Jingu (c. 201–269)

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Jingū (c. 201–269)

Legendary empress of Yamato, the ancient kingdom of Japan, who led military campaigns to defeat the Korean kingdoms of Silla and Paekche. Name variations: Jingo; Jingō; Jingo-kogo; Jingu. Pronunciation: gin-GOO. Her historical existence has not been proven; she may have been a composite of several imperial consorts in ancient Japan who were shamanesses. According to the Kojiki and the Nihongi, she was born in 201 in western Japan and died in 269; daughter of Prince Okinaga Sukune and Princess Katsuraki Takanuka; married Emperor Chūai; children: Prince Homuda, later known as Emperor Ōjin.

Ruled as regent between the reigns of the legendary Emperor Chūai and the Emperor Ōjin when there was no official sovereign; ruled as a shamaness with the assistance of divination and acted as a spiritual medium; during regency, led troops in a number of military campaigns to subdue internal resistance in the Yamato kingdom and defeat neighboring kingdoms, most notably, the Korean kingdoms of Silla and Paekche.

In the ancient kingdom of Yamato, which became the nation of Japan, female and male chieftains ruled in partnership; the female chieftains provided religious protection through spiritual divination, while the male chieftains handled political and economic matters. Female imperial consorts, who at times ruled the kingdom as regents, were given the title nakatsusumera-mikoto, which meant either "the august medium who transmits the divine word of the heavenly spirits" or "the one who carries on the imperial duties between the death of her husband and the occasion of the next emperor." In the historical chronicles of ancient Japan, these shamaness queens were represented by the portrayal of Empress Jingū, who was depicted as having the capacity to discern the will of heavenly spirits and subdue their malevolent inclinations for the well-being of the kingdom. Jingū was said to have been a sword-wielding military leader who, dressed as a male warrior, used her spiritual powers to lead her troops to victory.

Although archeological evidence supports the existence of shamaness queens, no evidence has yet been found to authenticate the existence of Jingū. The legends of Jingū are found in the Kojiki and the Nihongi, historical chronicles commissioned in the 8th century by empresses and based on the oral legends that had traditionally been conveyed by women storytellers. While there are chronological discrepancies, modern scholars believe that the legends of Jingū's military exploits represent actual Japanese campaigns in Korea late in the 4th century, and that the figure of Jingū was a composite of several shamaness rulers. The intriguing aspect of the Jingū legend is that the most significant military victories, technological advances, and cultural developments of ancient Japan were attributed to a woman.

According to the chronicles, Jingū was of noble lineage, the daughter of Prince Okinaga Sukune, a descendant of the imperial family, and Princess Katsuraki Takanuka , a descendant of a mystical maiden created by the spirits. Jingū's story began, however, with her marriage to the legendary Emperor Chūai. The chronicles depicted Chūai as having been engaged in military campaigns to subdue neighboring warrior families. Jingū accompanied him on these campaigns, frequently performing mystical rites of divination. Her capacity to communicate with the spirits and enlist their support enhanced the imperial couple's popularity with the people.

In the midst of a campaign against the neighboring Kumaso people, the emperor sought the assistance of his consort to divine the outcome of the battle. An imperial minister, a male shaman, strummed a stringed instrument in order to send Jingū into a trance, during which she became a medium used by the spirits to communicate. Through Jingū, spirits conveyed the message that the emperor should cease his battle with the Kumaso and turn his attention, instead, across the sea to a kingdom called Silla, which was rich with gold, silver, and jewels. If the emperor agreed to worship the spirit who spoke through Jingū, with an offering of a ship and a rice field, the spirit promised that the emperor would achieve victory in Silla without the need to draw swords.

Emperor Chūai refused, however, to believe the words that he had heard, first dismissing them as Jingū's own fabrication, later charging that she had been overcome by a treacherous spirit. Jingū again fell into a trance and the spirit repeated the message, angrily declaring that the emperor would never win the riches of Silla. Henceforward, the spirit announced, it would address Jingū as empress, and the child she carried would one day receive the riches of Silla. One source states that the emperor died immediately after rejecting the words of the spirit, while another source states that the emperor pursued the Kumaso and died in battle.

Mobilizing troops to make war is a grave decision that affects our state and our future. I wish to assume full responsibility.

—Empress Jingū

Jingū initially kept the death of her husband a secret, while she proceeded to obtain the spiritual resources necessary to consolidate her rule. She entered a ceremonial hall to purify herself and the kingdom after the contamination associated with the death of the emperor. Entering into a trance, she sought to identify the spirit whom she should worship. After eight days of supplication, the spirit identified itself and repeated the message it had conveyed to the emperor. Thereafter, Jingū sent envoys to make offerings at the appropriate shrines and named a general to continue the campaigns against the troublesome Kumaso. This time, the Kumaso quickly surrendered. Jingū achieved the goal that had eluded her husband because she divined the will of the spirits, acted in accordance with their words, and enlisted their power for the benefit of the kingdom.

