Izumo Province

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Map of Japanese provinces with province highlighted

Izumo (出雲国; Izumo no kuni) was an old province of Japan which today consists of the eastern part of Shimane prefecture in the Chugoku region.

It was one of the regions of ancient Japan where major policital powers arose. A powerful clan of Izumo (Idumo is an obsolete Romanization) constituted an independent polity, but during the fourth century BC it was absorbed due to the expansion of the state of Yamato, within which it assumed the role of a sacerdotal domain. Even today the Izumo Shrine constitutes (as does the Ise Shrine) one of the more important sacred places of Shinto: it is dedicated to kami, especially to Ōkuninushi (Ō-kuni-nushi-no-mikoto), mythical progenitor of Susanoo and all the clans of Izumo.

History of Japan: Politics and society in the Yamato or Kofun Period: Political and social structure

The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and Nihonshoki (Chronicle of Japan, 720) state that Susanoo, progenitor of the Izumo line, engaged Amaterasu Omikami (his sister), progenitor of the Yamato (Imperial) line, in a heavenly struggle for power on Earth. Amaterasu prevailed, but the myth of the Izumo gods' challenge to central authority, and the awe that this inspired, means that Izumo holds a special historical and spiritual significance for Japanese.

By the middle of the twentieth century, most historians and archeologists were skeptical of the notion that Izumo, in present-day Shimane prefecture (Yamato is in present-day Nara prefecture), had ever been a locus of power. Most historians agreed that the legend of Izumo resistance had been fabricated as a means of establishing the legitimacy of the imperial clan. The modern-day interpretation was opened to review in 1984, however, with the discovery of the Kojindani ruins in western Izumo, where 358 short bronze swords were unearthed. In 1996, 39 bell-shaped bronze vessels were discovered in the Kamoiwakura ruins close by. Both sites date to 100 BC–AD 100, in the middle of the Yayoi period, with the discovery of bronzeware there attesting to the very early cultural attainment of the region.

But what can we conclude from this vast store of vessels and short bronze swords?

The vessels are adorned with images of deer and dragonflies. Deer sprout new antlers in the spring. These grow quickly during the summer and drop off in the fall in a cycle that resembles the growth cycle of rice. For this reason, the Yayoi people apparently identified deer with sacred Earth spirits. Dragonflies are helpful insects that feed on rice-eating leaf-hoppers. The motifs of deer and dragonflies seem to indicate that the vessels were used in fertility ceremonies aimed at ensuring bountiful crops. The short swords show evidence of being unsharpened, and were clearly not used as cutlery. Archeologists believe that they may have been modeled after full-sized swords and used in ceremonies to ward off evil spirits.

The discovery of these ritual utensils has bolstered the idea that religious ceremonies were conducted throughout the Izumo area. It seems quite possible that a traditional religious system had already developed in Izumo in the Yayoi period that differed from the Yamato religious system. This hypothesis expands the imaginative possibilities connected with myths and Izumo Shrine. Indeed, the myths already indicate that the Yamato people found it very difficult to subdue the gods of Izumo. And we must not forget about the great healing properties attributed to medicinal herbs in the area, as reported in the eighth century Izumo-no-kuni-fudoki regional survey. It seems plausible that the special features attributed to the land in Izumo could well have fostered the creation of a religious kingdom.

The existence of the ancient Izumo Shrine itself is evidence that Izumo was once an important center of religious faith. The shrine's main hall currently stands 24 meters high, but tradition has it that, in the times of the Yamato court (300--650 A.D.), it was a towering 98 meters high. In the Kuchizusami, a textbook used by the Heian aristocracy (794--1185), Izumo-taisha is said to stand 48 meters high and be the tallest edifice in Japan. The twelfth-century poet and Buddhist priest Jakuren recorded his amazement at the height of the main hall of Izumo-taisha, saying that ... the structure did not seem to belong to this world.

Many architectural experts have expressed doubt as to whether it was technically possible for Heian period Japanese to build such a towering wooden structure. In April 2000, however, during an archeological survey on the shrine grounds, investigators unearthed the remains of one of the largest pillars ever discovered dating to the Heian period. Three giant logs, each with a diameter of 1.2 meters, had been clamped together in a metal ring to create a single, vast pillar measuring more than 3 meters in diameter. By autumn, the existence of two more pillars had been confirmed.

Conjectural reconstruction points to a nine-pillar hall measuring 48 meters high, equivalent to a modern 14- or 15-story building. This discovery of a sanctuary that soared so high into the air has placed Izumo-taisha in the ranks of the pyramids of Egypt and the ancient tumulus mounds of the Kinki region as one of the great historical monuments of the world. It has also created a new puzzle for Japanese history, as to why a culture capable of high-rise construction flourished so far from the capital.

Later history

By the Sengoku period, Izumo had lost much of its importance. It was dominated before the Battle of Sekigahara by the Mori clan, and after Sekighara was an independent fief with a castle town at modern Matsue.

Today, the god of Izumo is worshipped nationwide as the god of marriage. Izumo's historical resistance to central authority now dissipated, its shrine stands serenely beneath the silent trees.

See also Japanese History

Template:Japan Old Provinceja:出雲国 pt:Provncia de Izumo


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