Japanese mythology is a system of beliefs that embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agriculture-based folk religion. The Shinto pantheon alone consists of an uncountable number of kami (Japanese for "gods" or "spirits"). This article will discuss only the typical elements present in Oriental mythology such as cosmogony, important deities and the best-known Japanese stories.
Mainstream Japanese myths, as generally recognized today, are based on the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki and some complementary books. The Kojiki or "Record of Ancient Matters" is the oldest recognized book of myths, legends and history of Japan. The Shintoshu explains origins of Japanese deities from a Buddhist perspective while the Hotsuma Tsutae records a substantially different version of mythology.
One notable result of Japanese mythology is that it explains the origin of the Imperial family, and assigned them godhood. The Japanese word for the Emperor of Japan, tennō (天皇), means "heavenly emperor".
In the Japanese creation myth, the first deities which came into existence are collectively called Kotoamatsukami, who appeared at the time of the creation of the universe.
Later, the seven generations of kami known as Kamiyonanayo ("Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods") emerged after the formation of heaven and earth.
According to the Kojiki these deities appeared after the emergence of Kotoamatsukami. The first two generations are single deities called hitorigami while the five that followed came into being as male-female pairs of kami: brothers and sisters that were at the same time married couples. In total Kamiyonanayo consist of twelve deities in this chronicle.
In contrast, the chronicle Nihon Shoki, points out that this group was the first to appear after the creation of the universe. It also states that the first three generations of deities are hitorigami and that the other generations of deities are pairs of the opposite sex.
Kuniumi and Kamiumi
Japan's creation narrative can be divided into the birth of the deities (Kamiumi) and the birth of the land (Kuniumi).
The seventh and last generation of Kamiyonanayo were Izanagi no Mikoto ("Exalted Male") and Izanami no Mikoto ("Exalted Female"), and they would be responsible for the creation of the Japanese archipelago and would engender other deities.
To help them do this, Izanagi and Izanami were given a naginata decorated with jewels, named Ame-no-nuboko ("Heavenly Jeweled Spear"). The two deities then went to the bridge between heaven and earth, Amenoukihashi ("Floating Bridge of Heaven") and churned the sea below with the halberd. When drops of salty water fell from the halberd, they formed into the island Onogoro ("self-forming"). They descended from the bridge of heaven and made their home on the island. Eventually they wished to mate, because they fell in love. So they built a pillar called Amenomihashira around which they built a palace called Yashirodono ("the hall whose area is 8 arms' length squared"). Izanagi and Izanami circled the pillar in opposite directions, and when they met on the other side Izanami, the female deity, spoke first in greeting. Izanagi didn't think that this was proper, but they mated anyway. They had two children, Hiruko ("leech child") and Awashima ("pale island"), but they were badly-formed and are not considered gods in their original form. (Hiruko later became the Japanese god Ebisu.)
The parents dismayed at their misfortune, put the children into a boat and set them out to sea, and then petitioned the other gods for an answer as to what they had done wrong. They were informed that Izanami's lack of manners was the reason for the misbirth: a woman should never speak prior to a man; the male deity should have spoken first in greeting during the ceremony. So Izanagi and Izanami went around the pillar again, and this time when they met Izanagi spoke first and their union was successful.
From their union were born the Ōyashima, or the eight great islands of Japan:
- Iyo (later Shikoku)
- Tsukushi (later Kyūshū)
- Yamato (later Honshū)
- Note that Hokkaidō, Chishima and Okinawa were not part of Japan in ancient times.
The divine couple bore eight more offspring, who later became the eight great islands of Japan. Izanami, however, died giving birth to the child Kagutsuchi (incarnation of fire) or Homusubi (causer of fire). She was then buried on Mount. Hiba, at the border of the old provinces of Izumo and Hoki, near modern-day Yasugi of Shimane Prefecture. In anger, Izanagi killed Kagutsuchi. His death also created dozens of deities.
The gods born from Izanagi and Izanami are symbolic of important aspects of nature and culture.
Izanagi lamented the death of Izanami and undertook a journey to Yomi, or "the shadowy land of the dead". Izanagi found little difference between Yomi and the land above, except for the eternal darkness. However, this suffocating darkness was enough to make him ache for the light and life above. Quickly, he searched for Izanami and found her. At first, Izanagi could not see her at all for the shadows hid her appearance well. Nevertheless, he asked her to return with him. Izanami spat out at him, informing Izanagi that he was too late. She had already eaten the food of the underworld and was now one with the land of the dead. She could no longer return to the surface with the living.
