Sanshu no Shinki





Japanese Symbols of Government

The Symbol of the Empire

The Achievement of State

The Symbol of the Emperor

The Symbols of the Shoguns

Sansu no Shinki, the Three Sacred Treasures






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Starting with the Taika Reform Edicts of 645, Japanese intensified the adoption of Chinese cultural practices and reorganized the government and the penal code in accordance with the Chinese administrative structure (the Ritsuryo state) of the time. This paved the way for the dominance of Confucian philosophy in Japan until the 19th century. This period also saw the first uses of the word Nihon as a name for the emerging state.


In the Nara-period (710-784) the mythology was made up legitimizing the power of the rulers and the ruling family of Japan.


Historical writing in Japan culminated in the early 8th  century with the massive chronicles, the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720). These chronicles give a legendary account of Japan's beginnings in which the people were descendants of the gods themselves. According to the myths contained in these two chronicles, Japan was founded in 660 BC by the ancestral Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the Shinto deity Amaterasu, or the Sun Goddess. The myths also claim that Jimmu started a line of emperors that remains unbroken to this day. However, historians believe the first emperor who actually existed was Emperor Ōjin (r. 362-394 A.D.), though the date of his reign is uncertain. For most of Japan's history, actual political power has not been in the hands of the emperor, but in the hands of the court nobility, the shoguns, the military and, more recently, the prime minister.


Legend wants that the Sanshui-no-Shingi or Three Sacred Treasures, the Mirror, the Sword and Jewel, without possession of which, according to the Imperial Household Law, no member of the Imperial Family can legitimately ascend the throne of Japan, are probably older than the Imperial House itself. They are supposed to be the creations of the age of the ancestral gods, emblems of the all-powerful deities which were transferred to the rulers of Japan, thus legitimizing their power and for that reason have been carefully preserved troughout the ages by the Imperial family.


In the Three Sacred Treasures we may notice the symbols for the administrative, the armed and the religious authorities, making the authority of the state. Of this state the Japanese emperor was, at least formally, the head.

The three symbols were sometimes combined in a mon and this mon has to be considered as the possible though hypothetical state symbol of ancient Japan. After the Meiji revolution the idea was not followed and the symbol of state has become a mirror charged with a sun in splendour, a symbol meaning “the Administration of the Empire” and representing the administration as a reflection of the empire.




Each of the three symbols has a legendary origin and a specific history of its own. The legend runs as follows:

At the dawn of the national life the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, had occasion to reprove het brother Susa-no-Wo-no-Mikoto (His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness), for his destroying en befauling her works…..

The 8th century Koj-iki continues:


Cleyera japonica (Sakaki) A medium sized evergreen tree with dark reddish brown smooth bark
“So thereupon the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity, terrified at the sight, closed behind her the door of the Heavenly Rock-Dwelling, made it fast and retired. Then the whole Plain of High Heaven was obscured and all the Central Land of Reed-Plains darkened. Owing to this, eternal night prevailed. Hereupon the voices of the myriad deities were like unto the flies in the fifth moon as they swarmed, and a myriad portents of woe all arose. Therefore did the eight hundred myriad deities assemble in a divine assembly in the bed of the Tranquil River of Heaven, and bid the deity Thought-Includer, child of the High-August-Producing-Wondrous deity, think of a plan, assembling the long-singing birds of eternal night and making them sing, taking the hard rocks of Heaven from the river-bed of the Tranquil River of Heaven, and taking the iron from the Heavenly Metal-Mountains, calling in the smith Ama-tsu-ma-ra, charging Her Augustness I-  shi-ko-ri-do-me to make a mirror, and charging His Augustness Jewel-Ancestor to make an augustly complete string of curved jewels eight feet long - of five hundred jewels - and summoning His Augustness Heavenly-Beckoning-Ancestor-Lord and His Augustness Great-Jewel, and causing them to pull out with a complete pulling the shoulder-blade of a true stag from the Heavenly Mount Kagu, and take cherry-bark from the Heavenly Mount Kagu, and perform divination, and pulling up by pulling its roots a true cleyera japonica with five hundred branches from the Heavenly Mount Kaga, and taking and putting upon its upper branches the augustly complete string of curved jewels eight feet long - of five hundred jewels - and taking and tying to the middle branches the mirror eight feet long, and taking and hanging upon its lower branches the white pacificatory offerings and the blue pacificatory offering His Augustness Grand-Jewel taking these divers things and holding them together with the grand august offerings, and His Augustness Heavenly-Beckoning-Ancestor-Lord prayerfully reciting grand liturgies, and the Heavenly Hand-Strength-Male deity standing hidden beside the door, and Her Augustness Heavenly-Alarming-Female banging round her the heavenly clubmoss the Heavenly -Mount Kagu as a sash, and making the heavenly spindle-tree her head-dress and binding the leaves of the bamboo-grass of the Heavenly -Mount-Kagu in a posy for her hands, and laying a sounding-board before the door of the Heavenly Rock-Dwelling and stamping, till she made it resound and doing as if possessed by a deity, and pulling out the nipples of her breasts, pushing down her skirt-string “usque ad privates partes”. Then the Plain of High Heaven shook, and the eight hundred myriad deities laughed together.


