Emperor Nintoku and the People’s Cooking Stoves


Emperor Nintoku, the 16th Emperor who is said to have lived around the 4th Century was one of the most respected Emperors in the history of Japan who embodied the concept of the Japanese style “democracy.”  His grave is considered to be the largest in the world which is about 113 acres and approximately 111 feet in height. In the first Japanese formal historical document called “Nihonshoki”  which was completed in AD 720,  the Emperor Nintoku’s word is recorded.  It states the following:

The reason for the Heavenly Person (Emperor) to be standing is for the People.

Book of Emperor Nintoku, Nihonshoki

There is a famous story of Emperor Nintoku called “People’s Cooking Stoves” (Tami no Kamado) which is still passed down in Japan.

Emperor Nintoku made the town of Naniwa to be the new Capital.  However, he saw the town from Takatsu Palace and saw the people’s chimneys were not generating enough smokes from their cooking stoves.

He said, “the reason why there is not much smoke coming out of the town must be because they are too poor to cook anything. If the city is like this, the country side should be worse.”

So he has made an official statement to stop collecting tax for the next 3 years.  The Emperor did not make any new clothes since then. The palace walls and the roof deteriorated but he refrained from repairing.  He even saw the starlights in between the cracks.

Three years have passed.  The Emperor went to a hill top and he saw a lot of smoke coming out of the people’s cooking stoves.  He said to the Empress,  “I am rich already.”  She said, “You say strange things. How can you say you are rich when the palace wall and the roof is broken?”

He said to the Empress,”Listen carefully. The business of governing must be based on people.  If the people are rich, I can say that I am also rich.”  The Emperor smiled.

At that time, lots of people from different places told the Emperor, “the palace is broken but the people got rich. If someone forgot something on the road, no one picks it up these days.  If we do not pay tax and also not volunteer to repair the palace, we will be punished by heaven.”

However, the Emperor still did not accept tax for the next 3 years.  After 6 years, he finally approved and resumed collecting tax and allowed to repair the palace.

In Nihonshoki, it is noted as the following:

Without being directed, people voluntarily started bringing in the building materials and carried things to the Palace.  The people worked day and night and they even competed with each other in their work.  The Palace was finished completely in no time.  That is why he is called “Saint Emperor.” After his passing,  he was buried in Mozuno Misasagi in the country of Izumi.

In “Kojiki” it is also noted that his grave is in Mozuno Mimihara. “Nihonshoki” also wrote that his grave was a “Jyuryo” which means that the construction of the site was already finished while he was alive.  During the Emperor’s reign, it is known that a lot of agricultural construction work such as building waterways in the rice field took place.  A large amount of soil had to be removed and piled up somewhere and many mounds were created as a result.  It is only natural to assume that the largest mound in the area was selected to bury the respected Emperor.

To this day, the story of Emperor Nintoku and “the People’s Cooking Stoves” is shared by many Japanese people. The story is also embedded in the lyrics of the City of Osaka song.

Since the ancient time of the Takatsu Palace
After generations of prosperity
Smokes still coming out of the people’s cooking stoves
Thriving in excellence, the City of Osaka
Thriving in excellence, the City of Osaka

The Osaka City Song

The Japanese civilians were protected during the Samurai Wars


The Battle of Sekigahara, AD 1600

The non-samurai people during the feudal era in Japan were much more protected than the people in other feudal societies in the world.  As a general principle, the battles between the feudal clans were done between the samurais and the civilians were not involved. The Samurais were living under the strict code of ethics and their honor was considered more important than their lives.

There was a famous Samurai war which determined the course of the Japanese history called the battle of Sekigahara in AD 1600.  During this battle,  a number of civilians went to the nearby mountains to watch the battle from the higher ground.

In a publication called “Gienjugonikki” written by a Shingon Buddhist priest, Gien (AD 1558-1626) , it is noted that there were civilian spectators at the time of the battle of Fushimi Castle (AD 1600) lead by Ukita Hideie.

In a Edo-era painting depicting the battle of Kuisegawa called “Kuisegawa Kassenzu Ebyoubu” owned by Gyoda City in Saitama Prefecture, Japan, several non-Samurai spectators are drawn.  On the right panel, a man who seems to be a farmer is sitting on a box. On the second panel, one priest is depicted and on the third panel,  a merchant is selling rice wine to two soldiers.