Izanagi was shocked at this news, but he refused to give in to her wishes of being left to the dark embrace of Yomi. Izanami agreed to go back to the world above but first requested to have some time to rest and instructed Izanagi not to come into her bedroom After a long wait, Izanami did not come out of her bedroom and Izanagi was worried. While Izanami was sleeping, he took the comb that bound his long hair and set it alight as a torch. Under the sudden burst of light, he saw the horrid form of the once beautiful and graceful Izanami. She was now a rotting form of flesh with maggots and foul creatures running over her ravaged body.
Crying out loud, Izanagi could no longer control his fear and started to run, intending to return to the living and abandon his death-ridden wife. Izanami woke up shrieking and indignant and chased after him. Wild shikome or foul women also hunted for the frightened Izanagi, instructed by Izanami to bring him back.
Izanagi, thinking quickly, hurled down his headdress which became a bunch of black grapes. The shikome fell on these but continued pursuit. Next, Izanagi threw down his comb which became a clump of bamboo shoots. Now it was Yomi's creatures that began to give chase, but Izanagi urinated against a tree, creating a great river that increased his lead. Unfortunately, they still pursued Izanagi, forcing him to hurl peaches at them. He knew this would not delay them for long, but he was nearly free, for the boundary of Yomi was now close at hand.
Izanagi burst out of the entrance and quickly pushed a boulder in the mouth of the cavern that was the entrance of Yomi. Izanami screamed from behind this impenetrable barricade and told Izanagi that if he left her she would destroy 1,000 living people every day. He furiously replied he would give life to 1,500.
And so began the existence of Death, caused by the hands of the proud Izanami, the abandoned wife of Izanagi.
Sun, moon and sea
As could be expected, Izanagi went on to purify himself after recovering from his descent to Yomi. As he undressed and removed the adornments of his body, each item he dropped to the ground formed a deity. Even more gods came into being when he went to the water to wash himself. The most important ones were created once he washed his face:
- Amaterasu (incarnation of the sun) from his left eye,
- Tsukuyomi (incarnation of the moon) from his right eye, and
- Susanoo (incarnation of storms and ruler of the sea and storms) from his nose.
Izanagi went on to divide the world between them with Amaterasu inheriting the heavens, Tsukuyomi taking control of the night and moon and the storm god Susanoo owning the seas. In some versions of the myth, Susanoo rules not only the seas but also all elements of a storm, including snow and hail, and in rare cases even sand.
Amaterasu and Susanoo
Amaterasu, the powerful sun goddess of Japan, is the most well-known deity of Japanese mythology. Her feuding with her uncontrollable brother Susanoo, however, is equally infamous and appears in several tales. One story tells of Susanoo's wicked behavior toward Izanagi. Izanagi, tired of Susanoo's repeated complaints, banished him to Yomi. Susanoo grudgingly acquiesced, but had to attend to some unfinished business first. He went to Takamagahara ("heaven") to bid farewell to his sister, Amaterasu. Amaterasu knew her unpredictable brother did not have any good intentions in mind and prepared for battle. "For what purpose do you come here?", asked Amaterasu. "To say farewell", answered Susanoo.
But she did not believe him and requested a contest for proof of his good faith. A challenge was set as to who could bring forth more noble and divine children. Amaterasu made three women from Susanoo's sword, while Susanoo made five men from Amaterasu's ornament chain. Amaterasu claimed the title to the five men made from her belongings. Therefore, the three women were attributed to Susanoo.
Both gods declared themselves to be victorious. Amaterasu's insistence in her claim drove Susanoo to violent campaigns that reached their climax when he hurled a half-flayed pony (an animal sacred to Amaterasu) into Amatarasu's weaving hall, causing the death of one of her attendants. Amaterasu, angered by the display, fled and hid in the cave called Iwayado. As the sun goddess disappeared into the cave, darkness covered the world.
All the gods and goddesses in their turn strove to coax Amaterasu out of the cave, but she ignored them all. Finally, the kami of merriment, Ame-no-Uzume, hatched a plan. She placed a large bronze mirror on a tree, facing Amaterasu's cave. Then, Uzume clothed herself in flowers and leaves, overturned a washtub and began to dance on it, drumming the tub with her feet. Finally, Uzume shed the leaves and flowers and danced naked. All the male gods roared with laughter, and Amaterasu became curious. When she peeked outside from her long stay in the dark, a ray of light called "dawn" escaped and Amaterasu was dazzled by the beautiful goddess she saw, this being her own reflection in the mirror. The god Ameno-Tajikarawo pulled her from the cave and it was sealed with a shimenawa. Surrounded by merriment, Amaterasu's depression disappeared and she agreed to return her light to the world. Uzume was from then on known as the kami of dawn as well as mirth.
