Home » Blog » 2023 » February » The Izumo question


Written by Graham on Sunday 19th February 2023.

Excavations at the archaeological site of Kojindani ruins in the former province of Izumo - the "mother of Japan" - revealed a breathtaking trove, including almost 360 bronze swords, along with bells and spearheads. These treasures are now kept in the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo.

"But," I hear you ask, "isn't the centre of ancient Japanese culture in Nara Prefecture, miles upon miles away?"

Why, yes, dear reader, yes. But... perhaps Nara, a.k.a. Yamato, was not the only centre. Let's find out more about Izumo - together!

Map showing a number of sites named in the Chinese and Japanese sources.

The major deity associated with Izumo is Ōkuninushi or Ōnamuchi, a descendant of the mighty, tempestuous Susanoo-no-Mikoto, Amaterasu Ōmikami's younger brother. His domain was known as Ashihara no Nakatsukuni - the "middle country of the reed beds" - described as the earliest portion of the terrestrial realm to come into existence between Takamagahara (the celestial realm) and Yomi (the underworld), with legends telling of his reluctance to relinquish it when the heavenly deities demand it of him.

Other myths present his journeys along the coast, east to Hōki (where his brothers make an attempt on his life) and beyond to Inaba (where his brothers slay a white hare), with the princess of the latter country, Yagamihime, becoming Ōkuninushi's wife. Another wife was Takiribime-no-Mikoto, a daughter of Susanoo and Amaterasu, who was associated with the ancient Munakata Taisha (dedicated to three sister-goddesses, daughters of Susanoo) in today's Fukuoka Prefecture in north-western Kyūshū, an area formerly designated Tsukushi. Another daughter of Susanoo, Suseribime, also had a relationship with Ōkuninushi.

These myths are perhaps reflected in the development and expansion of a "proto-Izumo confederacy" during the middle of the Yayoi period (c.100 BC-AD 100), which enjoyed strong trading links with the original core Yayoi settlement area in Kyūshū (where, at the very least, the state of Na was enjoying a correspondence with the Han court in China). Another area which formed a part of the Izumo sphere of influence was further north, in a land named Koshi, from where legend ascribes land being taken to augment Izumo, and where one myth has Ōkuninushi slaying a serpent.

Izumo, unless known by a different name in the relevant portion of the Wei Zhi, is conspicuous by its absence from that account of the famous shaman-queen Himiko. It would seem that, by that stage, the Izumo court had largely lost its relative paramountcy, though its probable survival is perhaps evidenced by the tale of Homuchiwake, a son of Suinin-tennō (who likely reigned slightly before AD 300 or thereabouts). Homuchiwake was born mute, which is revealed to be due to a curse cast by Izumo-no-Ōkami, the "great deity of Izumo," Ōkuninushi. Interestingly, Homuchiwake's first babblings took place when he heard the cry of a bird, who was pursued by Suinin's servant Yamanobe no Ōtaka as far as the Wanami estuary in Koshi. Homuchiwake subsequently went to Izumo. Is this, perchance, the last gasp of a semi-independent faded power?

Another myth concerns one Izumo Furune, keeper of the treasures of the great shrine of Izumo-taisha, and his brother Ihi-irine, who handed them over to the envoys of Sujin-tenno (father of Suinin, whose tutelary deity Ōmononushi is made by the Nihon Shoki into an aspect of Ōkuninushi!) while Furune was away in Tsukushi. Furune was not amused and, some years later, shuffled Ihi-irine off this mortal coil, whereupon he was executed. Thus, Izumo, while nominally subject to the Yamato court, appears to have been rather begrudging of its status during the reigns of Sujin and Suinin. Later, still, Izumo was one (presumably restive) region to which Suinin's own son Keikō-tennō would dispatch the ambitious prince Ōsu, a.k.a. Yamatotakeru-no-Mikoto. Yamatotakeru was given the famed blade Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi by his aunt Yamatohime-no-mikoto, miko at Ise Jingū, a blade which was reputedly wielded by Susanoo to dispatch the monstrous Yamata no Orochi in Izumo.

Quite likely, then, may of the old hold-outs would have sought their fortune in the relative safety of the north, the land of Koshi - and it is from here that the eventual subjugation of northern Honshu would begin. Thus, some descendants of Izumo nobility may have participated in these conquests - while others, perhaps, had previously joined forces with the local "Zoku-Jōmon" people and participated in the ethnogenesis of the conquered, known in Japanese sources as the Emishi.

The governor of Koshi Abe no Hirafu conquered the Emishi of western Tōhoku during AD 658 (a campaign which also saw the subjugation of the Mishihase at Watarishima), with the Dewa-gun added to Echigō province in AD 708. East and north lay what would become Mutsu no kuni, which was the centre of rebellion in 709. This was separated from Dewa-gun in AD 712, with various districts being carved out to form part of Iwaki. Mutsu was eventually conquered in AD 801 by Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, the culmination of an endeavour starting in 794, when he fought alongside Ōtomo no Otomaro, the two being early bearers of the title shōgun (more correctly sei-i taishōgun) of the Heian period.

Ōshū Fujiwara-shi (Northern Fujiwara) ruled Tōhoku in succession of the Emishi from AD 1087 to 1189 until their defeat by forces led by Minamoto no Yoritomo at Ōshū. The genealogical sources trace their ancestry to Fujiwara no Hidesato, a courtier during the reign of Suzaku-tennō (921-952).

Sir Graham