(Nihon Shoki) 日本武尊 倭建命 (Kojiki)
Father: Emperor Keikō 景行天皇
Son: Emperor Chūai 仲哀天皇
Kehi Jingu 気比神宮
Fukui-ken, Tsuruga-shi, Akebono-chō 11-68
Takebe Taisha 建部大社
Shiga-ken, Ōtsu-shi, Jinryō 1-16−1
Ōtori Taisha 大鳥大社
Ōsaka-fu, Sakai-shi, Nishi-ku, Ōtori kita-machi 1-1
Tōkyō-to, Taitō-ku, Torikoe 2-4-1
Yamato Takeru is one of those legendary Japanese figures who is studied almost as a historical figure. He is probably best seen as a composite figure of several of the military commanders who were sent by the Yamato government to Northern Honshu and Kyūshū to subdue the Yemishi and Kumaso peoples respectively as part of it efforts to extend its writ nationwide. His story is told in both the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki, and he is the subject of the first chapter of Ivan Morris’ classic “The Nobility of Failure, Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan.” Morris introduces him thus:- “Prince Yamato Takeru, the archetype of Japan’s long line of poignant, lonely heroes, started his career in an unedifying style by murdering his elder twin brother in a privy.” And this because his father, Emperor Keikō (71-130), the twelfth of the line, had expressed dissatisfaction at the elder twin’s failure to take his meals along with the other members of the imperial household.
The circumstances in which the name by which he has gone down in history, Yamato Takeru, was dramatically confirmed were equally unedifying. At birth he was given the names Wo-usu, Yamato Woguna, and Yamato-dake no Mikoto. The Nihon Shoki describes him thus:- “Whilst a child he had a manly spirit: when he arrived at manhood his beauty was extraordinary. He was a rod in height, and his strength was such that he could lift a tripod.” (Aston p.189).
In A.D. 97, when he was 16, he was sent by his father to quell the Kumaso, a rebellious tribe in what is now probably Kumamoto-ken in Kyūshū. The Kojiki tells us that on his departure “His Augustness Wo-usu was granted by his aunt Her Augustness Yamato-hime her august [upper] garment and august skirt.” (Chamberlain, p.249) Legend has it this female Augustness was the founder of the Grand Shrine at Ise and at the time of our story its High Priestess. On leaving he also had a sabre concealed in his august bosom.
On arriving at the main Kumaso camp Wo-usu put on his aunt’s upper garment and skirt, let down his hair and pretending to be a young girl insinuated himself into a banquet the Kumaso leader, Torishi-kaya (“The Brave of Kahakami”), was giving for his relatives. The latter was much enchanted with the disguised Wo-usu, again with a sabre concealed in his bosom, and invited the apparently beautiful young lady to sit next to him. The invitation was accepted and late in the proceedings when many of the guests had left and Torishi-kaya was becoming more and more drunk Wo-usu pulled out his sword and stabbed Torishi-kaya almost to death. The latter asked for a stay of execution and Wo-usu agreed.
Again in the words of the Nihon Shoki:- “The Brave of Kahakami addressed him (Wo-usu) saying:- “Who is thine Augustness?” He answered and said:-“I am the child of the Emperor Oho-tarashi-hiko (the personal name of the Emperor Keikō), and my name is Yamato Woguna.” The Brave of Kahakami again spoke to him, saying:- “I am the strongest man in all this land, and therefore none of the men of this time can excel me in might, and none refuses to be my follower. I have met with many valiant men, but none as yet could match the Prince. Therefore this despicable robber, from his filthy mouth, offers thine Augustness a title. Wilt thou accept it?” He said:- “I will accept it.” So he spoke to him, saying:-“Henceforward in speaking of the Imperial Prince, let him be styled the Imperial Prince, Yamato-dake.” When he had done speaking Yamato-dake pierced his breast through and killed him. Therefore up to the present day he is styled Yamato-dake no Mikoto. This was the origin of it."
