Traveling through Japan, you’ll see many wondrous, historic sites. You might also notice architecture and art referencing scenes unfamiliar with but well-known to the country’s natives.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ancient stories, you could be missing out on a lot of the context that would increase your appreciation of what you see while traveling.
Whether you’ve been living in the country for a while and looking to deepen your understanding of your new home or are looking forward to your first ever trip to this spectacular island, use this guide to learn the basics of Japanese mythology.
This thorough guide will give you the foundation you need to experience historic sites like never before.
How Do We Know Ancient Japanese Mythology?
By the time Korean Buddhist monks arrived as missionaries in Japan in 552 C.E., there were already many stories among the clans or uji of Japan. This means that many of these stories are well over 1,500 years old. But if that’s the case, how do we know them today? How were they not lost to the memories of past ancestors?
Several surviving texts were central to preserving ancient tales over the centuries.
The primary source is the Kojiki, Record of Ancient Matters. This was meant to be an imperial genealogy record. But this text that dates back to 712 C.E. contains the stories of the island’s historical, legendary tales. After all, the emperors were believed to be descended from gods. So the stories of gods and goddesses are very much part of their genealogy. This covers everything from the world’s creation according to Japanese mythology to the death of that period’s recently deceased emperor.
Additionally, the Nihon shoki, Chronicle of Japan, was completed around the same time. However, it’s important to note that it was more strongly influenced by Korean and Chinese myths, making it a less reliable source for indigenous stories. Other sources include various texts, poems, and prayers. However, no source is as comprehensive as the Kojiki.
The Foundations of Japanese Myths and Mythology
You may be wondering, “how did these stories get started, and why did they become so important?”. Well, Japan, like any place in the world in ancient times, was looking for answers to their biggest questions — questions that many of us are still asking today:
- Why are we here?
- Why does the world function as it does?
- What happened to my ancestors when they died, and what will happen to me?
In seeking to answer these questions, stories are spun and passed on to explain what we see and feel in our daily lives.
For hundreds of years, Japanese society was built on the formation of Uji, often referred to as clans in English. Each Uji owned territory and had a hierarchy of aristocrats, commoners, and mythologies. Every Uji had their God or goddess they looked to for protection. Those gods and goddesses had their allies, enemies, and stories unique to the clan.
However, the 6th century brought with it the dominance of the Yamato clan. With their power, the Yamato, the Japanese imperial family, ruled, and their stories were accepted throughout the country.
While people at the time wouldn’t have called their stories “Shinto,” this name was later used to differentiate the indigenous Japanese rites, traditions, and philosophies from Buddhism and Confucianism — two other religions/philosophies.
While Buddhism grew in popularity and absorbed many traditional indigenous stories, there was a Shinto revival in the 17th century with the beginnings of the Edo period and restoration of ancient practices.
The Beginnings of Japanese Mythology
All world mythologies need to start with a good creation story, and Japanese mythology is no exception!
According to the ancient tales, Earth wasn’t fully formed. The Kojiki text says that the world was like floating oil drifting like jellyfish. Not perhaps a good place for a family yet.
But then the Takamagahara came to be. This was a realm above the Earth, and it would be the birthplace of the deities of Japan. The original gods were led by the eldest: Amanominakanushi-no-kami. This was the Lord of the Center of Heaven. His two younger siblings were Takamimusubi and Kamimusubi.
These were all very powerful kami — divinities that inhabit everything on Earth, including human beings.
From these original three, several seven generations of Japanese deities. Ultimately, these generations of deities gave birth to two of the most important figures in Japanese mythology: Izanagi and Izanami.
Izanagi and Izanami: A Doomed Romance
Izanagi and Izanami were both brother and sister and husband and wife — but we don’t have to think about that too long.
For eight generations of deities, the Earth had continued in its floating oil-like state while the deities remained in the High Plains of Heaven, the Takamagahara. Finally, with this duo, the gods in charge said their job was to solidify the Earth and guide it to becoming a fully formed world.
