retold by Stephania Burke
The myth of Yamato Takeru takes place during the semi-historical period of national consolidation under the rulers of the main Yamato clan. Emperor Keikô (legendary or semi-historical 12th emperor, reigned 71-130 A.D is on the throne. According to the myths and records, Emperor Keikô is said to have lived to the age of 106 and to have fathered 80 children. Among these children were two sons, Prince Oh-usu and his younger brother Prince O-usu. This younger brother will become our hero, Yamato Takeru.
One day, Emperor Keikô learns that two beautiful sisters live nearby, and he sends Prince Oh-usu to bring them to him at the palace. When Oh-usu finds them, he decides to marry both sisters himself and then sends two other girls back to his father. Emperor Keikô sees through his son’s ruse and refuses to marry the two imposters. After this episode, Prince Oh-usu stops joining his father at mealtime, suggesting a lapse in the prince’s loyalty to his father, the emperor. Thus Emperor Keikô asks his other son, Prince O-usu, to find out why his brother has stopped coming to meals and to remind him of his duties. But days later, Prince Oh-usu has still not shown up at mealtime. Finally, Emperor Keikô asks O-usu if he did indeed talk to his brother and warn him that he should not disobey the emperor. O-usu replies that he did not fail to teach his older brother his duty. In fact, O-usu tells his father that he surprised his brother one morning and then crushed and dismembered him. Not surprisingly, Emperor Keikô is horrified by his 15-year-old son’s acts and cool demeanor. Quickly, he decides to send Prince O-usu to Kumaso to subdue the two leaders of the clan there. The clan of Kumaso was one of several that at this time still had not submitted to the central rule of the Yamato clan.
O-usu receives a woman’s robe and skirt from his aunt Yamato-hime, an important Shinto priestess, and with a saber hidden in his clothing, he departs. Yamato Takeru leaves behind his homeland and travels to Kumaso, located in Kyûshû, the main western island of Japan.
O-usu arrives at the stronghold of the Kumaso heroes to learn that they are planning a big feast. O-usu awaits the night of the feast and then dresses himself in the women’s clothing he received from his aunt. As he mingles among the partygoers, the two Kumaso leaders, who take him to be a beautiful maiden, spot him and ask him to join them at the main table. Suddenly, O-usu turns and kills the older Kumaso hero with his saber and then chases after the younger one when he tries to escape. When O-usu captures the second Kumaso chieftain, this man asks O-usu for his identity, and O-usu reveals that he is a prince, the son of Emperor Keikô. The Kumaso leader, impressed with this young prince’s bravery, gives O-usu the name Yamato Takeru (the brave one of Yamato). Upon receiving this title, Yamato Takeru kills this man, too.
Yamato Takeru then moves on to Izumo, another area that had not yet submitted to the central rule of the Yamato leaders. In Izumo there lived another powerful local hero, and Yamato Takeru befriends the Izumo hero with the secret hope of killing him. To this end, Yamato Takeru comes up with a plan: he makes a fake sword out of wood and straps it around his waist. Later, when the two men are together, Yamato Takeru casually suggests that they exchange swords and joust. As a result, the Izumo hero is left defenseless with the fake sword, and Yamato Takeru cuts him down.
After conquering these men who had resisted the central rule of Emperor Keikô, Yamato Takeru returns to the capital to report his successes to his father. However, his father, still shocked by his son’s strength and ferocity, meets him not with joy and thanks but commands him to go, this time to the East, and subdue more distant men and savage deities. Yamato Takeru has no choice but to leave his homeland again.
This time Yamato Takeru is given a companion, Prince Sumitomo-mimitake, and a spear made of holly wood. This sword is a symbol of imperial authority and is a magical tool. Even though the emperor does not embrace his heroic son, it becomes clear that Yamato Takeru has become a vital and awesome agent of the central imperial authority. In addition to these and other scared amulets, as the story progresses, the narrative describes Yamato Takeru with language that is usually reserved for emperors.
