Anthropology professor seeks out elusive identity of Japanese shaman queen

University of Missouri–St. Louis anthropologist Laura Miller spent October exploring Nara, Japan in efforts to discover more about the mythical origins and various cultural representations of Himiko, a third-century ruler and shaman queen who rose to power by predicting the future, speaking to the dead and capturing the imaginations of generations to come.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller, Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Professorship in Japanese Studies at UMSL, has published over 70 articles concerning the roles of women and Japanese culture. (Photo by August Jennewein)

“Himiko lived during a period of history before there was writing in Japan, so the only records of her come from Chinese historians,” said Miller, Ei’ichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies. “There was no native record of what she looked like, leaving behind a hazy picture of how she presented herself and what she did.”

Although much of who Himiko was has been lost to history, Miller reports her leadership had a lasting impact.

“Himiko unified Japan,” Miller said. “Before her time, Japan was a collection of 100 loose, little chiefdoms that were warring against each other. Because she was regarded as a religious figure who used divination and magic, all of the chiefs were willing to obey her and live under her rule. During her 40-60-year reign, Himiko was also the first Japanese leader to start international relationships. She sent delegations to China’s imperial court and set up a trade and diplomatic route with the Wei dynasty.”

Miller’s fascination with Japanese culture began at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she majored in anthropology and Asian studies. After college, she furthered her cultural immersion by living in Japan and working as an administrator of an education company. In her career as an expert of Japanese society and history, she has published more than 70 articles and authored or co-edited four books, including “Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics.”

Her commitment to researching, understanding and sharing cultural phenomenon earned her the Japan Foundation Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious and competitive awards for Japanese scholars.

The combined resources of her endowment from UMSL and the grant from the government of Japan have allowed Miller to continue research and draft a chapter on Himiko for her forthcoming co-edited book “Diva Nation: Female Icons from Japanese Cultural History.”

According to Miller, Himiko claimed her place in history by groundbreaking diplomacy and political feats, but her modern day incarnations across media can range from regal to sultry to cute.


An advertising display features posters for a Himiko themed beauty contest in Yamatokōriyama city. (photo by Laura Miller)

“In modern manga and anime she is depicted as a sexy woman or a flighty young girl instead of a shaman queen who has responsibilities,” Miller said. “Other times she is depicted as evil and controlling, since Japanese culture has adopted the western idea that witches or women in possession of supernatural abilities are bad or untrustworthy. She’s also cutefied in a “chibi” manner and used as a mascot. Sakurai in particular has her image on all of their town banners and merchandise. On the other hand, she has also served as the motif for beauty pageants in which she is depicted as an elegant and pure socialite. Himiko’s representation depends on place and the purpose, and she’s seen in a variety of roles which sometimes conflict.”

In the course of her research, Miller has found that Himiko’s mysterious legacy and identity parallels historical figures such as Cleopatra.

“When we think of Cleopatra, we think of Elizabeth Taylor portraying Cleopatra, and not what she would have actually looked like or how she may have truly carried herself,” she said. “Television, film and media have the power to recreate these famous women in interesting ways. Historically, women of note tend to be overlooked or treated in strange ways, and getting a better sense of the truth is important.”

Miller enjoys sharing the fruit of her work with students.

“A lot of UMSL students have taken my courses and hear me talk about this Himiko icon and other historical icons, and sometimes they’ll see Himiko outside the classroom in a movie or a comic, and it’s exciting when students in a school in St. Louis find her out in the world.”

In spring 2016, Miller will teach four sections of Anthropology on topics such as food and drink in Japan and girl cultures. Her articles on pop culture can be found at Hot Buttered Humanity.

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