Yamatai-koku or Yamato-koku (邪馬台国) (c. 1st century – c. 3rd century) is the Sino-Japanese name of an ancient country in Wa (Japan) during the late Yayoi period (c. BC 1,000 – c. 300 CE). The Chinese text Records of the Three Kingdoms first recorded as Yamatai guo (traditional Chinese: 邪馬臺國) or Yemayi guo (traditional Chinese: 邪馬壹國) as the domain of Priest-Queen Himiko (卑弥呼) (died c. 248 CE). Generations of Japanese historians, linguists, and archeologists have debated where Yamatai-koku was located and whether it was related to the later Yamato (大和国).


Yamatai-koku (邪馬台国)
c. 1st century–c. 3rd century
Common languagesProto-Japonic
• Established
c. 1st century
• Disestablished
c. 3rd century


Chinese textsEdit

Text of the Wei Zhi (ca. 297)

The oldest accounts of Yamatai are found in the official Chinese dynastic Twenty-Four Histories for the 1st- and 2nd-century Eastern Han dynasty, the 3rd-century Wei kingdom, and the 6th-century Sui dynasty.

The c. 297 CE Records of Wèi (traditional Chinese: 魏志), which is part of the Records of the Three Kingdoms (traditional Chinese: 三國志), first mentions the country Yamatai (Yémǎtái (邪馬臺)) written as Yamaichi (Yémǎyī (邪馬壹)).

Most Wei Zhi commentators accept the Yémǎtái (邪馬臺) transcription in later texts and dismiss this original word yi "one" (the anti-forgery character variant for "one") as a miscopy, or perhaps a naming taboo avoidance, of tai "platform; terrace." This history describes ancient Wa based upon detailed reports of 3rd-century Chinese envoys who traveled throughout the Japanese archipelago:

Going south by water for twenty days, one comes to the country of Toma, where the official is called mimi and his lieutenant, miminari. Here there are about fifty thousand households. Then going toward the south, one arrives at the country of Yamadai, where a Queen holds her court. [This journey] takes ten days by water and one month by land. Among the officials there are the ikima and, next in rank, the mimasho; then the mimagushi, then the nakato. There are probably more than seventy thousands households. (115, tr. Tsunoda 1951:9)

The Wei Zhi also records that in 238 CE, Queen Himiko sent an envoy to the court of Wei emperor Cao Rui, who responded favorably:

We confer upon you, therefore, the title 'Queen of Wa Friendly to Wei', together with the decoration of the gold seal with purple ribbon. …As a special gift, we bestow upon you three pieces of blue brocade with interwoven characters, five pieces of tapestry with delicate floral designs, fifty lengths of white silk, eight taels of gold, two swords five feet long, one hundred bronze mirrors, and fifty catties each of jade and of red beads. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:14-15)

The ca. 432 CE Book of the Later Han (traditional Chinese: 後漢書) says the Wa kings lived in the country of Yamatai (traditional Chinese: 邪馬臺國; ; pinyin: Yèmǎtái guó):

The Wa dwell on mountainous islands southeast of Han [Korea] in the middle of the ocean, forming more than one hundred communities. From the time of the overthrow of Chaoxian [northern Korea] by Emperor Wu (B.C. 140-87), nearly thirty of these communities have held intercourse with the Han [dynasty] court by envoys or scribes. Each community has its king, whose office is hereditary. The King of Great Wa [Yamato] resides in the country of Yamadai. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:1)

The Book of Sui (traditional Chinese: 隋書), finished in 636 CE, records changing the capital's name from Yamadai (traditional Chinese: 邪摩堆; ; pinyin: Yèmóduī) to Yamato (traditional Chinese: 大和; ; pinyin: Dàhé):

Wa is situated in the middle of the great ocean southeast of Baekje and Silla, three thousand li away by water and land. The people dwell on mountainous islands. …The capital is Yamato, known in the Wei history as Yamadai. The old records say that it is altogether twelve thousand li distant from the borders of Lelang and Daifang prefectures, and is situated east of Kuaiji and close to Dan'er. (81, tr. Tsunoda 1951:28)

Japanese textsEdit

The first Japanese books were mainly written with the Man'yōgana system, a rebus-like transcription that phonetically uses kanji "Chinese characters" to represent Japanese phonemes. For instance, using Chinese jiā ( "add"), which was pronounced ka in Japanese, to write the Japanese mora ka. Irregularities within this awkward system led Japanese scribes to develop phonetically regular syllabaries. In many cases, the new kana were graphic simplifications of Chinese characters. For instance, ka is written in hiragana and in katakana, both of which derive from the Man'yōgana 加 character.