Susanoo and Orochi
Susanoo, exiled from heaven, came to Izumo Province (now part of Shimane Prefecture). It was not long before he met an old man and his wife sobbing beside their daughter. The old couple explained that they originally had eight daughters who were devoured one-by-one each year by the dragon named Yamata no Orochi ("eight-forked serpent", who was said to originate from Kosi—now Hokuriku region). The terrible dragon had eight heads and eight tails, stretched over eight hills and was said to have eyes as red as good wine. Kushinada-hime ("rice paddy princess") was the last of the eight daughters.
Susanoo, who knew at once of the old couple's relation to the sun goddess Amaterasu, offered his assistance in return for their beautiful daughter's hand in marriage. The parents accepted and Susanoo transformed Kushinada into a comb and hid her safely in his hair. He also ordered a large fence-like barrier built around the house, eight gates opened in the fence, eight tables placed at each gate, eight casks placed on each table, and the casks filled with eight-times brewed rice wine.
Orochi arrived there, and found his path blocked and after boasting of his prowess he found that he could not get through the barrier. His keen sense of smell took in the sake—which Orochi loved—and the eight heads had a dilemma. They wanted to drink the delicious sake that called to them, yet the fence stood in their way, blocking any method of reaching it. One head first suggested they simply smash the barrier down... but that would knock over and waste the sake making it all for naught. Another proposed they combine their fiery breath and burn the fence into ash but then the sake would evaporate. The heads began searching for an opening and found the hatches and eager for the sake, they were keen to poke their heads through to go and drink it. Yet the eighth head, which was the wisest, warned his brethren of the folly of such a thing and volunteered to go through first to make sure all was well. Susanoo waited for his chance, letting the head drink some sake in safety and report back to the others that there was no danger. All eight heads plunged through a hatch each and greedily drank every last drop of the sake in the casks.
As the heads finished, Susanoo launched his attack on Orochi. Drunken from drinking so much sake, the great serpent was no match for the spry Susanoo who decapitated each head in turn and slew Orochi. A nearby river was said to have turned red with the blood of the defeated serpent. As Susanoo cut the dragon into pieces, he found an excellent sword from a tail of the dragon that his sword had been unable to cut. The sword was later presented to Amaterasu and named Ama no Murakumo no Tsurugi (天叢雲剣, "Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven", which was later called Kusanagi, "Grass Mower"). This sword was to feature prominently in many other tales.
Ōnamuji (also known as Ōkuninushi) was a descendant of Susanoo. He, along with his many brothers, competed for the hand of Princess Yakami of Inaba. While travelling from Izumo to Inaba to court her, the brothers met a skinned rabbit lying on a beach. Seeing this, they told the rabbit to bathe in the sea and dry in the wind at a high mountain. The rabbit believed them and thereby suffered in agony. Ōnamuji, who was lagging behind his brothers, came and saw the rabbit in pain and instructed the rabbit to bathe in fresh water and be covered with powder of the "gama" ("cattail") flower. The cured rabbit, who was in reality a deity, informed Ōnamuji it was he who would marry Princess Yakami.
The trials of Ōnamuji were many and he died twice at the hands of his jealous brothers. Each time he would be saved by his mother Kushinada-hime. Pursued by his enemies, he ventured to Susanoo's realm where he would meet the vengeful god's daughter, Suseri-hime. The crafty Susanoo would test Ōnamuji several times but in the end, Susanoo approved of the young boy and foretold his victory against his brothers.
Although the Yamato tradition attributes the creation of the Japanese islands to Izanagi and Izanami, the Izumo tradition claims Ōnamuji, along with a dwarf god called Sukunabiko, would contribute to or at least finish the creation of the islands of Japan.
Amaterasu ordered her grandson Ninigi to rule over the ground. She gave him the Three Sacred Treasures:
- the magatama necklace of Yasakani no magatama (now situated in the imperial palace);
- the bronze mirror of Yata no kagami (now in the Grand Shrine of Ise); and
- the sword Kusanagi (a possible replica of which is now in Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya).
The first two were made to lure Amaterasu out of Amano-Iwato. The last was found in the Orochi, an eight-headed hydra. Of these three, the mirror is the token of Amaterasu. The three together constitute the Imperial Regalia of Japan.
Ninigi and his company went down to the earth and came to Himuka, there he founded his palace.
Prosperity and eternity
Ninigi met Konohanasakuya-hime (symbol of flowers), the daughter of Yamatsumi (master of mountains), and they fell in love. Ninigi asked Yamatsumi for his daughter's hand. The father was delighted and offered both of his daughters, Iwanaga (symbol of rocks) and Sakuya (symbol of flowers). However, Ninigi married only Sakuya and refused Iwanaga.
