Image credit: Tsukioka Yoshitoshiderivative work: AMorozov - Yamato_Takeru_at_16.jpg, Public Domain

The tales of Prince Yamato Takeru are told in the Japanese chronicles KojikiNihon Shoki, and others. This image, from a 19th century woodblock print, depicts Yamato as he is about to set off on his adventures.

The Hero's Journey: Yamato

Interview with Stephania Burke

This interview with Stephania Burke analyzes the Yamato epic through the lens of the Hero's Journey. 


How was the epic transmitted?

Though difficult to document with certainty, it is likely that many of the myths and stories found in Kojiki (712) originated in a tradition of oral transmission before being inscribed in this early written history of Japan. Until the introduction of the Chinese written language into Japan via Korea around the 6th century, Japan had no writing system of its own. The many clans (uji), including the central Yamato clan of the imperial line, relied on reciters (kataribe) to memorize and preserve their myths, local legends, genealogies and other crucial information. These reciters held in their memory the stories of the court, and their recitations varied from the official to the ritual. The early Japanese believed in the power or magical mana of words (kotodama); especially names of deities and other special utterances, when recited correctly, were endowed with magical/religious/ spiritual power.

During the 7th century the Yamato imperial line turned to Chinese models of governing and administration to promote the still newly centralized political configuration and to bolster their own dominant position. Gradually, there came the need to sort out all the myths and stories and genealogies and to incorporate all the variants and clan myths into one story that legitimized the Yamato line's position at the center and the those of the other clans around it. Emperor Temmu (reigned 682-686) believed there were many errors and conflicting information in the existing record, and he wanted to once and for all a history that would correct these shortcomings and establish the "correct" history of Japan before it was too late.

Therefore, around 681 Emperor Temmu commanded Hieda no Are, a court attendant and reciter, to memorize all the court documents and genealogies so that an authoritative history could be compiled. Later, Hieda no Are recited these and other stories to O no Yasumaro, a scholar-official, who compiled them in Kojiki, which covers Japan's "history" from the Age of the Gods and the creation of the Japanese islands through the first legendary and semi-historical emperors to 628. Kojiki was compiled and read as history until the early 20th century; however, for many centuries after its compilation it was not widely read because of the fact that it is written in an extremely complex combination of Chinese characters (kanji) used to write both in Chinese and Japanese that fell out of use. Instead, Nihon shoki (720), an official history commissioned again by the throne, became the most widely read history of this early period. It is written in formal classical Chinese, which continued to be used in Japan, much like Latin in Europe, for more than one thousand years. Nihon shoki covers much of the same ground as Kojiki. One interesting difference is that it includes many variants of the same myth, whereas Kojiki only presents one version. Therefore, we know that these myths were indeed fluid and flexible and not as stable or static as reading Kojiki might suggest. Even though these myths and stories were captured and forever inscribed in writing 1300 years ago, we need to remember their oral origins and the significance and (magical as well as real) power that oral recitation held for the Japanese during the early centuries of consolidation and centralization.


How is the hero's pedigree mythically established?

Lineage is all-important in the Japanese myths, Shinto religion, and Japanese imperial rule. In fact, in many ways, Kojiki is the story of one family: the Yamato clan-turned-imperial line. The work traces this family from its divine origins down to historical times, while also incorporating the stories of the court's satellite clans/families. Heredity was the primary determinant of one's social position, roles, duties, and possibilities. And Kojiki spends a good deal of time outlining family lines.

Depending on the period of history, maternal and/or paternal lineage could be vital. For Yamato Takeru, it is clearly his paternal lineage that lends him his legitimacy to embark on the path he does. His father is Emperor Keikô. This simple fact endows Yamato Takeru with the lineage of the imperial line, descendants of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. His connection with this line is reinforced by his visits to his paternal aunt, Yamatohime, the chief priestess at Ise Shrine, where Amaterasu is enshrined. Here, again, his ties to this most important of the Shinto deities is explicitly demonstrated. Yamatohime is like a guardian or representative of the Imperial Sun Line, and the help she offers Yamato Takeru lend him not only potency but authority and the right to embark on his missions as an ambassador of the imperial house.

In traditional Shinto cosmology, The same gods (Izanagi and Izanami) that bore Amaterasu also bore the very islands of Japan. Therefore, the imperial line is not only of divine descent but is also "related" to the land it rules. Yamato Takeru, as an imperial son, is thus tied to the heavens and the land. What higher pedigree could a hero hope for? You will note that the myth of Yamato Takeru concludes with a list of his descendants. His end is thus significant also as the beginning of future generations.


What calls the hero to take action?

Yamato Takeru kills and dismembers his older brother. This is hardly a typical action of a cultural hero. However, it is this brutal act that leads to Yamato Takeru's call to action.