Hereupon the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity was greatly amazed, and, slightly opening the door of the Heavenly Rock-Dwelling, spoke thus from the inside: "Methought that owing to my retirement the Plain of Heaven would be dark, and likewise the Central Land of Reed-Plains would all be dark: how then is it that the Heavenly-Alarming-Female makes merry, and that likewise the eight hundred myriad deities all laugh? Then the Heavenly-Alarming-Female spoke, saying: “We rejoice and are glad because there is a deity more illustrious than Thine Augustness.” While she was thus speaking, His Augustness Heavenly-Beckoning-Ancestor-Lord and His Augustness Grand-Jewel pushed forward the mirror and respectfully showed it to the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity, whereupon the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity, more and more astonished, gradually came forth from the door and gazed upon it, whereupon the Heavenly-Hand-Strength-Male deity, who was standing hidden, took her august hand and drew her out, and then His Augustness Grand-Jewel drew the bottom-tied rope along at her august back, and spoke, saying: “Thou must not go back further in than this”! So when the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity had come forth, both the Plain of High Heaven and the Central-Land-of-Reed-Plains of course again became light.




The sword, according to the Koj-iki, is supposed to be of a different origin: 


Chamaecyparis lawsoniana minima aurea 


So, having been expelled, His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness descended to a place called Tori-kami at the headwaters of the River Hi in the Land of Idzumo. At this time some chopsticks came floating down the stream. So His Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness, thinking that there must be people at the head-waters of the river, went up it in quest of them, when he came upon an old man and an old woman - two of them - who had a young girl between them, and were weeping. Then he deigned to ask: “Who are ye?” So the old man replied, saving: “I am an Earthly deity, child of the deity Great-Mountain-Possessor. I am called by the name of Foot-Stroking-Elder, my wife is called by the name of Hand-Stroking-Elder, and my daughter is called by the name of Wondrous-Inada-Princess.” Again he asked: “What is the cause of your crying?” The old man answered, saying: “I had originally eight young girls as daughters. But the eight-forked serpent of Koshi has come every year and devoured one, and it is now its time to come, wherefore we weep.” Then he asked him: “What is its form like?” The old man answered, saving: “Its eyes are like akakagachi, it has one body with eight heads and eight tails. Moreover, on its body grows moss, and also chamaecyparis and cryptomerias. Its length extends over eight valleys and eight hills, and if one look at its belly, it is all constantly bloody and inflamed.” (What is called here akakagachi is the modern hohodzuki.) Then His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augstness said to the old man: "If this be thy daughter, wilt thou offer her to me?” He replied, saying: “With reverence, but I know not thine august name.”Then be replied, saying: I am elder brother to the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity. So I have now descended from Heaven.” Then the deities Foot-Stroking-Elder and Hand-Stroking-Elder said: “If that be so, with reverence will we offer her to thee.” So His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness, at once taking and Tekstvak:  
Cryptomeria japonica
changing, the young girl into a multitudinous and close-toothed comb which he stuck into his august hair-bunch, said to the deities Foot-Stroking-Elder and Hand-Stroking-Elder: “Do you distill some eightfold refined liquor. Also make a fence round about, in that fence make eight gates, at each gate tie together eight platforms, on each platform put a liquor-vat, and into each vat pour the eightfold refined liquor, and wait." So as they waited after having thus prepared everything in accordance with his bidding the eight-forked serpent came truly as the old man had said, and immediately dipped a head into each vat, and drank the liquor. Thereupon it was intoxicated with drinking, and all the heads lay down and slept. Then His-Swift-Impetuous-Male-Augustness drew the ten-grasp saber, that was augustly girded on him, and cut the serpent in pieces, so that the River Hi flowed on changed into a river of blood. So when he cut the middle tail, the edge of his august sword broke. Then, thinking it strange, he thrust into and split the flesh with the point of his august sword and looked, and there was a great sword within. So he took this great sword, and, thinking it a strange thing, he respectfully informed the Heaven-Shining-Great-August deity. This is the Herb-Quelling Great Sword.[1]




Nininigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of Amaterasu Omokami, was sent to earth to govern the land and to establish an Imperial capital. From the Sun Goddess herself he received the Mirror, as the incarnation of her spirit, and was thus admonished:

“Whenever you gaze upon this, the Sacred Mirror, you will find it holy, and must therefore reverently worship it, keeping it beside your couch and in the privacy of your chamber.”

The Three Sacred Treasures were transferred to Jimmu Tenno, first of the Imperial line, who ascended the throne in 660 BC. (i.e. 40-10 BC). The Emperor conquered the land, subduing refractory tribes, and he established his capital at Kashiwabara, where the Treasures were deposited, becoming objects of great reverence to the people.

During the reign of Sujin, the tenth Emperor (230-258) replicas were made of the Mirror and Sword; these were kept in the palace, the originals being deposited at Kasanui, in the province of Yamato, where they were enshrined. The reason for this was the fear that the sublimity of the Treasures would be tarnished by exposure to the vulgar gaze. An Imperial Princess, Toyosuki Iri-hime, was appointed priestess-in-charge of the shrine, and commanded to guard the treasures with her life.

In the reign of Suinin, the eleventh ruler, the Mirror and the Sword were again removed, this time to Ise, and again an Imperial Princess, Yamato-hime-no-Mikoto, was appointed their guardian. Here a shrine was built, dedicated to the spirit of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, which is today the Great Shinto Shrine of Ise.




The legends in the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720) thus prove that the Three Sacred Treasures were at least existant at the dawn of the Nara Period. They appear in history more than threehundred years after the reign of Ojin (362-394) the first emperor of which it is certain that he really existed.

Later historic records reveal that the Mirror has more than once been damaged by fire and that it  hardly survived the Heian Period (781-1185). In 960, the fourth month, it suffered a palace fire; while in 1005, the eleventh month, it was almost totally destroyed, only a small part, says the record, remaining. A third fire, in 1040, so damaged the Mirror that it was reduced to fragments, and it is these that are now in the Kashiko-dokoro, the original being in the Great Shrine of Ise.

At the battle  of Dannoura, in 1185, when the young Emperor Antoku lost his life, replicas of the Sacred Treasures came near being lost. The Mirror and Jewel were in a box, and the enemy, the Genji, were anxious to see them and to secure them. They seized the casket and openend it, when the flashing of the Mirror was so intense that they were blinded and driven mad. Temporarily the Jewel was lost, but it was found in its box floating on the sea, and was restored to the succeeding Emperor. Similarly, the replica of the Sword was lost when the Taira were exterminated, and this has never been recovered. A second replica was made, and a third, which was offered to the Emperor from the province of Ise. This still remains as the subsitute of the original replica lost in the battle of .Dannoura.

During the brief er of the rival Imperial Courts in the fourteenth century, when the Northern and Southern courts strove for supremacy, the control of the Sacred Treasures became the object of conflict, since true sovereignty went with their possessor. The Emperor Go-Daigo (1318-1339) was banished to the remote island of Oki, in the Japan Sea. After the establishment of the Hokucho, or Northern Court (1336), the regent Hojo Takatoki demanded that the exiled ruler transfer the sacred emblems to the Emperor Kōgōn (1331-1333, 1364), first of the Hokucho Emperors. Go-Daigo,  however, surrendered only the replicas and when he returned, as he did soon afterwards, he brought the Treasures with him. The first Ashikaga Shogun (Ashikaga Takauji 1338-’58) was similarly deceived.

