Japanese mythology

This article is part of a series on Shinto
Practices and beliefs
Kami · Ritual purity · Polytheism · Animism · Japanese festivals · Mythology ·
Shinto shrines
List of Shinto shrines · Twenty-Two Shrines · Modern system of ranked Shinto Shrines · Association of Shinto Shrines
Notable Kami
Amaterasu · Sarutahiko · Ame no Uzume · Inari · Izanagi · Izanami · Susanoo · Tsukuyomi
Important literature
Kojiki · Nihon Shoki · Fudoki · Rikkokushi · Shoku Nihongi · Jinnō Shōtōki · Kujiki
See also
Religion in Japan · Glossary of Shinto · List of Shinto divinities · Sacred objects · Japanese Buddhism · Mythical creatures

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Japanese mythology is a system of beliefs that embraces Shinto and Buddhist traditions as well as agriculturally based folk religion. The Shinto pantheon comprises innumerable kami (Japanese for "gods" or "spirits"). This article will discuss only the typical elements present in Asian mythology, such as the cosmogony, the important deities, and the best known Japanese stories.

Mainstream Japanese myths, as generally recognized today, are based on the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and some complementary books. The Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Matters", is the oldest recognized account of Japan's legends and history. The Shintōshū 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 the Emperor of Japan, tennō (天皇), means "heavenly emperor".


Creation myth

In the Japanese creation myth, the first deities which came into existence are collectively called Kotoamatsukami, who appeared at the time of the creation of the universe.

Later, the seven generations of kami, which are known as Kamiyonanayo ("Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods"), emerged after the formation of heaven and earth.[1]

According to the Kojiki, these deities appeared after the emergence of Kotoamatsukami. The first two generations are single deities called hitorigami, while the five that followed came into being as male/female pairs of kami: brothers and sisters that were at the same time married couples. In total, Kamiyonanayo comprise 12 deities in this chronicle.[1]

In contrast, the chronicle, Nihon Shoki, points out that this group was the first to appear after the creation of the universe. It also states that the first three generations of deities are hitorigami and that the other generations of deities are pairs of the opposite sex. The Japanese also cited the works of "chinglea" the Rice god. every harvest she was praised for delivering rice to pesants.

Kuniumi and Kamiumi

Japan's creation narrative can be divided into the birth of the deities (Kamiumi) and the birth of the land (Kuniumi).

The seventh and last generation of Kamiyonanayo were Izanagi no Mikoto ("Exalted Male") and Izanami no Mikoto ("Exalted Female"),[2] and they would be responsible for the creation of the Japanese archipelago and would engender other deities.[3][4]

To help them to achieve this, Izanagi and Izanami were given a naginata decorated with jewels, named Ame-no-nuboko ("Heavenly Jeweled 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 halberd. Drops of salty water formed the island, Onogoro ("self-forming"). The deities descended from the bridge of heaven and made their home on the island. Eventually, they fell in love and wished to mate. So they built a pillar called Amenomihashira around which they built a palace called Yashirodono ("the hall whose area is 8 arms' length squared"). 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 proper, but they mated anyway. They had two children, Hiruko ("leech child") and Awashima ("pale island"), but the children were badly formed and are not considered gods in their original form. (Hiruko later became the Japanese god, Ebisu.)

The parents, who were dismayed at their misfortune, put the children into a boat and sent them to sea, and then petitioned the other gods for an answer about what they had done wrong. They were informed that Izanami's lack of manners was the reason for the defective births: a woman should never speak prior to a man; the male deity should have spoken first in greeting during the ceremony.[5] So Izanagi and Izanami went around the pillar again, and, this time when they met, Izanagi spoke first, and their union was successful.

Japan yashima.png

From their union were born the Ōyashima, or the eight great islands of Japan:

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

The divine couple bore eight more offspring, who later became the eight great islands of Japan.[5] Izanami, however, died giving birth to the child, Kagutsuchi (incarnation of fire) or Homusubi (causer of fire). She was then buried on Mt. Hiba, at the border of the old provinces of Izumo and Hoki, near modern-day Yasugi of Shimane Prefecture. In anger, Izanagi killed Kagutsuchi. His death also created dozens of deities.

The gods who were born from Izanagi and Izanami are symbolic of important aspects of nature and culture.[who?][citation needed]


Izanagi lamented the death of Izanami and undertook a journey to Yomi ("the shadowy land of the dead"). Izanagi found little difference between Yomi and the land above, except for the eternal darkness. However, this suffocating darkness was enough to make him ache for light and life. Quickly, he searched for Izanami and found her. At first, Izanagi could not see her for she was well hidden in the shadows. Nevertheless, he asked her to return with him. Izanami spat at Izanagi and informed him that he was too late. She had already eaten the food of the underworld and now belonged to the land of the dead.

