According to Shinto, hidden away in shrines throughout Japan are three relics of the gods. They consist of a sword, the kusanagi no tsurugi, a mirror, the yata no kagami, and a jewel (or jewels), the yasakani no magatama. The imperial regalia of Japan are said to have been given to the imperial family by their direct descendant, Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess. Throughout Japanese history the regalia have played a large role in guiding Japan into the nation it is today.
Where Did the Regalia Come From?
Legend says that the Shinto sun goddess once sealed herself in a cave to hide from the wrath of her brother, Susanoo, after he was banished from heaven. Without the sun goddess, the world became dark and desolate, whereupon the other gods contrived to draw her out.
They set the mirror and jewels along the outside of the cave while the goddess Uzume gave a bawdy striptease outside. The ludicrousness, apparently, of revealing herself to the crowd caused a roar of laughter. The sun goddess, curious as to how they could be celebrating in a world without her, peeked outside the cave to see what the fuss was about. She saw her own reflection in the mirror, as well as the beauty of the jewels. With the goddess stunned by her own beauty, the other gods were able to grab her and pull her out of the cave. The mirror and jewels have, according to the tale, been her property ever since.
The sword, however, was taken from the body of a serpent monster by her brother, Susanoo, banished to earth. Regretting his actions against his sister, Susanoo thought the sword would make an excellent apology gift and sent it to her.
Later, Amaterasu thought the residents of Japan were unruly enough to need divine guidance and sent her grandson, Ninigi no mikoto, to earth with the three items as symbols of his heavenly authority. They were later bequeathed to his descendant, Jinmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan. (Whose existence is suspect, since known historical timelines conflict with legendary ones.)
What the Imperial Regalia Do?
According to legend, the mirror and jewels play more of a symbolic role than anything else, though the sun goddess had said to worship the mirror as herself. The sword, though, according to legend, is a true magical weapon.
The Kusanagi was wielded by the Japanese legendary hero Yamato Takeru. Takeru had been trapped by his enemies in a burning field. Translations differ on the specifics of what happened next, but some say that when all seemed lost the sword unsheathed itself and began mowing down the grass to free the hero. Others say Takeru could use it to control the wind and redirect the flames. Either way, it saved him from a fiery grave.
Symbolically, the sword is said to represent the Emperor’s bravery. The mirror represents wisdom. The jewel, benevolence. The symbolism attributed to them, however, is believed to have arisen only after Buddhism’s arrival in Japan.
Where is the Regalia Now?
It’s generally thought that the regalia, if they exist at all, are hidden away. They haven’t been seen for ages. The jewel is said to be in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, under the supervision of the imperial household. The mirror is said to be kept in the Ise shrine, the main shrine of Shinto which enshrines the sun goddess herself. The sword is said to be at the Atsuta shrine.
That said, no living person, likely not even their keepers, have seen them. The regalia are said to be kept in boxes, some with various layers of coverings to preserve them. What is known about their appearance is merely speculation.
It isn’t known if the jewel is red, blue, or anything else. And because the word magatama could be singular or plural in Japanese, it isn’t known if there is one jewel or a string. All that can be gathered is that they are curved like all magatama.
The mirror is believed to be nine inches in diameter, a measurement taken from an ancient text describing a fire in the area it had been held. Other records have it to be in the shape of a flower with eight petals, though no one can be certain.
The sword is said to be 33 inches long. Due to the period of swordmaking it appeared in, it is likely a straight sword called a chokuto. But that, again, is merely speculation.
How Have the Regalia Influenced History?
The emperors of Japan have long held replicas of the originals, which are held in just as high esteem as the originals. As symbols of imperial power, possession of the (replica) regalia has long been a key factor in determining the legitimacy of imperial rule. The gods entrusted the emperor with the regalia, and whoever holds them is seen as the true ruler of Japan.
Though “leader” is perhaps not the correct word. The Japanese emperor has long been nothing but a figurehead while the reins of the empire were held by the shogun. One ancient emperor, Go-Daigo, was fed up with only being a puppet and staged an uprising to cease power. His plot was found out even before the first battle was waged, though, and the emperor fled South from Kyoto to escape the wrath of the enraged shogun.
He took with him the replica regalia, and used then to claim legitimacy over the new emperor proclaimed by the shogun in his absence. Thus began a period of rivalry for the imperial throne where the Northern and Southern courts vied for power. After a series of battles a deal was struck and the regalia returned to Kyoto. The Northern side promptly ignored the deal, however, once their reign seemed certain.
Even before Emperor Go-Daigo’s ill-fated uprising, an earlier civil war over the rightful heir caused one of the replica regalia to be lost. The sword Go-Daigo took south with him was actually a replica of the replica. During the battle of Dan no Ura, the Taira and the Minamoto clans vied for control of Japan. It was a sea battle, and the young emperor Antoku was its most important victim, being drowned by his grandmother once defeat was certain.
The grandmother was said to have been wearing the Kusanagi when she jumped into the sea. The Yasakani no Magatama likewise fell into the ocean. It was said that the magatama was recovered either by the box that held it floating upon the waves or by divers after it had sunken. The sword, though, was lost. That in particular posed a significant problem. If the sword was divine, why had the sun goddess allowed it to be swallowed by the sea?
Many theories exists from ancient religious scholars as to why the sword was lost. It was quite a conundrum for the winning party, since they were without the items needed to legitimatize their power. One was that Amaturasu had bequeathed the duty of protecting the Emperor to the Imperial army instead of the sword, which had traditionally been thought to be his guardian. That sounded sensible enough, in theory and in practice, since the Emperor had already become little more than a puppet of the shogun. The theory made the shogun happy, and was fine for the Emperor because he didn’t really have a choice. The theory was convenient for both parties. It legitimized the shogun as well as the Emperor’s power by divine right, making the imperial regalia the source of both his and the bakufu’s (the shogun’s government) reign.
*And now, the winner of the book, The Art of the Japanese Sword: The Craft of Swordmaking and Its Appreciation, has been chosen. If that’s you, well, you already know because I told you. Congratulations, L.P.!