It was in the reign of Go-Kameyama (1383-1392), of the Southern Court, that the unification of the rival Courts was agreed upon.This being accomplished the Treasures were surrendered and restored to the newly-proclaimed Emperor Go-Komatsu (1382-1412) on October 5th 1392.

The shrine of the Mirror was built close to the Isuzu River. Atsuta, the home of the magic Sword is also near rivers that flow to the low-lying sea-coast. [2]





The present three Sacred Treasures and Imperial Regalia.

The three sacred treasures legitimate the authority of the imperial throne and are said to symbolize the virtues of wisdom, courage, and benevolence.



Mirrors with a polished surface on one side and cosmic symbols on the other side are intermediaries connecting the individual and the cosmos. Such mirrors are known from the end of the Warring States Period in China (475-221 BC) and were used until the Q’ing-dynasty (1644). They were given to civil servants at the Emperors birthday. The oldest ones just show a circular pattern that can be interpreted as a sun. Younger specimen show a sun in the form of a semisphere in the middle, surrounded by figures symbolizing heaven. Sometimes the figures are abstract and show a compass-card  with the eight directions of the wind. On others the sun is surrounded with the twelve signs of the zodiac. From about the Han Dynasties (207 B.C. - 220 AD) the four wind directions are symbolized by a tortoise for the North, a dragon for the East, a phoenix for the South and a tiger for the West.  In the Tang dynasty (618-907) these symbols were reduced to one or two dragons, the combination of dragons and sun symbolizing the “Emperor of the East”, and the “Imperial Government of the East”. In this form the mirror is the intermediary between the emperor and his officials. From this time also, we know eight-lobed mirrors, the lobes symbolizing the eight wind-directions.  The eight-lobed form of mirror was adopted in the 19th century as the mirror in the heraldic device of the Japanese empire.

The Japanese Sacred Mirror as illustrated here is of a type common in the Eastern Han period (25-220 AD). It shows a sun and an eight directions-symbol. However we can not be sure this is the original mirror or one of its replica´s.


Kusanagi-no-tsurugi is actually called Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi (litt. “Sword of gathering clouds of heaven") but it is more popularly called Kusanagi (lit. “grasscutter” or more probably “sword of snake”). It may also be called Tsumugari no Tachi (都牟刈の太刀). The actual Kusanagi, if it exists, is likely to be a sword of the Roman spatha-type which is typically double-edged, short and straight; very different from the more recent katana backsword style. This kind of sword is not depicted in Japanese mon-art. In crests a broad, double edged blade of Chinese origin was depicted.


Magatama, are curved beads which first appeared in Japan during the Jomon period, around circa 1000 BCE and in Korea (where they are called Gogok or Kokkok) during the Prehistoric period, mainly in the Bronze Age and Neolithic.

They are often found inhumed in mounded tumulus graves as offerings to deities. They continued to be popular with the ruling elites throughout the Kofun Period of Japan, and are often romanticised as indicative of the Yamato Dynasty of Japan. Some consider them to be an Imperial symbol, although in fact ownership was widespread throughout all the chieftainships of Kofun Period Japan. It is believed that magatama were popularly worn as jewels for decoration, in addition to their religious meanings. In this latter regard they were later largely replaced by Buddhist prayer beads in the Nara period.

In modern Japan, the magatama's shape of a sphere with a flowing tail is still the usual visual representation of the human spirit (hitodama). Wearing one during life is considered a way of gaining protections from kami.




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© Hubert de Vries 06.03.2007




[1] The Kojiki. Translated by  B.H. Chamberlain, 1882 Part  III. Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, and the storm-god.  See:

[2]  Tarao, Hanso: Symbols of Sovereignty are Treasured Gifts from Sun Goddess. In: Enthronement of the one hundreth twenty-fourth Emperor of Japan. Tokyo, 1928. Pp. 63-65.