Yamatai-koku (邪馬台国?) is the name of an ancient country in Wa (Japan) during the late Yayoi period (circa 300 BC – 300 AD). The (297 AD) Chinese history Sanguo Zhi first recorded Yamatai as the domain of shaman Queen Himiko (died circa 248 AD). Generations of Japanese historians, linguists, and archeologists have debated where Yamatai-koku was located and whether it was related to Yamato (大和?) "Japan".
The oldest accounts of Yamatai are found in the official Chinese dynastic Twenty-Four Histories for the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), the Cao Wei Kingdom (220-265 AD), and the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD).
The ca. 297 AD Wei Zhi (魏志 "Records of Wei"), which is part of the San Guo Zhi (三國志 "Records of the Three Kingdoms"), first mentions the country Yamatai (Yémǎtái 邪馬臺) written as Yamaichi (Yémǎyī 邪馬壹). Most Wei Zhi commentators accept the Yémǎtái (邪馬台) transcription in later texts and dismiss this original word yi 壹 "one" (the anti-forgery character variant for 一 "one") as a miscopy, or perhaps a naming taboo avoidance, of tai 臺 "platform; terrace" (a variant of 台). This history describes ancient Wa based upon detailed reports of 3rd-century Chinese envoys who traveled throughout the Japanese Archipelago.
Going south by water for twenty days, one comes to the country of Toma, where the official is called mimi and his lieutenant, miminari. Here there are about fifty thousand households. Then going toward the south, one arrives at the country of Yamadai, where a Queen holds her court. [This journey] takes ten days by water and one month by land. Among the officials there are the ikima and, next in rank, the mimasho; then the mimagushi, then the nakato. There are probably more than seventy thousands households. (115, tr. Tsunoda 1951:9)
The Wei Zhi also records that in 238 AD, Queen Himiko sent an envoy to the court of Wei emperor Cao Rui, who responded favorably.
We confer upon you, therefore, the title 'Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei', together with the decoration of the gold seal with purple ribbon. … As a special gift, we bestow upon you three pieces of blue brocade with interwoven characters, five pieces of tapestry with delicate floral designs, fifty lengths of white silk, eight taels of gold, two swords five feet long, one hundred bronze mirrors, and fifty catties each of jade and of red beads. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:14-15)
The ca. 432 AD Hou Han Shu (後漢書 "Book of Later/Eastern Han") says the Wa kings lived in the country of Yamatai (邪馬台國).
The Wa dwell on mountainous islands southeast of Han [Korea] in the middle of the ocean, forming more than one hundred communities. From the time of the overthrow of Chao-hsien [northern Korea] by Emperor Wu (B.C. 140-87), nearly thirty of these communities have held intercourse with the Han [dynasty] court by envoys or scribes. Each community has its king, whose office is hereditary. The King of Great Wa resides in the country of Yamadai. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:1)
The 636 AD Sui Shu (隋書 "Book of Sui") records changing the capital's name from Yamadai (Chinese Yemodui 邪摩堆) to Yamato (Dahe 大和).
Wa-kuo is situated in the middle of the great ocean southeast of Paekche and Silla, three thousand li away by water and land. The people dwell on mountainous islands. … The capital is Yamato, known in the Wei history as Yamadai. The old records say that it is altogether twelve thousand li distant from the borders of Lo-lang and Tai-fang prefectures, and is situated east of K'uai-chi and close to Tan-erh. (81, tr. Tsunoda 1951:28)
The ca. 712 AD Kojiki (古事記 "Records of Ancient Matters") is the oldest extant book written in Japan. The "Birth of the Eight Islands" section phonetically transcribes Yamato as what would be in Modern Standard Chinese Yemadeng (夜麻登). The Kojiki records the Shintoist creation myth that the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami gave birth to the Ōyashima (大八州 "Eight Great Islands") of Japan, the last of which was Yamato.
Next they gave birth to Great-Yamato-the-Luxuriant-Island-of-the-Dragon-Fly, another name for which is Heavenly-August-Sky-Luxuriant-Dragon-Fly-Lord-Youth. The name of "Land-of-the-Eight-Great-Islands" therefore originated in these eight islands having been born first. (tr. Chamberlain 1919:23)
Chamberlain (1919:27) notes this poetic name "Island of the Dragon-fly" is associated with legendary Emperor Jimmu, who was honorifically named with Yamato as "Kan'yamato Iwarebiko."
The 720 AD Nihon Shoki (日本書紀 "Chronicles of Japan") writes Japanese Yamato with the Chinese characters Yemadeng (耶麻騰). In this version of the Eight Great Islands myth, Yamato is born second instead of eighth.
Now when the time of birth arrived, first of all the island of Ahaji was reckoned as the placenta, and their minds took no pleasure in it. Therefore it received the name of Ahaji no Shima. Next there was produced the island of Oho-yamato no Toyo-aki-tsu-shima. (tr. Aston 1924 1:13)
The translator Aston notes a literal meaning of "Rich-harvest (or autumn)-of-island" (i.e. "Island of Bountiful Harvests" or "Island of Bountiful Autumn").
