the online database of Japanese folkore

Tamatori hime

玉取姫
たまとりひめ

Translation: Lady Tamatori; lit. “jewel-taking princess”

Appearance: Tamatori hime is a nickname given to a legendary ama—a pearl diver—who dove down to the bottom of the sea and stole a priceless jewel from Ryūjin. She is usually depicted in the traditional dress of ama, bare-breasted and carrying a knife used to pry crustaceans from the rocks.

Origin: Tamatori hime’s legend is preserved by temples associated with her, such as Shidoji in Kagawa Prefecture and Hōgon-ji in Lake Biwa. It is also told in the the famous noh play Ama.

Legends: In 669 CE Fujiwara no Kamatari, founder of the Fujiwara clan, died. When his daughter Byakkō, living in China as a consort to Emperor Gaozong of Tang, received news of her father’s death in 669 CE, she was overcome with grief. She sent a ship full of treasures from China to her brother Fujiwara no Fuhito as an offering for their father’s memorial service. Among these were three of China’s most unique treasures: a bronze bell called Kagenkei, a carved stone called Shihinseki, and a flawless jewel called Menkōfuhai no Tama.

As the ship passed near the shore of Shidō in Sanuki Province, the sky grew dark and the sea grew furious. As the waters washed over the deck, a great dragon was spotted swimming between the waves—it was Ryūjin. He snatched Menkōfuhai no Tama from the ship and then sunk down to the sea floor, taking the priceless jewel with him.

When Fujiwara no Fuhito heard of the theft of Menkōfuhai no Tama, he went to Shido to search for it, disguising himself as a commoner named Tankai. While investigating the whereabouts of the jewel, he fell in love with an ama named Tamamo, the daughter of a fisherman. Together they had a son, whom they named Fusasaki, and for several years they lived happily as a family.

One day, Fujiwara no Fuhito decided to reveal his noble identity and his reason for coming to Shido to his wife. As an ama, Tamamo was able to dive down to the bottom of the sea—perhaps even all the way to Ryūgū. And so, out of her love for Fuhito, she resolved to recover the lost jewel for him or to die trying.

Tamamo dove into the sea, carrying only an ama’s knife and one end of the lifeline held by her husband on the shore. She swum deeper than she ever had gone before. She slipped into Ryūgū and found Menkōfuhai no Tama. Ryūjin himself was guarding it. Tamamo quickly snatched the jewel. Then she swam towards the surface harder than she ever had before. Her life depended on it.

Ryūjin was furious. He sent a swarm of sea creatures after Tamamo. Armed with only a small knife, she fought as hard as she could; but her breath was failing and she was no match for the forces of the dragon king. Tamamo knew she would not make it to the surface. With her knife, she cut deep into the flesh under her breast and pressed the jewel into her body. Then she tugged on the lifeline, signalling for Fuhito to real her in.

Fuhito pulled the rope as quickly as he could, but it was too late. He pulled Tamamo’s battered body out of the sea and cradled her. With her last breaths, she told him where she hid the jewel, and she begged him to look after their son. Then she died in his arms.

Fuhito was overcome with grief. He swore to honor her sacrifice by raising their son to be a great man. He laid Tamamo’s body to rest in Shido-ji, and then he took Fusasaki to the capital and educated him as a noble. Fusasaki became Fujiwara no Fusasaki, a great minister and the head of the most powerful branch of the Fujiwara clan. When Fusasaki learned of his mother’s great sacrifice, he made a pilgrimage to her grave in Shido. He built one thousand stone pagodas in her honor, and expanded the small temple into a great one.

The graves of the ama still stand at Shido-ji in Kagawa. Menkōfuhai no Tama is now kept in the treasure house of Hōgon-ji on Chikubu Island in Lake Biwa.

Alphabetical list of yōkai