Warrior Queen Himiko’s story
History remembers me as a “queen”. Nowadays, I am more often referred to as “Queen Himiko”, as opposed to “Empress Himiko”. But I suppose, these words will suffice to give you a good idea of what I really was … or not?
The broad dictionary sense of queen is a woman of the highest authority who rules a country or nation. When it comes to the word empress, replacing the words country and nation by empire seems to be a plausible rationalisation. Though, strictly speaking, I might not qualify for either.
I was born Okinaga-tarashi-hime-no-Mikoto and my Mother was a descendant of Ame no Hiboko (the Prince of Spear of the Heavenly Sun), the reputed Prince of Silla of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, who migrated to Japan in the first century of the Common Era, and brought along with him iron objects, a novelty to the Japanese of that time. But more on that later.
Upon my marriage to Emperor Chūai, I became known as Empress-Consort Jingū; though, some raconteurs dabbed me Queen Himiko – meaning the Daughter of the Sun.
Of course, I was apprehensive. I had never met the man whom I should soon be calling “my Husband”. I had been told only that he was Prince Tarashi-nakatsu-hiko no-Mikoto of the royal bloodline. Not long ago, he had been crowned the fourteenth Emperor of Japan and had received the title of Emperor Chūai. We were related on my father’s side, five generations removed – we were both descendants of the ninth Emperor Kaika, therefore the blood of the Sun Goddess flowed in our veins.
‘He has a boyish face’, I thought at our first introduction, but I was taken aback when I noticed how tall he was. He towered me by more than two feet; in fact, he was the tallest person in the court and guests there present. Nevertheless, the first impression I had of him was good. I felt he was also pleased to find out that I was not some kind of ugly, female royalty, akin to those his ancestors were obliged to marry for the sake of keeping everything royal.
He smiled at me and I smiled back, slightly inclining my head. Although we sat on a kind of dais facing each other, as tradition demanded, I kept my head bowed, not daring to make eye contact. However, I felt the pressure, but not as burdensome, his eyes on me during the whole ceremony. I suppose he found me attractive; which I dare say I was and was flattered by that attention. But, as you will learn through my narrative, I was not only pretty. I was much more than that.
A feast followed our wedding ceremony. Food and drinks were served in abundance to mark the third marriage of Emperor Chūai. Even when the sun had retired for the day, blissful, drunken guests continued to dance and sing until dawn. Chūai spent the whole evening focussed on me, trying to find out more about who I was, my thoughts and feelings. He asked my opinion on matters both broad and narrow, and wanted to know how I perceived the world. This was year 192 CE. Hence the “world” was that very limited landmass my new Husband had inherited from his ancestors as his dominion, along with China and the Land of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which we could reach by crossing a large mass of water to the west. There was also, of course, the virtual world of the spirits, kami (Gods) and our deceased ancestors.
‘The world might seem a combination of sundry events and coincidences, but I think everything has an explanation found in our ancestors, the kami,’ I said to Chūai.
‘And who are these kami, you quote, my dearest new Wife?’ asked Chūai.
‘These kami belong to the pantheon of divinity that transcends the oldest time your court historians and scholars can argue about. They go way back to the time Earth was empty, with just water. The kami created the land we step on now and the oceans we navigate, the wood we use for constructing our houses, the sun and the moon who govern our skies,’ I replied, observing that Chūai was physically startled at listening to my answer. Was it because I was introducing him to something new, other-worldly? Or was it because he was surprised that a woman knew so much? Nevertheless, I carried on.
‘I have to say, Your Majesty and my new Husband, I often have consultations with the kami, from whom I request guidance when I require it, and listen to their advice when I am summoned to do so.’
‘What do you mean?’ he asked with a frown.
‘I mean that since I was very young, I discovered that I have been blessed with a gift. The gods and our ancestors express their wishes through my voice and body language.’
Chūai looked pleased, if a little sceptical. He had heard of my reputation as an oracle, but had clearly decided we would have plenty of time ahead for me to show him how useful my gifts would be in our new union; therefore, he changed the subject. Moreover, my beauty spoke louder than any apprehension he held of a new bride who was on talking terms with the gods.
‘You are very beautiful, my newest Empress,’ said Chūai, inspecting me carefully from top to toe, when we were alone in our private chamber that night. I had taken off the heavy wedding garment and stood naked in front of him. He first touched my long, black hair. Then the back of his right hand slipped to my cheeks and rested on my breasts. Both his hands spent some time there, caressing, stroking and pleasuring my assets, which were now his, to play with as he wished. His hands moved further down. When they reached my buttocks, they pulled me unexpectedly, quite harshly, closer to his body. I felt his shaft already hard and the fever of desire flashing in his eyes. He kissed me feverously, moving his daring hands up and down, left, right, along my entire body. He pushed me to our bed and with little ado, he penetrated me. I reciprocated his pleasure and we shook each other as if there were no tomorrow. He had primal urges. It was amusing, but at the same time, arousing.
I settled quite quickly into my new life as Empress-Consort. Chūai had two other wives, and they had already produced for him two sons; hence the continuity of his bloodline had already been secured and there was no pressure on me to provide him an heir. Our love making therefore was a genuine act of pleasure and love. It was more ferocious and better every time, and once we had finished, we could not wait for the next time to come. Chūai was a gentle giant, and with time it became evident that I was his favourite.
