The White Bird of Atsuta

 This is the very moving story of the death of the brave Prince Yamatotake recorded in the final aya 40 of Hotsuma Tsutae and rendered at http://hotsuma.gr.jp/index-e.html by the Japan Translation Center.

Yamatotake is the hero known to most as Yamato Takeru. He was the son of Keiko Tenno. His main shrine is Atsuta Jingu in Nagoya. See atsutajingu.or.jp.

We recently visited the impressive Atsuta Jingu in Aichi-ken. According to the jingu site, it enshrines: Atsuta-no-Ookami, Yamatotakeru-no-Mikoto, Amaterasu Oomikami, Susanoo-no-Mikoto, Miyasuhime-no Mikoto, and Takeinadane-no-Mikoto. We wondered why this main shrine of Yamatotake is here, although he is enshrined elsewhere, e.g. at Towada Jinja in Aomori (see our previous post). In other words, what is the connection among Yamatotake, Atsuta, and Aichi? Indeed, why is the fabled Kusanagi sword kept here?

The Hotsuma website gives the answers. The Kusanagi was kept by Yamatotake’s wife, Miyasuhime, at her side at Owari while she awaited his return from his final campaign. Note that aya 40 is the last of the Hotsuma Tsutae ayas.

Princess Miyasu’s father was the headman of Owari, Owari-no-kuni-no-miyatsuko, whose extensive land is now in Aichi-ken near Nagoya. We noticed several train stations containing the name, Owari.

Now, who is Atsuta-no-Ookami? The story of Prince Yamatotake explains. The prince served his father the sovereign in many campaigns to maintain order in the land of Hotsuma. His father was Woshirowake whom we know as Keiko Tenno. The prince’s birth name was Hanahiko, and he was the heir and beloved son of his father. Hotsuma calls him Yamatotake, the brave (take) of Yamato.

Just before his final campaign, the prince had resolved to build a palace for him and his wife at Owari. His father-in-law went to Woshirowake and asked for permission to build a palace like his. This palace, built posthumously, is now the Atsuta Jingu. Why Atsuta?

The shrine’s web page states that “Atsuta-no-Ookami is Amaterasu-Oomikami as represented by the sacred sword Kusanagi-no-tsurugi.” This sword is one of Amaterasu’s three sacred treasures, the others being the mirror and the jewel. And the shrine seems to differentiate between Atsuta Kami and Yamatotake(ru). By the way, the tsurugi Kusunagi is the very same Murakumo used by Susanowo in his battle with the Orochi.

Some of the last words and writings of Yamatotake are given in Hotsuma Tsutae. On his deathbed, he declared, “Let me now become the Atsuta deity” and he wrote The Rule of Atsuta:

“As I await my death, neither my role as protector of east and west nor my duty to my parents is fulfilled, but having received the Way from the eight hands of the Sakokushiro deities, I have spent a full life. And when I am beckoned back into the heavens, I will skip up the heavenly bridge, and seeking the far-off bliss beyond the mist, I will await among the clouds. Let this be my answer to the people.”

Yamatotake’s body having been brought to Owari by retainers, Woshirowake, deep in grief, conducted the funeral rites. When a white bird flew into the sky, the coffin was opened and there only remained the prince’s headdress, his mace and his garments.

Four white feathers fell on the Plain of Kotohiki in the Land of Yamato, and four others on Furuichi in Kawachi. At these two places, funeral mounds were raised. The bird flew up into the heavens and its scattered tail fathers seemed like shide (paper strips) that purified the ills of the world.

After that, Woshirowake gave permission for the new palace to be built at Aichida. Three years after the demise of Yamatotake, the prince was deified at the Ohoma Great Hall at Aichida which is now the Atsuta Jingu.

Later, In his father’s dream, the prince appeared in the form of a white bird which stated Amateru’s Rule of Heaven:

“We are the very parents of the people, shining down brightly just as the sun and moon that cross the heavens and rule all below.”

Yamatotake declared that he was an embodiment of Susanowo who redeemed his bad deeds and became a deity.

Woshirowake recalled his son stating:

Hito ha kami     kami ha hito nari

na mo homare     michi tatsu nori no

kami ha hito     hito sunaho nite

hotsuma yuku     makoto kami nari

“Our deities were originally human, and humans are inherently divine. Humans who, with a pure and honest spirit, follow the Way of Hotsuma – the path of excellence and truth – will of themselves become divine.”

Thus it is that Yamatotake became the deity Atsuta and is enshrined at Atsuta Jingu.

And it is thus that Woshirowake commanded one of his ministers to compose additions to the existing Hotsuma Tsutae, thus extending the document to 40 ayas.

Postscript: As our previous post in Okunomichi states,

The word “tsutae” in Hotsuma Tsutae means a document that imparts or bequeaths knowledge and wisdom for later generations. Such was the aim of Jimmu Tenno who asked his Minister of the Right, Kushimikatama, to create it. The task was brilliantly executed in 28 chapters written in the poetic rhythm of 5 and 7 syllables, the rhythm of Heaven and Earth. Seven generations later, in the first century of the Common Era, 12 more chapters were added by one Ohotataneko for Keiko Tenno. Thus the 40-chapter document was completed.

[Permission to quote from the JTC site has been kindly granted by Mr. Seiji Takabatake.]