Izanagi was shocked at this news, but he refused to give in to her wishes to be left to the dark embrace of Yomi. Izanami agreed to return to the world but first requested to have some time to rest. She instructed Izanagi to not come into her bedroom. After a long wait, Izanami did not come out of her bedroom, and Izanagi was worried. 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. The flesh of her ravaged body was rotting and was overrun with maggots and foul creatures.

Crying out loud, Izanagi could no longer control his fear and started to run, intending to return to the living and to abandon his death-ridden wife. Izanami woke up shrieking and indignant and chased after him. Izinami instructed the shikome, or foul women, hunt for the frightened Izanagi and to bring him back.

Izanagi, thinking quickly, hurled his headdress, which became a bunch of black grapes. The shikome fell on these but continued pursuit. Next, Izanagi threw 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 and created a great river that increased his lead. Unfortunately, the shikome still pursued Izanagi, who began to hurl peaches at them. He knew that this would not delay them for long, but he was nearly free, for the boundary of Yomi was now close at hand.

Izanagi burst through the entrance and quickly pushed a boulder to the entrance of Yomi. Izanami screamed from behind this barricade and told Izanagi that, if he left her, she would destroy 1,000 living people every day. He furiously replied that 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 sea

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 that 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,
  • Tsukuyomi (incarnation of the moon) from his right eye, and
  • Susanoo (incarnation of storms and ruler of the sea and storms) from his nose.

Izanagi went on to divide the world between them with Amaterasu inheriting the heavens, Tsukuyomi taking control of the night and moon and the storm god Susanoo owning the seas.[6] In some versions of the myth, Susanoo rules not only the seas but also all elements of a storm, including snow and hail, and, in rare cases, even sand.

Amaterasu and Susanoo

Amaterasu, the powerful sun goddess of Japan, is the most well known deity of Japanese mythology. Her feuding with Susanoo, her uncontrollable brother, however, is equally infamous and appears in several tales. One story tells about Susanoo's wicked behavior toward Izanagi, who, tired of Susanoo's repeated complaints, banishes him to Yomi. Susanoo grudgingly acquiesces, but has first to attend some unfinished business. He goes to Takamagahara ("heaven") to bid farewell to his sister, Amaterasu. Amaterasu knows that her unpredictable brother does not have good intentions and is prepared for battle. "For what purpose do you come here?" asks Amaterasu. "To say farewell," answers Susanoo.

But she does not believe him and requests a contest for proof of his good faith. A challenge is set as to who can bring forth more noble and divine children. Amaterasu creates three women from Susanoo's sword, while Susanoo makes five men from Amaterasu's ornament chain. Amaterasu claims the title to the five are attributed to Susanoo.

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

Both gods declare themselves to be victorious. Amaterasu's insistence in her claim drives Susanoo to violent campaigns that reach their climax when he hurls a half-flayed pony (an animal sacred to Amaterasu) into Amaterasu's weaving hall and causes the death of one of her attendants. Amaterasu, angered by the display, hides in the cave called Iwayado. As the sun goddess disappears into the cave, darkness covers the world.

All of the gods and goddesses strive to coax Amaterasu out of the cave, but she ignores them all. Finally, the kami of merriment, Ame-no-Uzume, hatches a plan. She places a large bronze mirror on a tree, facing Amaterasu's cave. Then, Uzume clothes herself in flowers and leaves, overturns a washtub and begins to dance upon it, drumming the tub with her feet. Finally, Uzume sheds the leaves and flowers and dances naked. All of the male gods roar with laughter, and Amaterasu becomes curious. When she peeks outside, a ray of light called "dawn" escapes and Amaterasu is dazzled by the beautiful goddess that she sees, this being her own reflection in the mirror. The god, Ameno-Tajikarawo, pulls her from the cave, which is sealed with a shimenawa. Surrounded by merriment, Amaterasu's depression disappears, and she agrees to return with her light. Uzume is then known as the kami of dawn as well as of mirth.

See also: Missing sun

Susanoo and Orochi

Susanoo, exiled from heaven, comes to Izumo Province (now part of Shimane Prefecture). It is not long before he meets an old man and an old woman sobbing beside their daughter. The old couple explain that they originally had eight daughters who were devoured, one after the other, by the dragon, Yamata no Orochi ("eight-forked serpent", who is said to originate from Kosi—now Hokuriku region). The terrible dragon had eight heads and eight tails, stretched over eight hills, and is said to have eyes as red as good wine.[7] Kushinada-hime ("rice paddy princess") was the last of the eight daughters.