‘I think she uses her shamanism to control him.’
This was the spiteful gossip I was often subjected to by his other two jealous wives, when they saw Chūai lavishing more attention on me and my opinions.
‘Okinaga, my dear Daughter,’ said Mother, entering my bedroom on the night preceding my wedding to Chūai.
She seemed a little anxious, which I put down to the fact that I was shortly be married to the Emperor of our country.
‘Tomorrow is a very special day for you, and I think we should have a conversation – I have been mentally rehearsing it for a long time.’ I studied her face inquisitively. She took from my hand the comb I held and started untangling my hair while I sat in front of the vanity mirror.
‘The females of our family, as you may know, have always been favoured by the kami; as such, you were born with the gifts of an oracle,’ she said.
I looked at Mother’s reflection in the glass, nodding in silence. Without stopping what she was doing, she continued to speak:
’Our ancestor, Ame no Hiboko, was the Prince of Silla, one of the sovereignties of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Have you ever thought why a prince would leave behind a life of riches and privileges to live in a foreign country where he had nothing?’ she asked.
‘No, Mother, it has never occurred to me that I needed an answer for this question,’ I replied, even more puzzled.
‘For the love of a woman,’ she said promptly, then went on to tell me a story that left me completely numb:
Ame no Hiboko, the young Prince, was searching for a maiden to marry. However, he did not want to marry a woman towards whom he had no real feelings. Thousands of young princesses had been presented to him in the court as a potential wife, but his heart had never been allured by any of them.
One day, he decided to travel the world alone in the quest for his princess. He trekked many miles under heat and cold, visited cities and villages where young women lived, but with never a positive outcome.
One morning, he stopped by a river to rest and let his horse to drink water. At the opposite bank, he spotted a young woman who, oblivious to his presence, swam in the waters naked. She was beautiful and seemed to be enjoying that moment alone. She dived deeply into the water and splashed ecstatically when returning to the surface, as if she were playing a game with an invisible friend. After some time, she climbed to the bank and lay on the grass, extending her slender body to bask under the rays of the sun. She shut her eyes, but there was a smile on her face. Hiding behind a tree, Hiboko continued to observe her. He was pleased with what he was seeing, but did not want to frighten the beauty. Her face started to frown, and her mouth opened, letting out cries of pleasure. Hiboko squinted his eyes to capture better what was happening at the other side of the river. He shuddered when he noticed that a sun ray had penetrated the maiden’s privates and she had become sexually aroused. The event lasted for a couple of minutes and Hiboko watched, excited and mesmerised. Then the sun ray left her body and disappeared behind the clouds and the maiden clearly began to feel cold. She stood up to put her clothes back on. But suddenly, she contorted her body, as though feeling a strong pang. She opened her legs, from where a red jewel fell to the ground. The jewel sparkled, temporarily blinding Hiboko. When he had recovered his vision, he dived into the water in an impulse to swim to the other side of the river, to see that the maiden beauty was well. Observing him swimming towards her, she became frightened, grabbed her remaining clothes and ran away. When he reached the opposite bank, Hiboko looked for the maiden. She had disappeared. He searched for her footsteps, spent long hours foraying the nearby woods, even dived into the river multiple times in her pursuit, but she was gone.
By nightfall, disappointed, Hiboko had to accept that he had lost her. It had all happened too quickly and enchantingly. Hiboko now wondered if it had indeed really happened, whether it was just a dream. His mind was put to rest when he noticed that the beauty had left behind the red jewel that had fallen from her womb. The stone lay on the same spot by the river bank and shone intensely in the darkness. Hiboko collected carefully the jewel and, with heart broken, decided to return to his palace.
The Prince thought night and day of the beauty in the river, and his short adventure led to him becoming obsessed. The red jewel he placed beside his bed sparkled with the reflection of the sunlight and Hiboko could see inside it the image of the naked body of the maiden stretched under the sun.
Some years passed. One night, while still asleep, Hiboko felt a body joining him under his sheets. He was surprised, but not alarmed. He touched the body and felt the warm figure of a woman. Drifting between waking and sleeping, the Prince kissed the stranger in his bed, and they made love throughout the night. Then tired, Hiboko slept as he had not done over the last couple of years. When the sunlight thrust through the window on the next morning, Hiboko opened his eyes and sat up on his bed with his mind numb and his heart pumping blood at fast pace. What had happened last night? Was it another dream? He turned his face sideways and saw a naked beauty, asleep face down in his bed. His heart filled with joy. His hands touched the body of the maiden to ascertain that it was not a mirage. The young woman awoke and turned her face to Hiboko. The Prince was pleasantly surprised, recognising her as the maiden he had seen many years ago swimming in the river. When he searched for the red jewel beside his bed, he found it was gone.
The stone had transformed into that beautiful woman.
‘I am very pleased to meet you again,’ said Hiboko to the maiden, caressing her body vigorously.
’My name is Beniseki. I am here because all these years you have demanded my presence, and I could not ignore a man who loved me so much,’ she said smiling. ‘I will be with you as long as you love me.’