Gyoda City’s Official Website


A Japanese castle surrounded by moats. (Matsumoto Castle, Nagano)

Itazaka Bokusai (AD 1578-1655) , a physician who searved the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu
has also written in his book “Keicho Nenjuki” about the civilian war spectators during the feudal times. It is noted that the villagers were bringing their lunch and watching the battle of Sekigahara in the Kanondo building in Mitsui Temple.  It has also been written that the spectators were turning the “Gojyo Bridge” into a theater in the battle of Kyoto in  1300s.

These records are the proof that the battles in Japan were traditionally done between the soldiers and the general non-Samurai people were safe enough to be able to watch.  There were no “walled cities” in the feudal Japan because the villagers or the civilians were largely protected by the Samurai code of ethics.  Even if a Samurai clan lost a battle,  the people living in that land were not killed by the opposition.

The Japanese Emperor’s New Year’s Ceremony and the ultimate self-sacrifice

The Japanese Emperor have been called “the Great One” or “the Heavenly Child” by the people of Japan and they are known to be the descendants of divine figures in the ancient Japanese myth. One of the reasons why the Japanese people always respected the Japanese Emperor is the constant prayer he offered on behalf of the people.

There is the most important ceremony conducted by the Japanese Emperor called “Shihouhai” or “Yohouhai” on January 1st.  It means “the prayer to the four directions” or “the prayer for the world (yo).”  Other ceremonies at the Imperial Palace can be conducted by others but this particular one can be only conducted by the Emperor himself. The contents of this prayer have been a well kept secret for a long time.  However, in the recent years, the words used during this ceremony have been revealed to the public.

Before dawn on the New Year’s day out in the cold, the Emperor calls in the divinities and pray for the people.

Please have all threats go through my body first.
Please have all poisonous evil through my body first.
Please have all poisonous energies and negative intentions go through my body first.
Please have all suffering and calamities go through my body first.
Please have all natural disasters go through my body first.
Please have all conflicts go through my body first.
Please have all the wars go through my body first.
Please have all the curses go through my body first.

Historically, the Emperors of Japan felt personally responsible for what happened in the country including natural disasters.  The 56th Emperor Seiwa (AD 850-881) has stated that “Disasters do not occur by coincidence. It is all because of the lack of virtue in myself” after a flood occurred in Kumamoto.

Even when someone was planning to kill the Emperor, he still thought it was his responsibility.  The Emperor Meiji has created the following poem after Kotoku Shusui (1871-1911) , a socialist and an anarchist was arrested for planning to assassinate the Emperor himself.

If there was a sin committed by him,  Amatsu God of Heaven,  please punish myself.  What my people did is my fault since he is one of my own children.  – Emperor Meiji

罪あらば  我を咎めよ天津神  民はおのれの 生みし子なれば  – 明治天皇 御製

Although these stories did not usually make newspaper headlines,  it has been a common knowledge of the Japanese people that the Emperor’s traditional role is to pray for the peace and happiness of the people.

Human Rights and the concept of People as the Emperor’s great treasure: “Oomitakara”

The concept of “the people as the nation’s treasure” existed for millennia in Japan. The word “Oomitakara” was used to mean “people” in the ancient Japan.  In the first Japanese formal historical document called “Nihonshoki”  which was completed in AD 720,  the Emperor Nintoku’s words are recorded.  It states the following:

The reason for the Heavenly Person (Emperor) to be standing is for “Oomitakara,” the People.

Book of Emperor Nintoku, Nihonshoki

Since the Chinese characters were considered the international language at the time, the Japanese made 2 kinds of historical documents, one in Chinese and one in Japanese language. Nihonshoki was written in Chinese and Kojiki was written in Japanese “Kana” letters.

The word “Oomitakara” was sometimes expressed using the Chinese characters 百姓 which means “all people with all kinds of last names.”  The characters 大御宝 was also used to mean “Oomitakara” which means “Great Honored Treasure.”

The Japanese word “takara” generally means “treasure.”  According to the dictionay “Genkai,” the word “ta” in “takara” is derived from “ta” as in “rice field.”  The word “kara” generally means “from” but it also means “people” or “companions” as in the words such as “harakara” and  “yakara.”  “Harakara” consists of the word hara (womb) and kara (out of, people) .  The word “yakara” traditionally meant “people that belong to the same tribe.”  Therefore, the word “takara” also meant “people at the rice field” or “companions at the field” in the old days.

