We have now to deal with the principal hero of Japanese legend, Yamato-DakÚ, the conqueror. His story is full of myth and fable, but there is history in it, too, and it is well worth the telling. Every ancient nation has its legendary hero, who performs wonderful feats, dares fearful perils, and has not only the strength of man but the power of magic and the wiles of evil spirits to contend against. We give the story as it stands, with all its adventures and supernatural incidents.
This Japanese hero of romance, born 71 a.d. , was the son of Keiko, the twelfth in line of the mikados. In form he was manly and graceful, fair of aspect, and of handsome and engaging presence. While still a youth he led an army to Kiushiu, in which island a rebellion had broken out. In order to enter the camp of the rebel force, he disguised himself as a dancing-girl, a character which his beardless face and well-rounded figure enabled him easily to assume. Presenting himself before the sentinel, his beauty of face and form disarmed the soldier of all doubt, and he led the seeming damsel to the presence of the rebel chief, from whom he hoped for a rich reward.
Here the visitor danced before the chief and his guests with such winning grace that they were all captivated, and at the end of the dance the delighted chief seized his prize by the hand and drew the seemingly coy damsel into his own tent. Once within its folds, the yielding girl suddenly changed into a heroic youth who clasped the rebel with a vigorous embrace and slew him on the spot. For this exploit the youthful prince received his title of Yamato-DakÚ, or "Yamato the Warlike."
Thirteen years later a revolt broke out among the wild tribes of Eastern Japan, and the young hero marched with an army to subdue them. His route led him past the shrine of the Sun goddess, in IsÚ, and here the priestess presented him with the sacred sword, one of the holy emblems of the realm. His own sword was left under a neighboring pine.
Armed with this magical blade, he continued his march into the wilds of Suruga, the haunt of the insurgent Ainos. But he found it no easy matter to bring these savage foes to an open fight. Fleeing before his army into the woods and mountains, they fought him from behind rocks and trees, it being their policy of warfare to inflict damage upon the enemy with as little loss as possible to themselves. Like the American Indians, these savages were used to all the forest wiles, quick to avail themselves of every sound or sign, able to make their way with ease through tangled thickets and pathless forests, and adepts in all the lore of wood and wild.
As the army of Yamato pressed them too closely, they set fire to the dry underbrush which densely surrounded their lurking-place. The high wind carried the flames in roaring waves towards the Japanese army, which was in the most serious danger, for it was encamped amid tall, dry grass, which quickly became a sea of soaring flame. With yells of delight the Ainos gazed upon the imminent peril of their foes; but suddenly their exultation was changed to dismay. For at this moment of danger the Sun goddess appeared to Yamato, and at her suggestion he drew the sacred sword—Murakumo, or "Cloud Cluster"—and cut the grass that thickly rose around him. Before the magic of the blade fire itself was powerless, and the advancing flames turned and swept towards the enemy, many of whom were consumed, while the others fled in panic fear. Grateful to the gods for this timely aid, the hero changed the name of the sword, decreeing that thenceforth it should be known as Kusanagi, or "Grass-Mower."
His route now led, by a mountain pathway, into the great plain of Eastern Japan, afterwards known as the Kuanto, which extends from the central ranges to the Pacific coast. Reaching the shores of the Bay of Yedo, he looked across from its southern headland to the opposite peninsula of Awa, whose hills seemed very close at hand.
"It will be easy to cross that channel," he said: "it is but a trifle. Let the army embark."
He did not know how treacherous was the navigation of this strait, whose weather is never to be trusted, and whose winds, tides, and currents are baffling and perilous. Embarking with his followers, he looked for an easy and rapid progress; but a terrible storm arose, tossing the boats so frightfully that death seemed their sure fate.
Yamato was not at a loss to know what was amiss. He was familiar with the ways of the gods, and knew that some hostile deity was at work to ruin him. His contemptuous remark about the ease of the passage had given deep offence to the Japanese Neptune, the god of the Sea, who was punishing him for his lack of reverence. There was only one way by which the angry deity might be appeased,—the sacrifice of a victim to his wrath. But who among them was ready to yield life for duty? The question was answered by Tachibana, the youthful wife of the chief, who was in the boat with her lord. With a hurried farewell, the devoted woman sprang into the wild waves, which in a moment swept her far away. It was an acceptable sacrifice. The winds fell, the waves went down, the clouds broke, and soon the sun was serenely shining on ruffled sea and tranquil shore.
All that Yamato saw again pertaining to his wife was her perfumed wooden comb, which floated ashore and was dedicated by him as a precious relic in a shrine which he built to the gods. A shrine still stands on the spot, which is within the modern city of Tokio, and there to-day fishermen and sailors worship the spirits of Yamato and his sainted wife.