Hiboko married Beniseki and made her his chief, indeed only, wife. For a couple of years, they lived a happy life. Hiboko could not believe his luck. He had finally found his princess. Beniseki cared for and looked after him, thoughtfully preparing delicious meals and tendering his clothes and personal utensils, instead of leaving these tasks to the servants of the palace.
‘I think she behaves that way because she believes that in order to keep you, she has to make you entirely dependent on her,’ observed one of Hiboko’s trusted retainers and confidants.
‘Maybe she adds to your food some magical portion, which is slowly killing you. Thus, when you are gone, the realm will be hers to rule,’ reasoned another of his drinking mates.
Persuaded by these jealous and malicious comments, Hiboko started to mistreat Beniseki. He no longer ate the food she prepared for him, and ordered the servants not let his wife touch his personal objects.
‘My dear Husband, I have decided to leave you,’ said Beniseki to Hiboko one morning. ‘I would be foolish to stay here, being always wronged by you, who chose to believe in the poisonous comments of unscrupulous people instead of appreciating my true and honest feelings.’
Hiboko was shocked by her sudden declaration and searched for words to justify his actions; but there were none.
‘Do you remember the first day we met again? I stated that I would be with you, as long as you loved me. Your behaviour over the past days can only mean that your love for me is gone, and you no longer wish my presence beside you.’
With these words, Beniseki left the palace.
Faced with the hard truth, Hiboko realised how foolish he had indeed been. Beniseki’s love was the most important thing he had in his life, and he had let it go because he was too proud to stand by her when people tried to poison their relationship. The Prince searched for Beniseki in every corner of the palace, but could not find her. He commanded his guards to look for her throughout the entire realm. No stone was left unturned, no forest was left unexamined by the search team, but to no avail. All the red jewels of Silla were brought to him, but none contained the image of her naked body inside. Beniseki was gone for good. Hiboko started to drink heavily and his physical state deteriorated. He no longer cared for the affairs of the state and isolated himself in the walls of his private rooms.
‘Your Majesty, I found this old woman at the entrance of the palace arguing with the guards to be taken to you. She claims she knows the whereabouts of Princess Beniseki,’ said one day one of his retainers, and ushered to Hiboko’s presence a wrinkled woman in rags.
‘Who are you and what do you want in exchange for your help?’ asked Hiboko startled.
‘I am a foreteller, Your Majesty, and I have a valuable information for you. You want back the love of your life,’ said the woman with a very husky voice. ‘But I do not wish anything in exchange for this information. You are a foolish young man who already has lost too much in your life. I have been sent here by your ancestors, who wanted assurance that you were not going to deviate from the course of your destiny.’
Hiboko looked at the woman with a sceptical face. Why should I believe her? the Prince asked himself. However, his doubts were cleared when the foreteller pulled from inside her sleeve a red jewel. Staggered, Hiboko frowned and approached to have a closer look. Inside the stone he saw the image of the beautiful naked body of Beniseki. The Prince sighed and his face brightened with hope.
‘Princess Beniseki went back to the land of her ancestors,’ said the foreteller with a mischievous smile. ’The land is an island called “Wa”, reachable by crossing the waters to the far east.’
Hiboko jolted his body, but the hag ignored his reaction and continued.
’There will be many days of travel through rough waters. The Land of Wa is governed by a powerful Emperor known as Suinin, whose palace stands in a village named Yamato. But there are things you have to consider, Your Majesty …’
The Prince gazed at the old woman and nodded to her to proceed.
‘…there will not be a way back for you to Silla. In Yamato you will not have the luxury and privileges you enjoy here. However, there are things you can take with you to the people of Wa that will grant you the grace of the Emperor…’
The foreteller paused and threw another mischievous smile to the Prince, adding: ‘Take with you swords and mirrors of iron.’
Hiboko regarded at the woman quizzically.
’Why iron? he asked.
‘You will have your answer once you get there,’ answered the old woman and, before he could ask her another question, she had disappeared from his sight.
Without wasting any time, the Prince commanded his retainers to prepare for the voyage. The best blacksmiths of the country were brought to his palace to forge mirrors and swords of iron for him to take to the Land of Wa.
The old foreteller had provided him accurate information of the travel. The waters were rough and Hiboko’s fleet was almost destroyed before they reached their destination. Fortunately, when they entered the Seto Inland Sea, they navigated through calmer waters and eventually landed in the Naniwa (present-day Osaka) shores.
But their joy was short-lived.
‘You cannot proceed, as you are not allowed to enter our land,’ said a sentinel who was guarding the strait.
‘I am Ame no Hiboko, the Prince of Silla. I bring to your Sovereign gifts from my realm. Please take me to him,’ requested Hiboko.
Emperor Suinin held the swords for closer inspection. They were masterpieces, far superior weapons to those his country soldiers waved. The mirrors too had a better polished finishing and reflected people and objects with greater accuracy. Suinin sighed. He needed some time to think about the gifts that the stranger was offering him, and what to make of it.
‘Ame no Hiboko, Prince of Silla, I thank you for bringing me these offerings from your country,’ said Suinin bowing. ‘I will have my blacksmiths assess these objects, as they do seem to be of a quality not currently to be found in my realm. I would like to invite you to stay at my palace as a guest. I will ensure my servants make your stay comfortable and pleasant.’