"Iwanaga is blessed with eternity and Sakuya with prosperity", Yamatsumi said in regret, "by refusing Iwanaga, your life will be brief from now on". Consequently, Ninigi and his descendants became mortal.
Sakuya conceived by a night and Ninigi doubted her. To prove legitimacy of her children, Sakuya swore by her luck and took a chance; she set fire to her room when she had given birth to her three babies. By this, Ninigi knew her chastity. The names of the children were Hoderi, Hosuseri and Howori.
Ebb and flow
Hoderi lived by fishing in sea while his brother Howori lived by hunting in mountains. One day, Howori asked his brother to swap places for a day. Howori tried fishing, but he could not get a catch, and what was worse, he lost the fishhook he borrowed from his brother. Hoderi relentlessly accused his brother and did not accept his brother's apology.
While Howori was sitting on a beach, sorely perplexed, Shihotsuchi told him to ride on a ship called the Manashikatsuma and go wherever the current went. Following this advice, Howori reached the house of Watatsumi (master of seas). There he met Toyotama, Watatsumi's daughter, and married her. After three years of marriage, he remembered his brother and his fishhook, then told Watatsumi about it.
Watatsumi soon found the fishhook in the throat of a bream and handed it to Howori. Watatsumi also gave him two magical balls, Shihomitsutama, which could cause a flood, and Shihohirutama, which could cause an ebb, and sent him off, along with his bride, to land.
As Toyotama was giving birth, she asked Howori not to look at her delivery. However, Howori, filled with curiosity, peeped in, and saw her transforming into a shark at the moment his son, Ugaya, was born. Aware of this, Toyotama disappeared into sea and did not return, but she entrusted her sister Tamayori with her yearning for Howori.
Ugaya married his aunt Tamayori and had five children, including Itsuse and Yamatobiko.
The first legendary emperor of Japan is Iwarebiko, posthumous alias Emperor Jimmu (Transition from God to Emperor). He established the throne in 660 B.C. His pedigree is summarized as follows.
- Izanagi is born of his own accord.
- Amaterasu is born from the left eye of Izanagi.
- Oshihomimi is born from an ornament of Amaterasu.
- Ninigi is a son of Osihomimi and Akizushi.
- Howori is a son of Ninigi and Sakuya.
- Ugaya is a son of Howori and Toyotama.
- Iwarebiko is a son of Ugaya and Tamayori.
Spelling of proper nouns
Many deities appear in Japanese mythology, and many of them have multiple aliases. Furthermore, some of their names are comparatively long. This article therefore lists only the most prominent names, and gives them in one of their abbreviated forms, other abbreviated forms are also in use.
(For instance, Ninigi, or Ame-Nigishikuni-Nigishiamatsuhiko-Hikono-no-Ninigi-no-Mikoto in full, may also be abbreviated as Hikoho-no-Ninigi or Hono-Ninigi.)
In some parts of this article, proper names are written in a historical manner. In this article, underlined h, y, and w denote silent letters; they are omitted from modern spelling. Other syllables are modernized as follows. Note that some blend of these conventions is also often used.
- hu is modernized as fu.
- zi and di are modernized as ji. (distinction disappeared)
- oo is modernized as o or oh.
- For instance, various spellings of Ohonamuji include Oonamuji, Ohnamuji, and others.
- Chamberlain 2008, p. 72
- Yang, Jeff, Dina Gan and Terry Hong. Eastern Standard Time. p. 222. Metro East Publications, 1997.
- Chamberlain 2008, p. 75
- Chamberlain 2008, p. 77
- Yang, 2005, p.222.
- Kelsey, W. Michael (1983). "Untitled", Asian Folklore Studies Vol 42, No 1, p. 142–3.
- Littleton, C. Scott, (May 1983). "Some Possible Arthurian Themes in Japanese Mythology and Folklore", Journal of Folklore Research. Vol 20, No 1, p.67–81.
- Fairchild, William (1965). "Mika: Jar Deities in Japanese Mythology", Asian Folklore Studies. Vol. 24, No 1, p. 81–101.
- Littleton, 1983, p. 72.
- Fairchild, 1965, p. 94.
- Metevelis, Peter (1983). "A Reference Guide to the Nihonshoki Myths", Asian Folklore Studies. Vol 52, No 2, p. 383–8.
- Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters: Yamato-Takeru Slays the Kumaso Brothers
- Romance stories from old Japan, pre-1919—Free to read and full text search.
- A Multilingual Electronic Text Collection of Folk Tales for Casual Users Using Off-the-Shelf Browsers
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