The couple stood on the bridge between the deities’ heavenly realm and Earth. With a spear, they stirred the oily Earth. As they lifted the spear out of the mixture, a drop of the world fell, forming the first island, Onogoro-Shima.
As they came together to have offspring, Izanami gave birth to islands that would make up Japan. But the couple didn’t stop at one island. After that, they began having gods and goddesses for children. However, the last child she gave birth to was a god of fire. This birth was excruciating and killed Izanami, who went to the underworld.
Izanagi, mourning the loss of his wife, wouldn’t accept her death and traveled to the underworld to bring her back. When he approached, Izanami hid in the shadows and said she would ask the underworld gods if she could leave. However, she commanded that Izanagi couldn’t look at her. But in his great desire to see his wife, he lit a fire and saw that she was a terrifying corpse rotting from death.
In terror, Izanagi fled the underworld with an enraged Izanami following him along with warriors of underworld deities on his heels. After such a horrible experience, the lovers were no longer pledged to each other.
The Three Children of Izanagi
Izanagi returned to the world above and bathed to cleanse himself of the pollutants of the underworld. From his purification, he gave birth to three deities that would become central to Japanese mythology.
Amaterasu emerged as a goddess from his left eye. Tsukiyomi and Susano were two gods that came from the right eye and nose, respectively. According to Japanese legend, Izanagi decided to divide his kingdom amongst them, so he could ascend to heaven and remain there to this day.
He divided his kingdom among the Three Noble Children between the Sun, moon, and oceans. Amaterasu became the Sun Goddess, Tsukiyomi was the moon god, and Susano was claimed God of the Oceans and Storms — but Susano wasn’t happy.
Susano demanded to become God of the underworld where Izanami resided. Izanagi was enraged by his son’s defiance and banished Susano, then withdrew to the heavenly realm.
When Susano returned from his banishment, he attempted to overthrow his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, and claim the Sun. Terrified by his violence, Amaterasu fled to a cave (considered in Takachiho, which you can visit along with the shrines to Amaterasu). From her absence came a crisis as the world lost the Sun and was plunged into darkness. However, through the trickery of wise gods, she was brought out of the cave, and the world regained its balance.
Many other tales center around the noble three children. Each of these three deities has its own romantic entanglements, adventures, and trials, making for exciting drama for us to discover as admirers of Japanese mythology.
The Rise of Ninigi
Just as Izanagi passed on his realm to his children, Amaterasu didn’t rule as the most powerful goddess forever. She intended to give it to her son, but he refused her twice and insisted his son go in his place to rule the terrestrial world.
To her grandson, Ninigi, Amaterasu gifted him three treasures to help him rule his new kingdom:
- A necklace created during her feud with her brother, Susano,
- The mirror that was used to lure Amaterasu out of her cave, and
- The great sword that Susano took from a monster.
These were the three emblems of Ninigi’s power. These are now included in the regalia of his descendants — the emperors of Japan.
The Age of Men and Its Emperor
While much of the Kojiki text centers around mythical figures, such as the Three Noble Children and Izanagi and Izanami, it eventually comes to the so-called Age of Men. These are stories in which the characters are no longer deities but semi-historical figures.
This is where we come to the most notable, legendary descendant of Ninigi’s, Jimmu. There’s no evidence that this emperor was an actual figure. However, this legendary first emperor of Japan is credited as the beginning of the line of emperors amongst other legendary emperors.
We mentioned before that this was the clan that initially had taken over Japan. He started by overtaking Yamato. From there, he could conquer his imperial seat of power.
According to legend, he accomplished such feats as a descendant of Amaterasu and with the help of a local deity who put the enemies to sleep in the form of a bear. He also got help from a magic sword sent by Amaterasu to pacify the kingdom. He received homage from territories across Japan, bringing together one kingdom.
Yamato Takeru: Legendary Warrior
Emperors weren’t the only significant figures in the Age of Men. Perhaps the greatest of heroes in Japanese mythology belongs to this era. His name was Yamato Takeru. He was a prince — the son of Emperor Keiko, the 12th emperor of Japan.