‘I very much appreciate your hospitality, Your Majesty,’ replied Hiboko, bowing back in reverence. ‘These objects are genuine presents I had had crafted in my country to bring to you, as I have been told that their raw material, iron, is a scarcity in your country. However, the real reason that brings me here is love. My love for a woman.’
Listening to these last words, Suinin was astonished.
‘Her name is Beniseki, and she was my wife. I have been told that she is now in the Land of Wa, where her ancestors dwell. We had a happy marriage and I had received from her nothing but love and care. However, my stupidity led me to wrong her and she left me. I would like to request your assistance to help me to find her.’
‘The love for a woman made you forfeit everything in your life to pursue her?’ asked Suinin, further astonished.
‘That is right, Your Majesty. Call me a fool, if you wish, but I will not rest until I find her again,’ said Hiboko very determined.
Mother stopped talking and rested the comb on the vanity table.
‘What happened next? Please tell me, Mother. Did Hiboko find Beniseki?’
I asked like a child who could not wait for her treat.
‘No, he did not. For many years, he travelled the entire country, enquiring about her, but nobody had ever heard or seen Beniseki. After hearing from his blacksmiths that the gifts the Prince had brought to Emperor Suinin were of very high value, the Emperor assigned a team of retainers to Hiboko to assist him in his quest, but to no avail. Beniseki was gone for good,’ answered Mother.
I felt disappointed and somehow sorry for Hiboko – though a cynic would say that he had only harvested the bad seed he had sowed. However, the question I had in my mind was why Mother was telling me this story now and why it was so important. She looked at me via my reflection in the mirror and, as though she had read my mind, she continued:
’Hiboko eventually settled in a province called Tajima, located in the northern shore. He met there a lovely local princess and married her, but Beniseki never left his mind and to the end of his life he lamented and regretted his actions. He had kept with him one of the iron swords he had brought from Silla. This sword is a valuable relic, which has been kept in our family for almost two hundred years.’
Upon these words, Mother moved to the window. From behind the curtains, she revealed the sword there concealed and brought it to me. I pulled the blade from its scabbard, and it scintillated like a jewel. It was indeed a masterpiece.
‘This is my wedding present to you, my Daughter,’ said Mother, lowering her eyes.
‘Mother, thank you. I promise to look after it with care.’
‘However, my Daughter, you have to know the prophecy attached to it,’ she said, with discomfort apparent in her gaze. ‘It has been prophesied that one day the sword will be under the guardianship of a female member of our clan, who will come to endure a strenuous event in her life. However, after the storm, she will go on to become a great sovereign, one of the greatest this country has ever had.’
I shuddered and wondered: Would this woman be me? It seemed quite implausible.
‘Okinaga, I am very sorry to be transferring to you this burden, but this is how things are and it is not up to me to stop the curse that one believes has been cast by Beniseki on our family,’ said Mother with tears in her eyes.
I cuddled her. ‘If this prophesised woman is to become one the greatest sovereigns in the history of our country, it cannot be a curse, Mother,’ I said to comfort her.
‘Yes, you are right, my Daughter; however, nobody knows what hardship she will have to endure to achieve greatness is. If you are destined to be her, I do not wish you to suffer.’
‘Mother, I appreciate your concerns but, thanks to your upbringing, I have grown into a tough woman. If this is indeed my fate, when the day comes, I will embrace it with pride and gratefulness for having been chosen.’
Wiping her tears with the back of her sleeve, Mother left my accommodation. I had said brave words to give her some consolation, but this story had frightened me. I was about to marry the Emperor of the country. Up to that moment, I had thought that I was destined to lead a life cocooned by the members of the palace and served by maids at my beck and call. What could happen to take away from me this stability? I started to wonder.
My beloved Empress.
This was the introduction to the message that arrived at the Yamato Palace that morning, brought to me by one of Chūai’s retainers. I was relieved. Many moons without news from him, not knowing of his whereabouts, had made me apprehensive and worried. Not long after our nuptials, Chūai had left Yamato to travel to other parts of the country with his entourage. He was a very active Emperor and wanted to inspect his lands and ensure the remote villages were prosperous and people lived in peace.
The messenger continued:
Our trip from Yamato to Tsuruga lasted three days. Though, it was long and tiring, half of the route was pleasant, as we marched along the banks of the Lake Biwa. The scenery was beautiful, and we could get plenty of fresh water to drink and wash from the lake. I thought a lot about you and wished you had accompanied me.
The messenger was blushing a little and avoided eye contact when he had to recite intimate parts of the message. I was touched and also wished Chūai had taken me with him. I could have been more useful being by his side than spending jaded days annoyed by the trivialities of life in the court.
Tsuruga is a beautiful place. Most people here make their living by fishing. I was received by the villagers with deference and esteem, so I was happy to learn that they appreciate and love their new Emperor. However, it is time for me to move on and I need your wisdom to advise me where in the country my army is most needed.
