The sword, the mirror, the gem: those imperial insignia of Naruhito of Japan that no one has ever seen

L’emperor of Japan Naruhito and Empress Masako began their official tour of the United Kingdom on June 25, the first visit by foreign rulers since King Charles III’s cancer diagnosis. The program of …

The sword, the mirror, the gem: those imperial insignia of Naruhito of Japan that no one has ever seen

L’emperor of Japan Naruhito and Empress Masako began their official tour of the United Kingdom on June 25, the first visit by foreign rulers since King Charles III’s cancer diagnosis. The program of engagements includes a visit to Oxford, where both Japanese royals studied, and a tribute at Queen Elizabeth’s tomb. The arrival of Naruhito and Masako in London is an excellent opportunity to deepen our knowledge of this thousand-year-old Far Eastern dynasty, but above all to focus attention on one of the most compelling mysteries concerning the dynasty of the Chrysanthemum Throne. An enigma never revealed until now, which also represents a great difference in the interpretation of the concepts of empire and monarchy between the West and the East.

Naruhito and Masako in London

The Emperors of Japan arrived in London on June 22 and will depart on June 29. The actual state visit, however, will last from June 25 to 27. The royal tour, which aims to further strengthen the friendship between the United Kingdom and Japan and between the ruling dynasties, has been eagerly awaited for years. To be precise, it was planned for spring 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible to do so. Naruhito And Masako they will have the opportunity to revisit Oxford, where they studied, go to St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, where Queen Elizabeth is buried, see the Thames Barrier, the barrier that protects the city of London from the tides of the Thames and visit the Japan House London, cultural center dedicated to Japan.

On 25 June 2024, the imperial couple will pay homage to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and participate in a state banquet in Buckingham Palace. No meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is scheduled, given the proximity of the elections on July 4th. This trip will also be an opportunity to see Empress Masako again, who takes part in official appointments very sparingly, due to the depression she suffers from. The empress’s illness and the related treatments that she would have to undergo daily, wrote Japan Today, would have made it necessary for the Japanese royals to stay in one of the Windsor royal residences.

Naruhito and Masako were in London, the last time, for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, in September 2022, while the most recent visit of King Charles III dates back to 2019, when he was still Prince of Wales, for the enthronement of the emperor. Precisely this important event is the backdrop to the mystery surrounding the jewels of the Japanese Crown (we say so for convenience but, in reality, in the Japanese monarchy there is no real crown, as we know it and for this reason the succession ceremony to the throne it is not a coronation, but an enthronement).

The goddess of the Sun and the first emperor

The origins of the Japanese imperial family are lost in myth. The progenitor of the family, in fact, is identified as the goddess Amaterasu, the divinity associated with the Sun in Shintoism (polytheistic religion practiced in Japan). According to the stories of the Kojiki (the oldest surviving Japanese narrative text), the goddess ordered her nephew, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, to go to Japan, put an end to the internal strife and build rice fields from which men would able to earn a living (Amaterasu is considered the inventor of rice cultivation: it is no coincidence that a divine origin is also attributed to this food, given its importance for the Japanese).

Before letting him leave he gave him three gifts: the Kusanagi sword, the Yata no Kagami mirror and the Yasakani no Magatama jewel. Sacred objects that would become emblems of the empire. From the grandson of Amaterasu the ruling dynasty in the Land of the Rising Sun originated, the myth still tells us. The first Japanese emperor, Jinmu was the great-grandson of Ninigi-no-Mikoto, therefore a direct descendant of the goddess. Naruhito is the 126th descendant of Jinmu. In truth, however, not all historians agree on the existence of the first emperor. His name and his deeds remain shrouded in the fog of legends and even today it is very difficult to clearly separate historical reality from literary invention and mythical narration.

This ancestry, however, made the sovereign above other men, like a divinity on earth and, as such, incontestable. This status remained unchanged until the end of the Second World War. With the defeat of JapanIn fact, Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989) found himself forced to admit the human origin of the rulers of the Rising Sun in the famous speech “Declaration of the Emperor’s Human Nature”, held via radio on 1 January 1946.

