As Japan recently enthroned their new emperor, Naruhito, debates have surfaced on female ascension to the Japanese throne. Japan has had empresses regnant in the past, and before Japan was even a country, other women ruled like the legendary Queen Himiko of Yamatai-koku (a country in what is now Japan during the Yayoi period).
Queen Himiko, who some call Pimiko, was born c. 170 CE in Yamatai-koku as the daughter of Emperor Suinin, and she is mentioned in Chinese, Japanese and Korean sources. Oddly, two of the oldest Japanese written histories (c. 712 Kojiki and c. 720 Nihon Shoki) omit her with some arguing she was purposely left out. However, Chinese sources, considered more accurate than the Japanese sources, stressed her importance for 3rd century Japan.
According to Chinese sources “Book of Wei”, she came to the throne after 70 or 80 years of unrest following the death of a male ruler. She never married and was assisted in running the country by her brother. Rarely seen in public, she only had one male servant while the thousands of others were women. The man had a specific duty to serve as a communicator and serve her food and drink. Himiko, who practised magic, was protected at all times by armed guards in her palace.
“Records of Wei” claims that upon her death in 248, the people would not obey the new king installed with unrest again hitting the area with thousands of deaths. To restore order, Himiko’s 13-year-old niece, Queen Iyo, was named monarch.
It is also claimed that Queen Himiko is the originator of the most important Shintō sanctuary in Japan: Grand Shrine of Ise. A legend in Japan states that Himiko was given the sacred mirror that served as a symbol of the sun goddess, and in 5BC she enshrined said mirror in the Grand Shrine of Ise.
Queen Himiko reigned for 50 to 60 years and was known to dispatch diplomatic missions to China during her time on the throne, helping to explain the Chinese information on her. She was even given a special honour by the Chinese Wei Dynasty who gave her the title of “Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei.”
It was not until 2009 that Queen Himiko’s 280 metres long tomb, built in a traditional keyhole-shape design, was believed to have been discovered by researchers at the National Museum of Japanese History near Nara. They presented evidence at the 75th annual meeting of the Japanese Archaeological Association regarding the burial site; however, the Imperial Palace has banned further excavation of the site to positively confirm it is her resting place.
Professor Hideki Harunar led the excavation and said about the Queen, “She is a very important part of Japanese history as she was the first queen, ruled for many years – although we do not know exactly how long – and has gone down in history as a very popular ruler.”