I was not surprised by the second part of Chūai’s message. Though, at the beginning of our relationship, he seemed somehow sceptical of my abilities to communicate with the kami, he soon learned how useful my skills were to assist him in dealing with state matters. Upon Chūai’s request, I often consulted the oracles prior to a decision being made and the counsels given by the gods proved always to be valuable to him.
That night, the kami appeared in my dreams and communicated with me.
‘I need you to go back to the Emperor and deliver him the message that he should next head south,’ I said to his retainer next morning. ’Inform him that there are some pressing matters on the opposite shore, in the Kii Peninsula, that demand his attention straightaway.’
‘Yes, Ma’am.’ Without further delay, the retainer bowed and left the palace to deliver my message to Chūai.
Twenty moons later, the messenger was back with more news.
My beloved Empress, I followed your counsel and headed south upon leaving Tsuruga. My army passed near Yamato and I was tempted to stop there to see you. But I knew I would not be able to leave so soon after spending a night with you; hence, as you had advised me, I went straight to Kii to deal with the urgent matter. I was glad that our troops arrived in Kii sooner, as there were groups of belligerent rebels who were causing havoc by killing villagers to usurp their lands and possessions. Our army fought them for three days. Fortunately, we were able to annihilate the insurgents and re-establish order in Kii.
I felt briefly reassured with this news. It meant Chūai was safe and would be home soon. But the content of the message took another turn:
While in Kii, I received a report informing me there had been another uprising of the Kumaso tribe in Tsukushi. I am about to board a junk that will take me there through Seto Inland Sea and I am asking you to come to meet me at the Shimonoseki Strait.
Upon listening to this last sentence, my apprehensions returned, but I made sure they were not noticed by the messenger.
‘Please go back to the Emperor and inform him that I am making preparations to leave Yamato by the first light of tomorrow to meet him at the place he has requested,’ I said to the retainer, who rushed to follow my orders.
’Sukune, I do not have any good feelings regarding my Husband’s decision to fight the Kumaso uprising,’ I said to Chūai’s Prime Minister and a trusted member of the court, Takenouchi no Sukune. ‘As he requested, I will head to Shimonoseki to meet him, but I ask you to gather some soldiers and come with me.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty, I will immediately make preparations to leave with you tomorrow morning,’ he replied.
The travel through the waters of Seto Inland Sea would had been more enjoyable in the summer. Regardless, I was not concerned with the weather; rather, I nursed my doubts regarding the rush decision by Chūai to confront the Kumaso. These belligerents had in the past caused trouble to Chūai’s predecessors, and my Husband’s army had just fought a gory battle in Kii, where he had lost many soldiers. I wondered if he was well equipped to fight another battle so soon. Moreover, I had consulted the kami on the night before, but was not given straight answers, which could indicate trouble. Sitting on the deck, I extended my arm often to ensure that the long textile-wrapped blade I had brought with me was still there. It was the sword Mother had gifted me on my wedding. I did not think of it as being cursed, but as an object that would bring me fortune.
At Shimonoseki, we were greeted by Chūai’s soldiers, who took us directly to the Kashii Palace, where Chūai was awaiting my arrival.
‘My beloved Empress, I missed you so much,’ said Chūai, kissing my entire body that night when we were alone in our accommodation.
‘I missed you too, my beloved Emperor,’ I said, not sharing with him my concerns as I did not want to spoil our night together, after such a long separation.
Following many days of careful planning, Chūai’s troops ambushed the Kumaso tribe and trapped them at Shika Island. With nowhere to escape, apart from the sea, the Kumaso militia were beaten by Chūai’s soldiers in a long battle. We celebrated that victory throughout the night, drinking, singing and dancing. My mind was put at rest. Chūai was safe and sound at my side and our love had not lost the sparkle of our first day together. Moreover, I had some good news for the Emperor.
‘I am carrying your baby,’ I announced to Chūai that night.
‘My beloved Empress, my happiness is complete now. You honour me with your presence here and by bearing me an heir,’ said Chūai caressing and kissing my womb.
I wondered why he had not said “another” heir, as he already had two sons by his first wife. This was probably not to hurt my feelings, I thought, loving him more for being so thoughtful. Due to my condition, Chūai decided to prolong our stay in Tsukushi before returning to Yamato.
’Tsukushi was the first land chosen by our ancestor and ruler Ninigi as the headquarter of his government, upon his descent to Ashihara,’ said Chūai on the day we decided to tour the land.
‘I can see why,’ I said, scanning with my eyes the beautiful nature that surrounded us. Thus, we spent some more lazy days together in Tsukushi, navigating crystal water rivers and breathing the scent of greenery meadows.
‘Sir, pirates from Silla are pillaging our shores and killing the fishers and their families,’ reported an exasperated retainer one morning to Chūai – he seemed to have run a long distance to deliver the message, as he was almost out of breath.
‘Inform the battalion immediately to rally. We will head north to confront them,’ commanded Chūai, astonished and angry with the sudden news.
‘My Husband, I beg you to be careful. Please come back to us safe,’ I said to him, extremely worried. Standing on the gate of the palace, I watched his army leave us that day without much delay.
‘Are you ready, Ma’am,’ asked Sukune.
‘Yes, let’s go.’
