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  • Rebranding Himiko, the Shaman Queen of Ancient History
  • Laura Miller (bio)

While doing fieldwork on the divination industry in Tokyo, I discovered a place where a specialist offered tarot card readings using the famed 1889 Tarot de Marseille deck. In order to get an interview I went to her place of business, located in a decrepit office building in Shibuya. She greeted me at the entryway together with her officemate, a woman named Yasuko. Yasuko was also in the divination business and told me she was carrying on a tradition established by the first great Japanese shaman, Himiko, a third-century CE ruler described only briefly by Chinese historians. Why does a contemporary divination professional feel the need to link divination entrepreneurship to an ancient sovereign? Yasuko is not alone in her fascination with Himiko, and it is this interest in a historical figure about whom we know very little that I wish to explore in this essay.

Other visions of Himiko’s persona are less inspiring than Yasuko’s. Some manga and anime creators portray Himiko as a presumptuous tyrant, promiscuous sorceress, or vain hag unworthy of power. At first glance these disparate perceptions seem to have no relationship to each other. Was Himiko a diabolical dictator, a talented witch, or an adorable shrine attendant? Do people see in Himiko a sexy manipulator or a spiritual mastermind? Interpretations [End Page 179] vary depending on the goals and attitudes held by creators of her image, particularly their ideas about female power. Women such as Yasuko view Himiko as a metaphor for female agency and innate occult abilities. Other popular culture producers see in Himiko an aberrant and unwise attribution of political authority to women. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich pointed out, the figure of Joan of Arc has been many things across the years, including witch, virgin, heretic, whore, transvestite, peasant, and saint.1 A woman demonized in one era might be venerated in another. Himiko also reflects this type of shifting assessment, often holding contrasting personas within the same time period.

My aim is not to engage in recuperation of Himiko as a positive origin symbol but rather to survey the diversity in uses of her image. She is put to service for civic boosterism, national-identity construction, and to legitimize the divination enterprise. Some of the more interesting images of Himiko are also the most challenging to understand. Representations of Himiko are rarely neutral, as most entail encoding of selected assumptions about ancient history and female authority. This essay will review some ways she is depicted in literary treatments and in visual culture, where she appears as shaman priestess, alluring ruler, and dangerous witch. I draw on history and popular culture texts to trace how the hazy yet tantalizing aspects of her story make her an appealing icon easily available to serve a range of interests. The iconography depends on who is looking at Himiko and for what purposes they include her in their project.


Himiko might be the subject of more media than any other woman in Japanese history. She fascinates not only scholars but anyone interested in Japanese history and identity. She was described in ethnographic chronicles about Japan written by third-century Chinese, yet is not named in the earliest Japanese mythological histories, the Kojiki (712, Record of ancient matters) and the Nihongi (720, Chronicles of Japan, alternate title Nihon shoki). Because the Japanese compilers of these mytho-histories consulted much earlier Chinese sources that contained details about Himiko, it is clear they intentionally excised her name. No doubt, acknowledging Himiko’s role would have interfered with their ideological project to establish a patrilineal kinship group as the [End Page 180] divinely ordained rulers. One outcome of this discrepancy, however, is that Himiko’s biography has been the subject of extremely broad interpretation.

In one of the early Chinese histories, the Wei zhi (Records of Wei) book of the Sanguozhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms), compiled by historian Chen Shou (233–97), there is a section on Japan entitled “Account of the Eastern Barbarians” that describes Himiko with some intriguing information.2 She was the ruler of a confederation of chiefdoms, was...


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