Fair warning: Are you ready for some nerdiness? We’ll be addressing both ancient political and geographical history, hopefully in a way that’s easy to follow.
In the comic retelling of ancient mythology, we’ve recently addressed the story of Kunibiki (国引き, literally “Land-Pulling”), which comes from the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki. What seems to be a story about theft of land may actually have more roots in cooperation with other lands, but it nonetheless was not politically desirable to add to the Kojiki. Along with the Nihonshoki, these three texts were among of the first of Japan’s publications in the early 8th century.
They’re a little late to game of keeping written records. Earlier records of Japan written in China and Korea help to tease out some of the origins of the myths recorded at such a comparatively late date, especially considering archeological evidence suggests the culture of the Izumo region being hundreds of years older than the 8th century. Many of the shrines which take a center stage in both local and national mythology had probably been around at least 600 years before anyone got the idea to write about them.
And why did they start writing about them? Put simply, for legitimacy as having their own culture to defend against the cultural takeover of the Tang dynasty (China). There had been years and years of cultural and technological influence from the Asian continent before this time, but at this time in history Japan imported so much literary culture and lifestyle tastes that they never quite got back to their previous homegrown culture. This period of influence and its merits and demerits are historically perceived very differently on either side of the sea, but for our purposes, the important point is that the Kojiki and Nihonshoki were written for political reasons and recorded in Chinese characters (which leads to some disputes later on in history about whether they should be read according to the meaning of the characters or purely read phonetically). They collected whatever information they could from around the different provinces of Japan, and chose to leave stories like Kunibiki out so as to focus on a tighter narrative that would enforce the legitimacy of the emperor (or empress, as occasionally was the case at this time). We’d be jumping ahead a little bit in the Kojiki timeline to say why (I’m hoping to get to that part in my comic renditions by early 2015), but that narrative purpose meant downplaying the role of Izumo and its heroes, like Susano-o, in favor of his sister Amaterasu who is said to be the ancestor of the emperor. You could read this as how the victors write history, and the ancient kingdom of Yamato needed to make sure they held more legitimacy than the ancient kingdom of Izumo, who they had finally made peace with at some point (again, this theme will come up in later legends).
The Fudoki were compiled around the same time with similar people running the little kingdom of Japan at the time, but their purpose was less to be a national narrative and more to be a set of encyclopedias about each of the slightly-less-than-fully-integrated provinces of Japan. They had detailed records of local customs and mythology, economies, even plant life. A big focus was on geographical features of the regions, and assigning appropriate names to each of those features (we’ll touch on this a little more in the following entry). Given the oddity of the Shimane Peninsula, with a little stretch of level ground sandwiched between stretches of mountains before the jagged coastline drops off into the sea, it’s not surprising that it would have given birth to such a legend as wriggling the coasts off of other places with a rake and mashing them together with the original coastlines here.
The reason the Izumo-no-Kuni-Fudoki is so important is because it is the only one remaining mostly intact today, so we know about 8th century Izumo in much more detail than we know about other regions of Japan whose Fudoki were lost or mostly lost. That, together with wider historical context and archeological digs so plentiful in this region, gives us a pretty good look into the ways in which ancient–really ancient–Izumo developed and had an influence on the rest of Japan.
This region’s proximity to the Korean Peninsula is a good place to start, and archeological finds of Korean origin in the region have shown that the exchange goes pretty far back. The Izumo region is considered the birthplace of many practical things in Japan: chopsticks, iron production, even sake. It stands that they were also taught farming methods and culture that lead to the rapid civilization of this region, which then was spread throughout other parts of Japan’s largest island. Hence, taking the land from Silla may say less about thieving from the Korean peninsula, and more about accepting a lot of cultural influence and knowledge from them.
Furthermore, there is historical context, archeological evidence, and later Kojiki stories that suggest a lot of exchange between Izumo and Koshi, though the regions are better known today as Shimane Prefecture and Ishikawa Prefecture. In recognition of this, Mihonoseki, the eastern tip of the Shimane Peninsula supposedly taken from there, entered a Sister City relationship with Suzu City on the tip of the Noto Peninsula, and once Mihonoseki merged with Matsue that sister city relationship was retained. Speaking of mythology-based relationships, the city of Miyazaki is pushing for a city relationship with Matsue because the place where Izanagi started cleansing himself after escaping the underworld of Yomi was connected with one of the myth-rich spots of Miyazaki, where the three noble deities were born as he bathed. Thus, Matsue and Miyazaki share a supernatural connection. We’ll see how that potential official relationship progresses (while we’re at it, Matsue also has relationships with Takarazuka, Onomichi, and a handful of cities abroad).
