Gongjin's Campaign Memorials
Gongjin's Campaign Memorials

Wa 倭 is a former name of Japan. The name is found in two Three Kingdoms related sources: the Records of the Three Kingdoms, Book of Wei, chapter 30, and History of the Later Han, chapter 85. Both these accounts tell of a certain female ruler called Himiko 卑弥呼, who lived from circa 170 - 248, and was on good terms with the Wei dynasty. Himiko was a queen of Wa.

Wa, pronounced as Wō in modern Chinese, is the oldest recorded name of Japan.

History of the Later Han official account [translation][]

 Wa is located in the vast sea southeast to Han. The Wa people lived on mountainous islands, upon which there were more than one hundred states. Since Emperor Wu had conquered Chaoxian 朝鲜 (a state on the present-day Korean Peninsula), about thirty states sent diplomats to the Han Empire. The rulers of the states were kings whose reigns were hereditary. The Great Wa King (dà Wō wáng 大倭王), who was the lord of all lesser kings, lived in the state of Yamatai 邪馬臺.[1] The edge of Lelang commandery was two thousand li away from the state, and more than seven thousand li from Juyehan 拘邪韩 state on Yamatai’s northwest border. Wa was located roughly to the east of Dongye 東濊 and Kuaiji commandery, and it was close to Zhuya and Daner. Therefore, these places shared many similar customs.

[1] Note: The present-day name of the place is Yama 邪摩, and this might be the result of distorted pronunciation.

 The local soil was suitable for growing rice, linen, and mulberry. The Wa people knew the skill of weaving. The place also produced white pearls and green jade. There was red soil on the local mountains. The local climate was mild and warm. Vegetables grew in both summer and winter. There were no cattle, tigers, leopards, sheep, or magpies.[1] The local people used spears, shields and wooden bows as weapons. They may also use bones as arrow heads. All men wore tattoos over the face and the body. They distinguished ranks through the size and the locations of the tattoos they wore. The garment for local men was a piece of cloth wrapped around the body and tied. The women wore long shaggy hair. Their clothes resemble a thin quilt, with a hole through which the head penetrated to put on the piece of cloth. The women also applied red powder onto the body,[2] a way similar with the practice by the people in the Central Plain. There were also city walls and residential houses.

 In a family, the father, mother and siblings lived separately. Men and women were not separated during assemblies. The local people grabbed food and drinks with their hands when having their meals. They also used ceremonial containers such as bian[n 1] and dou[n 2] to serve foods. They wore no shoes, and believed that a squatting or sitting position showed respect to people. They enjoyed drinking, and lived long. There were many people who were able to live up to one hundred years. There were many women in the state. People from the ruling class usually had four or five wives, and the rest might have two or three. The women were prudent and not jealous. Theft was a taboo. Disputes and litigations were rare. The wives and children of offenders were taken away from them. For offenders who committed severe crimes, their entire clan would be executed. If a man died, the corpse would be buried more than ten days after the death. During the mourning, the bereaved family would weep and stop eating and drinking, but other visiting mourners would sing and dance as a way to pay their condolences. The people burn bones to cause cracks for fortune telling. Visiting mourners might travel by sea to attend the funeral. They would designate one person to perform chishuai 持衰, a special funeral ritual. The person involved in the ritual would stop dressing, eating, and having sex. If the visiting mourners had a safe journey, they would offer payments or gifts to the ritual performer. If they were sick or some dead during the trip, they would consider the ritual performer as not pious, and kill the man together.

[1] The character 鵲 que (magpie) probably should be 雞 ji (chicken).
[2] Shuowen says, “The character 坋 ben means dust.

 In the second year of Jianwuzhongyuan 建武中元, the Kingdom of Wanu 倭奴 paid tributes to the Imperial Court. Their envoy proclaimed himself as dafu 大夫 (superior man). The Kingdom of Wanu was located on the southernmost tip of the Wa islands. Emperor Guangwu granted the man an official seal and a ribbon. In the first year of Yongchu 永初, during Emperor An’s reign,[n 3] Suishō 帥升,[n 4] King of Wa, sent one hundred and sixty people [to the Emperor], and entreated an audience.

