Japanese mythology

Japanese mythology is an extremely complex religion and system of beliefs. The Shinto pantheon alone boasts a collection of more than 8000 kami (Japanese for "gods" or "spirits"). Despite the influence of the ancient Chinese civilization, much of Japanese mythology is uniquely their own. It embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agricultural-based folk beliefs. Moreover, unlike Greek, Nordic and Egyptian mythology, it is very difficult to distinguish what is truly "myth" to the Japanese. This article will only discuss the typical elements present in western mythology such as cosmogony, important deities and the most well-known Japanese stories.

Mainstream Japanese myths, as generally recognized today, are based on the Kojiki, Nihonshoki and some complementary books. The Kojiki or "Record of Ancient Things" 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 emperor, tennō (天皇), means "heavenly emperor" (the character 天 means "heaven").


Spelling of proper nouns

A lot of deities appear on the stage of Japanese mythology, and many of them have multiple aliases. Furthermore, some of their names are so long that they can be tedious for the majority of readers. This article therefore lists only the most prominent names, and gives them in abbreviated form. Readers should be aware that 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. This underlining convention is peculiar to this article. Other syllables are modernized as follows (see also Japanese romanization systems). Note that something in between are also used.

  • hu is modernized as fu.
  • zi and di are modernized as ji. (distinction disappeared)
  • zu and du are modernized as dzu. (distinction disappeared)
  • oo is modernized as o or oh.
For instance, various spellings of Ohonamudi include Ohonamuji, Oonamuji, Ohnamuji, and others.

By historical reasons, k, s, t, and h are sometimes confused with g, z, d, and b respectively.

For instance, various spellings of Ohonamudi also include Ohonamuti and Ohonamuchi

Creation myth

The first gods summoned two divine beings into existence, the male Izanagi and the female Izanami, and charged them with creating the first land. To help them do this, Izanagi and Izanami were given a spear decorated with jewels, named Amenonuhoko (heavenly 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 spear. When drops of salty water fell from the spear, 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 be mated, so they built a pillar called Amenomihashira and around it they built a palace called Yahirodono (the hall whose area is 8 arm's length square). 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 the proper thing to do, but they mated anyhow. They had two children, Hiruko (watery child) and Awashima (island of bubbles) but they were badly-made and are not considered deities.

They put the children into a boat and set them out to sea, then petitioned the other gods for an answer as to what they did wrong. They were told that the male deity should have spoken first in greeting during the marriage ceremony. So Izanagi and Izanami went around the pillar again, and this time when they met Izanagi spoke first and their marriage was then successful.

From their union were born the ohoyashima, or the eight great islands of the Japanese chain:

Note that Hokkaido, Chishima, and Okinawa were not part of Japan in ancient times.

They bore six more islands and many deities. Izanami was killed however by giving birth to the child Kagututi (incarnation of fire) or Ho-Masubi (causer of fire). In anger, Izanagi killed Kagututi. His death also created dozens of deities.

The gods borne from Izanagi and Izanami are symbolic of important aspects of nature and culture, but they are too many to mention here. The fact that it was necessary for the male deity Izanagi to take the lead position while the female deity Izanami had to be second has led to a false perception that this is an implied discrimination against the female gender.

Yomi, the shadowy land of the dead

Izanagi lamented the death of Izanami and undertook a journey to Yomi or "the shadowy land of the dead." Izanami found little difference between Yomi and the land above, save 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 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. 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 residents of the living 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 Wind

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,
  • Tsukiyomi (incarnation of the moon) from his right eye, and
  • Susanoo (incarnation of wind or storm) from his nose.

Izanagi went on to divide the world between them with Amaterasu inheriting the heavens, Tsukiyomi taking control of the night and moon and the storm god Susanoo owning the seas.

Amaterasu and Susanoo

Amaterasu, the powerful sun goddess of Japan, is the most well-known deity of Japanese mythology. Her feuding and uncontrollable brother Susanoo, however, is equally infamous and appears in several tales. One story tells of Susanoo's impossible behavior against Izanagi. Izanagi, tired of Susanoo's repeated complaints, banished him to Yomi. Susanoo grudgingly acquiesced but had unfinished business to attend to first. He went to Takamanohara (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. "What purpose do you come here for?" asked Amaterasu. "To say farewell," answered Susanoo.

But she did not believe his word and requested a contest for proof of his good faith. A challenge was set as to who would bring forth the more noble divine child. 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.

Missing image
Torii at Ama-no-Iwato Shrine, Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture

Suffice to say, both gods declared they were victors. Amatarasu's insistence in her claim drove Susanoo to violent campaigns that reached its 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 fled and hid into the cave called the Iwayado. As the incarnation of the sun disappeared into the cave, darkness covered the world.

All the gods and goddesses in turn tried to coax Amaterasu out of the cave, but she refused them all. Finally, the kami of merriment, Ama-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 and 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 her own reflection in the mirror. The god Ameno-Tajikarawo pulled her from the cave and it was sealed with a holy shirukume rope. Surrounded by the 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.

See also: Missing Sun myth

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. Kusinada or 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 marriage. The parents accepted and Susanoo transformed Kushinada into a comb and hid her safely in his hair. He also ordered a fence 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.

The dragon, Orochi, came and was allured by the wine. It drank it, and was slain by Susanoo in its stupor. A nearby river turned red with blood of the dragon. 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 Ame no Murakamo no Tsurugi (later called Kusanagi). This sword was to feature prominently in many other tales.

Prince Ōnamuji

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 Kusanda-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 or at least finish the creation of the islands of Japan.

Installation (19-20)

Amaterasu ordered her grandson Ninigi to rule over the ground. She gave him the Three Sacred Treasures:

The first two were made to lure Amaterasu out of Iwayado. The last was found in the eight-prong dragon. 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 the Princess Konohana-sakuya (symbol of flowers), the daughter of Yamatumi (master of mountains). They fell in love. Ninigi asked Yamatumi for his daughter's hand. The father was delighted and offered both of his daughters, Iwanaga (symbol of rocks) and Sakuya (symbol of flowers). But Ninigi married only Sakuya and refused Iwanaga.

"Iwanaga is blessed with eternity and Sakuya with prosperity", Yamatumi said in regret, "by refusing Iwanaga, your life will be brief from now on." Because of this, Ninigi and his descendants became mortal.

Sakuya conceived by a night and Ninigi doubt 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, Shihotuti told him to ride on a ship called the Manasikatuma and go wherever the current went. Following this advice, Howori reached the house of Watatumi (master of seas). There he met Toyotama, Watatumi's daughter, and married with her. After three years of marriage, he remembered his brother and his fishhook, then told Watatumi about it.

Watatumi soon found the fishhook in the throat of a bream and handed it Howori. Watatumi also gave him two magical balls, Sihomitutama, which could cause a flood, and Sihohirutama, which could cause a 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 Ituse and Yamatobiko.

Legends (23-)

First Emperor

The first legendary emperor of Japan is Iwarebiko, posthumous alias Jinmu. He established the throne in 660 BCE. His pedigree is summarized as follows.

  • Iwarebiko is a son of Ugaya and Tamayori.
  • Ugaya is a son of Howori and Toyotama.
  • Howori is a son of Ninigi and Sakuya.
  • Ninigi is a son of Osihomimi and Akidusi.
  • Osihomimi is born from an ornament of Amaterasu.
  • Amaterasu is born from the left eye of Izanagi.
  • Izanagi is born of his own accord.

Conquest of the east (23-26)

Yamato Takeru (44-48)

See also

External link

es:Mitologa japonesa fr:Mythologie japonaise ko:일본 신화 hu:Japn mitolgia nl:Japanse mythologie ja:日本神話 pl:Mitologia japońska pt:Mitologia japonesa sr:Јапанска митологија zh-cn:日本神话 he:מיתולוגיה יפנית


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