There are many controversies linked to this speech: for some, Hiroito was forced to pronounce it by the occupying forces of Japan, who aimed to humiliate national pride, demolishing the cultural and religious foundations of the country. Furthermore, according to some interpretations of some passages, theemperor he wouldn’t really deny the house’s divine ancestry. In any case, those declarations marked a watershed in the history of the nation and of the imperial house, depriving the sovereign of his priestly function and making him, as stated in the first article of the Constitution of Japan (promulgated on 3 November 1946, but in force since 3 May 1947), simply “a symbol of the state and the unity of its people”.

The mystery of the Jewels of the Empire

The big change that happened after Second World War he failed to erase all the traditions linked to the Japanese family, nor the people’s feeling of respect towards the emperor. Proof of this are the three sacred objects which represent the jewels of the dynasty and which no one has ever seen, apart from the emperor on the day of his enthronement and the priests who preside over the ceremony (which is private). According to the myth, these are the Kusanagi sword, the Yasakani no Magatama gem and the Yata no Kagami mirror, or rather the three emblems that the goddess Amaterasu gave to her grandson before sending him to Japan and which the emperors handed down from generation to generation in generation.

The sword represents courage, the precious stone generosity, the mirror wisdom and wisdom. The first symbol is kept in the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, the second in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the third in the Ise Shrine in Mie. The objects have a fascinating mythological origin: Amaterasu, angry with her brother Susanowo, decided to hide in a cave. Because she was there goddess of the Sun, the world was plunged into darkness. To convince her to come out, the deity of the dawn, Ama-no-Uzume, hung the Yata no Kagami mirror and the Yasakani no Magatama gem (in this regard, some believe that it is not a single stone, but an entire necklace of jade) to a branch, out of the cave and began to dance.

Amaterasu, intrigued, peeked out and, seeing her reflection in the mirror, understood the power of the Sun as a source of life. She took the necklace, whose presence could be interpreted as a sort of homage, a tribute in her honor, and chose not to return to the cave. Her brother then gave her the Kusanagi sword (with which he had killed the monster Orochi) as a sign of peace.

Symbols of imperial power

Keeping the sacred emblems hidden from everyone’s sight has a profound meaning, connected with the concept of authority according to the Japanese: “Not displaying such treasures is, of course, an important part of the strategy that increases the power and mystery of the objects”Mickey Adolphson, professor of Japanese Studies at Cambridge University, told CNN, specifying that Shintoism is “particularly protective” towards its symbols. “If anyone could see them, they wouldn’t have the same power. Many historians would like to analyze them carefully…but in Japan, at present, there is no great desire to somehow demystify the objects and I do not expect that to happen in the near future.”.

There are even those who doubt the existence of the symbols: “We see the chests…but is there anything inside? Nobody knows”, Michael Cucek, professor of political science at Temple University in Japan, told CNN. If the objects really existed, the scholar claims, “the mirror probably comes from the Han Dynasty, in China, the sword, if in bronze or iron, would have been imported, because at the time it was made in Japan there were no metal resources”while the gem would have been cut on the model of those present “on the crowns of the Kings and Queens of Silla (the kingdom that ruled Korea from 57 BC to 935 AD)”.

In any case, what gives value to the sword, the mirror and the gem is the uninterrupted line of succession to Chrysanthemum ThroneCucek explained: “The Three Treasures…cannot legitimize the claims of a usurper who claims to be the rightful emperor. If they are stolen, they have no value. If the imperial line ends, they cannot maintain the imperial institution.” It is interesting to note the difference in the manifestation of monarchical power between Europe and Japan. For example, in the United Kingdom the Crown Jewels are visible to the public both in certain official ceremonies and in the permanent exhibition at the Tower of London. They are a clear symbolic demonstration of the institution’s authority and attract many visitors every year.

There Japanese monarchyhowever, does exactly the opposite: it envelops power and prestige in an aura of mystery through objects that represent, in a certain sense, esoteric knowledge, intended for a select few.

Of course, today the mirror, the sword and the gem are more than anything else ornamental symbols, but the ancient heritage, although partly shaped by modernity, has remained. There is no interpretation that is more valid or correct than the other. That’s not even the correct way to ask the question. They are both, much more simply, cultural expressions of the people they belong to.