Monday, March 31, 2014

History and Myth: Yamatai

It seems there are a lot of good progressive leaps forward in geek culture these days. More and more woman are given their chance to shine in the spotlight and contribute more than just a pretty face (or voice). As a result, games are starting to portray female characters in a more realistic fashion as both strong, developing people, and possible role models for a younger audience.

Naturally, I was pleased to hear Tomb Raider was getting a much-needed new coat of paint in terms of both visuals and overall content. Moreover, I was a child of the mid-90's that kind of missed the window to play the original, but was just in time to see the first movie. I was hoping for a game that was both modernized and progressive while also remaining true to the overall spirit of the original game.

I was glad to hear it didn't disappoint on all accounts. However, this game sat on my computer for the longest time. As great as it was to have another game to join the growing library for the progressive, feminist woman, I couldn't help but feel like this game was a bit too close to other series for me: Uncharted and Assassin's Creed (both of which are basically gritty versions of Prince of Persia with guns and archeology). Both amazing series in their own right, but I automatically lumped Tomb Raider together with them and put it on the backburner as something I'd get to eventually.

Until one day, when my husband was playing it, I heard one word: "Yamatai".

And I was hooked. One of the ingenuities of recent games that I enjoy is the usage of real history as the main plot or setting of games. Running through Renaissance Italy is almost a seperate game from Assassin's Creed II and could hold its own without the modern-day sci-fi parts (in fact, you spend so little time out of the Animus that I often forgot about that part of the game entirely). Uncharted takes the player to realistic settings in search of mythological locales rife with history. I am both excited and inspired by these games that compell the audience to play these games and then flock to the internet to learn more and sift through the realities and myths.

But Yamatai holds a particularly fond place in my heart.

To explain why, all we need to answer is this question, "What is Yamatai?"

In the third century, there was a region of Japan that was ruled and united by a hegemon by the name of Queen Himiko who regularly sent missions to China. The name of this region was called "Yamatai".

And that's it. That is, that's all anyone actually knows about it with any level of certainty. We don't even have solid records of Yamatai or it's ruler since the Japanese people hadn't fully adapted Chinese writing to the Old Japanese language until the eighth century. With no definite Japanese accounts to go by, scholars have to rely on the impressions of Chinese people. In Sources of Japanese Tradition by Ryusaku Tsunoda, William T deBary, and Donald Keene, one citizen recounts:

[Himiko] occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people. Though mature in age, she reamined unmarried. She had a younger brother who assisted her in ruling the country. After she became the ruler, there were few who saw her. She had one thousand women as attendants, but only one man. He served her food and drink and acted as a medium of communication. She resided in a palace surrounded by towers and stockades, with armed guards in a state of constant vigilance.

So it seemed this Queen Himiko was an enigma surrounded by mysticism. Women play in important role in Japan's native Shinto religion. Shamans were mostly women and in most mythological stories, the victims of demonic possessions were often women. Even today, the all-female miko can be seen tending their shrines and performing ritualistic duties. The head deity of Shinto, Amaterasu, is also a woman and all reigning sovereigns of Japan are thought to be descended from her. In modern times, the emporers of Japan still act in a traditional and ritualistic role.

Himiko's mysticism and solitude are well-portrayed in popular culture. In the most excellent Legend of Zelda-style Playstation 2 classic, Okami, you play as the head deity Amaterasu herself in the shape of a pure-white wolf (okami can be translated as both "Great God" (大神) and "wolf"(狼)) playing through a plethora of Japan's colorful mythology and folk tales. In this game, you get to meet with Queen Himiko and in her grand palace, you encounter only a few hand-maidens. Then, when you make it to her throne-room (part of which involves swimming through LAVA), you find yourself in a gigantic room empty only except for Queen Himiko.


                                                                Photo: SplitPlaythru
She likes her space...

The other part of this story that continues to elude historians is the location and size of Yamatai. If you were to follow the Chinese directions to Yamatai, you'd end up somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. However, part of the directions lead to modern-age Kyushu- a prime location from which Himiko could send her missions. In fact, a seal was found in Kyushu which fit the description of those bestowed by Emporer Kuang-wu of China to Japanese missions.

So it's probably safe to assume that the location of Yamatai in Tomb Raider is probably unrealistic considering the game takes place on an uncharted island in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, ancient Chinese records relate that Himiko's people were "kind and peace-loving" and though she was thought of as a strong and extraordinary ruler, there is no account of her people being ruled by fear as portrayed in the game.

Besides a few minor liberties taken as expected in any mainstream media, I thoroughly enjoyed Crystal Dynamics' portrayal of a long-forgotten ancient civilization. The backgrounds and visuals are beautiful with true-to-life Japanese architecture and symbolism. The game is chock-full of references and tibits to actual history from Hanya masks to drink flasks used by Japanese aristocrats. For those looking for an excellent archeological adventure into ancient Japan, I can't recommend this game enough.


Ryusaku Tsunoda, William T. deBary, and Donald Keene, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition. New York: Colombia University Press, 1958.

Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th ed. Hawaii: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.

Kawagoe, Aileen, Heritage of Japan. "Queen Himiko and the History of Yamatai-koku". Heritage of Japan. 31 March, 2014. web.

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