Japanese Mythology (日本神話)

Japanese mythology is a collection of myths that have been passed down in Japan.

Most of the lore currently known as Japanese mythology is based on the descriptions that appear in "The Kojiki" (Records of Ancient Matters), "Nihon Shoki" (Chronicles of Japan) and "Fudoki" (Ancient records of culture and the land) from various provinces. The myths mainly feature the gods of Takamanohara (Plain of High Heaven) but there are not many original references.

In general, it is considered that various parts of Japan have beliefs and lore of some kind that have been passed down in their respective forms, with Izumo as the representative of such lore.
However, it is considered that they were altered to fit the form of Kunitsu kami (gods of the lands) or Matsurowanu kami (gods that do not obey) with the spread of Yamato sovereignty, and they were finally integrated into 'Takamanohara Mythology.'
However, among the Ainu and the people of Ryukyu, who were not under the control of central Japanese authority such as the Yamato sovereignty until later periods, their own unique myths exist.

During the Middle Ages, the so-called Medieval Mythology (Chusei Nihongi) developed, including military epics such as "Taiheiki" (The Record of the Great Peace), Kagakusho (books on the study of waka poems) and commentaries on them, as well as the origins of temples and shrines, which were based on "Nihon Shoki" (Chronicles of Japan) yet differ greatly in content. In medieval mythology, some of the gods in Kiki (The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki) are identified as or treated as equals to the deities in Buddhism based on the theory of Honjisuijyaku (gods are a manifestation of Buddha). It often contains divinities and items not seen in Kiki, and elements from regional myths and folklores and entertainment may be mixed into it. Unlike the myths in Kiki, legitimate references never existed, and therefore, rich variations exist. Medieval myths are currently being studied in the field of Japanese literature, but rarely are they studied in the research field of mythology.

In the early modern age, with an aim to interpret the Kojiki in detail, Norinaga MOTOORI from Ise Province wrote his masterpiece, "Kojikiden" (Commentaries on the Kojiki), and the "Nihon Shoki"-dominated mythology changed to "The Kojiki"-dominated mythology, and the trend continues to this day.

Furthermore, although small in number, myths unique to Japan can be seen in the preachings of Christianity as well as in the non-traditional religions of the end of the Edo period.

With the above in mind, this article will include an explanation of Japanese mythology with a focus on 'Takamanohara Mythology' (Kiki mythology) mentioned in "The Kojiki" and "Nihon Shoki."

The main gods that appear in 'Takamanohara Mythology' are described as the ancestors of Yamato sovereigns, and consequently, of the present-day Imperial Family. It is inferred that this was done so to divert the reverence toward the native gods of the local regions to that toward the Emperor in order to facilitate tax collection in the form of presenting of the first rice harvest, and therefore, depending on the specific period, alterations and interpretations convenient to the authority at the time were added to the mythology. For example, it has been pointed out that there is a possibility that the editing of Kiki itself was influenced by the Court of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito, and that arbitrary opinions of the Imperial Court and the Fujiwara clan may have been included. Since the Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals, it is considered that this was used by the government authority as propaganda for advertising the legitimacy of the government to the people in post-Meiji and pre-Pacific War Japan (Kokoku Shikan (emperor-centered historiography based on Shintoism)).

Currently, research in mythology focuses mainly on archeological and ethnological approach, such as the environment and customs. Anecdotes that are considered to form the origins of Japanese mythology, and myths that share common features with Japanese mythology can be found in Greek mythology as well as in mythologies of many other countries. It serves as historical reference material in understanding the political power balance among the provinces between the Tumulus period and the Nara period in Japan.

With that in mind, 'Takamanohara Mythology' will be mentioned here merely as myth, or alternatively, from the view point of archeology and ethnology.


In this article, only the outline of Japanese mythology is presented, and details of each myth should be found elsewhere.

The beginning of the world

Gods called Kotoamatsu kami (Separate Heavenly Gods) and Kaminoyonanayo (Seven Generations of the Gods' World, The Primordial Seven) were born in Takamanohara (Plain of High Heaven) at the beginning of the world. The last of these gods born were Izanagi and Izanami.

Izanagi and Izanami

Izanagi and Izanami descended on Ashihara no nakatsukuni (Central Land of Reed Plains, which refers to the human world), married each other and created one island after another that formed the Japanese Islands known as Oyashima. Furthermore, they created various gods, but when Izanami gave birth to fire god, Kagutsuchi, her genitals got burnt, and because of that she became ill and died, and she was buried at Mt. Hiba (present-day Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture) located at the border between Izumo and Hoki. Izanagi killed Kagutsuchi and he set off to the underworld to look for Izanami. However, in the underworld, Izanami was already dead and had changed beyond recognition. Izanagi became scared and fled. Izanagi despised the impurity of the underworld and cleansed himself. Various gods were also born on this occasion. God that was born when he cleansed his left eye was Amaterasu Omikami (the sun goddess, rules Takamanohara), when he washed the right eye Tsukuyomi (the moon goddess, rules the night) was created, and when he washed his nose Susanoo (rules the sea) was created, and these gods are collectively called Mihashira no uzuno miko (The Three Noble Children), and they were ordered to rule the world by Izanagi.

Amaterasu and Susanoo

Susanoo wailed because he wanted to go to the underworld where Izanami was, and he caused extensive damage to heaven and earth. Then, he went up to Takamanohara ruled by Amaterasu. Amaterasu thought Susanoo came to take over Takamanohara, so she greeted Susanoo with her bow and arrow ready. In order to disprove Amaterasu's suspicion, Amaterasu and Susanoo created gods with what each other was wearing, and the gender of the gods proved Susanoo's innocence. Amaterasu forgave Susanoo, but because Susanoo showed violent behavior in Takamanohara, Amaterasu hid herself in Amano iwado (Cave of Heaven). Because Amaterasu, sun goddess, hid herself the sun did not rise anymore, and this became a problem for the gods. They came up with a plan and got Amaterasu out of Amano iwado. Susanoo was expelled to the lower world.