Susanoo, who knew about the old couple's relation to Amaterasu, offers his assistance in return for their beautiful daughter's hand in marriage. The parents accept, and Susanoo transforms Kushinada into a comb and hides her safely in his hair.[8] He also orders a large fence-like barrier to be built around the house. The fence has eight gates, with eight tables placed at each gate and eight casks placed on each table. Each cask is filled with eight-times-brewed rice wine.

Orochi arrives and finds his path blocked. After boasting about his prowess, he finds that he cannot get through the barrier. His keen sense of smell takes in the sake—which Orochi loves—and the eight heads are now faced with a problem. They want to drink the delicious sake, yet the fence blocks access to the sake. One head suggests that they simply smash the barrier, but that would knock over the sake. Another proposed that they combine their fiery breath and burn the fence to ash, but then the sake would evaporate. The heads begin to search for an opening. They find the hatches, and, eager for the sake, they wish to poke their heads through to drink it. Yet, the eighth head, which is the wisest, warns his brethren about the folly of such an act and volunteers to go through first to ensure that all is well. Susanoo waits for his chance. He allows the head to drink some sake in safety and to report to the others that there is no danger. All eight heads plunge through the hatches and greedily drink every drop of the sake.

As the heads finish, Susanoo launches his attack on Orochi. Drunken from drinking so much sake, the great serpent is no match for the spry Susanoo who decapitates and slays Orochi. A nearby river is said to have turned red with the blood of the defeated serpent. As Susanoo cuts the dragon into pieces, he finds an excellent sword from a tail of the dragon that his sword had been unable to cut. The sword is later presented to Amaterasu and named Ama no Murakumo no Tsurugi (天叢雲剣, "Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven", which was later called Kusanagi, "Grass Mower"[9]). This sword was to feature prominently in many other tales.

Prince Ōnamuji

Ōnamuji (also known as Ōkuninushi) is a descendant of Susanoo. He, along with his many brothers, compete for the hand of Princess Yakami of Inaba. While travelling from Izumo to Inaba to court her, the brothers meet a skinned rabbit lying on a beach. They tell the rabbit to bathe in the sea and to dry in the wind near a high mountain. The rabbit complies and suffers in agony. Ōnamuji, who is lagging behind his brothers, sees the rabbit in pain and instructs it to bathe in fresh water and to cover itself with the powder of the "gama" ("cattail") flower. The cured rabbit, who is actually a deity, informs Ōnamuji that he can marry Princess Yakami.

The trials of Ōnamuji are many and he dies twice at the hands of his jealous brothers. Each time, he is saved by his mother, Kushinada-hime. Pursued by his enemies, he ventures into Susanoo's realm where he meets the vengeful god's daughter, Suseri-hime. The crafty Susanoo tests Ōnamuji several times, but, in the end, Susanoo approves the young boy and foretells Ōnamuji's victory over his brothers.

Although the Yamato tradition attributes the creation of the Japanese islands to Izanagi and Izanami, the Izumo tradition claims that Ōnamuji, along with a dwarf god called Sukunabiko, contribute to, or at least finish, the creation of the Japanese islands.

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 Amano-Iwato. The last was found in the Orochi, an eight-headed hydra. 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 Konohanasakuya-hime (symbol of flowers), the daughter of Yamatsumi (master of mountains), and they fell in love. Ninigi asked Yamatsumi for his daughter's hand. The father was delighted and offered both of his daughters, Iwanaga (symbol of rocks) and Sakuya (symbol of flowers). However, Ninigi married only Sakuya and refused Iwanaga.

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

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

Watatsumi soon found the fishhook in the throat of a bream and handed it to Howori. Watatsumi also gave him two magical balls, Shihomitsutama, which could cause a flood, and Shihohirutama, which could cause an 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 Itsuse and Yamatobiko.


First emperor

The first legendary emperor of Japan is Iwarebiko, posthumous alias Emperor Jimmu[10](Transition from God to Emperor).[11] He established the throne in 660 B.C. His pedigree is summarized as follows.

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

Conquest of the east (23–26)

Yamato Takeru (44–48)

Spelling of proper nouns

Many deities appear in Japanese mythology, and many of them have multiple aliases. Furthermore, some of their names are comparatively long. This article therefore lists only the most prominent names, and gives them in one of their abbreviated forms, 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. Other syllables are modernized as follows (see also Japanese romanization systems). Note that some blend of these conventions is also often used.

