- Gendered Interpretations of Female Rule:The Case of Himiko, Ruler of Yamatai
In a recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Education and Sciences that evaluated Japanese schoolchildren's knowledge of historical figures, Himiko 卑弥呼, a female ruler who governed a federation of kingdoms in the Japanese archipelago in the third century C.E., was recognized by 99 percent, the highest rate.1 Who was this famous woman? Himiko is historically significant for three reasons. First, she is the earliest documented chief, male or female, who exercised political authority over a large region of the Japanese archipelago before it was organized as a centralized state. Second, she was the earliest ruler whose ruling activities were described in detail. Third, Himiko's rule marks the beginning of a strong legacy of female rule, despite the hiatus of several centuries separating her rule from that of later female sovereigns.
Despite her indisputable fame, Himiko as a historical figure is deeply misunderstood. While the fact of her rule has never been questioned, Himiko and later female rulers [End Page 3] rarely receive the objective assessment they deserve.2 Even when their formal political position is acknowledged, their substantive accomplishments and contributions are typically veiled under men's actions and voices. The "standard" interpretations of female rule in Japan—whether that of Himiko, later sovereigns, or even modern figures—is that women's political authority was and is an exception because of the normative gendering of rulers as men. These assumptions are firmly institutionalized in modern writings about the past as the unassailable facts of scholarly investigation, and they continue to serve as the truth that is referenced and circulated without question. Only recently have scholars begun to question these interpretations and consider seriously the roles of Himiko and other female chiefs as unambiguous political rulers.3
This article aims to challenge the standard historiographical treatment of Himiko, especially the nature of her political authority and her position in the long history of imperial rule. I use the case of Himiko to investigate how modern scholarship has constructed a normative view of political authority that is gendered male. In the first section, I reconsider the documentary sources concerning Himiko and critically examine these sources against the particular political, military, religious, and diplomatic contexts in which she ruled. In the second section, I support this reinterpretation by introducing archaeological findings. In the final section, building on my understanding of both documentary and archaeological sources, I articulate the methodological and conceptual problems that are frequently found in modern scholarship about Himiko, namely, its insistence on the universalism of male rule and the exceptionalism of female rule. Such scholarship disavows the political authority and contribution of female sovereigns. Throughout, I emphasize the incontrovertible fact that the first named sovereign in Japanese history was female and insist that her political authority must be assessed without gender bias. [End Page 4]
In conclusion, I focus on the issue of problematic representations in school textbooks. The primary cause of the current misunderstanding is the way Himiko is represented and described in school textbooks, which are largely standardized by the Ministry of Education and Sciences. I propose that how we assess Himiko's rule has a direct impact on our evaluation of female rulers who appear in later centuries—the reigns of the eight female emperors who ruled during the formative years of the Japanese state in the late sixth through eighth centuries.4
Himiko in Documentary Sources
Himiko was the queen of a kingdom known as Yamatai 邪馬壹, which ruled over a federation of other kingdoms spread over a wide region during the third century C.E. It would be nearly three centuries before the Japanese archipelago was organized into a unified country under imperial sovereignty. Located across the China Sea from Korea, the archipelago sat on the eastern edge of the East Asian cultural sphere that found its center in the symbolic authority, bureaucratic structure, writing, and philosophical systems of Chinese imperial dynastic rule. At that time the archipelago, which later would be called Nihon (or Japan in English), was known as the land of Wa 倭, or...