On his way back home to Yamato the Prince passed through Izumo where he killed the local ruler using more trickery and deceit. Back in Yamato he did not receive the hero’s welcome that he might have expected, instead being almost immediately given marching orders to subdue not only the savage Emishi of the Eastern provinces but also malignant Deities of the mountains and malicious demons of the moors which haunted the region. There is what seems to me a delicious irony at work here. The Emperor had ordered Yamato Takeru’s younger brother to lead the expedition but he was too afraid to go so Yamato Takeru was appointed in his place; having killed his elder brother in the privy he was now being sent on a possibly fatal mission in place of his younger brother
.At this stage the tenor of our hero’s life turns from that of a fearless unscrupulous warrior to one of introspection and melancholy. It is now A.D. 110. On his way north to deal with the Emishi he paid a visit to the Ise Grand shrine at Ise and its High Priestess, his aunt, Yamato-hime-no-Mikoto. He lamented his fate to her, saying that no sooner had he returned from subduing the Kumaso that he had been dispatched to the north on a similar hazardous mission against the Emishi. Was his father trying to bring about his death? On leaving the shrine his aunt presented him with two items, the sword, Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (lit. Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven) which Susano-o had pulled from the tail of the eight-headed serpent Yamata-no-Orochi, and a bag, which he was only to open in a time of great peril.
From Ise the prince made his way to Suruga, where he was told by some local brigands that in a nearby moor there were many large deer well worth hunting. He went looking for the deer but brigands being brigands it was a ruse to kill him by setting fire to the moor and burning him alive. Yamato-Takeru soon found himself surrounded by flames...
The Kojiki:- “So, knowing that he had been deceived, he opened the mouth of the bag which his aunt Her Augustness Yamato-hime had bestowed on him, and saw that inside of it there was a fire-striker. Hereupon he first mowed away the herbage with his august sword, took the fire-striker and struck out fire, and, kindling a counter-fire, burnt [the herbage] and drove back [the other fire]”… (Chamberlain, p.255)
The Nihon Shoki:- “The sword Mura-kumo, which the Prince wore, wielded itself, and mowed away the herbage near the Prince, thus enabling him to escape. Therefore that sword was called Kusa-nagi.” (Aston, p.205)
Needless to say once he had extricated himself from his plight his first action was to annihilate the brigands and burn the corpses. Then on to the Emishi. En route he had to cross the sea of Hashiri-no-Mizu (part of what is now Tōkyō.Bay) A sudden storm arose and the ship his party was in was unable to move. His wife, Ototachibana-hime, volunteered to go into the sea in an effort to end the storm, she did and the storm died down. Seven days later her comb was washed ashore and they built her tomb around it. As for the Emishi they had gathered on the beach ready to fight but as the Prince’s ship came into clear sight they realised resistance was futile and throwing down their weapons submitted. The chieftains were taken prisoner and carted off.
Having fulfilled the Emperor’s edict Yamato Takeru set off to return home to Yamato, but he was never to arrive. He got lost in mountains, married his fiancé Miyazu-hime at whose house he left the kusa-nagi sword, tangled with two demons, one in the form of a white deer, another a great serpent. After the latter encounter, the god of that mountain caused an icy rain to fall, exposure to which caused the Prince to become sicker and sicker and eventually to die on the moor of Nobo in Ise at the age of 30. Sensing he was about to die he offered up as slaves to a nearby shrine the Emishi prisoners he had taken. The shrine seems to have been what is now Atsuta Jinja in Nagoya..
After death, release. When the Emperor his father heard of Yamato Takeru's passing he was deeply grieved and ordered the construction of an imperial mausoleum, misasagi, on the site of his son's death. After his internment, however, "Yamato-dake no Mikoto, taking the shape of a white bird, came forth from the misasagi, and flew towards the Land of Yamato." (Aston p.210). The coffin was opened and nothing remained but empty clothing. The bird was seen to land at two more places, in both of which misasagi were erected, before it finally soared aloft to Heaven. This transformation into a white bird also plays a part in the Inari story.