Yamato Takeru killed his brother in a twisted attempt to obey his father, Emperor Keikô. The emperor had asked him to admonish his brother for some unfilial behavior. Loyalty and filial behavior (related to and influenced by imported Confucian ethics) were crucial to the smooth operation of government and hereditary authority, and so ironically Yamato Takeru's behavior emphasizes these traits vis-à-vis his elder brother's transgressions. Nonetheless, the emperor is shocked by his son's brutality and sends Yamato Takeru to subdue some distant unsubmissive leaders. The myths surrounding Yamato Takeru take place during the period when Japan was not yet a truly consolidated state. Clans, especially those far from the central Yamato Plain, were likely hesitant to yield to this central authority.

Yamato Takeru's call to action illustrates a combination of several elements that were of vital significance in the early development of the Japanese state: loyalty, lineage, and consolidation. Obeying his father, Yamato Takeru takes his call to heart and sets out to pacify and expand the realm of his house. The story of Yamato Takeru illustrates the urgent need, during this period, to stabilize the world and to bring control and peace to the realm.

It is over the course of his adventures that we see the gradual transformation of Yamato Takeru from a strong but unthinking and brutal hero to one who becomes much more thoughtful, feeling, vulnerable, and eventually even defeated. In his defeat, however, comes his greatest triumph; and this is, perhaps, the hallmark of this myth and Yamato Takeru, the archetypal Japanese hero who finds triumph in failure and nobility not only in his physical successes but ultimately also through his expression (in song/poetry) of vulnerability, love and nostalgia. This myth combines the elements of the three religions/ideologies that operated in early Japan: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shinto. Confucianism is seen in the stress on loyalty, filial behavior, and preserving the hierarchy. Notions common to Buddhism can be seen in the final failure of the hero; in the futility of action, and the possibility of detachment and eventual rebirth. And the Shinto elements are evident in the aid Yamato Takeru receives from his aunt, Yamatohime, the priestess at Ise Shrine and the presence throughout the myth of deities, both supportive and destructive.


What are the qualities of a hero revealed during the tests?

As seen in answer the section about his call to action, Yamato Takeru (and many of the heroes and deities that appear in Kojiki) can not be described as purely admirable, good, moral, or righteous. There are no clear or absolute divisions between good and evil, strength and weakness, etc.. Yamato Takeru often owes his success to trickery, but this cannot be marked as a weakness or "bad" trait. Cunning, wit, and trickery are perhaps better seen as proof of the hero's bravery and ingenuity. What makes a hero in these myths is often the ability of the hero to combine action and sentiment, to recognize and express weakness. There is a long tradition in Japan that the true hero must be one who combines martial ability (bu) with literary ability (bun), and in many ways Yamato Takeru is a precursor of this tradition. Though he does not write, he does express his feelings and emotions through song, the primary vehicle of expression during the preliterate era. Through this combination, the brutality of one's action can be redeemed through expression. The ideal hero is not a perfect hero without flaws and weaknesses, but one who grows, acknowledges his failures and weaknesses, and shares them through words born from his heart.

Helpers & Tools

Where does the hero's power come from?

Not surprisingly, his power comes from his family. First, we see this simply in who he is. As son of the emperor, he is immediately endowed with authority reaching back to the deities of Japan. Second, he receives his helpers and tools from either his father or his aunt, the Shinto priestess. Granted, his power also comes from his individual strength, bravery, and ability. But, it is undeniable, too, that his lineage is his primary asset. WHO he is makes him WHAT he is.

Return & Elixir-prize

What does the hero accomplish?

First, by eliminating unsubmissive leaders and subduing troublesome deities, Yamato Takeru helps consolidate and pacify the Yamato realm. Though not through compromise or generosity, Yamato Takeru does bring greater safety and stability. In the end, he is honored like an emperor, reflecting his success and loyalty to the imperial line.

His resurrection is not only an awesome "return," but it also inspires rites, rituals, and songs that become vital parts (elixirs?) of all future imperial funerals. His story is one of a hero made up of contradictions but also an unyielding devotion to his mission and ancestors. His success was not self made but dependent upon his family, his ancestry, and their assistance. And in the end, one death leads to rebirth.

Yamato Plot Summary

This plot summary, by Hero's Journey Project scholar Stephania Burke, outlines the myth of Yamato Takeru within the Monomyth format.

Yamato Glossary

Teachers can reference this detailed glossary for information about time period, characters, texts, and history that are relevant to understanding Yamato.

Yamato Text Excerpts

These passages come from B.H. Chamberlain's 1882 translation of the Kojiki. The full text is available at sacred-texts.com(link is external)

Bibliography of Sources