Thence the hero sailed along the shore, subduing the tribes as he went, until the northern boundary of the empire was reached. Here the leaders of the Ainos had gathered a great army to repel the invader. But on seeing the ships, which were new objects to their eyes, awe and consternation overwhelmed them.
"They are living things," they said,—"strange moving monsters who glide over the sea and bring our foes to our undoing. The gods must have sent them, and will destroy us if we draw bow against these works of their hands."
Throwing down their arms, they surrendered to Yamato when he sprang ashore, and agreed to pay tribute to the state. Taking their leaders as hostages for their good conduct, the hero turned homeward, eager to reach again the capital from which he had been so long away. His route was now overland, and to entertain himself on the long journey he invented a form of poetic verse which is still much in use by the poets of Japan.
As yet all his work had been done on the plain near the shores of the sea. Now, marching inland, he ascended to the great table-land of Shinano, from twenty-five hundred to five thousand feet above the sea, around and within which lie the loftiest mountains of Japan. From this height could be obtained a magnificent view of the Bay of Yedo, the leafy plains surrounding, and the wide-extending ocean. Japan has no more beautiful scene, and Yamato stood silently gazing over its broad expanse, the memory of his beloved wife who had given her life for his, coming back to him as he gazed. "Adzuma, adzuma" ("my wife, my wife"), fell in sad accents from his lips. These words still haunt that land. In the poet's verse that broad plain is to-day called Adzuma, and one of the great ships of the new navy of Japan is named Adzuma kuan.
It was no light task which now lay before the army and its chief. Even to-day the mountains of Shinano are far from easy to cross. Then they were unknown, and their crossing was a work of the greatest difficulty and risk. There were rocky defiles and steep ascents to climb, river torrents to pass, rugged paths to mount, without a road to follow or a guide to conduct, and with clouds and fogs to double the dangers of the way. Here, to their fancy, in caves and ravines hostile spirits lurked; every mountain had its tutelary god; at every step the deities of good and evil seemed to be at strife for their destiny, and with all the perils of the way the gods were thought to have something to do.
Thus on one day the god of the mountain came to Yamato in the form of a white deer, with purpose to work him evil. The hero, on the alert against the hostile spirits, threw wild garlic in the animal's eyes, causing so violent a smarting pain that it died. At once a dense mist descended upon the hill-slopes and the path vanished, leaving the army to grope onward in danger and dismay. But at this moment of dread a white dog appeared—a god again, but a friendly one this time—who led the bewildered soldiers in safety to the plains of Mino.
But they were not yet free from the wiles of the white deer. Its spirit now appeared, discharging among them poisonous gases, before whose stupefying influence they fell helpless to the ground. The wild garlic again was their salvation. Some one ate of it with happy effect, and gave it to all the men and animals, so that all got well again. Wild garlic is still looked upon in Japan as a specific against disease and as a safeguard against witches. For this purpose it is hung up before gates and doorways in times of epidemic or superstitious fear.
The hero next came to Ibuki yama, a cone-shaped mountain whose flattened summit seemed to pierce the skies. Here too dwelt a hostile spirit, who disputed the way, and against whom Yamato advanced unarmed, leaving his sword, "Grass-Mower," under a tree at the mountain's foot. The gods of Japan, perhaps, were proof against weapons of steel. Not far had the hero gone before the deity appeared upon his path, transformed into a threatening serpent. Leaping over it, he pursued his way. But now the incensed deity flung darkness on the mountain's breast, and the hero, losing his path, swooned and fell. Fortunately, a spring of healing water bubbled beside him, a drink from which enabled him to lift his head. Onward he went, still feeble, for the breath of the serpent god was potent for ill, and at length reached Otsu, in the district of IsÚ, where, under the pine-tree, he found the sword which he had left there on setting out, three years before. His gladness found vent in a poem composed of these words: "O pine, if you were a man, I should give you this sword to wear for your fidelity."
The conquering prince was now near the end of his career. Still sick unto death from his adventure upon the mountain, he told before the shrine of the gods the tale of his victories and perils, offered to them his weapons and prisoners, and thanked them piously for their care. Then he sent a report of his doings to his father, the mikado, and begged to see him. Keiko, the father, sent a messenger with words of comfort, but when he arrived the heroic Yamato-DakÚ was dead.
He was buried near where he died, and from his tomb a white bird was seen to fly. On opening the tomb nothing was found but the dead hero's chaplet and robes. The place where the bird was seen to alight bears still a name signifying Imperial Tomb of the White Bird. Thus ended the career of the leading Japanese hero of romance. His story sounds like a fairy-tale, though it may well be that Yamato-DakÚ was a real person and that many of the things told of him actually occurred.