Yata-Garasu – The Ravens of Japanese Myth

One of the oldest symbols in Japanese mythology is the 3-Legged Bird, called Yatagarasu (八咫烏) in Japanese. This legendary bird was said to have led the Emperor Jimmu from Kumano no kuni (熊の国), which is present-day Wakyama Prefecture, to Yamato no kuni (大和国), which is present-day Nara Prefecture. The three-legged (or “tripedal”) bird is a creature found in various mythologies and arts of Asia, Asia Minor, and North Africa.It is often thought to inhabit and represent the sun.

In Japanese mythology, the appearance of Yatagarasu is construed as evidence of the will of Heaven or divine intervention in human affairs. It is generally accepted that Yatagarasu is an incarnation of Taketsunimi no mikoto, but none of the early surviving documentary records are quite so specific. The shinto goddess Amaterasu was also said to transform into a Raven (or the raven transforms into the goddess) as worship of Amaterasu to the exclusion of other kami has been described as “the cult of the sun”.

On many occasions, it appears in art as a three-legged bird, although there is no description stating that the Yatagarasu was three-legged in the Kojiki.

This 3-legged crow can be seen on a number of items from pre-war Japan and in post-war Japan one can see it in select shrines and also on the uniform of the national soccer team. In pre-war Japan the Imperial Japan Soldier Relief League used the yatagarasu image on a series of membership and merit badges.

ww2 japanese badge medal

The appearance of this figure appeared in two early Japanese sources, the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀)and  the Kojiki (古 事記). However, in these and other early sources there is no mention of the number of legs. This seems to have been a later addition, but it is unclear when this happened. In addition, there seems to have been some early confusion between the yatagarasu and the golden kite because in the Kojiki the bird did not lead the Emperor; the kite did. The yatagarasu did appear in the Kojiki, though.

Ravens and Crows have since appeared in classical Japanese art and textiles for hundreds of years. Most woodblock prints were produced during the Japanese feudal era by dedicated publishing houses employing skilled writers, artists, wood carvers and woodblock printing facilities.  A single print could be produced many times over until interest in the title waned or until the carved wooden blocks used to make the images began to wear and the quality of the impressions failed.  Birds such as cranes, crows, sparrows, and swallows are so prevalent in these pieces that we decided to give this gallery its own page. Enjoy!

Ukiyoe Gallery is not only an online gallery of over 2,000 Japanese woodblock prints (“ukiyo-e” and “shin-hanga”), but is also an extensive “Library” of reference articles about Japanese woodblocks, publishers, artists, printmaking techniques, and anyone who wants to find out more about this wonderful art style.