The circa 600-759 AD Man'yōshū (万葉集 "Myriad Leaves Collection") transcribes Yamato as yama 山 "mountain" plus tö 跡 "footprint; track; trace". Take for example, the first poem in the book, allegedly written by Emperor Yūryaku.
O maiden with a basket, a pretty basket, with a scoop, a pretty scoop, maiden picking greens on this hillside: I want to ask about your house; I want to be told your name. In the sky-filling land of Yamato it is I who rule everyone it is I who rule everywhere, and so I think you will tell me where you live, what you are called. (tr. McCullough 1985:6)
Commentators gloss this 山跡乃國 as Yamato no kuni 大和の国 "country of Yamato".
The location of Yamatai-koku is one of the most contentious topics in Japanese history. Generations of historians have debated "the Yamatai controversy" and have hypothesized numerous localities, some of which are fanciful like Okinawa (Farris 1998:245). General consensus centers around two likely locations of Yamatai, either northern Kyūshū or Yamato Province in the Kinki region of central Honshū. Imamura describes the controversy.
The question of whether the Yamatai Kingdom was located in northern Kyushu or central Kinki prompted the greatest debate over the ancient history of Japan. This debate originated from a puzzling account of the itinerary from Korea to Yamatai in Wei-shu. The northern Kyushu theory doubts the description of distance and the central Kinki theory the direction. This has been a continuing debate over the past 200 years, involving not only professional historians, archeologists and ethnologists, but also many amateurs, and thousands of books and papers have been published. (1996:188)
The location of ancient Yamatai-koku and its relation with the subsequent Kofun-era Yamato polity remains uncertain. In 1989, archeologists discovered a giant Yayoi-era complex at the Yoshinogari site in Saga Prefecture, which was thought to be a possible candidate for the location of Yamatai. While some scholars, most notably Seijo University historian Takehiko Yoshida, interpret Yoshinogari as evidence for the Kyūshū Theory, many others support the Kinki Theory based on Yoshinogari clay vessels and the early development of Kofun (Saeki 2006).
In Popular Culture
- Yamatai is the destination of Lara Croft in the 2013 game Tomb Raider. After countless hours of research, Lara believes that Yamatai is actually located somewhere inside the Dragon's Triangle. After crashing, Lara finds Yamatai is home to a cult of sadistic islanders and the remnants of an ancient Shogun army. The mystic army was part of the Storm Guard that protected their Queen Himiko.
- Anon. 2009. Remains of what appears to be Queen Himiko's palace found in Nara, Japan Times, Nov. 11, 2009.
- Aston, William G, tr. 1924. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. 2 vols. Charles E. Tuttle reprint 1972.
- Baxter, William H. 1992. A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Mouton de Gruyter.
- Chamberlain, Basil Hall, tr. 1919. The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters. Charles E. Tuttle reprint 1981.
- Edwards, Walter. 1998. "*Mirrors to Japanese History", Archeology 51.3.
- Farris, William Wayne. 1998. Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan. University of Hawai'i Press.
- Hall, John Whitney. 1988. The Cambridge History of Japan: Volume 1, Ancient Japan. Cambridge University Press.
- Hérail, Francine. 1986. Histoire du Japon - des origines à la fin de Meiji. Publications orientalistes de France.
- Hong, Wontack. 1994. Peakche of Korea and the Origin of Yamato Japan. Kudara International.
- Imamura. Keiji. 1996. Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia. University of Hawai’i Press.
- Karlgren, Bernhard. 1957. Grammata Serica Recensa. Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.
- Kidder, Jonathan Edward. 2007. Himiko and Japan’s Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai. University of Hawai’i Press.
- McCullough, Helen Craig. 1985. Brocade by Night: 'Kokin Wakashū' and the Court Style in Japanese Classical Poetry. Stanford University Press.
- Miller, Roy Andrew. 1967. The Japanese Language. University of Chicago Press.
- Miyake, Marc Hideo. 2003. Old Japanese: A Phonetic Reconstruction. Routledge Curzon.
- Philippi, Donald L. (tr.) 1968. Kojiki. University of Tokyo Press.
- Pulleyblank, E.G. 1991. "Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin". UBC Press.
- (Japanese) Saeki Arikiyo 佐伯有清. 2006. Yamataikoku ronsō 邪馬台国論争. Iwanami. ISBN 4-00-430990-5
- Tsunoda Ryusaku, tr. 1951. Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories: Later Han Through Ming Dynasties. Goodrich, Carrington C., ed. South Pasadena: P. D. and Ione Perkins.
- Wang Zhenping. 2005. Ambassadors from the Islands of Immortals: China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period. University of Hawai'i Press.