Izumo Mythology

Susanoo descended in Izumo Province. He then slew Yamatano orochi (eight-headed and eight-tailed giant snake), a monster, and married Kushinadahime. Susanoo's descendant, Okuninushi, married Suseribime and began to create Ashihara no Nakatsukuni with Sukunabikona.

Even though these stories are called Izumo Mythology they are not included in "Izumo no kuni fudoki" (Ancient records of culture and the land of Izumo Province). However, similar names of the gods appear in it.

Unifying of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni

Gods of Takamanohara (Amatsu kami), such as Amaterasu, asserted that Amatsu kami, especially Amaterasu's descendants, should rule Ashihara no Nakatsukuni. Therefore, she sent several gods to Izumo. When Okuninushi's son, Kotoshiro nushi Takeminakata, descended on Amatsu kami, Okuninushi also promised to Amatsu kami that he would hand over the country in exchange for a palace built for himself. This palace later became Izumo-taisha Shrine.

Amaterasu's grandson, Ninigi, unified Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, and descended in Hyuga Province. Ninigi married Konohana no Sakuyabime.

Yamasachihiko and Umisachihiko

Ninigi's children, Hoderi and Hoori, had a fight over Yamasachihiko losing Umisachihiko's fishing hook. Yamasachihiko went to the palace of the god of the sea, found the fishing hook and returned it. Yamasachihiko married the daughter of the god of the sea and had a child named Ugayafukiaezu. Ugayafukiaezu's child was Kamuyamato iwarehiko (or Kanyamato Iwarehiko. He later became Emperor Jinmu).

Emperor Jinmu

Kamuyamato iwarehiko schemed with his older brothers to rule Yamato. The former inhabitants of Yamato defied him and Kamuyamato iwarehiko struggled in his fight, but they were no match for Kamuyamato iwarehiko, who was a descendant of the sun goddess. Kamuyamato iwarehiko was enthroned at the foot of the mountain at Unebi no kashihara no miya. This was the very first emperor, Emperor Jinmu.

After Emperor Jinmu died Tagishimimi, a son of Emperor Jinmu when he lived in Hyuga, started an uprising. Emperor Suizei defeated him and succeeded to the throne.

Kesshi Hachidai (The Eight Undocumented Sovereigns)

Kamununakawamimi became Emperor Suizei, but there are no records of the 8 emperors after Emperor Suizei.

Research in Mythology
Until the Edo period, "Nihon Shoki" was highly valued because it contained the official history edited by the government, but "The Kojiki" was not. With the development of studies on Japanese classical literature, such as Norinaga MOTOORI's "Kojikiden,"since the mid-Edo period, "The Kojiki,"became more highly regarded because it is older than "Nihon Shoki," and written not only in classical Chinese character text but also with Japanese words.

After the Meiji period, descriptions in Japanese mythology were considered as the divine truth due to Kokoku shikan, and the study of mythology regressed even further. During the Taisho period, Sokichi TSUDA published "Shindaishi no atarashii kenkyu" (New Research in the History of the Divine Age) and other works, in which he criticized the Japanese mythology from scientific view point, and concluded that Shindaiki (Records of the Age of the Gods) was a creation with a political intent. He was oppressed by being charged for defamation against royalty before the Second World War, but he drew attention after the war, and TSUDA's theory became the center of the study of Japanese mythology for a while. Nowadays, the fine details of the Tsuda theory are not always considered to be correct, but the approach that views Japanese mythology as a reflection of historical facts from the Yayoi to the Tumulus periods without archeological proof, is basically avoided.

Even though an extensive amount of intentional alterations and fictions were added, the main approach in the modern day is to observe the cultural background, and bring focus to these ancient people who viewed the world in this fashio.

Comparative Mythology

Among Japanese mythology, there exist many myths that are noted for being similar to other mythologies.

It is said that many similarities can be seen in Greek mythology, such as Orpheus going to the underworld just as Izanagi went to the underworld, and plants and flowers withering when Demeter and Amaterasu hid themselves (god of death and regeneration).

Apollo's raven, yatagarasu (large, Japanese mythological crow) and Chinese kinu (crow) are all servants of sun gods, and similarities have been pointed out such as the birds being originally white in color, and constellation Corvus (crow) is depicted with 3 legs in some star charts (according to one view the pattern of the sun spots is said to be the origin of the three-legged crow).

There is a theory that states that there is a similarity between the legend of Alexander the Great and Emperor Jinmu's expedition.

Izanami and Izanagi were siblings, but myths that have the first man and the first woman, who are the ancestors of human beings, as siblings can be found widely from South Asia to Polynesia.

Izanami was 'the first mortal to die' and she became 'the goddess that rules the underworld,' but stories in which 'the first mortal to die' becomes 'the god who rules the underworld' can be seen in Osiris of Ancient Egypt and in Yama of India.

As an example of a story similar to that of how Amaterasu (sun) was born when Izanagi washed his left eye and how Tsukiyomi (moon) was born when he washed his right eye at a purification ritual in Tsukushi, Hyuga after he came back from the underworld, there is a story in Chinese mythology, in which the left eye became the sun and the right eye became the moon from Creator Pangu's corpse.

There is a story of a white rabbit of Inaba, who tricked sharks and used them in order to get across the sea, and there are folktales in southern islands whose contents are similar but with different animals.