The Yatagarasu: The Three-legged Crow That Guided Emperor Jimmu on his Journey
Exploring the Kojiki
Updated on Dec 17 2019
The Pillow Book is a book of daily observations and musings written in the middle Heian period by poet Sei Shōnagon. Within it, she mentions swarms of crying crows along with people engaging in lengthy chatter during busy moments, and a dog barking at the covert arrival of a lover, amongst her list of “hateful things” (things that are intolerable or unpleasant). Swarms of black crows that scavenge on rubbish may indeed be regarded as an animal that instills fear in people.
The crows that appear in myths, however, are very reliable. They also contributed significantly to the origins of Japan.
Kamu-yamato Iware-biko, who is introduced in the beginning of the middle volume of the Kojiki, had set off eastward from Hyuga Province (the current Miyazaki Prefecture) on an expedition to find a location appropriate for administering the entire country. His journey was full of hardships, as he also experienced losing his brother in battle against a rebellious enemy. In the mountains of Kumano (Wakayama Prefecture), Kamu-yamato Iware-biko and his vassals had lost consciousness due to being subjected to the malice of an unruly god. At this time, the gods in the heavens had bestowed him with a sword, salvaging him from this crisis.
Seeing that Kamu-yamato Iware-biko and his allies had suffered from countless moments of turmoil such as this, the god of heaven decided to send the Yatagarasu to them as a guide. Guided by the Yatagarasu, their journey became a much smoother and pleasant one. While they did encounter rebels from time to time along the way, they managed to suppress them through wisdom and force. Eventually reaching Yamato Province, Kamu-yamato Iware-biko acceded to the throne in the Kashihara no Miya (Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture) to rule over the nation. This marked the birth of Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan.
The Yatagarasu could be regarded as an excellent navigator that leads one safely to their destination. The Japan Football Association uses the symbol of the Yatagarasu in their emblems, perhaps entrusting it with the hopes that it would guide the ball to the goal. If you look at the emblem of the Japan national football team, the Yatagarasu is depicted as having three legs. In the three shrines in Kumano (Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha) where the Yatagarasu is worshipped as a messenger of the god, it is also perceived as a three-legged crow.
The name Yatagarasu simply means large crow. This is the only characteristic of the Yatagarasu that can be understood from myths. There is in fact no description of it having had three legs. According to Chinese folklore, a three-legged crow is said to have lived in the sun, its very figure reflected in sunspots. It is believed that this legend was passed on to Japan and influenced the appearance of the Yatagarasu, which is considered as having been sent as a guide and messenger by the sun goddess Amaterasu.
There are various rituals and customs across Japan in which offerings are made to crows, telling one’s fortune according to how they peck at these offerings, or attempting to foretell whether it would be a good harvest by offering rice cakes to crows that have been invited in rituals referred to as “Karasu Kanjo.” Although crows are often regarded as menaces that cause trouble, they are also auspicious birds that can lead people to happiness and good fortune.
Mythology, Religious Study, History of Religion
Translation Issues in Kojiki: God, Deity, or Spirit?（2016/01/01）
“Deities in Japanese popular culture”（2014/06/01）