The Mystery of Japan’s Three Imperial Treasures

(ABOVE: Artist’s impression of the Sanshu no Jingi)

As a tie-in to the “Sword Mirror Jewel” Giveaway, we look at the sword, mirror and jewel of the trilogy’s title, known in Japanese language as the Sanshu no Jingi, and their role within Japanese society – both ancient and modern.

Mirror and Jewel

In the time of legends, Heaven was ruled by the Kami Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess), aided and sometimes hindered by her younger brother, Susanoo-no-Mikoto (the Storm God).

Amaterasu Omikami is one of the few global examples where the avatar of the sun is female. She is also the legendary ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family, as recorded in the Kojiki (the first written record of Japanese creation myths) and the grandmother of the first Emperor, Jimmu.

The tale of the Sanshu no Jingi begins at a time when the heavenly order was shattered by a huge and seemingly irreconcilable argument between Amaterasu and her mischievous, delinquent brother. Susanoo thought Amaterasu had cheated him at a game of cards, and so in a fit of rage he threw a dead, flayed pony into her house. Amaterasu was inside the house sewing with a group of other goddesses, and Susanoo’s act of childish vandalism broke up the party and killed one of the goddesses. Amaterasu, shocked and disgusted by Susanoo’s actions, decided to cut herself off from all of her family. She left Heaven altogether, and hid herself in a cave.

The world was plunged into darkness; crops, animals, and the early humans were faced with extinction. The pantheon of Eight Million Kami proceeded to the cave, and begged Amaterasu to return, but she refused and would not open the rock door of the cave to admit any visitors or negotiators.

Finally, one of the Kami came forward to propose a bizarre and unlikely plan. This was Ame-no-Uzume, named in the Kojiki as the Heavenly-Alarming-Female, and subsequently known as the Goddess of Merriment. She said the best thing to do, when faced with catastrophe and possible extinction, is – to throw a party.

After having persuaded the legions of Kami to help her, she ordered a special mirror and a necklace studded with gorgeous jewels to be constructed. One version of the story, quoted in Myths and Legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis, describes the mirror as being made of “stars welded together”.

The party commenced, with the Eight Million Kami twanging away on the yamatogoto, a musical instrument made of six hunting bows lashed together. Ame-no-Uzume stood above the crowd and performed a dance so lewd and so provocative that the assembled Kami began to roar with laughter.

Amaterasu, inside the cave, tried to ignore the commotion until she could no longer contain her curiosity. She opened the rock door slightly to see what was happening – and was immediately transfixed by her own solar glory, in the mirror that the gods had placed in front of the door.

While, she stood there, dazed, one of the senior Kami – Ame-no-Tajikarawo-no-Mikoto – pulled her out of the cave and into the crowd, and quickly sealed the cave opening. Amaterasu found herself in the middle of the dancing, laughing Kami, who pleaded with her to restore light to the world. She agreed; and the Sun Goddess returned to her rightful place – the center of the sky.

The shimenawa – the straw ropes decorated with lightning-bolt paper streamers called shide, used to demarcate sacred ground – are believed to originate in the ropes used to seal the cave, preventing Amaterasu from hiding again.

Ama-no-Uzume became a major Kami in the Shinto pantheon, and is credited with founding the Sarume Order of sacred festival dancers, and creating the ceremonial form of dance known as Kagura. In fact, some scholars regard Ama-no-Uzume as Japan’s strongest link to its roots in shamanistic possession and ecstatic dancing.

The Sacred Sword

As punishment for his taunting of the Sun Goddess, the Eight Million Kami commanded Susanoo to leave Heaven. He descended to Earth, assumed human form, and for an unknown number of years walked the earth as a mortal. His travels eventually brought him to a remote village, and a community living in grief and fear (also in Shimane prefecture).

When he enquired into the cause of the distress, one family told him that a monstrous, eight-headed serpent called Yamata no Orochi was terrorizing the mountain communities. It demanded human sacrifice, and had eaten all of the family’s daughters but one – the maiden who became known as Princess Kushi-inada. Susanoo, smitten by the maiden’s beauty, volunteered to kill the beast in return for her hand in marriage (as heroes are wont to do).

Susanoo did indeed slay the monster, but through stealth rather than divine power. He laid out eight giant casks of sake – one for each head – and waited in hiding for the Orochi to appear. The monster gorged itself on the alcohol until it lost consciousness, and didn’t resist when Susanoo severed each of its heads and disemboweled it. In the monster’s tail, he found a sword – and claimed it for his own. He named it Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven), and this, in time, was later named Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which roughly means Grass-Cutting Sword. He presented it to Amaterasu to apologize for his previous behavior and to ask for an end to their feud. His wish was granted, and Susanoo returned to heaven.

This sword, together with the mirror and jewel from the above legends, became the three Imperial Regalia of Japan that are still kept under conditions of supreme secrecy today.

The current resting place of the Kusanagi sword  is Atsuta Shrine, in Nagoya city. The Yata no Kagami is the mirror, forged by the Kami, that the Sun Goddess looked into when she opened the door of the cave. The Yasakani no Magatama were the jewels placed on the sasaki tree behind the mirror. The mirror is currently housed at the Ise Shrine complex in Mie prefecture, and the jewels are located in the Imperial Palace, in the center of Tokyo.

Are these treasures the genuine articles, you may ask? Is the Japanese Royal Family really in possession of super-weapons forged by gods (or aliens with superior intelligence masquerading as gods)?

It’s impossible to tell, as these treasures are kept in secret inner sanctums, off limits to the public. Since the year 690, an important part of the Imperial Coronation ceremony has been the presentation of these items to the new emperor by certain elite Shinto priests. The ceremony is not televised, and the identity of the priests is not publicized – so the truth remains a matter of personal belief. One thing we do know is that between 25th and 31st July 1945, when Japan was on the verge of being invaded by Allied forces, Emperor Showa issued a declaration to his closest advisor, Koichi Kido (Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal 1940-1945) ordering the protection of the Sanshu no Jingi – “at all costs”.

On April 30th next year, the 84-year-old Emperor Akihito (known as Heisei Tenno in Japan) will step down due to health concerns – the first abdication by a Japanese monarch in about two centuries. He will be succeeded by his heir, 57-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito.

What form will the Abdication and Coronation ceremonies take? Will the Sanshu no Jingi will be involved, just as they were in 1989? Will the Japanese public – and the world in general – get to know more about these mysterious artifacts?

Whatever the answer to these questions may be, you can bet that you’ll hear them from the Excalibur Books blog and newsletter service! Go to the home page, “About Excalibur Books”, to sign up! 

Find out more about the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy here …

Buy Book 1, “Voice of the Sword”, here … 

 

 

 

 

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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