Ushering in the Reiwa Era: The Importance of the Three Sacred Treasures

 

Recently, the current Emperor Heisei emerged from Ise shrine with the three sacred treasures of the Imperial regalia, known collectively as the, Sanshu-no-jingi.

 

These three items are said to have been passed from emperor to emperor in continuous succession since the beginning of Japanese history. They are recorded in Japan’s oldest texts, the Kojiki and the Nihon-shoki, as existing even earlier in the origin myths of Japan.

 

The sacred treasures consist of a sword (the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi), jewels (Yasukani-no-Magatama), and a polished bronze mirror (the Yata-no-Kagami). The passing of these treasures from emperor to emperor confirms the legitimacy of the lineage and right to rule.

 

 

The Story of the Origin of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi

 

According to the Kojiki, when the the god Susanoo-no Mikoto upset the lands of Japan, his sister, Amaterasu-no-Mikoto (Sun goddess and patron deity of Japan), hid herself away in a cave and Japan was cast into darkness. Susanoo was banished to earth for his deeds.

 

While wandering around the plains of Izumo (Modern day Shimane prefecture), Susanoo came across an old couple crying. When he asked what was wrong, they told him that every year an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent dragon called the Yamata-no-Orochi had came and taken one of their daughters, and that he was due to come and again and take their last daughter Inata-hime (Kushinada-no-hime). Susanoo told them that if they gave him their daughter’s hand in marriage, he would slay the dragon for them. They agreed, and he then told them to go and make a lot of sake (rice wine).

 

Susanno set out eight casks of sake, and when the Yamata-no-Orochi came along, he drank out of the eight casks and became drunk. Susanno quickly went around and cut off the eight-heads, then cut off the eight tails. However, when he cut into one of the tails, he discovered a sword. This sword became known as the Murakumo-no-Tsurugi, or Heavenly Gathering of Clouds Sword. He took the sword back up to heaven where he and many of the other deities had a party outside the cave when Amaterasu was hiding.

 

The deity Ama-no-Koyane-no-Mikoto hung the sacred magatama in a tree, along with the sacred bronze mirror, while another deity performed a dance on an upturned bathtub. When Amaterasu peeped out of the cave to see what all the commotion was about, several of the deities grabbed her and pulled her out of the cave.

 

Susanoo presented her with the sword and other items as a sign of his repentance. All was well again, and once again Japan was bathed in light.

 

 

The Story of the Sword’s Divine Properties of Protection

 

Later, possibly around the 3rd century, the heroic prince Yamato Takeru appears. He borrowed the sword from his aunt, the head priestess of Ise shrine, to go and quell the aboriginal peoples (Ebisu or Ainu) up in the north of Japan.

 

While on his mission, Prince Yamato was caught in the long grass. His enemies set fire to the grass to either flush him out or kill him. He drew the sword and cut down the long grass around him, saving his own life.

 

However, there is also a divine aspect to the story. He re-lit the fire, and whichever direction he pointed the sword, the wind blew in that direction. Thus, he vanquished his opponents and saved his own life.

 

From this point onwards, the sword became known as, the Grass-Cutting Sword, or the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi.

 

The important point about this story is that it is the earliest Japanese tale of a sword protecting its owner. Therefore, this is the possible origin of the association of the spiritually protective qualities of swords in Japan.

 

Later, Yamato Takeru went on another mission but left the sword with his wife. However, he was made sick by the evil deity of a mountain, and died. His wife took the sword to where he died and founded Atsuta Jingu (Nagoya), and the sword is said to have been there ever since.

 

 

The Sacred Treasures During the Genpei Wars

 

The Genpei wars brought the next myth of the mysteries of the sacred treasures. In 1185 during the Genpei wars, the Taira clan took the imperial regalia and absconded from Kyoto with their seven year old grandson, the emperor Antoku.

 

The cloistered emperor Goshirakawa denounced Antoku’s reign and demanded back the items, followed by appointment of another grandson, Gotoba, as emperor.

 

The culmination of the Genpei wars ended when the Minamoto clan pursued the Taira all the way to the  bay of Dan-no-ura, when they engaged in a land and sea battle. Towards the end of the battle the Taira took heavy losses, while at the same time,  the turning tide was forcing their ships towards the shore heavily guarded by Minamoto forces.