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


  Tengu are part-man-part-bird creatures that live in mountainous pine and cedar forests. They are believed to be descendants of Susano, the storm god. They live in colonies with a king tengu that is served by a messenger tengu. They usually have red feathers and wear black cloaks and/or caps. They are skilled swordsmen.
  Oni are giant devils that are pink, blue, red, or grey. They usually have horns, three eyes, three toes, and three fingers. Oni have the ability to fly, but tend not to in myths. They are unintelligent; they carry mallets or iron spiked rods, and sometimes wear a loincloth of tiger skin.
  Kappa are aquatic, vampire-like beasts that have monkey-like bodies, fish scales, a shell, and are yellow-green. They have indentations on the top of their heads that contain water. If this water is spilled, the kappa looses its power. Kappa are intelligent enough to make and keep promises.
  Hyosube are just a hair-covered variation of a kappa.
  Momotaro; peach child: Found inside a peach by a childless family. Grows to normal size by adulthood. Sets out to slay oni. Accompanied by a dog, pheasant, and monkey in exchange for rice cakes. Slays oni and returns stolen women.
  Issun Boshi; little one inch: Issun Boshi was born very small, but unlike Momotaro, he never grew. Traveled to Kyoto (old name for Tokyo)equipped with a needle for a sword. Enters the service of nobles. Went to Kwannon (of the thousand hands) shrine with noble's daughter, oni arrive. One eats Issun, Issun stabs oni's innards, oni drops its mallet and flees. Noble's daughter hits mallet on the ground, wishes Issun was normal size, Issun grows, they get married.
 Tametomo: Sunk an enemy ship with a single arrow.
  Animal Myths  
Tongue-cut sparrow: A washer woman cut off the tongue of a sparrow that was pecking at her rice starch. The sparrow had been fed regularly by the washer woman’s neighbors, so when the sparrow didn’t come, they went in the woods to search for it. They found it, and after a feast and some dancing (which the sparrow prepared), the   neighbors were given the choice between two boxes; one large and one small. The neighbors picked the small box, and it was filled with riches. The washer woman saw these riches and heard where they came from, so she went to the sparrow. She too was entertained and given the choice between two boxes. The washer woman picked the largest box and instead of gaining riches, she was devoured by devils.
Mandarin Ducks: A man kills a drake mandarin duck for food. That night he had a dream that a woman was accusing him of murdering her husband, and then told him to return to the lake. The man does this, and a female mandarin walks up to him and tears its chest open.
Badger and Rabbit: A man catches a badger and tells his wife to cook it in a stew. The badger begs the wife not to cook him and promises to help with the cooking if he is spared.  The wife agrees and unties him. The badger then transforms into her and kills her, then cooks her in a stew. Disguised as the man’s wife, the badger feeds him his wife. Once he is done, the badger transforms back to his original form and teases the man for eating his wife. A rabbit that was friends with the family was furious, so he had the badger carry sticks and, while he wasn’t looking, set these sticks on fire. Then the rabbit treated the burn with hot pepper paste. Finally the rabbit convinced the badger to build a boat of clay, and the rabbit followed in a sturdy boat. The clay boat began to sink, so the badger tried to escape, but then the rabbit hit him in the head with an oar, knocking him out and making him drown.
Badger and Fox cub: A badger, vixen, and the vixen’s cub lived in a forest that was running out of food, so they came up with the plan of one of them pretending to be dead, the other disguising as a merchant, and the “merchant” selling the “dead” animal to a human. Then they would have money to buy food. The vixen pretended to be dead while the badger was the merchant. While the transaction was happening however, the badger told the human that the vixen wasn’t actually dead, so the human killed her. This infuriated the cub, so he proposed a competition. They would both disguise as humans and go into the village at different times. Whoever guessed what “human” was the other first, wins. The cub walked towards the village first, but he hid behind a tree. The badger went into the village, and accused the governor of being the fox, so the bodyguards of the governor beheaded him. 

See also


  1. ^ a b Chamberlain 2008, p. 72
  2. ^ Yang, Jeff, Dina Gan and Terry Hong. Eastern Standard Time. p. 222. Metro East Publications, 1997.
  3. ^ Chamberlain 2008, p. 75
  4. ^ Chamberlain 2008, p. 77
  5. ^ a b Yang, 2005, p.222.
  6. ^ Kelsey, W. Michael (1983). "Untitled", Asian Folklore Studies Vol 42, No 1, p. 142–3.
  7. ^ Littleton, C. Scott, (May 1983). "Some Possible Arthurian Themes in Japanese Mythology and Folklore", Journal of Folklore Research. Vol 20, No 1, p.67–81.
  8. ^ Fairchild, William (1965). "Mika: Jar Deities in Japanese Mythology", Asian Folklore Studies. Vol. 24, No 1, p. 81–101.
  9. ^ Littleton, 1983, p. 72.
  10. ^ Fairchild, 1965, p. 94.
  11. ^ Metevelis, Peter (1983). "A Reference Guide to the Nihonshoki Myths", Asian Folklore Studies. Vol 52, No 2, p. 383–8.

Japanese Mythology: Library of the World's Myths and Legends, by Juliet Piggott

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