A Guide to Japanese Mythology

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Miho Shimizu is a Japanese freelance writer settled in Shizuoka with her husband and two rabbits. Fascinated with traveling at the age of 18, she has spent most of her long holidays exploring incredible spots around Japan. She also loves to listen to music, draw, and read novels over a cup of green tea.

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Japanese mythology is full of legendary stories and folktales that are associated with the origin of this beautiful country. Japanese mythology is said to date back as old as 2,000 years ago, and it is a source of Japanese history, tradition, and worship of gods that are all worth learning. The legendary stories are surprisingly creative with emotional characters, and the lives of the gods are filled with difficulties and challenges just like what we experience in modern times. What is Japanese mythology? How was it originally created? How is it associated with religions such as Shintoism and Buddhism? Here we will introduce an overview of Japanese mythology and some of its famous stories and deities!    

What is Japanese mythology?

Basically, Japanese mythology is a collection of legendary stories and traditional folktales that have been passed down since ancient times in Japan. The oldest Japanese mythology can be found in historical documents such as Kojiki (古事記) and Nihon-shoki (日本書記) which were written in the early 8th century. 

Japanese mythology was created based on the worship of nature, which is the key to understanding the principle of Shintoism. Shintoism is a Japanese indigenous religion which is said to date back to prehistoric times. In Shintoism, deities are believed to be present in everything from living creatures to natural phenomena. More specifically, nature such as the sun, mountains, rivers, and oceans are all regarded as deities. This is the reason why deities that are involved in Japanese mythology are often worshiped at Shinto shrines across Japan. We can also find the elements of traditional Buddhist beliefs that have had an influence on the creation of Japanese mythology.

Stuart Rankin, (CC BY-NC 2.0), via flickr

Japanese Creation Myth

Japanese mythology starts with the primitive story called “Japanese Creation Myth”. This part of the story interestingly describes the birth of the universe and the first generations of Japanese deities. The following stories involve the legends of deities who created the islands of Japan. According to some legendary stories, their descendants later became the first emperor in Japan known as “Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇)”.

Mythical Creatures

There are also a variety of stories about mythical creatures and animals that appear in Japanese mythology. Some of the creatures that appear in Japanese mythology are Tengu (天狗), Dragon (竜) and Kappa (河童) which are also often found in traditional Japanese folklore. These creatures don’t exist in reality, but have been loved as symbolic creatures in Japan for centuries.                

tengu

Famous Deities & Stories in Japanese mythology

Izanagi (イザナギ) & Izanami (イザナミ): The divine and tragic couple  

Izanagi (イザナギ) & Izanami (イザナミ): The divine and tragic couple  

Izanagi was among the 7th generation of the first gods who were born in Takamagahara, a heavenly place for gods to live in. He got married to his sister Izanami (イザナミ), and they became a divine couple. They received the mission to create a world with a sacred spear. From a celestial bridge, Izanagi pointed the spear down towards the ocean, where the very first island of Japan called “Onokoro island”, suddenly emerged from the water. They landed on the island, and gave birth to the next generation of gods. 

However, their first offspring who was named Hiruko (ヒルコ), came out without limbs and bones, physically deformed. They placed their son on a boat and abandoned him in the ocean. Unfortunately, their second child was also unsatisfactory, so they didn’t treat him as their child. 

They returned to heaven, and asked the other deities for advice. They figured out that it was because Izanagi, the famous male deity, didn’t take initiative during their marriage ceremony. They conducted the ceremony once again, but this time properly, which resulted in the birth of eight islands which make up the major islands of Japan today.       

amaterasu

Amaterasu (天照大神): The goddess of the sun

Amaterasu was the daughter of Izanagi and Izanami. She is depicted as the goddess of the sun, agriculture, and peace in Japanese mythology. She is also the ruler of heaven, and is historically known as the ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family.  

She is famous for the legendary story in Japanese mythology called “Amano-Iwato”. In this story, she was puzzled by the arrogant behavior of her brother known as “Susanoo” (スサノオ), the god of the sea. One day, she got upset by his selfishness, was devastated, and decided to hide herself from the rest of the world. She rushed to a dark cave and blocked the entrance with a giant stone so that no one could enter. 

After she disappeared, the world lost the light from the sun and was completely dark. Other deities were at a loss, and they gathered at the cave to persuade her to come out, which ended up not being successful. Suddenly, one of the deities came up with a great idea. They  started a party with musical instruments and a dance performance in front of the cave. The party was full of enjoyable sounds of singing, dancing and laughing. Out of curiosity, Amaterasu peeked out of the cave to see what was going on outside. At the moment she slightly opened the entrance of the cave, one of the powerful deities pulled her out of the cave, and she returned to the world with her light again.                     

Surprisingly, Amano-Iwato actually exists in reality, and anyone can visit the legendary spot to directly feel the mystic atmosphere. It is located in Takachiho area, Miyazaki prefecture in Kyushu which is best known for the stunning gorge scenery. Also, if you want to visit Amaterasu, visit Ise grand shrine located in Mie prefecture!

Apart from the stories we introduced above, there are many more stories in Japanese mythology that are worth reading about. Each story is not only interesting to read, but also contains meaningful messages from ancient times. If you are also interested in Japanese history, have a look at our other articles below to understand how Japan has developed into one of the biggest countries in the world and the history of the last 2,000 years!

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