February 11 is celebrated in Japan as “National Foundation Day”, commemorating the date on which Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 660BC.
Except…it never happened. Or, at least, there is no evidence that it did.
Japan’s earliest written records were written by the Chinese around the first century AD and the Japanese themselves didn’t begin to write their own history until the early eighth century. Thus, most scholars agree, the Emperor Jimmu is a creature of legend, albeit a long and detailed legend.
Commemorating the founding of the Japanese nation on the first day of the first lunar month of 660BC (a year chosen by astronomers as auspicious for nation founding) was conceived by the Japanese government of 1873. This was at a time when rule had just been restored to the emperor after centuries as a mere figurehead. The government ruling in his name undertook various measures to shore up the notion of imperial rule in the minds of the Japanese people, including promoting various myths and legends associated with imperial power.
One such myth was that of the Emperor Jimmu (711-545BC), purportedly the great-great-great-grandson of the mother goddess, Amaterasu. Japanese officialdom decided to use the legend of Emperor Jimmu, said to be a direct ancestor of the Emperor Meiji, as part of their campaign, particularly by turning the legend into an excuse for a national holiday.
Jimmu is said to have ascended to the throne, or claimed sovereignty over the nation of Japan, near Kashihara in modern day Nara Prefecture. So why is this blog post about the Miyazaki port of Hyuga? Because Hyuga claims a significant place in Jimmu’s legend.
Jimmu’s ascension to the throne ended Japan’s historical “Age of Gods” and signaled the beginning of the “Human Age”. Many of the legends associated with the Age of Gods take place on the island of Kyushu, which is also where Jimmu was said to have been born and raised.
Most significant of these for imperial history is the story of Ninigi, grandson of Amaterasu, being sent to earth by the goddess to bring rice to humans. Amaterasu gave her grandson rice seedlings as well as the sacred jewel, mirror and sword that eventually became the official Imperial regalia. They remain so to this day.
Ninigi descended from heaven to arrive on Mt. Takachiho, part of the Kirishima volcanic cluster on the border of Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures. He settled in Kyushu and started a family. One of his sons married a daughter of the god of the sea who gave birth to their only child, Ugayafukiaezu.
Jimmu was Ugayafukiaezu’s fourth son. All four brothers worked together to bring Kyushu under their control, but according to legend, Jimmu was the most intelligent and a strong natural leader.
When Jimmu was 45 years old (according to legend, he lived to age 126), he suggested to his brothers that they should expand their territory. They had heard of a place of abundance known as Yamato, in the area around modern Nara. Jimmu decided they should set sail.
The Mimitsu district of Hyuga, some 70 kilometers north of the modern city of Miyazaki, takes credit as the place from which Jimmu sailed. Today, Mimitsu is an historical preservation district of quaint cobbled streets and Edo-style buildings at the mouth of the Mimi River. Two centuries ago, this sleepy neighborhood was a vibrant trading port. Many of the buildings remain private homes, but there are also boutiques, cafes and even museums.
The historical district is very pleasant to just wander through. One curious, yet ubiquitous, feature is the ship motif adorning private mail boxes. The shape is said to be that of Jimmu’s ship. (Of course, it is far more modern than anything people of 660BC would have been using, but why spoil a perfectly good legend on such a technicality?)
Right on the banks of the river sits Tateiwa Shrine, dedicated to the gods of the sea that protected Jimmu when he sailed. (It is worth noting that Jimmu’s own mother and grandmother were daughters of one of the sea gods.) A sacred boulder on the shrine grounds, easily identified by the shimenawa rope and shide purifying paper, is said to have been used by Jimmu as a seat where he sat waiting to board his ship.
This area near the river is very pretty and when I visited just before new year’s, I was also treated to the sight of a number of fishing boats sporting the flags that Japanese fishermen traditionally flew to signal people onshore that they were coming in with a particularly large catch. These massive, colorful banners are also unfurled for festivals and holidays.
Another interesting sight on the banks of the river is a large stone monument sporting a bronze model of Jimmu’s ship. This was erected by the Japanese navy in 1940, the 2,600th anniversary of Jimmu’s ascension to the throne and the founding of Japan’s imperial household. It commemorates Jimmu’s voyage as the founding of the Japanese navy. Celebrations of the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the imperial line were held across Japan and it is understandable that Japan’s navy wanted to join in. After all, this was a time when Japan was already embroiled in military conflict in Manchuria, action undertaken in the name of the emperor. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think they claimed lineage as a navy based on a legend of a single voyage.
Imperial history and legend aside, Hyuga is a pleasant seaside community particularly popular with surfers year-round. There are even national and international surf competitions held in Hyuga. The coastline also has a number of distinctive volcanic rock formations. The most popular among tourists is the “Sea Cruz”, a place where the rocks have been eroded by the water to form the shape of a cross.
Hyuga is a delightful place to visit and explore history that is based largely on unverifiable legend. And why not? After all, there is even a national holiday created fundamentally as a public relations exercise and yet based on the same unverifiable legend.
© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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