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The Three Sacred Treasures of Japan

CULTURE | June 2, 2019

Sanshu no jingi, The Three Sacred Regalia. Source: (britishmuseum.org)

Many monarchies have regalia which represent centuries of tradition and history. These, such as in the United Kingdom include crowns, jewels, scepters, and orbs. But few are quite like the Imperial regalia of the Japanese Emperor. In fact, nobody, but the most senior Shinto priests and the Emperor has even seen them: The Sword, the Mirror, and the Jewel, known altogether the Sanshu-no-Jingi.

Amaterasu emerging from the cave. (painted by Kunisada, 1855) Source: (Wikipedia)

The Legend

In legend, the Jewel with the Mirror were used to lure the Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu-ōmikami from a cave when she hid there from her brother, Susanoo, the storm god thus darkening the world. Her reflection in the mirror drew her out. These and then the sword was then given by the gods (divine spirits called kami) to Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of with the authority to pacify Japan. These passed into the possession of Ninigi’s great-grandson, Jimmu the semi-legendary first emperor of Japan who ascended to the throne in 690 AD. The three treasures are said to have been bestowed upon him by the gods and are a confirmation of the emperor’s divine right to rule.

Even though the emperor in Japan today does not have any true power, these objects have continued to pass down to the ruler as a matter of tradition and continuity.

Susanoo slaying the Yamata no Orochi, by Toyohara Chikanobu. Source: (Wikipedia)

 The Sword

The great swords of Ancient Japan were named and had personalities. Such is the case of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi which represents valor.

The importance of the sword is associated with the traditional warrior culture of Japan so it is not surprising that one of the three sacred objects of imperial power would be a sword. According to the mythology, the sword was first discovered by Susanoo the Shinto storm god inside the tail of an eight-headed serpent he slew. Therefore, the sword was originally named Murakumo-no-Tsurugi which means “Heavenly Sword of the Gathering Clouds. He then gave the sword to Amaterasu.

There are numerous stories concerning the sword, but it received its current name when the warrior Yamato Takeru used the sword to control wind and fire in battle. Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi thus means, “Grass cutting sword.”

The sword has been muddied in history and folklore with tales of it being lost in a sea battle in 1185 and replicas of it made in order to bolster rival claimants for the throne.

The sword is currently held at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, but since none can actually see the sword it is not certain if it is the original or a replica.

Conjectural images of the Imperial Regalia of Japan. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Mirror

In Japanese, the sacred mirror is known as Yata no Kagami. Since it has been seen by few, scholars have determined that it is probably octagonal in shape and one foot in diameter. It is also unknown as to what substance it is made of, but copper, bronze, iron, and stone were all materials used in ancient Japanese mirrors. The mirror represents honesty or wisdom.

Since ancient times the original mirror has been damaged due to fires and wars. A replica existed which is housed in Three Palace Sanctuaries in Tokyo. As for the original, either it or fragments of it exist at the Ise Grand Shrine, considered one of the holiest of places in Japan. 

Magatama, dating from Jōmon period to 8th century. Source: (Wikipedia)

The Jewel

The Yasakani no Magatama or “ever bright curved jewel” is probably the only one of the three treasures that are the original and represents compassion or benevolence. It is a kidney-shape magatama probably made of possibly semi-precious stone like jade, and it is probably green or red. It is not a jewel in the sense of a gem like an emerald or diamond. Rather, it is a comma-shaped bead that like other magatama were produced for personal adornment.

Today the jewel may be found at the Kashiko-dokoro in Three Palace Sanctuaries in Tokyo. 

Japan's new Emperor Naruhito receiving the imperial regalia. Source: (Getty Images)

So important are they to Japanese tradition, that at the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito ordered their protection at all costs. When Emperor Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne on May 1, 2019, he was presented with the three treasures. However, if the public finally thought they were to get a glimpse of the sacred regalia, they were wrong. Each of the treasures was boxed and shrouded.

Tags: Japan | Sanshu-no-Jingi

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).