 

The emperor Antoku’s grandmother, Taira-no-Tokiko, told him to pray to the east while she put the sacred jewels in the folds of her kimono and the sword in her belt. She then took the young boy in her arms and jumped overboard. They were never seen again. However, the jewels miraculously floated to the surface and were rescued by Minamoto warriors.

 

Depending on the circumstances, this story is feasible. In Japan, many important things are kept in wooden boxes. If the jewels were in a box like this (as they often are) it is quite possible that they floated to the surface.

 

 

Divine Properties, Divine Replicas?

 

There are various accounts as to whether the sword was lost or not at the bay of Dan-no-ura.

 

According to Kitabatake Chikamatsu in the Jinno Shotoki, the original Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi never left Atsuta shrine. The sword lost at Dan-no-ura was a copy ordered by Emperor Sujin.

 

There are similar references from various sources about the sacred mirror. A copy of the mirror and the sword are said to have been made during the reign of the Emperor Sujin:

 

Emperor Sujin summoned the descendant of Ishikoridome-no-kami, the mirror maker in the age of gods, and had him forge a new mirror. He also called for the descendant of Ame-no-Mahitotsu-no-kami, and had him forge a new sword. After these objects were made in the Uda district in Yamato, Sujin exchanged them for the original mirror and sword of the regalia and installed them in his hall as emblems of divine protection.

 

Paul H. Varley, Translator, A Chronicle of Gods and Sovereigns: Jinnō Shōtōki of Kitabatake Chikafusa (Columbia University Press, 1980).

 

The sacred mirror was also said to be aboard the imperial flotilla at Dan-no-ura and caused the Minamoto warriors’ eyes to turn dark when they tried to open the sacred box. However, there is also doubt as to whether the original mirror had ever left Ise shrine.

 

The original mirror was said to have been exposed to fires twice at the palace – once during the Tentoku era of the reign of Emperor Murakami (957-960), and again during the Chokyu era in the reign of Emperor Gosuzaku (1040-1043). According to Chikafusa, both times it was discovered intact among the ashes.

 

The mirror that was with Antoku, as with the sword, was also said to have been a replica made during the reign of Emperor Sujin, as the original never left Ise shrine.

 

Following the loss of the duplicate sword at Dan-no-ura, another sword known as the Hi-no-goza was used in its place.

 

 

Was the Kusanagai-no-Tsurugi a Bronze Age Sword?

 

Further support of this claim comes in the form of an account from the year 1700 by Matsuoka Masano, former priest of the Atsuta Shrine.

 

Matsuoka, along with his colleagues, were cleaning the shrine when they came across long a wooden box in need of repair. Inside the box was red clay packing and a stone box. Inside the stone box was more clay packing and a hollowed out log that was lined with gold leaf. In this was a sword that is said to be the Kusanagai-no-Tsurugi.

 

The sword that they described was not a single-edged sword, but a bronze double-edged sword.

 

Again, this makes the whole Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi story possibly feasible. If Yamato Takeru existed around the 3rd century as theorized, and if he obtained an ancient sword from his aunt, then a bronze-age sword would absolutely be in keeping with the tales.

 

After it was discovered that Matsuoka and his colleagues had seen the sword, he, the head priest and his colleagues were banished. This was followed by stories that his colleagues all died of mysterious illnesses, and Matsuoka (who penned the account) was the only survivor.

 

 

The Sacred Jewels

 

The Yasukani-no-Magatama sacred jewels are comma-like shaped jade jewel beads with a hole. They are commonly depicted strung together, separated by short tubular beads.

 

Earlier, Jomon and early Kofun period examples tend to be made from stone and like materials. They are mentioned frequently in the Kojiki and Nihon-shoki, and they are even said to be the origin of some deities.

 

The Yasukani-no-Magatama are usually kept in the Kashiko-dokoro, which is the central shrine of the Three Palace Sanctuaries at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

 

The last time the Sanshu-no-Jingi appeared in public, albeit shrouded in boxes, was for the ascension of the current Emperor Heisei (Akihito) in 1989. There was no cable TV or internet at that time, so it was only broadcast on Japanese TV.

 

This time, the whole world will be able to watch and it will be shared on the internet for eternity.

 

 

Author: Paul Martin

 

 

Paul Martin

Author:

Paul Martin is a former British Museum curator, and a Hyogiin (Trustee) for the Nihonto Bunka Shinko Kyokai (NBSK). He is also an appointed Bunka Meister (Master of Culture: Japanese Swords) by the Japonisme Shinko Kai (Honganji).

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