A day after the departure of Chūai, we had packed our belongings and left the Kashii Palace heading north. I knew in my condition I would be more a burden than help to Chūai, but something in my mind was telling me he needed me to go to meet him. My instincts were confirmed when, within an hour of our arrival at the camp where Chūai and his troops were staying, four soldiers entered my tent carrying the injured Chūai. He had been struck in the chest by an arrow from the enemy and had lost a great deal of blood. Seeing him in that state, I became hysterical. I wanted to save him – everybody wanted to save him, but unfortunately his demise was inevitable. He died at the age of fifty-two – in my arms, telling me he loved me.
‘Ma’am, we are still in battle. I need you to take control and tell us what to do,’ said Sukune on the next day, after seeing me bawling my eyes out for the entire night. His appeal made me realise that, with my Husband gone, I was the one in charge. I had to pull myself together and save this battle, save Chūai’s honour and, foremost, save our child.
‘We cannot let the enemies to know that Chūai is no longer alive. Apart from the soldiers who brought him injured to me, who else knows he has died?’ I asked.
‘Nobody Ma’am. The soldiers are still fighting for the honour of the Emperor,’ replied Sukune.
‘Then we will hide Chūai’s body until this is over.’ Sukune looked at me astonished, but somehow pleased with the fact that I had emerged from my mourning. ‘I need some time alone to speak to the kami,’ I said, and grabbed my sword and headed to the top of a quiet hill.
‘My celestial ancestors, I see the time for me to fulfil my duties has come. As the guardian of the sacred sword, I promise to honour my heritage and protect the lands of my deceased Husband and our future child. I conjure you to give me strength and wisdom to surmount the challenges I am facing now and defeat the enemy who killed my Husband.’ I prayed and entered a state of trance for a couple of hours. When I came around, I felt energised and knew what had to be done and how I should proceed to win this battle.
‘Sukune, put on armour and come with me. You are the one who will be voicing my commands to the soldiers, alleging that the Emperor has temporarily lost his voice due to an infection in his throat.’ Sukune was startled, but followed my instructions without arguing, watching me put on Chūai’s armour and covering my face with his helmet. On the back of a horse, I lead the troops north and for more than thirty days we fought the pirates and defeated them. The first hurdle had been overcome.
‘Your Majesty, your performance has been more than heroic. I do not believe the pirates will importune us for some time. Thus, I suggest going home in order for you to rest,’ said Sukune after our victory.
‘No, Sukune. My body does not need any rest and my mind will only rest after we teach these bandits a lesson. We have to cross the sea to Mimana, the piece of land where these pirates have their base, and destroy their group to ensure they will not attack our people again.’
’But Ma’am, a military expedition overseas led by a sovereign in person has not been heard of since the days of Jimmu, let alone an expedition led by a lady in your condition. It would be suicidal. Please think of your unborn child,’ begged Sukune.
‘I am doing it for my child. Besides, I have the kami at my side. Rally the battalion, we have to prepare the ships and forge weapons to cross the sea to ambush our enemies,’ I said, now possessed by a feral hunger to avenge Chūai’s death. Thinking of my deceased Husband, I touched my womb. It was causing me some pain, so I wrapped a thick belt around my lower belly to help me to sustain its weight.
Hearing of our plans to attack the pirates of Mimana, young and old men of the surrounding villages volunteered to join our army. Due to the geographical position of northern Tsukushi, which was the closest point to the Korean Peninsula, that area had always been a target of attacks from pirates and bandits coming from the continent. Hence, the villagers saw in my punitive expedition an opportunity to annihilate this threat from its roots.
Sukune’s face showed more confidence and motivation as he watched me summoning Ōyamatsumi no Mikoto, the Deity of Mountains, from whom I was granted an entire forest from where we sourced wood to build more vessels. From his mountains we were also able to extract iron to forge new swords and shields. Kayanohime no Mikoto, the Deity of the Fields, provided us grain to feed the army and hemp to make ropes and armours. Once the new soldiers were trained, we were fully equipped and ready to depart, Shinatsuhiko no Mikoto, the Deity of Winds, set our fleet in the right direction to take us to Mimana.
The troop knew by now my face – the face of the commander who had led them to victory in the first battle against the pirates. Although the news of Chūai’s death was taken by the soldiers with regret, they had been emboldened by my courage and pledged to follow and fight for the Empress.
‘God save the Empress!’ shouted the soldiers, lifting their weapons and followed my leadership without any qualms. Only my belly, which had grown large was kept hidden from my battalion. No soldier would want to become a midwife in the middle of a battle, I thought and laughed with my own inadequate joke.
The voyage lasted seven days. Ōwatatsumi no Mikoto, the Sea God offered us calm waters to ensure a safe journey. One last push, and a tide bore our ships into the shores of Mimana. Armed with swords, spears, arrow and bows, my soldiers jumped ashore and ambushed the pirates, who were taken by surprise. Swords clinked as blows and counterblows were parried. Heads and limbs were cut off from bodies, and swarms of arrows pierced torsos and whatever was in their path. Pools of blood lay everywhere; human entrails soiled the grounds and the reek of death permeated the air. Four days had passed since the battle had started, but every day, my spunky soldiers fought the opposing forces with an evil eagerness and hunger to mutilate.
