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Empress Jingu -- 4th century AD

Jingu was one of Japan’s famous women. Her exploits are shrouded in mystery and stories, mainly because of the early period of Japanese history that she inhabited. However, the main facts are recorded in the early historical works of Japan. The stories that surround her also provide an insight into what she was really like.

During the 4th century, she was consort to the Emperor Chuai, the 14th emperor of Japan. According to the Nihon Shoki, she advised her husband that the gods wished him to mount an expedition to Korea. He dismissed her ideas as nonsense, saying that her shamanistic vision was a message from false gods. There were rebels to deal with at home. When he died, Jingu took this as a sign of the Gods’ displeasure.

It looked like one of Chuai’s male relations would become emperor, or a member of the court. But Jingu quickly took the reigns of power, fighting off all her opponents. No one dared challenge her. Rather than rest on her laurels, she launched the campaign against Korea, as she had advised her husband to do.

She took personal command of the campaign, following the army to Korea. Her dedication was demonstrated when she bound a stone in her loins, to stop the birth of her son before the fighting was over. These actions were vindicated. Not only was her son born safely, becoming the future Emperor Ojin, but the military venture was a success. The three Korean kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche and Silla were brought under her control.

She was a strong woman, who followed her passions. More importantly, her decision to advance into Korea opened Japan up to the outside world. China established bases in North Korea under the Han dynasty (202 BC – AD 220) and Japan’s ventures brought the two into contact. Though they fought from time to time, Japan was able to learn from Chinese culture. Through the diplomatic links and sea links of Paekche, diplomatic missions were sent to the Chinese court. Also, Japan learned about Chinese culture, about Buddhism and their form of writing from Paekche.

Had Jingu not ascended the throne after her husband and not expanded into Korea, Japan could have followed a very different course of history. The country was opened up to new ideas and ways of thinking - China was much more advanced socially and economically at this time. Over time Japan grew, absorbing what it could learn from China, becoming stronger. That Jingu's actions were so influential in developing Japan’s society and culture, shows her great importance in Japanese history. She is rightly worshipped alongside many other famous Japanese in the Kei no Myojin Shrine.

Sources:
The Japanese Experience, W.G. Beasley
A History of Japan, Conrad Totman

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