 During the reigns of Emperor Huan and Emperor Ling,[n 5] chaos broke out in Wa. Wars were incessant, and anarchy lasted for years. A woman named Himiko 卑彌呼[n 6] stayed single at an elderly age. She practiced religious rituals to serve ghosts and deities. She was a powerful seditionist. The people crowned her as the queen. She had one thousand maids at her service. Very few people could meet her. Only one man catered to her and served as her messenger. The palaces, buildings and city where she lived were heavily fortified. She ruled the state with draconian laws and customs.

 In the sea away from Kuaiji commandery, there were the Dongti 東鯷 people.[1] The people lived in more than twenty states. There were also places named Yizhou and Chanzhou. It was said that Emperor Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇[n 7] used to send court sorcerer Xu Fu 徐福 to lead a few thousand young boys and girls for a voyage by sea[2] to the Penglai 蓬萊 islands to visit the immortals (shenxian 神仙), whom Xu failed to meet. Fearing that he might be executed, Xu Fu never returned. He stayed on the island. His children multiplied and had many generations, and there were tens of thousands of families. The people from the islands sometimes would reach the streets of Kuaiji. In Dongye county of Kuaiji commandery, there were a few people who encountered strong wind on the sea, and they went adrift to Chanzhou. The place was too far to visit.[3][n 8]

[1] The character 鯷 is pronounced as ti.
[2] The event was written in Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji 史記).
[3] Shen Ying’s 沈瑩 Linhai shutu zhi 臨海水土志 says, “Yizhou is to the southeast of Linhai, about two thousand li away from the commandery. There is neither frost nor snow. The grass and trees are evergreen. The place is surrounded by mountain creeks. All natives have their heads shaved and their ears pierced. However, women’s ears were not pierced. The place is blessed with fertile land that produces bountiful grains, fish and meat. The natives keep short-tailed dogs. In a native family, the father, the mother, the son and his wife share one big bed, without shyness. The place also produces copper and iron. The tribes use deer horns as weapons to fight, and they sharpen green stones as arrow heads. They marinate fish and meat in big pottery urns, and have them stored for a period of time, and then eat the food, which they consider as a top delicacy.”

Conclusion [to HHS 85][]

Conclusion: In the past, Jizi 箕子[n 9] left the waning Yin 殷 empire (Shang dynasty) and fled to Chaoxian. In the beginning, we had not heard of any customs of the state. Then, Jizi made eight rules, and the local people knew there were restrictions of law. Therefore, there were no crimes such as rape and theft, and it was even unnecessary for the locals to close their doors at night.[1] The governance of Jizi changed the follies of native customs, and the people accepted the lenient laws, which people kept practicing for hundreds of years. Therefore, the eastern tribes were generally moderate and mild, different from the tribes from other three directions. As long as political governance is good, there is righteousness and morality. Confucius believed that places outside the Central Plain were inhabitable. Some people thought such places were too backward to live in. Confucius said, “When a superior man lives there, it is by no means uninhabitable.” But the Master just had the idea. Later, business people from Chaoxian began to visit the Central Plain for trade. However, Wei Man 衛滿, a native of Yan 燕, had negative influence on the customs of Chaoxian.[2] Since then, the ethical climate changed. Laozi said, “When there are more laws and regulations, there are also more villains.” It seems that the simple and unsophisticated rules, as well as the ethics of honesty and righteousness adopted by Jizi are the essence of laws devised by sages.

[1] The character 扃 jiong means to close.
[2] The character 擾 rao means to disturb, to cause chaos, and to exert negative influence on something.

Comments [to HHS 85][]

Comment: These foreign tribes live in a place named Yanggu. They dwelled in mountains, and hide themselves over the sea. That is why they are different from the people on the Central Plain. In the late years of the Qin Empire, the people of Yin fled to the place.[1] The native people began to pick up some customs of the Chinese, and gradually they began exchanges with Han Empire.[2] Living in distant places, they relied on translation for the exchanges. Sometimes they were submissive, and sometimes they betrayed the Empire.[3]

[1] The Yan people included the individuals like Wei Man.
[2] When Wei Man entered Chaoxian, he took some Chinese customs to the place. The locals were influenced by the Chinese culture, and began to communicate with the Han Empire.
[3] The character 偏 pian is an adjective, meaning remote and distant.