With the sacred sword in my right hand and a shield in my left, I skirmished with a demonic craving to draw as much blood as I could from the enemy. However, at one point I felt pangs of contractions. I was in labour. I panicked. It was not the right time, nor the right place, to deliver a child. I left the battlefield for a moment and went to hide behind a tree. The contractions were becoming stronger and more painful. A large stone laid on the ground at an arms-reach. I grabbed it and attached it tightly with the belt under my belly. It looked rough and added more pain and an extra weight to my already heavily pregnant belly. But it did the job. It stopped the baby from coming out. Taking a deep breath, I went back to the battlefield to continue my fight.
After fifteen more days of fighting, the pirates of Mimana had ran out of combatants and resources. They surrendered, promising tribute and allegiance to my leadership. It was a draining feat and I was exhausted.
Trying to avoid attention, I went back to my tent and detached the belt and the stone fell to the ground. With a big push my waters broke, and I delivered my baby. It was the fourth day of the twelfth month of the year 200 CE. Ten months and ten days after Chūai’s death. The baby cried. I held this tiny creature in my arms. It was a cute boy. I thought of Chūai, and how much I missed him. He would had been very delighted to see our son, and proud of my achievements. My thought drifted to my Mother and the prophecy of the sword. Was this the hardship the female guardian of the sword had to endure over, or was there more to come? I shuddered, but there was no point in me anticipating bad omens. Moreover, my healthy baby son was all that mattered at that moment. I held him very tight to my bosom and cried as I had never cried before. I gripped the sacred sword in one hand and promised to do justice to its legend and power. This magic object had played a crucial role for me to win the battle, and it was going to ensure our safe return to Yamato.
The soldiers hailed me and knelt when I went out of my tent; though there was astonishment and perplexity when they noticed me holding a baby in my hands.
The mild breeze off the sea, basking under the sun, a cute baby in my arms. I felt happy. We were going home.
‘Your Majesty, have you already chosen a name for our new Prince?’ asked Sukune approaching the deck where I sat with my son.
’Yes, his name will be Hondawake, which means “a distinct honour”,’ I replied.
Our armada reached Shimonoseki Strait on the evening of the tenth day and we entered the Seto Naikai where the waters were going to take us to Naniwa Port. Soldiers practising sword combat on the deck kept me amused during the long trip. Eventually we reached the port and the preparations to anchor started. Suddenly, an arrow from nowhere pierced the body of one of the crew who was about to moor the ship. A swarm of arrows followed. Abandoning the mooring process, all soldiers rushed to seek protection and their weapons. We were being ambushed by an army that had been waiting for our arrival onshore.
I laid on the floor of the deck holding my baby. A soldier approached me ducking and gave me his shield.
‘Ma’am, are you OK?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I am,’ I answered.
‘Please stay down here,’ he said, indicating to two of his subordinates to protect me, and he crawled to the front of the ship.
I had a limited vision lying in that position, but from the commotion I surmised that we had been fenced in by a fleet of attacking forces. Armed with their swords and spears, my soldiers went on to counterattack the enemies who were entering our ships by projecting their bodies with a rope attached to their masts or by using a plank as a bridge between the ships. Our armada consisted of six vessels, but the enemy had at least ten. A bloody battle of clashing metal on metal, mutilated bodies thrown to the water like food to the sharks and exalted screaming from the commanders to kill followed. Then, sometime later, our pilot, who was at the top of the mast, gave the command. Immediately, large nets made of thick hemp were dropped from the masts of the other five vessels. The enemies were ensnared under the trap. Exasperated, they tried to cut the nets with their swords, but the hemp had been immersed in oil and the fire started by my soldiers spread fast, engulfing the vessels and burning whoever or whatever was in it. The planks that connected the ships of the enemies to ours, ensured the blaze made their way to their fleet. Many cries of despair of half-burned bodies met their end in the deep waters. Many drowned, others died charcoaled.
Abruptly, I felt someone pulling my hair aggressively. When I lifted my head, his sword’s edge pointed straight to my throat. ‘Give me the baby you are holding,’ he bawled.
‘Yes, please do not harm me,’ I said and threw the baby I was holding in my hands in the air. My assailant was confused but loosened his grip on me to catch the baby, which gave me the opportunity to get the sword hidden under my garment and cut off one of his hands and a piece of his nose. He ran away shouting in pain. I looked around and the soldiers who were meant to protect me had been killed. Without wasting any time, I entered the fight on the deck holding a sword in each hand. By now the enemy had been severely disabled by the fire. It was only a matter of time for us to annihilate them. And annihilate them we did. Our soldiers celebrated with cries of victory, but I had only one think in my mind – my baby, Hondawake.
‘It is a very good choice of name Ma’am,’ Sukune said, playing with the baby’s hand with his finger, when I told him of the chosen name for my son, Hondawake. ‘It is now my duty to ensure that the last wish of our late Emperor Chūai is fulfilled,’ he continued, without taking his eyes from my baby.
‘What do you mean Sukune?’
‘Before his death, Emperor Chūai made me promise to use all my power and knowledge to put your son on the throne as the next Emperor,’ he said calmly. ‘My spies have already informed me that the two elder sons of our late Emperor Chūai are aware of Prince Hondawake’s birth and want to eliminate any competition to the throne. They are preparing an attack against our armada when we anchor at Naniwa Port.’