Yamato Takeru is known for his bravery and wisdom. His father sent him on various missions to maintain peace across the kingdom while extending his territory. Today, you can visit his statues and his father’s burial mound in Tenri.
The first mission he had he accomplished through trickery. The enemy agreed to a duel if they could exchange swords. However, the enemy couldn’t remove Yamato Takeru’s sword as it was a fake, and Yamato Takeru killed the man easily.
He accomplished many other missions, but his story had a tragic end. When he encountered a mountain deity in the form of a white boar, he proclaimed that he would kill it — a taboo against the gods. As punishment, he was struck by illness. Dying, he sang about his homeland that he would never return to. At that moment, he transformed into a large white bird and soared back to Yamato.
Buddhism’s Impact on Japanese Mythology
Buddhism arrived in Japan around 550 C.E. and remains the second most popular religion today. Because of this, Buddhism has significantly impacted Japanese mythology as it brought new stories while becoming entangled with the indigenous tales as the two religions co-existed on the islands for 1,500 years.
An example of these entanglings is the story of Hachiman, the God of war. This deity incorporates both Shinto and Buddhist teachings to be one being born of two religions. Hachiman is known as the sacred protector of Japan and was worshipped by samurai. He is also referred to as a bosatsu, an incarnation of Buddha.
Ebisu perfectly encapsulates how the lines between Shinto and Buddhism are blurred. Ebisu is one of the Seven Lucky Gods — a Buddhist pantheon. However, he is originally a Shinto god of fisherman. So if you’re a fisherman looking to have a lucky day with a big catch, you’d want to pray to Ebisu. However, as this God walks the precarious line between Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, you can see how the two wouldn’t remain as distinct as you might imagine.
Another place where we see the lines blurred between Shinto beliefs and Buddhism is in the underworld. Here, Shinto beliefs meet the imported Buddhist principles to form a particularly terrifying place.
As we see in the story of Izanagi, Shinto beliefs are not always positive stories of light, divine drama. There is a darker side to Japanese mythology that goes beyond even the rotted corpses of goddesses in Yomi. While Yomi is the underworld in which the dead reside, Jigoku is a hellish place that any ancient Japanese person would do everything to stay away from — and avoid what comes from it.
Those who commit terrible sins and live unworthy lives are condemned to Jigoku. This place comprises eight fire regions and eight ice regions because even hell needs symmetry.
Emma-ho rules this realm. He judges male sinners while his sister judges the female arrivals to Jigoku. Based on their transgressions, each sinner is condemned to one of the punishment regions of fire or ice. The sinner will look into a mirror during the judgment process and see their sins reflected in the glass to reflect on what they did to drive them to this place.
Demons may originate in Jigoku and harass the souls condemned there, but they will also be found above on Earth, causing trouble. These demons are called Oni, and they are responsible for everything wrong about being a human, from death to famine. Oni demons are the worst and can transform themselves to assume human or animal form, though most are invisible.
Discover Japan Through Mythology
If you found this guide interesting and don’t want the thrilling stories to end, we have good news: Japanese folklore is filled with hundreds of stories beyond what we shared in this guide.
So if you think you’ve found your new hobby, you have a seemingly endless list of Japanese gods, goddesses, demons, and heroes to discover, all with their own stories to share. It’s like loving an episode of a new show only to find it’s been on for the last 20 years (or several centuries in this case)!
So the next time you see some beautiful site in Japan, don’t just admire it for what you can capture at a glance. Is this a shrine to the great goddess Amaterasu or a relic to ward off evil demons? Take a closer look and use your understanding of Japanese mythology to appreciate better what you’re witnessing.
Now that you have the foundational knowledge of this ancient system of stories, you have the tools you need to discover Japan in an entirely new way. Use this guide to bring something new to your next stroll through a Japanese city. Enjoy witnessing how history can continue to touch culture through architecture, art, storytelling, and traditions.