Before traveling to the east, Yamato Takeru once again goes to Ise to visit his aunt, the priestess at the Ise Shrine. Ise Shrine, the most important Shinto shrine, is where Amaterasu, the main deity of the Yamato clan and progenitor of the imperial line dwells. Here, through his aunt, he receives powerful amulets. His aunt gives him a sword with the name Grass-Mower and a special bag that he should open if he is in danger.
When he arrives in the land of Sagamu , he is deceived by the ruler there who tells him that a fierce deity lives in the lake in the middle of a nearby moor. As Yamato Takeru begins to cross the moor to go in search of this deity, the ruler of Sagamu sets fire to the moor. Realizing that the ruler had tricked him and that he was in danger, Yamato Takeru opens the bag his aunt gave him. Inside it he finds a fire drill. Acting quickly, Yamato Takeru uses his sword, Grass-Mower, to cut down the grasses in the moor and then uses the fire drill to set a counter fire. After this, Yamato Takeru finds and slays the ruler and all his followers, and then he burns them all. Due to this episode, this place thereafter became known as Yakitsu ("fire-ford"). Like many stories in the early myths of Japan, the story provides etymologies of local place names.
While Yamato Takeru is crossing the Hashirimizu Sea, the god of the straits makes the sea turn rough and unpassable. At this time, Yamato Takeru is traveling with one of his consorts, Princess Oto-tachibana. Acting as one of his helpers, she sacrifices herself to the deity of the straits so that Yamato Takeru can have a safe passage across the Hashirimizu Sea and successfully complete his next missions. Later, when his consort’s comb is found along the beach, they build a burial mound in memory of this princess.
Yamato Takeru continues eastward conquering men and deities. On the road back to the capital, at Ashigara Pass, he kills the deity of the passage, who has transformed itself into a deer, thus making the passage safe for future travelers. Yamato Takeru subdues the deity of the Shinano Pass on his way to Owari, where he marries Princess Miyazu..
Yamato Takeru travels on again. This time he heads off to Mount Ibuki, where he vows to slay the deity of this mountain bare-handedly. On his way up the mountain he comes across a large white boar. Yamato Takeru mistakenly believes this boar to be a messenger of the mountain deity and so does not slay it. However, the boar is indeed the deity itself, and this deity stirs up a great hailstorm which tires and disorients Yamato Takeru. Finally, his senses and strength are restored a bit, and he continues on; however, by now the end is near for Yamato Takeru, and he starts to weaken. Some versions of the myth claim that Yamato Takeru’s misidentification of the mountain deity is what led to his weakening and to his final amazing and magical death. He starts to ponder life and declares, "Within my heart, I have always felt as though I might soar like a bird, but now my very legs will not walk, they are swollen and bowed." We are seeing a new, weaker and more vulnerable, but no less noble hero in this passage. After his encounter with the deity-boar, Yamato Takeru continues on and his movements and actions become the origins of several place names. We see how this hero’s travels literally mark or make the land he crosses. As the end nears, Yamato Takeru, for the first time, shows great nostalgic feelings for his homeland and composes another poem that sings of the beauty of that place. He composes more poems, and in fact dies as he utters the final words of a poem about a sword that he left at the bedside of one of his consorts. The news of his death is quickly taken to the emperor back in Yamato. Yamato Takeru’s consorts and children travel to the place where he died and hold rites of mourning and build a burial mound there. Their grief is captured in several songs/poems.
Yamato Takeru turns into a great white bird, thereby avoiding normal death. Yamato Takeru’s final wish, to soar into the sky, comes true. He is reunited with his family one last time and then rises and soars into the sky.
When his family witnesses his transformation into the great white bird, they are overwhelmed with emotion and awe and sing four songs. Thereafter, according to the myth, these songs were sung at the funerals of all the Japanese emperors. Yamato Takeru not only subdued the mortal enemies of Yamato and many vengeful deities, his death becomes the mythic source of important imperial burial rites (the building of the burial mound, crawling around the grave in grief, etc.) and the inspiration behind the songs performed at all subsequent imperial funerals.
Last Updated: 3/14/12