The concept of “human rights” was traditionally expressed in the word, “Oomitakara” in Japan.  This was not only Emperor Nintoku’s personal credo, but it was considered something that was passed down from his ancestors as the basic principle.  The following phrase is found in book 3 of Nihonshoki  which is included in the declaration of founding the county (Kenkoku no Mikotonori) by the first Emperor Jimmu.

The Emperor’s work is to benefit “Oomitakara,” the people.

Emperor Jimmu, Book 3, Nihonshoki

It also says that the Emperor must humbly take on the throne and respect “Oomitakara,” the people. In this case, the word people (Oomitakara) was expressed using the characters元元 which means “The foundation of the foundation” or “the basis of the basis”  This suggests that the people was considered the basic foundation of the country.

Hardworking Rice Growing Emperor of Japan

Rice Growing Emperor

From time immemorial, the Japanese Emperors have been the keepers of the tradition of growing rice. The current Japanese Emperor, Akihito (83) , the 125th Emperor is still keeping the tradition of growing rice and conducting agricultural ceremonies.

Prince Hisahito who is the third in line for the Chrysanthemum throne is already growing rice at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at the tender age of 10 and keeping the tradition which dates back more than 2600 years since the first Emperor Jimmu was throned in AD 660.


The famous poem on rice stalks by Emperor Tenchi (AD 626 – 672)

Over 1300 years ago, Emperor Tenchi (AD 626-672) also known as Prince Nakano Oenooji or Amatsumikoto / Sakiwakenomikoto has written a famous Japanese poem which is in “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu,”  a classical Japanese anthology by one hundred poets. This poem was the first and the most important poem in the anthology.

At the humble hut made of the rice stalks in the autumn rice field,  my sleeves are collecting the dews while I weave.

Emperor Tenchi

It reveals that not only the Emperor himself was weaving a mat or some form of a craft using rice stalks but he was also involved in the process of growing rice just as the current Emperor is.

The Japanese people are considered to be very hardworking people. People have been telling each other for at least a few thousand years that we must work hard because even the Emperor himself works in the field. In Kojiki, even the divine figures or the “gods” work in the rice field.

The Japanese Emperor’s lineage has lasted this long because they were originally the rice growing peaceful, hardworking vegetarians who were constantly praying.  Since they were considered spiritual figures in the ancient times who were called Tenshi-sama (Child of the God or Heavenly Child) or Ookimi (the Great one), the Emperor has been always respected.  There was no need to have a “revolution” and kill the Emperor in Japan because they have been respected for their hard work and self-sacrifice as well as their divine lineage.The Japanese Emperor’s family is considered to be the direct descendants of Izanagi and Izanami who are said to have created the islands of Japan in the Japanese classics, Kojiki.

Growing rice since 6000 years ago

According to the current research,  the tradition of growing rice dates back to the beginning of “Jyomon Era” which is approximately 6000 years ago.  According to the report by Kyodo Press in 2005, the professors from Okayama Rika University and Notre Dame Seishin Women’s University have uncovered the evidence of ancient rice called “plant opals” from “Hikozaki Kaizuka” in Okayama prefecture which dates back 6000 years ago.

In the recent years, more evidence have been uncovered to prove that the practice of growing rice started before Yayoi Era (BC 300 – AD300).  It used to be believed that the technology of growing rice was brought to Japan from the Chinese continent. Several archaeological findings disprove this theory now. The plant opals of rice were also found from the ancient porcelain piece found in Mikamo Himesasahara in Okayama which dates back 4500 years.

Uniquely Japanese ancient utensils and values

One of the most important ceremonies conducted by the Japanese Emperor at the Imperial Palace is a “Thanksgiving” ritual called “Niinamesai” which is conducted on November 23rd.  In this ceremony, he eats the newly harvested rice of that year along with other crops for the first time using an oak leaf and a bamboo pincet called “Oribashi.”  Oribashi have widely used in the Japanese Jinja or shrines in the old days. This utensil is unique to Japan and it suggests that the original Japanese people did not use chopsticks as in China or in the Korean peninsula.

This ceremony which has been passed down for thousands of years also suggest how their ancestors were eating rice in the old days. It suggests that people were originally eating without a bowl and chopsticks.  It means that the tradition of growing rice and eating rice came BEFORE they started making porcelain bowls and using chopsticks.

The fact that this ceremony is still preserved in the Imperial ceremony suggests that they considered it important enough to maintain this humble way to eat along with the tradition to give gratitude for the new crops. Understanding how long the Japanese Emperor and the people have been growing rice and eating rice is the key in understanding the Japanese culture.