Why the name Wa 倭[]

The name Wa was picked by the Chinese, but the reason why they picked it is unknown. The Chinese would sometimes use perjorative hanzi to describe foreign states. For example, Europe is written as Ōuzhōu 欧洲, the "vomitting" continent. For Japan it was no different, the character wa possibly meant 'submissive, obedient', 'bend over' or 'short person'.[2]

The character for Wa, 倭, is the same in both China and Japan. The pronunciation is slightly different; in Japan it's pronounced as wa, in modern China it's pronounced as . It may be that about the time of the Three Kingdoms the sound of 倭 in Chinese was closer to wa.

On the character wo[]

The character wo 倭 consists of three different hanzi. On the left there is 亻, on the top right there is 禾, on the bottom right there is 女.

Definitions and other usages:

  1. a name for Japan
  2. Japanese (the people)
  3. definition: submissive, obedient
  4. definition: meandering
  5. definition: dwarf
  • Traditional: 倭
  • Simplified: 倭
  • Pinyin with tonemarks:

List of rulers of Wa[]

Name Reign Note(s)
King Suishō 帥升 ? - ? [note 1]
civil war c. 109/146 - 189 [note 2]
Queen Himiko 卑弥呼 189 - 248
A King ? - ? (short lived) [note 3]
Queen Iyo 壹與 ? - ? [note 4]

See also[]


  1. GJCM notes: a container for food made of bamboo.
  2. GJCM notes: a bean container?
  3. GJCM notes: Emperor An's reign was from 106 to 125. The first year of Yongchu was 107.
  4. GJCM notes: Pronounced as Shuàishēng in modern Chinese.
  5. GJCM notes: Emperor Huan reigned from 146 to 168. Emperor Ling succeeded Huan and reigned until 189.
  6. GJCM notes: Pronounced as Bēimíhū in Chinese. Here in the History of the Later Han written as 卑彌呼. In Japanese the characters 卑弥呼 are used to write her name.
  7. GJCM notes: Qin Shi Huang is the founder of the Qin dynasty and the first Emperor of (a unified) China. He reigned from 220 BC to 210 BC.
  8. GJCM notes: Xu Fu was from an ancient Chinese state. Born in 155. He was sent to the east (not Wa specifically) twice to look for the elixer of life. He never returned from his second voyage. It is legend that while voyaging east he found Japan. Qin Shi Huang also visited and brought several thousand children with him, who also did not return.
  9. GJCM notes: a half legendary Chinese sage who lived during the 11th century BC.
  1. before Queen Himiko ruled Wa, there was civil war. Before the civil war we are told Wa was ruled by a King named Suishō 帥升. It is unclear how long he ruled Wa (see note to next entry).
  2. The Book of Wei, chapter 30, says the civil wars lasted about 80 years. During this time there was no ruler. The History of the Later Han though, says that there were wars during the reigns of Emperor Huan and Ling, who together ruled roughly 40 years from 146 - 189. The civil wars were ended when Himiko took the throne in 189.
  3. Following the death of Queen Himiko in 248 a man sought the throne. He succeeded, but his rule was short lived. The man's name is not recorded in History of the Later Han or Records of the Three Kingdoms.
  4. When the previous King was removed, Iyo became queen of Wa. Iyo was a relative of Himiko.


  1. Book of Sui, chapter 82, account on Wa
  2. Furthermore, another sign of perjority, the official account on the Wa is included in chapters called "Accounts on the Eastern Barbarians".


  • Chen Shou 陳壽 (233–297). Sanguo zhi 三國志 “Records of the Three Kingdoms”, with official commentary compiled by Pei Songzhi 裴松之 (372-451).
  • Fan Ye 范曄 (398–445). Hou Han shu 後漢書 “History of the Later Han”.