Jomon Heroes: Ryoumen Sukuna and Aterui


The Kanayama Megaliths were built in the land of Hida long ago. We have been running articles on Hida and its history. We have shown you a shrine by the name of Hidakinomiya in Shiroi in the Nyuukawa district of Takayama. The name, Hida, probably came from the practice of Hidaki. Hida folklore says that the nation of Nihon originated in Hida, and that they came from Mt. Norikuradake.

The residents of Hida, who consider themselves descended from the Jomon, still speak of a local hero from long ago named Ryoumen Sukuna. He lived here, he prayed there, he went to Mt. Norikuradake, he stood up to the powerful Imperial court, and so on go the stories.

Iwakage has already posted two articles about Ryoumen Sukuna, the hero of Hida. Just who was he? Why is he admired in Hida but described as a demon in Nihon Shoki?

In researching his story, we came upon the name Aterui. Aterui was the hero of Mutsu and Oshu (now Tohoku). His story is similar to Sukuna’s.

Jomon Period

To understand, we will review what was going on at the end of the Jomon period. The Jomon were the original inhabitants of the Hinomoto Japanese archipelago, since 14,000 BCE. Far from being barbarian hunter-gatherers, these people soon developed agriculture and sedentary lives in villages. Although they spoke different languages, they were unified in speech through the efforts of Isanami and Isanagi. The Jomon had at least one form of writing, called Woshite


Motoake Woshite chart by S. Sakata

The Jomon lived peaceful lives. It is said that Jimmu Tenno unified the land in around 660 BCE.

Yayoi Period

During the Yayoi period, 300 BCE to 300 CE, there was turmoil on the Asian continent, and droves of toraijin arrived on the shores of Hinomoto from China and Korea. These toraijin became powerful in society and created a court system. Their leaders had huge mounds (kofun) built as their burial places. The Kofun period was followed by the Asuka and Nara periods.


Nintoku’s tomb in Osaka

Around this time, an Imperial Court was formed and referred to as Yamato Choutei. The leaders were the toraijin who had assumed superiority and harbored an antipathy toward the indigenous Jomon. The provinces of Hida and Oshu were resistant to give up thier Jomon culture. Yamato Choutei sought to put down all dissenters.

Ryoumen Sukuna

In the fourth century, Ryoumen Sukuna was the leader of the people of Hida. He performed the Hidaki meditation practice at various sacred sites in Hida called Hidakinomiya, including in the Nyuukawa area near Takayama, and even on Mt Norikuradake. Sukuna would not yield to outsiders. Yamato Choutei went after Ryoumen Sukuna. With their greater numbers and strength, they eventually succeeded in killing Sukuna and bringing Hida under their control. Later, Oda Nobunaga would enter Gifu and take over a castle in the present city of Gifu.

The name, Ryoumen, translates to double-faced. He is described in the Nihon Shoki as a demon with two faces and four arms. However, in Hida, Ryoumen always looked after his people, and they much admired and respected him. This double view of Ryoumen is probably the reason for his name. To the victor belong the rights of writing history; thus Ryoumen is described as a villain in the official chronicles.

Far from being a monster, Sukuna was a pious man. He is well-remembered in Hida Kanayama, especially at Chinjyusan, the little yama (san) temple-shrine where he went to pray for peace. Chinjyu means shizumeru mamoru. Thus it is a place of shizumeru becoming calm, to be at peace, and mamoru, to protect. Thus, this mountain is a place which provides solace for the soul and sets it at peace, a secluded place for rest and contemplation.


Ryoumen Sukuna by Enkuu


Aterui was the hero of Oshu, now called Tohoku, at the end of the 8th century. At that time, the people of Oshu were the indigenous ones who have been deridingly called Ezo and Emishi. You may have heard of Ezo/Emishi in the negative view of those in power.

When Yamato Choutei in 724 established the kokufu government office at Tagajo in Michinoku, they were ready to control the Ezo with military power. Aterui formed a coalition of the Ezo tribes to protect their homeland and their way of life. That way of life was to respect the kami of nature and ancestors. Their seasonal foods consisted of salmon, deer, and rice cultivation. In contrast, Yamato had paddy rice agriculture, metalware, burial mounds. The Ezo resisted the domination of Yamato. They wanted to maintain their identity and independence.

Yamato Choutei went after the rebels. Emperor Kanmu sent the famous Sakanoue Tamuramaro with a large troop after Aterui’s small band. Aterui’s stronghold was in Iwate, and they resisted. Finally, in 802, Aterui was captured and beheaded even though Sakanoue protested that he be spared to help govern the land. The area received the name, Hitokabe, human neck. There is a river by the same name. And his son, named Hitokabemaru, also resisted and was slain. Later, there was a castle in Esashi, Iwate, called Hitokabe-jo, Hitokabe Castle. Now on the hill, grass grows over the remains of the castle.




In most of the literature we have seen about the transition from Jomon to Yayoi to Nara periods, scholars and other “authorities” claim that the transition was peaceful. Having learned of these two cases, one can hardly say that the transition was peaceful or compassionate.

The cases of these two freedom-fighters and the suppression of the Woshite writing of the Jomon attest to this.




Hida: Roots of Nihon

Hidakaido: Sukuna and Aterui

Aterui: Great Hero of Emishi


Wosite was Deliberately Erased





1 thought on “Jomon Heroes: Ryoumen Sukuna and Aterui

  1. Pingback: Gifu Castle | Iwaya-Iwakage of Kanayama Megaliths

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