The c. 712 Kojiki (古事記 "Records of Ancient Matters") is the oldest extant book written in Japan. The "Birth of the Eight Islands" section phonetically transcribes Yamato as what would be in Modern Standard Chinese Yèmádēng (夜麻登). The Kojiki records the Shintoist creation myth that the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami gave birth to the Ōyashima (大八州 "Eight Great Islands") of Japan, the last of which was Yamato:

Next they gave birth to Great-Yamato-the-Luxuriant-Island-of-the-Dragon-Fly, another name for which is Heavenly-August-Sky-Luxuriant-Dragon-Fly-Lord-Youth. The name of "Land-of-the-Eight-Great-Islands" therefore originated in these eight islands having been born first. (tr. Chamberlain 1919:23)

Chamberlain (1919:27) notes this poetic name "Island of the Dragon-fly" is associated with legendary Emperor Jimmu, who was honorifically named with Yamato as "Kamu-yamato Iware-biko."

The 720 Nihon Shoki (日本書紀 "Chronicles of Japan") also transcribes Yamato with the Chinese characters Yèmádēng (耶麻騰). In this version of the Eight Great Islands myth, Yamato is born second instead of eighth:

Now when the time of birth arrived, first of all the island of Ahaji was reckoned as the placenta, and their minds took no pleasure in it. Therefore it received the name of Ahaji no Shima. Next there was produced the island of Oho-yamato no Toyo-aki-tsu-shima. (tr. Aston 1924 1:13)

The translator Aston notes a literal meaning of "Rich-harvest (or autumn)-of-island" (i.e. "Island of Bountiful Harvests" or "Island of Bountiful Autumn").

The c. 600-759 Man'yōshū (万葉集 "Myriad Leaves Collection") transcribes Yamato as yama 山 "mountain" plus 蹟 "footprint; track; trace". Take for example, the first poem in the book, allegedly written by Emperor Yūryaku:

O maiden with a basket, a pretty basket, with a scoop, a pretty scoop, maiden picking greens on this hillside: I want to ask about your house; I want to be told your name. In the sky-filling land of Yamato it is I who rule everyone it is I who rule everywhere, and so I think you will tell me where you live, what you are called. (tr. McCullough 1985:6)

Commentators gloss this 山蹟乃國 as Yamato no kuni 大和の国 "country of Yamato". The usual Japanese reading of 山蹟 would be sanseki in Sino-Japanese on'yomi (from Chinese shanji) or yama'ato in native kun'yomi.


Modern Japanese Yamato (大和) descends from Old Japanese Yamatö or Yamato2, which has been associated with Yamatai. The latter umlaut or subscript diacritics distinguish two vocalic types within the proposed eight vowels of Nara period (710-794) Old Japanese (a, i, ï, u, e, ë, o, and ö, see Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai), which merged into the five Modern ones (a, i, u, e, and o).

During the Kofun period (250-538) when kanji were first used in Japan, Yamatö was written with the ateji 倭 for Wa "Japan". During the Asuka period (538-710) when Japanese place names were standardized into two-character compounds, Yamato was changed to 大倭 with a ("big; great") prefix.

Following the ca. 757 graphic substitution of 和 for 倭, it was written 大和 "great harmony," using the Classical Chinese expression dàhé 大和 (e.g., Yijing 1, tr. Wilhelm 1967:371: "each thing receives its true nature and destiny and comes into permanent accord with the Great Harmony.")

The early Japanese texts above give three transcriptions of Yamato: 夜麻登 (Kojiki), 耶麻騰 (Nihon Shoki), and 山蹟 (Man'yōshū). The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki use Sino-Japanese on'yomi readings of ya "night" or ya or ja (an interrogative sentence-final particle in Chinese), ma or ba "hemp", and or to "rise; mount" or "fly; gallop". In contrast, the Man'yōshū uses Japanese kun'yomi readings of yama "mountain" and to < or ato "track; trace".

The early Chinese histories above give three transcriptions of Yamatai: 邪馬壹 (Wei Zhi), 邪馬臺 (Hou Han Shu), and 邪摩堆 (Sui Shu). The first syllable is consistently written with "a place name", which was used as a jiajie graphic-loan character for "interrogative sentence-final particle" and xié 邪 "evil; depraved". The second is written with "horse" or "rub; friction". The third syllable of Yamatai is written or ichi "faithful, committed; financial form of , one", tái or "platform; terrace" (cf. Taiwan 臺灣) or duī "pile; heap". Concerning the transcriptional difference between Yamaichi 邪馬壹 in the Wei Zhi and Yamadai or Yamatai 邪馬臺 in the Hou Han Shu, Hong (1994:248-9) cites Furuta Takehiko [ja] that Yamaichi was correct. Chen Shou, author of the ca. 297 Wei Zhi, was writing about recent history based on personal observations; Fan Ye, author of the ca. 432 Hou Han Shu, was writing about earlier events based on written sources. Hong says the San Guo Zhi uses ichi 壹 86 times and dai 臺 56 times, without confusing them.