I startled. I thought of the second part of the prophecy, Mother had told me: “However, after the storm, she will go on to become a great sovereign, one of the greatest this country has ever had,” and I understood the connection. Would I be made Empress to hold the place until my son comes to age? I started to wonder.
‘Your Majesty,’ Sukune broke my reverie by calling my attention. ‘I am afraid, you have already undergone so much since the death of your Husband, but your new-born son requires your protection and help until he is able to wear the mantle, as wished the late Emperor Chūai,’ he complemented.
‘I will not try to evade from my duties as a mother, Sukune. I was just thinking of a prophecy my Mother had told me some time ago.’
‘And what that prophecy is about, Ma’am?’
I sighed. ‘This is not important at this moment. Should we then brace ourselves for the attack we will be facing in Naniwa?’
’I have already thought about it, Your Majesty, and my plan is to assign a small, skilled army to secretly take Prince Hondawake through the outer sea and deliver and keep him safe at Kii until this is over. As your late Husband’s elder sons have spies everywhere in the country, you cannot go with your child. It will blow away the plan. You should remain with us, pretending all the time that you have the baby with you.’
I sighed again. I did not want to be separated from Hondawake. I thought of the possibility of dying before we could be united again, or worse, Hondawake being caught and killed.
‘Is there any alternative?’ I asked, hopefully.
‘I am afraid not, Ma’am. This will be the safest option for your son. Tomorrow evening we will be crossing the Shimonoseki Strait. From that point forward, you have to be separated. We will use the darkness of the night to camouflage our plan.’
‘Who will look after my baby in Kii?’
‘I have trusted contacts there, Your Majesty. If you recall, your Husband rescued the villagers of Kii some time ago when they were being massacred by insurgents. Since then we have acquired very loyal allies in Kii, who will be willing to die to protect Emperor Chūai’s heir’s life.’
I gazed at my smiling little baby. ‘You were born to be the Emperor, but it was not going to be that easy,’ I said to him in my mind. His smile became mischievous, as if he had understood my remark and was saying sorry Mummy!
At nightfall, a discreet, small boat with armed soldiers aboard left the armada with Hondawake. They headed south to reach the outer sea and the Kii Province by circumnavigating the peninsula. I felt my heart sink. With our victory over the pirates of Mimana, I had thought my predicament was over. But I was wrong, and now I had to subject my baby again into another quandary.
‘Please do not worry about Prince Hondawake, Your Majesty, you have my assurance that he will be fine,’ said Sukune, when he saw my tear-drenched face.
As soon as the sun came out on the next day, Sukune summoned the pilots and commanders for a summit on my behalf.
‘We will not be having a friendly welcome back at Naniwa Port,’ said Sukune to the members of the Council and explained the reasons, highlighting that the departure of Prince Hondawake had to be kept secret from other members of the crew. ‘Our opposing forces will have a fleet larger and better equipped than ours, but I have a plan to outsmart them,’ proceeded Sukune. I listened attentively to my Prime Minister but could not stop thinking of my baby. My mind was brought back to that meeting when Sukune mentioned the black, smelly liquid we were given by the people of Mimana as one of the tributes upon our departure.
’…the kemp ropes used to craft the nets we will use as a trap should be first immersed in the Sekiyū,’ he said. I then had a moment of eureka. That black liquid was called Sekiyū (rock oil) and it was highly combustible. I started to become more confident on Sukune’s plot and focussed on his remaining explanation.
‘The five vessels, which should always be behind the main one where our Empress will be, will only be boarded by few soldiers. Once the enemies access them, these few soldiers should position themselves at the edges of the decks to avoid being caught by the net. Upon the signal from the pilot, who will be watching the events from the top of the main mast from where he will have good visibility of what is happening below, the nets should be dropped from above and fire started. The soldiers should then dive into the water to escape the blaze, but before sprinkle oil on the plank bridges to spread the fire to the enemies’ vessels.’ It was indeed a well elaborated plan. I had been instructed to not make myself too visible during the voyage. However, when on deck, I was to hold a blanket wrapped doll in my arms, and pretend it was my baby.
Entering the palace in Yamato, we were saluted by a crowd of well-wishers. The story of the defeat of the pirates of the Korean Peninsula had preceded us and I was celebrated as a brave warrior and a heroine. I was reunited with Hondawake some days later. He was delighted to see me again, and I squeezed him in my arms with happiness. As I had thought, due to my son’s young age, I was made Empress-Regnant. Following in the footsteps of Chūai, I became an active Empress, travelling the country to care and listen to my subjects and to dispense justice and order. I established diplomatic relations to China, exchanging embassies with its Emperor Cao Wei, by whom I became very much appreciated and have been honoured by becoming the first Japanese person mentioned in their Wei Zhi (Records of Wei), the official dynastic history of the Chinese Kingdom, compiled in the third century CE.
I knew my people loved me as, after some years, I became known as the “Great Empress”. Therefore, as I stated at the beginning of my narratives, I was neither a Queen, nor an Empress. I was much more than that.