese history and used to legitimate the standpoint of each interpreter. For many, the legend of Yamato Takeru was thought to preserve historical traces of national memories of how ancient Japanese society was established. The image of Yamato Takeru will no doubt continue to change over time in order to meet new needs.


Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to a.d. 697. 1896; reprint, Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo, 1972.

Ishimoda Shō. Kodai kizoku no eiyuu jidai: Kojiki no ichi kousatsu. 1948; reprint, Tokyo, 1989.

Isomae Jun'ichi. "Myth in Metamorphosis: Ancient and Medieval Versions of the Yamato Takeru Legend." Monumenta Nipponica 54, no. 3 (1999): 361385.

Isomae Jun'ichi. "Re-appropriating the Japanese Myths: Motoori Norinaga and the Creation Myths of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki." Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 27, nos. 12 (2000): 1539.

Motoori Norinaga. Kojiki-den. Motoori Norinaga zenshū, vol. 11. Tokyo, 1969.

Philippi, D. L., trans. Kojiki. Princeton, 1969.

Tsuda Sōkichi. Nihon koten no kenkyū (1948). Tokyo, 1993.

Ueda Masaaki. Yamato Takeru no Mikoto. Tokyo, 1960.

Uegaki Setsuya, ed. Fudoki. Shinpen Nihon koten bungaku zenshū, vol. 5. Tokyo, 1997.

Isomae Jun'ichi (2005)

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