During the Wei period, dai was one of their most sacred words, implying a religious-political sanctuary or the emperor's palace. The characters ya 邪 and ma 馬 mean "nasty" and "horse", reflecting the contempt Chinese felt for a barbarian country, and it is most unlikely that Chen Shou would have used a sacred word after these two characters. It is equally unlikely that a copyist could have confused the characters, because in their old form they do not look nearly as similar as in their modern printed form. Yamadai was Fan Yeh’s creation. (1994:249)

He additionally cites Furuta that the Wei Zhi, Hou Han Shu, and Xin Tang Shu histories use at least 10 Chinese characters to transcribe Japanese to, but dai 臺 is not one of them.

In historical Chinese phonology, these Modern Chinese pronunciations differ considerably with the original 3rd-7th century transcriptions from a transitional period between Archaic or Old Chinese and Ancient or Middle Chinese. The table below contrasts Modern pronunciations (in Pinyin) with differing reconstructions of Early Middle Chinese (Edwin G. Pulleyblank 1991), "Archaic" Chinese (Bernhard Karlgren 1957), and Middle Chinese (William H. Baxter 1992). Note that Karlgren's "Archaic" is equivalent with "Middle" Chinese, and his "yod" palatal approximant (which some browsers cannot display) is replaced with the customary IPA j.

Chinese pronunciations
Characters Modern Chinese Middle Chinese Early Middle Chinese "Archaic" Chinese
邪馬臺 yémǎtái yæmæXdoj jiamaɨ'dəj jama:t'ḁ̂i
邪摩堆 yémóduī yæmatwoj jiamatwəj jamuâtuḁ̂i
大和 dàhé dajHhwaH dajʰɣwaʰ d'âiɣuâ

Roy Andrew Miller describes the phonological gap between these Middle Chinese reconstructions and the Old Japanese Yamatö.

The Wei chih account of the Wo people is chiefly concerned with a kingdom which it calls Yeh-ma-t'ai, Middle Chinese i̯a-ma-t'ḁ̂i, which inevitably seems to be a transcription of some early linguistic form allied with the word Yamato. The phonology of this identification raises problems which after generations of study have yet to be settled. The final -ḁ̂i of the Middle Chinese form seems to be a transcription of some early form not otherwise recorded for the final of Yamato. (1967:17-18)

While most scholars interpret 邪馬臺 as a transcription of pre-Old Japanese yamatai, Miyake (2003:41) cites Alexander Vovin that Late Old Chinese ʑ(h)a maaʳq dhəə 邪馬臺 represents a pre-Old Japanese form of Old Japanese yamato2 (*yamatə). Tōdō Akiyasu reconstructs two pronunciations for 䑓 – dai < Middle dǝi < Old *dǝg and yi < yiei < *d̥iǝg – and reads 邪馬臺 as Yamaikoku.[citation needed]

The etymology of Yamato, like those of many Japanese words, remains uncertain. While scholars generally agree that Yama- signifies Japan's numerous yama 山 "mountains", they disagree whether -to < - signifies 跡 "track; trace", 門 "gate; door", 戸 "door", 都 "city; capital", or perhaps tokoro 所 "place".


The location of Yamatai-koku is one of the most contentious topics in Japanese history. Generations of historians have debated "the Yamatai controversy" and have hypothesized numerous localities, some of which are fanciful like Okinawa (Farris 1998:245). General consensus centers around two likely locations of Yamatai, either northern Kyūshū or Yamato Province in the Kinki region of central Honshū. Imamura describes the controversy.

The question of whether the Yamatai Kingdom was located in northern Kyushu or central Kinki prompted the greatest debate over the ancient history of Japan. This debate originated from a puzzling account of the itinerary from Korea to Yamatai in Wei-shu. The northern Kyushu theory doubts the description of distance and the central Kinki theory the direction. This has been a continuing debate over the past 200 years, involving not only professional historians, archeologists and ethnologists, but also many amateurs, and thousands of books and papers have been published. (1996:188)

The location of ancient Yamatai-koku and its relation with the subsequent Kofun-era Yamato polity remains uncertain. In 1989, archeologists discovered a giant Yayoi-era complex at the Yoshinogari site in Saga Prefecture, which was thought to be a possible candidate for the location of Yamatai. While some scholars, most notably Seijo University historian Takehiko Yoshida, interpret Yoshinogari as evidence for the Kyūshū Theory, many others support the Kinki Theory based on Yoshinogari clay vessels and the early development of Kofun (Saeki 2006).

The recent archeological discovery of a large stilt house suggests that Yamatai-koku was located near Makimuku in Sakurai, Nara (Anno. 2009).

In popular cultureEdit


  1. ^ Pinchefsky, Carol (March 12, 2013). "A Feminist Reviews Tomb Raider's Lara Croft". Forbes.


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