Japanese mythology dates back to more than two centuries and is an intricate system of beliefs that also incorporates the agricultural-based folk religion as well as traditional Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. These religious beliefs originated in India and came to Japan to China and Korea. Japanese folklore have their origins in two major religions of Japan, Buddhism and Shinto. It is a collection of stories based on the legends, gods, ceremonies, practices, customs and historical accounts of the Japanese people.
An essential aspect of Japanese mythology is the creation story which connects the divine origin to the Japanese Imperial family, depicting them as gods. Indeed, the emperor of Japan is called tennō (天皇), which means “heavenly emperor.” Most of the stories in the Japanese folklore have themes of the creation of the world and the foundation of the Islands of Japan. They mostly describe the activities of humans, spirits, deities, animals, and magical creatures. A number of myths are set in legendary locations while some portray characters and events that are connected with particular places in Japan.
The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki
Japanese myths as known today are mainly based on the kojiki (record of ancient matters) the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). The Kojiki is the oldest surviving account of Japan’s myths, legends, and history. The Shintoshi on the other hand, portrays the Japanese origin from the Buddhist standpoint, while the Hotsuma Tsutae documents a different version of the myth.
The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki describe the origin of the ruling class and were created to enforce its authority. Consequently, these are not just stories or myths; they have a political undertone. They are based on two main traditions, namely, the Yamato Cycle which describes the adventures of Amaterasu (the sun goddess) and Izumo Cycle which the principal character is Susanowo (or Susanoo) Amaterasu’s brother.
These mythologies were necessary to know the genealogy of all important families to establish the position of each family in the eight levels of rank and title according to the Chinese court system which it was modeled after. The compilations of these genealogies were ordered by Temmu in the AD. 712 for the imperial court and this was how the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were created. The purpose is to trace the imperial genealogy back to the beginning of the world, hence the Yamato Cycle prominence in these cosmologies. The Kojiki contains more myth and genealogy while the Nihon Shoki explains both the history and legend of early Japan.
Here are the most famous Japanese deities
- Hachiman- god of warriors
- Amaterasu- goddess of the sun and fertility who brings light to the world
- Inari- god of merchants, also associated with rice
- Kagutsuchi- god of fire
- Izanami- creator goddess
- Izanagi- creator god
- Tsuki- Yomi– moon god, Amaterasu’s brother
- Susano- god of storms and seas, Amaterasu’s brother
Other spirits and creatures that frequently appear in Japanese mythology
- Tengu- minor deities that are part bird part human
- The Oni- horned demons, a cruel group of spirits that is said to originate in China, they are associated with famines and other evils and can steal the soul of humans
The Japanese mythology also includes the story about the life of Buddha and other Buddhist deities. Many tales are about Amida, the ruler of a paradise also known as the pure land and Kannon, the protector of women in childbirth in childbirth and children. Another crucial Buddhist figure is Jizo who saves souls from hell.
- Creation Myth
The creation myth is one of the most important stories in the Japanese mythology that describes how the landscape was formed. It also tells the origin of forces such as fire, light, and wind. The Kojiki describes the beginning of life as only primeval ooze, out of which heaven and earth were formed. Five heavenly deities appeared, followed by the Seven Generations of the Age of Gods. The first gods brought two of the Seven Generations of Gods Izanagi and Izanami into existence and charged them with creating the first land.
Izanagi (male) and Izanami (female) mated and had two children. One was Hiruko (watery child) or Ebisu (Kotoshiro-Mushi-no-kami) the guardian of the health of small children as well as the Japanese god of fishermen, good luck, and workingmen. The other was Awashima (pale Island), but they were not considered deities as they were badly formed. Their parents mated once more and this time had a successful union that resulted in the birth of Oyashima (the eight great islands of Japan-Ogi, Tsuki, Ike, Iyo, Awazi, Sado, Iki, Tsushima, Yamato). Izanami and Izanagi later gave birth to six more Islands and many deities. However, Izanami died while giving birth to Kagutiti. This made Izanagi kill Kagutiti in anger. The gods born from Izanagi and Izanami represent vital aspects of culture and nature.
- The Beginning of Death
After Izanami died, Izanami went on a journey to ‘the shadowy land of the dead’ (Yomi). He discovered that Yomi was not that different from the land above. The only difference was the eternal darkness. He was able to find Izanami, though the shadows hid her appearances well at first. However Izanami did not receive him well, she told him angrily that it was too late when he told her to follow him back to the land above. This is because she was now part of the world of the dead and had already eaten the food of the underworld. She eventually agreed to follow him after she had rested but instructed him not to come into her room.
Unfortunately, Izanagi worried after a long wait, decided to look into the room. He discovered that his once beautiful wife was nothing more than a rotting form of flesh with maggots and foul creatures all over her body. Izanagi became frightened and started running to escape back to the land of the living. He was pursued by Izanami and the foul creatures but managed to escape. Izanami was furious with him for leaving her behind and promised to kill a thousand living people every day. Moreover, that was how death came into existence, through Izanami.
- Sun, Moon, and Sea
Izanagi went to purify himself after his journey to Yomi and has he undressed, all the adornments he removed from his body turned into a deity as he dropped each to the ground. As he went into the water to wash, more gods came into being. The most important ones were Amaterasu (incarnation of the sun), Tsukuyomi (incarnation of the moon), Susanoo (incarnation of storms and the ruler of the sea). Izanagi divided the world, among the three gods.
Amaterasu – the control of the heavens
Tsukuyomi – control of the night and moon and the storms
Susanoo – control of the sea
- The First Emperor
According to legends, it was Amaretasu who established the imperial family of Japan. The installation began when she sent her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto to live on earth. Ninigi was accepted as the ruler of Japan and married the goddess of Mount Fuji. Together, they had three sons. One of their sons was the father of Jimmu who became the first the first emperor of Japan was Iwarebiko (Emperor Jimmu). He established the throne in 660 B.C.E. He was the descendant of Osihomimi who was born from an ornament of Amaterasu the sun goddess