So why these places in particular, and why grabbing land? That may be because engineers from these places came to the flood-plagued Izumo region and helped to reclaim the land. Roughly 2000 years ago, the Shimane Peninsula may have looked more like this:
The Izumo plains were frequently troubled by floods running down from the Chuugoku mountains into the oddly flat area west of Lake Shinji, which back then was more of a river than the lake it’s contained as today. There are other interesting tidbits about how the frequent flooding affected local customs in this stretch of the Izumo region, but for now it will suffice to say that flooding was a huge issue, and successful measures to control the issue were some of the most significant events in this region’s early history. Therefore, such an event may not only be the source of the land-adding Kunibiki legend, but also the monstrous Yamata-no-Orochi legend. Instead of a giant eight-headed serpent, that legend might be about getting the rivers under control. Also, Kushinada-hime, the bride Susano-o wins in the legend, is known by another name: Inata-hime. “Rice-field Princess!”
So it’s great that the Izumo region benefitted from Korea and Koshi’s influence, but why take land from the Oki Islands, too? Gee, beats me. Maybe just because they were close by.
Also on the geographical front, the placement and shapes of mountains and beaches may also have led to the creative formation of this legend. Let’s observe:
Mt. Sahime, now known as Mt. Sanbe, the highest mountain in Shimane Prefecture.
A view of Mt. Sanbe from around Izumo Taisha, looking down the Nagahama coastline. Inasa-no-Hama, where 8 million gods congregate to make their annual visit to Izumo Taisha, is located at the north part of this stretch of coast along Izumo City and towards Oda City.
And a look from St. Sanbe back up at the western end of the peninsula towards Izumo Taisha.
Mt. Hinokami,now known as Mt. Daisen, the highest mountain in Tottori Prefecture, and the entire San’in region. Though Hinokami sounds like a better name for a volcano than “big mountain” if you ask me! It sticks out from near sea level, making it as noticeable as Mt. Fuji (and much more impressive when viewed from Yonago or Matsue (on a clear day) than Mt. Fuji when viewed from Tokyo! Photoshopped postcards of a towering Mt. Fuji behind the Tokyoscape make me giggle.). Given its similar shape and prominence, it’s often nicknamed the Mt. Fuji of Izumo (though technically it’s in Hoki!).
And a view from Mt. Makuragi, on the eastern end of the Shimane Peninsula:
Finally, Yumigahama Beach, along the coast of Yonago City and Sakaiminato City. It’s current name comes from how it is stretched liked a bow, ready to shoot an arrow. This is one of the most popular summer beaches in the San’in region, but even among the coast line of cliffs you find a lot of little semi-circular beaches secluded by cliffs and mountains on either side. One of my favorite views I’ve seen of the Sea of Japan was from a friend’s place facing a tiny harbor, where no one would go out of their way to visit for a day on the sand. As for the sandy spots, you tend to notice everyone has their own favorite, and each one seems completely secluded from all the others. Not so with Yumigahama, known for it beautiful stretching coastline, and view of Daisen!
That’s another geographical thing to note—the rope that attached the land of Miho to Mt. Hinokami was said to turn into an island, not a coastline. While the city of Yonago has a merchant history stretching back hundreds of years, perhaps hundreds and hundreds of years before that it was underwater! The volcanic influence of Daisen may also have led to a lot of the peninsula’s shape.
The island of Daikonshima (with an odd history behind that name) floating out there on Lake Nakaumi wasn’t specifically mentioned in this legend, and it used to be an independent township until recently merging with Matsue as part of a nationwide push a few years ago to cut down on the number of tiny municipalities. Today, as a district in Matsue, it still retains the name “Yatsuka.” This is just one example of how to you can still feel this legend’s impact on San’in region today, and we’ll get to more of that in the following entry.