JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY: TALES AND LEGENDS

japanese-mythology

All civilizations have their mythology. The Japanese one is very rich and has nothing to envy to the others. Indeed, the most known and the most widespread are without any doubt, the Greek mythology and the Egyptian mythology. However, Japanese mythology is as fascinating as those of other countries. Are you a fan of Japanese culture? Discover through this article all that concerns the mythology of this people that dazzles you so much.

THE ORIGIN OF EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS ACCORDING TO JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY

If Zeus is the supreme god in Greek mythology and Jupiter in Roman mythology, for the Japanese, the earth and the sky were put in place and organized by three deities who were in chaos. In fact, they were born from themselves. They are therefore hitorigami (not from male and female pairs) and live in the Takamagahara (the high plain of paradise) which is the domain of the gods. Asexual, these kami conceal their presence from men as well as from each other.

These three deities are what the Japanese call Sôzô Sanshin or the three spirits of creation. They are called :

  • Ameno-minaka-nushi-no-kami, the Kami master of the august Center of Heaven;
  • Taka-mi-musubi-no-kami, the high and august wonderful Kami who produces ;
  • Kami-musubi-no-kami, the Divine Wonderful Kami who produces.

AMENO-MINAKA-NUSHI-NO-KAMI

Of the three, Ameno -minaka-nushi-no-kami is the most mysterious. He is also the original kami. Despite the fact that he is linked to various heavenly manifestations, his action in creation is little known. However, many theologians agree that he represents the beginning and the end of everything.

TAKA -MI-MUSUBI-NO-KAMI

Taka -mi-musubi-no-kami was born just after the self-creation of Ameno -minaka-nushi-no-kami. Although he is asexual, this god is associated with masculinity and the celestial gods or the Amatsukami.

KAMI-MUSUBI-NO-KAMI

This deity was born with his companion Taka -mi-musubi-no-kami and is associated with femininity and the earthly gods that the Japanese call Kinutsukami.

Amaterasu cave

 

TAKA -MI-MUSUBI-NO-KAMI AND KAMI-MUSUBI-NO-KAMI: THE JAPANESE EQUIVALENT OF YIN AND YANG

As you have seen before, these deities are at the origin of everything. According to Japanese legends and the sacred texts of the Kojiki and Nihongi (sacred books), they created the known universe, the sky and the earth. Moreover, the opposition between Taka -mi-musubi-no-kami and Kami-musubi-no-kami make them the Japanese equivalent of the yin and yang of Chinese Taoism. In this view, Ameno -minaka-nushi-no-kami would be the link, but also the separation between the two.

THE APPEARANCE AND ROLE OF UMASHI-ASHI-KABI-HIKO-JI-NO-KAMI AND AME-NO-TOKO -TACHI-NO-KAMI

After the earth and the sky were created, there was still a great disorder in the cosmos. This is when two more kami hitorigamis appeared. They are Umashi-ashi-kabi-hiko-ji-no-kami (the pleasant elder kami, the bamboo shoot prince) and Ame-no-toko -tachi-no-kami (the kami who resides eternally in the sky). They are the ones who separated the earth and the sky. Then they froze them in space in order to keep them in place.

In fact, Umashi-ashi-kabi-hiko-ji-no-kami is an Amatsumaki (earth god). His duty is to hold the earth in place and to connect it with the sky. This explains the fact that he is the bamboo shoot prince. On the other hand, Ame-no-toko -tachi-no-kami is a Kinutsukami (heavenly god).

THE CREATION OF JAPAN BY IZANAGI AND IZANAMI

After the creation of the cosmos, seven pairs of deities came to earth. The first two pairs are also hitorigami. But the last five that appeared after them are from a male and female entity. In all, these seven pairs form the seven divine generations.

In most Japanese myths, their roles are figurative. However, the last pair Izanagi (male god) and Izanami (female goddess) had a more important role. Indeed, according to Shintoism, these are the last deities of the seven divine generations who presided over the creation of Japan.

izanagi and izanami

Izanagi and Izanami

 

Izanagi and Izanami were then given the mission to give shape to the earth. To do this, they stood on the bridge between heaven and earth and with the celestial spear (Ame-no-nuhoko) that the primitive gods gave him, Izanagi began to stir the ocean. When he withdrew it, the first drop that fell formed Onogoro (first dry land).

So Izanagi is the creator god of Japan. As for Izanami (the one who invites), she is the goddess of creation, but also of death. She is also the first wife of Izanagi.

When Onogoro was created, these deities came down there and - on Izanami's invitation - became a couple who gave birth to two deformed entities: Hiroku and Awashima. The first one is a watery child that his parents put in a rush boat and entrusted to the sea. The second is a foamy island that could not sustain itself by its own means.

Undeterred, Izanagi initiated a second nuptial ritual and from this union the eight main islands of Japan were born:

  • Iwari ;
  • Iyo (today Shikoku);
  • Tukusi (today Kyûshû) ;
  • Ogi ;
  • Yamato (today Honshû) ;
  • Tusima ;
  • Iki ;

THE OTHER DESCENDANTS OF IZANAGI AND IZANAMI

After the creation of Japan, Izanami and Izanagi gave birth to many other deities and islands. Those who are not islands are then nature kami. In particular, the kami of the mountains and the kami of the plains, whose union formed eight new kami.

Also, from the union of Izanagi and Izanami came the god of wind: Shine-tsu-hiko-no-kami. His birth made it possible to dissipate the mist and the clouds which formerly covered the earth.

 

Izanagi Totsuka

Izanagi and the Totsuka


Other deities were born thanks to the union of Izanagi and Izanami, but the birth of the fire god Kaguzuchi put an end to their love. Indeed, the latter burned his mother until she died. However, before dying, she gave birth to two last kami: Kanayama-biko and Kanayama-hime. These last two deities who came out of their mother's mouth when she died are the metal gods.

Deeply saddened by this, Izanagi decapitated his son with a famous sword in Japanese mythology: the Totsuka. The blood which beaded from the sword gave birth to eight kami.

IZANAMI AND IZANAGI: THE BEGINNING OF THE CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH

Izanagi then rushed to the world of the dead (Yomi-no-kuni) to join and bring back his sweetheart. However, the latter having already tasted the food of the dead could not return to the world of the living without the agreement of the gods of darkness.

When Izanagi entered the Yomi-no-kuni, he was not to look at Izanami until he received permission. But his impatience made him create light with his comb. The moment Izanagi saw Izanami's body, it immediately went into decay.

This humiliation caused Izanami to become furious and she went after the man who had once been her lover to kill him. Izanagi who managed to escape just barely blocked the entrance of the cave which leads to the Yomi-no-kuni by a huge rock and separated forever the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Yomotsu Hirasaka


Yomotsu Hirasaka, by Nobuyuki Kondo

In his anger, Izanami promised to kill one thousand people a day. Izanagi replied that he would create one thousand five hundred people a day. From then on, Izanami became the goddess of death. Izanagi on his side became the god of creation. This was the beginning of the cycle of life and death.

Don't you find similarities with the Greek legend that tells of Orpheus' journey into the world of the dead to retrieve Eurydice, his wife? Or the abduction of Persephone by Hades on his chariot.

THE ORIGIN OF THE HARAI OR PURIFICATION BY WATER

When Izanagi returned to the world of the living, he cried for the death of his wife in Kyûshû (Tsukushi). His tears then gave birth to a new deity and his body also gave birth to eight other kami.

Feeling soiled by his trip to the underworld and the world of the dead, Izanagi purified himself by bathing in the waters of the orange river which is in Kyûshû. There, other deities were born.

When he undressed, twelve kami were born from his clothes and all that he had, among them Tokiokashi, the god of lost time and Michimata, the god of the crossroads.

harai-gushi


Purification ritual in a Shinto shrine


During his bath, he will give birth again to Yasoma-gatsuhi and Ohoma-gatsuhi who are demonic beings who will cause terrible disasters on the world of the living. This pushed Izanagi to purify himself even more. But after the appearance of these two malevolent deities, three other kami were born. These were Kamu-naobi, Oho-naobi and Izunome. Then Izanagi gave birth to the two deep water kami (Sokotsu-watatsumi and Sokotsu-tsunowo), the two in-between water kami (Nakatsu-watatsumi and Nakatsu-tsunowo) and the two surface kami (Uhatsu-watatsumi and Uhatsu-tsunowo): Uhatsu-watatsumi and Uhatsu-tsunowo. It is from this purification of Izanagi that the harai or purification by water was born. This practice is still done nowadays in the Shinto religion.

THE MOST IMPORTANT KAMI OF SHINTOISM

It is when he washed his face that Izanagi gave birth to the most important mythological figures of Shinto: Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi and Susanoo. Izanagi will then leave his kingdom to these last three deities.

AMATERASU OR "THE GREAT IMPERIAL KAMI ILLUMINATING THE SKY

amaterasu smite


The goddess Amaterasu in the game SMITE


Amaterasu was born from the left eye of Izanagi. She is a female deity and is the mother goddess of the sun. Amaterasu became essential to men since she was the one who illuminated the sky. She will also have the function to rule the sky and to direct it. Apart from this responsibility, the Yasakani-no-magatama which is a pearl necklace representing fertility and sovereignty was also part of what her father gave her. This necklace is still today in the imperial treasury.

TSUKUYOMI : THE GOD OF THE MOON

tsukuyomi

The Kami Tsukuyomi


Tsukuyomi was born from the right eye of Izanagi. He is a male god and was the god of the moon and the night. The kingdom of the night will be given to him by his father and will become his. He will also receive from Izanagi the mirror of Yata, symbol of the time and the moon. Contrary to his siblings, Tsukuyomi will be little quoted in the mythical accounts. In any case, although he is in the sky with his sister, Tsukuyomi will never be near her. On the other hand, he will be very little represented on Japanese artworks and cult objects.

SUSANOO: A COURAGEOUS AND CAPRICIOUS GOD

Susanoo is a god with a strong character who was born from Izanagi's nose when he washed his face. He is the god of strength and ardor. He was born with a bad temper and he sowed desolation wherever he went. Susanoo dominates the oceans and the storms. He will receive from his father the sword Totsuka and the rule over the oceans. He will then also rule over the islands and continents that lie in the seas.

Susanoo will be found in many mythical stories. Indeed, driven by a great temerity, he will appear in many stories that relate his battles against demons, monsters. In these mythological stories, he will also come to the rescue of men several times. Moreover, according to Japanese mythology, the first Japanese emperors are descended from him.

SOME OF THE GREAT STORIES OF JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY

There are so many mythological stories in Shinto, the religion in Japan. Discover some of the most famous ones through the following lines.

THE RETREAT OF THE SUN

How not to talk about this story? Indeed, it is so famous in Shinto. It is a story that started with a quarrel between Susanoo and Amaterasu. Jealous of not living in the sky like his brother and sister, Susanoo found an idea to go and join them: he decided to go and say goodbye to his sister, Amaterasu. Fearing her brother's fiery temper and maliciousness, Amaterasu decided to play a game with him, which consisted in creating male deities. The one who manages to create the maximum number of them will win.

Goddess Amaterasu


Amaterasu broke her brother's Totsuka sword, divided it into three and chewed it to create three beautiful female deities. On his side, Susanoo chewed the pearls of his sister's Yasakani-no-magatama necklace and gave birth to five male deities. Convinced of his strength and superiority, Susanoo became very arrogant. He even went to heaven to take his sister's rice shoots. Not appreciating this act, Amaterasu refused to recognize her brother's victory and said that it was thanks to her necklace that he had succeeded in this miracle. Vexed and furious, Susanoo took revenge by throwing the corpse of a celestial horse in the palace of his sister. The latter, horrified, hid in the cave of Amano-Iwato (the cave of the sun goddess) and refused to come out. This deprived the earth and the sky of light.

THE REAPPEARANCE OF AMATERASU

Worried about the absence of light and its consequences on the world of men, the other deities met to find an idea to make Amaterasu leave her cave. It was Omoikane (the god of intelligence and reflection) who found a way to get her out. His plan was to organize a party in front of the cave. All the deities will be invited, will start to laugh as hard as they can, while Uzume (the goddess of the cheerfulness) will start to dance to put the atmosphere.

uzume


The goddess Ame-no-Azume


When this plan was executed, Amaterasu wondered how anyone could be happy when the world was deprived of its light. Uzume, who continued to dance, told her that a goddess more resplendent than her was born and that this festival was held in her honor. Amaterasu's curiosity pushed her to go out and she saw a great light. Only, it was her own reflection that was sent back to her by a mirror that the gods had put at the entrance of the cave. Subjugated by her reflection, Amaterasu was petrified for a moment and during this time, another deity Ame-no-Tajikarao (the power of the hand of the sky) obstructed the cave by a rock in order to prevent the goddess of the sun from coming back to hide there.

THE SEPARATION OF DAY AND NIGHT

This is one of the few stories in which Tsukuyomi appears. Indeed, this story tells that the god of the moon was disgusted by the fact that Uke Mochi, the goddess of the food made food come out of her orifices. Because of this, Tsukuyomi pierced her with a blade and killed her. However, Uke Mochi is one of the main allies and friends of Amaterasu. Amaterasu became very angry and banished her brother to another part of the sky. And so the day and the night were separated forever.

SUSANOO AND KUSHINADA

When Susanoo, the god of wind, was banished from heaven, he came to Izumo. There he found an old couple full of sorrow. When he asked the reason, the old man told him that the Yamato-no-orochi, the eight-headed monster with eight tails, had devoured his seven daughters. Now that only the last one, Kushinada, is left, the animal is asking for her to eat her.

Susanoo Kushinada

Susanoo saves Kushinada Hime from the dragon

 

Seeing how beautiful Kushinada was, Susanoo fell in love with her. He promised to help the parents if they gave him their daughter's hand. The parents who preferred to see their daughter alive with a kami than to give her to the Yamato-no-orochi agreed.

Susanoo turned Kushinada into a comb, hid her in his hair and baited the monster with eight large containers of eight times distilled sake. The octocephalic animal began to drink and get drunk. When the mythical monster was too drunk to defend itself, Susanoo began to attack and slash it with the Totsuka sword. He then found in the tail of the Yamato-no-orochi a miraculous sword: the Kusanagi (the sword of the sky with gathered clouds).

Before settling permanently in Izumo with his wife, Kusinada, Susanoo offered the Kusanagi sword to Amaterasu to atone for his sins. This sword, as well as the Totsuka, can still be found today in the imperial treasury.

Once again, don't you think that the Yamato-no-orochi has some similarities with the Hydra? This mythological animal that Heracles had for second work to fight.

THE DEATH OF SUSANOO

After leaving many descendants to watch over his kingdom, Susanoo ran out of wood to build an even bigger palace. So he started to plant some of his body hair in the ground and it turned into cedar and camphor trees. He then decided to join Izanami in the Yomi when he judged that his duty on earth was accomplished.

Of course, before that a lot of his adventures are mentioned in the sacred books Kojiki and Nihongi of Shintoism.

Yamata no orochi


Yamata-No-Orochi

OTHER NUMEROUS DEITIES OF THE SHINTO POLYTHEISTIC RELIGION.

In fact, we have mentioned only a few deities, but you should know that there are many others. Here is a small list which is still far from being exhaustive:

  • Hachiman : the god who protects the Japanese people and at the same time god of war;
  • Saruta-Hiko : the kami who leads the Kinutsukami (earth gods) and the guardian of the sky bridge;
  • Fujin : descendant of Susanoo and god of wind;
  • Raijin : twin brother of Fujin and god of thunder, lightning and lightning;
  • Ryujin: a dragon and god of the seas;
  • Enma-ō: the king of the underworld;
  • Futsunoshi: the god of swords;
  • Amatsu-Mikaboshi: the kami representing evil;
  • Inari: a male deity of rice and fertility;
  • Toyotama-Hime : the deity, mother of the first Japanese emperor Jimmu;
  • Kikuri-Hime : the protective goddess;

Raiden

Raiden, the kami Raijin and Ryujin

If we add to this small list those we have seen before and if we think about the fact that every thing in the world is personified in the Shinto religion, you will quickly understand that the deities of this religion are so numerous. So many that no list could be made of them. A deep knowledge of mythological references and Japanese folklore can help you to list them more thoroughly. You will also find that the Japanese emperors belong to a divine dynasty.

THE FORCES OF EVIL IN THE SHINTO RELIGION

As in all mythologies and religions, Shintoism and Japanese mythology also have entities that represent evil. By the way, you have discovered above Amatsu-Mikaboshi (the kami(s) of evil). It is not known whether this name represents one or several entities. Here are some other entities that represent evil.

Oni

THE ONI

In French, "oni" means demon or devil. Of imposing size and hideous ugliness, the oni always cause disasters to men and are at the origin of their ills and diseases.

Before the influence of Buddhism on Shinto, it was considered that the oni were invisible. Indeed, it is the mixture of the two religions that gave form to the oni. They are then associated with ogres and trolls. Since then they have taken on a humanoid form.

According to Japanese legends, the oni cannot attack mortals if they are in a divine temple. Indeed, the temple will act as a protective bulwark.

THE YŌKAI

The yōkai on the other hand are associated with monsters, malevolent apparitions, ghosts and spirits. They take many forms and are the equivalent of monsters found in other mythologies.

In Greek mythology, for example, the cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the realm of the dead, the hydra, the centaurs, the bull of Crete, the Minotaur, etc. would have been yōkai if they were in Japanese mythology. Indeed, in all legends, folklore, and mythologies, there are monsters. Those in Shintoism and Japanese mythology are the yōkai.

The yōkai are often represented by animals in Shintoism. They are usually malevolent beings, but rarely, some of them may bring good luck to the living person who comes across them. Existing in many forms, they possess different powers, but most of them seem to master the art of metamorphosis. Here are some famous yōkai from the Shinto religion.

kappa yokai

 

Kappa, the river monster

  • The Kappa: a sea monster that is half man, half duck and half turtle ;
  • The Kitsune : the fox spirit who can possess men according to his will. It is also considered as the messenger of Inari, the kami of rice;
  • The Onmoraki : the half-man, half-volatile monster;
  • The Inugami : a dog spirit different from Tanuki, the raccoon dog spirit;
  • The Makami : a wolf spirit also called Okami;
  • Chimi : also called Sudama, it is a mountain spirit;
  • The Ippon-Datara : the monster who is both one-legged and cyclops;
  • The Kodama : it is a forest spirit;
  • The Nekomata : a feline spirit;
  • The Obariyon : a small mischievous goblin who stands on the shoulders of mortals and gives them bad advice;
  • Tsuchigumo : the spider spirit;
  • The Bakemono : a cat spirit different from the Nekomata.

THE ORIGINS OF SHINTOISM

Shintoism is thus a polytheistic religion. However, when one tries to trace its origins, one will never find a precise origin of this religion. Indeed, it is in a wide time interval (very wide) that we estimate the creation of Shintoism. Yes! It is estimated that this religion was founded during the Jōmon period. That is, between 15,000 BC and 300 BC. Nevertheless, there is a correlation between the Shinto religion and the history of Japan.

Shinto ritual


Don't fall for it!

It is then considered that each of the numerous tribes of Japan had their beliefs, their legends and their pantheon. Experts think that the ancestors of the emperors imposed theirs. Since they had access to power, they could afford to do so.

Then came the period when Buddhists arrived from China to preach their religion. Indeed, in the 6th century, Buddhism mixed with the Japanese ancestral religion and the Japanese people had to differentiate them. To do so, they named their religion Shinto.

Strangely enough, the Japanese discovered a certain complementarity between their religion and Buddhism. Thus, to affirm the difference between the two, Shinto was decreed as the state religion in 1868. It is true that many religions have been introduced in Japan since the end of the Second World War. But this has not succeeded in eradicating Shinto and Kami worship from the Japanese mind.

THE PRACTICE OF SHINTO NOWADAYS IN JAPAN

Indeed, nowadays Shinto still holds a preponderant place in the Japanese society. Moreover, there are still today more than one hundred million practitioners in Japan. Currently, Japan still has more than 80,000 Shinto shrines.

Often, at the entrance of these sanctuaries, which are temples that the Japanese call Jinja, Torii stand. These are emblematic portals of Shinto which have the function of filtering the spirits which penetrate in the temple and which separate a holy zone from a profane zone.

torii gate

Torii in Japan Credit: MustangJoe


In addition, the Shinto religion preaches the importance of six great and noble values that are:

  • Family ;
  • Tradition; and
  • Love and respect for nature;
  • Matsuri or traditional festivals and celebrations that honor the kami;
  • Physical cleanliness;
  • Purity of spirit.

To these six will be added other values such as virtue, knowledge of the divine and sincerity.

SOME SHINTO RITUALS FROM JAPANESE MYTHOLOGY

Proud of their mythology, the Shintoists of the Japanese people still practice many rituals nowadays.

PRAYING TO THE KAMI

The believer can indeed make a prayer request to one or several deities. To do so, he will have to hang an Ema (wooden plate) or a Nōsatsu (paper) containing his prayers at the entrance of the temple, on the Torii.

Once in the shrine, the practitioner can also take small papers that contain the gods' opinions about his or her future. These small papers are called Omikuji.

omikuji


Draw good fortune with the Omikuji!

PURIFICATION RITES IN SHINTOISM

Always linked to Japanese mythologies, purification rites are strongly practiced in Shinto. The Harai, for example, consists in washing the hands and the mouth with a ladle before entering a sanctuary. It allows one to appear before the kami without defilement. This practice has its origin in the purification that Izanagi made after his trip to the underworld.

Misogi is also a purification rite which consists in bathing in a river or under a waterfall. This ritual serves to remove all impurities from the practitioner.