Through divination, Jingū received confirmation that it was the will of the spirits that she clothe herself as a man and lead her troops into battle against the kingdom of Silla and win its riches for the child to whom she would give birth. Summoning the imperial counselors, she sought their approval for a declaration of war. An astute politician, Jingū dressed as a male warrior, informed the counselors that she enjoyed the support of the spirits, and assured them that if victorious, they would receive the credit, and if unsuccessful, she would take the blame. The counselors unanimously supported a declaration of war against the kingdom of Silla.

Thereafter, Jingū sought to recruit and arm troops for the campaign. She invoked divine assistance by making offerings to the spirits, and the recruits arrived in the necessary numbers. Assembling on the beach, three divisions of soldiers cheered Jingū when she appeared dressed as a man, wielding a battle-ax. Addressing them on military tactics, she told them, "You must not engage in atrocities; avoid unnecessary killing and spare those who surrender." She promised to reward those who faithfully followed her instructions and punish those who showed cowardice. Finally, Jingū became a medium, and through her, a spirit promised to attach itself to the person of the empress and protect her, while leading her troops into battle.

After lecturing her troops, Jingū felt her baby move within her. Praying for a sign, she girded her loins with a rock and invoked the spirits to postpone the birth of the child until her successful return from the campaign. The empress and her troops set sail, her ship escorted by large sea creatures and ushered by favorable winds. Under the leadership of Jingū, the Yamato troops landed and, taking the people of Silla by surprise, marched unopposed to the palace of the king. Impressed by her supernatural powers, the king of Silla surrendered and offered Jingū an annual tribute gift of horses (superior continental horses that would prove useful in her future military campaigns) and 100 artisans, both female and male. Some of her troops wished to kill the king, but she reminded them of her earlier admonition and the soldiers acquiesced. Jingū sent her men to local offices throughout the kingdom to confiscate riches, maps, and family registries (which would assist them in levying and collecting taxes). Finally, after her peaceful subjugation of Silla, Jingū planted her spear in front of the Silla king's palace, as a symbol of her victory. Upon her return to Yamato, Jingū gave birth to a son who was to become (the historically verified) Emperor Ōjin. Her prayers had been answered, and the prophecies of the spirits fulfilled.

In the year following her return, Jingū successfully entered battle to protect the eventual succession of her son, and thus, her regency because the sons of an earlier wife of the Emperor Chūai wished to remove her. Consistently, Jingū sought to discern the will of the spirits and offer supplication. As a result, her interests prospered, while those of her enemies failed. The imperial counselors honored Jingū with the title "Empress Dowager." During her life, she ruled, preventing the ascension of her son.

In the 47th year of Jingū's regency, disputes developed between the Korean kingdoms of Silla and Paekche. Envoys from Silla diverted the tribute gifts with which the king of Paekche sought to establish a diplomatic relationship with the kingdom of Yamato. Through divination, Jingū sought an appropriate policy. During the next two years, she punished Silla with an expeditionary force. Yamato troops pacified seven tribal groups and gave their land to the king of Paekche. Thereafter, Paekche sent annual tribute gifts to Jingū's court. In the 52nd year of her reign, the king of Paekche sent a ceremonial sword of steel to Jingū, a sword that is still extant. Jingū died in the 69th year of her regency (there are chronological discrepancies between Korean records and the dates given in Japanese chronicles).

Within the Jingū legends, myth and history were intertwined to represent the political consolidation of the Yamato kingdom and the military exploits on the Korean peninsula which are known to have occurred beginning in the 4th century. The events depicted in the Jingū legends represent a turning point in the ancient Japanese kingdom, when large numbers of Korean and Chinese immigrants poured into Yamato with advanced learning. Many of these immigrants were skilled in metallurgy and rice farming, as well as engineering techniques needed for the construction of irrigation networks. Power struggles for access to the wealth of the Korean peninsula, depicted in the various battle scenes of the Jingū legends, continued in the Korean kingdoms and Yamato in the 6th and 7th centuries. With respect to the historical credibility of the Jingū legends, historian Michiko Y. Aoki has concluded, "Jingū is a legendary woman of Japan with a considerable degree of historicity in her way. Not only does she embody certain real-life female leaders in particular, but also testifies to the sincere respect and the honored place commanded by Japanese women in general in ancient time."


Aoki, Michiko Y. "Empress Jingū: The Shamaness Ruler," in Heroic with Grace: Legendary Women of Japan. Edited by Chieko Irie Mulhern. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1991.

Brown, Delmer M. "The Yamato Kingdom," in The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. I. Edited by Delmer M. Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Aston, William George. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1972.

Linda L. Johnson , Professor of History, Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota