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Myth / Japanese Mythology

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Izanami and Izanagi.

Naturally, modern Japanese anime, manga, video games, etc. often make references to their country's mythology. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, historical records containing the first detailed accounts of Japanese folklore, act as the sources for many famous tales of heroes and legendary beasts. This, combined with the spiritual traditions of Shinto with its vast pantheon of gods and demons, plus Buddhist influences primarily from Chinese Mythology, creates an abundant mythos. Here are summaries of some of the most well-known stories.

Creation Myth

In the beginning, there was darkness, stars, and an endless ocean. Amongst the first gods born were two siblings named Izanagi-no-Mikoto (male) and Izanami-no-Mikoto (female). They came down from heaven and created the first land by stirring the ocean with a spear, and after that, they built a house, got married and made some babies. The first of these babies was the malformed fishing god. The next eight were the islands of Japan. They had many more children; however, Izanami died giving birth to the god of fire, Kagutsuchi, and was sent to the underworld. Izanagi missed his wife and travelled there to retrieve her, to which she agreed on the condition that her husband was not to look at her until they reached the surface. Of course, he looked anyway and saw that she was now a ghastly, rotting corpse. Izanagi freaked out and ran away, rolling a boulder in front of the entrance in order to escape Izanami's wrath. Izanami promised that she would kill 1,000 people every day in revenge. Izanagi countered that he would create 1,500 people every day. And that was the end of their marriage.

Compare and contrast Orpheus and Eurydice from Classical Mythology.

The Three Great Gods

Purifying himself after escaping the underworld, Izanagi stripped, and each piece of clothing became a god. Lastly, he washed his face in a stream, and from his left eye came Amaterasu-Ōmikami, goddess of the Sun and ruler of heaven; from his right eye came Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto, god of the Moon and ruler of the night; and from his nose came Susanoo-no-Mikoto, god of storms and ruler of the seas.

The volatile Susanoo didn't like his siblings or his job and grew ever more jealous, until one day Amaterasu tricked him into losing a bet. In retaliation, he skinned a pony and threw it at her while she was sewing, killing another goddess. So Amaterasu ran away and hid in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. No one could get her to come out, until Ame-no-Uzume, goddess of merriment, hatched a cunning plan. She hung a mirror and a necklace (the Yata no Kagami and the Yasakani no Magatama, respectively) on a tree outside the cave and danced around naked making lots of noise to get attention. When Amaterasu poked her head outside to see what the commotion was about, she was enchanted by her own reflection, allowing another god to pull her out of the cave and block the entrance. Thus, sunlight was restored, and all thanks to a striptease.

The slightly less volatile Tsukuyomi, meanwhile, got bored of perpetual darkness and decided to move in with Amaterasu (and in some versions marry her). Things were going well until he went to a banquet in his sister's honor, which was hosted by Uke Mochi, the goddess of food, who provided the feast by vomiting and/or defecating onto the table. Tsukuyomi was sickened and offended by this so he killed her. Amaterasu was so upset by this that she vowed never to look at Tsukuyomi again, running away whenever she saw him, which is why day and night are separate. Clearly, poor Amaterasu had to put up with a lot of abuse from her brothers.

The Serpent

Susanoo was kicked out of heaven for being a jerk, and sometime later went to a village where he met a crying family. They explained that a giant eight-headed serpent called Yamata no Orochi had eaten all their daughters but one. Susanoo agreed to slay Orochi in return for the last daughter, Kushinada-hime, as his wife. He killed the beast by laying out giant casks of saké for each head and cutting them off when they all became drunk. He found a sword in one of its tails that could cut anything and called it Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi ("Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven"). It was later named Kusanagi, which means "Grass Mower". Susanoo gave it to his sister as a sign of good faith, though he remained no less of a jerk.

The three sacred artifacts in the above myths, the mirror, the necklace, and the sword, are known as the Japanese Imperial Regalia, symbols of the divinity of the Emperor. They represent wisdom, benevolence, and valor, respectively. They are said to have been brought to Japan by Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu and an ancient ancestor of the Imperial Family.

See also Youkai.

Works that constitute Japanese mythology:

Works that include elements of Japanese mythology:


Live-Action TV

Video Games

Japanese mythology provides examples of:

  • Abstract Eater: The baku in Japanese folklore eat dreams.
  • The Almighty Dollar: Over the centuries, Japan accumulated many examples of wealth deities:
    • Benzaiten is a goddess of financial fortune, talent, beauty, and music, adopted from Buddhism. She's the only female in Japan's Seven Lucky Gods.
    • Bishamonten is another of Japan's Seven Lucky Gods, and the guardian of Heaven's treasure house and known to share treasure (in a good way). Bishamonten is also Japan's version of one of China's Four Heavenly Kings. Bishamonten fits the mold of protector of the North, whose color is green or yellow, and the chief god of the four.
    • Inverted with Binbogami, a household god of poverty and misery in Japanese folklore.
    • Daikokuten was a god associated with wealth and prosperity who inspired a fun custom, "theft of fortune" where divine images are stolen.
    • Ebisu had a lot of domains including fishing, fishermen, luck, wealth, and business/commerce.
    • Mahakala is a deity of household wealth in Japan, particularly related to food and the kitchen. Mahakala is a major god and widespread in other cultures such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, but not related to wealth in other cultures.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Amaterasu has a notable interest in the female form in most versions of the myth, either her own or Ame-no-Uzume's, she also marries her brother Tsukuyomi in some versions.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: As due to translation errors in the past, the closest English word for Kami is actually "spirit", but are often mistaken as gods due to Western people trying to understand Shinto religion. Likewise everything has a kami in Shinto, from puddles, to stones, and even swords.
  • Asian Fox Spirit: Adapted from the Chinese hulijing, kitsune are supernatural foxes with up to nine tails, and come in multiple varieties — with wicked fox-spirits causing chaos and benevolent fox-spirits serving the kami Inari.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Okuninushi is a Nice Guy until Emperor Suujin's reign, when he causes a plague and demands a new temple to end it. Doing so stops the plague, but then makes the next emperor's son dumb, requiring the emperor to build another temple to him.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Uzume is often depicted as being very cute and chubby. Even the leaner versions tend to have a softer look than the other main goddesses.
  • Boyfriend-Blocking Dad: Susanoo tried to kill Okuninushi, who fell in love with his daughter, three times. He approved Okuninushi afterward, though.
  • Cain and Abel: Okuninushi has eighty cruel brothers who kill him twice. When his mother revives him for a second time, she has Okuninushi hide in the underworld where he meets Susanoo and Suserihime. After the incident, Susanoo gives Okuninushi his Totsuka no Tsurugi and tells him to defeat his brothers and become ruler of Izumo.
    • The conflicts between Amaterasu, Susanoo, and Tsukuyomi deserve special mention.
  • Continuity Snarl: Was Amaterasu conceived by Izanagi and Izanami while the latter was still alive? Or was Amaterasu the byproduct of Izanagi washing himself of the filth from Yomi? The Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki both say different things. And say nothing of the myth where she sends her grandson to rule over the world...
  • Couple Theme Naming: The creator of the world and the progenitor of many of the Japanese deities are named Izanagi and Izanami.
  • Cool Sword: Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi AKA Kusanagi, the sword Susanoo takes from one of Orochi's tails. Also Totsuka-no-Tsurugi, which Susanoo used to slay Orochi and later give it to Okuninushi.
  • Creepy Centipedes: During one of Okuninushi's trials to win Suseri-hime, he has to clean Susanoo's hair... which appears full of roaches, centipedes and spiders.
  • Crossover Cosmology: As the Chinese version of Buddhism was imported into Japan and syncretized with Shinto, many deities and demons from Chinese Mythology were adapted as well.
  • Cue the Sun: When Amaterasu hid in a cave the world was plunged into darkness, thus getting her out of the cave caused this.
  • Death by Childbirth: Izanami, who dies giving birth to Kagusutchi. She does not die of typical childbirth hazards, instead she dies because she gave birth to the god of fire. Ouch.
  • Dem Bones: The Gashadokuro, a super-sized skeleton created from collecting the skeletons of people who have died of starvation. It is known to bite the heads off humans it encounters and to be forewarned by a ringing in the ears. They often grow up to 15 times larger than a man.
  • Diabolus ex Nihilo: To this day, no one knows how Orochi came into existence. It just appeared, terrorized the earthly deities, got killed by Susanoo, and that's it.
  • Dismembering the Body: Izanagi kills the fire god Kagutsuchi in a fit of rage after his birth leads to Izanami's fiery death, cutting him into eight pieces that become new gods.
  • Distracted by My Own Sexy: When Susanoo tried to commit Grievous Harm with a Body on Amateratsu by throwing the body of one of her maidens at her, she fled and hid in a cave. Ame-no-Uzume got her back out by dancing naked for the other gods and by leaving a mirror in a nearby tree. When Amateratsu emerged to find out what all the noise was about, the combination distracted her long enough for the mouth of the cave to be barred with a magical rope.
  • Divine Incest:
    • Izanagi and Izanami are siblings who have many children together before Izanami's death.
    • In some myths, Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi are spouses as well as siblings.
    • Okuninushi, a distant descendant of Susanoo, marries Suseri-hime, the daughter of Susanoo. Literally eight million kami to choose from and the guy thinks "Better marry my great great great great great great aunt". And all of this when he already has a wife.
  • Divine Parentage: The Japanese Imperial Family claims lineage from Amaterasu herself.
  • Dragon Ancestry: Emperor Jimmu, the mythical first Emperor of Japan, was the grandson of Oto-hime, the daughter of the dragon god of the sea Ryujin.
  • Dragons Are Demonic: Orochi, the eight-headed serpent/dragon slain by Susanoo, the god of thunderstorms, and a being powerful enough to frighten the earthly gods of the area into doing nothing as he eats their daughters.
  • Dragons Are Divine: The god of storms Ryujin, who is depicted as a great dragon. His daughter Oto-hime is considered one of the grandmothers of Emperor Jimmu, the mythical first Emperor of Japan.
  • Fertility God: Inari is the god of agriculture, fertility, rice, tea and sake. They (Inari is alternately presented as male, female, and ambiguous) are one of the most important and celebrated of the Shinto mythos, often considered a guardian and protector for mortals. They are also highly associated with foxes, with all foxes considered Inari's messengers.
  • Fidelity Test: When Konohanasakuya got pregnant just one night after marriage to Ninigi. Ninigi suspected that it might not be his child. Konohana was enraged at Ninigi's accusation and entered a doorless hut which she then set fire to. She vowed that the child would not be hurt if it were truly the offspring of Ninigi. She, along with the three sons she gave birth to, emerged unscathed.
  • Gender Bender:
    • There are some tales featuring Amaterasu as a man.
    • O-Inari can take the form of either a wise old man or an attractive young woman.
    • Tsukuyomi has also been depicted as a goddess.
  • God of the Dead: Izanami was one of the original two deities in creation, alongside her male partner Izanagi. She perished in childbirth, however, and went to Yomi, the underworld of the dead, where she became a rotting corpse riddled with maggots. She vowed to Izanagi that, in punishment for leaving her there, she would claim a thousand living people every day, explaining why people died. Izanagi replied that he would have a thousand and five hundred be born every day in reply.
  • God of Fire:
    • Kagu-Tsuchi is a Japanese fire god who burned his mother Izanami to death at the moment he was born. In his grief, his father Izanagi beheaded Kagu-Tsuchi, cut his body into 8 pieces, and cast them down to the earth where they became volcanos.
    • Kojin is the kami of fire and the kitchen.
    • Konohanasakuya-hime is the goddess of Mount Fuji, the highest peak in all of Japan. She is also considered to be a goddess of earthly life since her symbol is the sakura, a Japanese flower that is said to represent birth.
  • God of Good: Amaterasu usually holds this position, that there are absolutely no negative or jerky portrayals of her in anything, she's either representing all goodness or portrayed as the sympathetic side. Susanoo, Tsukuyomi or Izanami (and sometimes even Izanagi) usually get portrayed as the bad/flawed side.
  • God in Human Form: Susanoo, after he gets kicked out of Heaven.
  • God of Light:
    • Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun and one of the highest Shinto gods; the only gods to approach her status are her siblings, the moon god/goddess Tsukuyomi, and the storm god Susanoo. She is usually depicted with a halo of sun rays streaming from behind her and is considered to be the ancestor of the emperors of Japan.
    • Ame-no-Uzume, the goddess of dawn. She is often portrayed as a servant, handmaiden or retainer of Amaterasu; the "Ame-no" portion of her name denotes this position.
  • Healer God:
    • Okuninushi is the god of nation-building, farming, business, and medicine.
    • Yakushi Nyorai is a Buddha known for healing and medicine.
  • Heaven Above: The celestial planes where the primordial divinities lived were the first things in existence. They were also the lightest so when the denser earthly world came into being, they settled above all others.
  • Heroic Seductress: Ame-no-Uzume. She uses her womanly assets to get a lot of things she wants, but she's not evil or malicious about it, and she even snagged her husband this way. She also basically saved Japan by using her womanly assets to lure Amaterasu out of her hiding place (technically making ruckus using her womanly assets that Amaterasu got curious and took a peek), enabling others to pull her out and restoring sunlight to Japan.
  • An Ice Person: The Yuki-Onna is often an extremely pale woman who lived within snow storms. She tends to guide travelers to either their frozen deaths or to safety, if she so wishes to.
  • I Have Many Names: Many kami have a few names to their fame, but one stands out: Oonamuji, who was later bestowed the more recognized name Okuninushi by Susanoo, also known by his Buddhist name, Daikokuten, the Japanese name for Mahaakaala, the most powerful identity of Shiva. His nigi-mitama was also known as Omononushi which, once it was enshrined on Mt. Miwa, became known as Miwa Daimyoujin. Later on, Omononushi would become reincarnated as Hata no Kawakatsu, who would become deified as Matarajin, a.k.a. Okina, Shukujin, Koujin, Yashajin, Sanmen Daikoku, Dakiniten/Inari, Shouten, Benzaiten, Ugajin, Ena-Tenjin/Ena-Koujin, Kishimojin and Shinra Myoujin among other names.
  • Immortal Immaturity: Susanoo basically spends most of the time acting like a drunken college frat boy with cosmic power.
  • Incendiary Exponent: Kagutsuchi is wreathed in flames when he is born, causing his mother's death.
  • Innocent Flower Girl: Konohanasakuya, princess of blossom and wife of Ninigi.
  • Jerkass Gods: Susanoo had quite the bad temper and was always giving everyone a bad time, prior to his exile - which means unlike most examples he actually gets punished for being such.
    • Also, Raijin and Fuujin, the gods of thunder and wind.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Susanoo after his exile caused him to mature. He slew the serpent Orochi, made peace with his sister, and protected humanity from a plague. He is still a storm god and prone to tearing up the countryside with his mischievous and impulsive nature.
  • The Journey Through Death: in most versions of the otherworld, people who die have to cross the gloomy and misty lands of Yomi, the Netherworld, in order to cross the Sanzu-no-Kawa (the local equivalent of River Styx or Acheron) and enter the tribunal of King Enma to face the judgdement. Depending on how good/evil you've been in life, the journey across Yomi can either be fast and uneventful or long and perilous, with monstrous Shikome and birds of prey harassing you as you make your way in. Only by reaching Enma's tribunal your soul get a chance to reincarnate and move on, one way or the other.
  • Light Is Good: Amaterasu. Then again, her brother, Tsukuyomi belongs in the other ballpark.
  • Light Is Not Good: Tsukuyomi killed Uke Mochi after she provided him and Amaterasu a banquet from her nether regions. (In some versions it was Susanoo who did this, which makes more sense.)
  • Legions of Hell: The monsters chasing after Izanagi.
  • Lord of the Ocean: The dragon Ryujin was the god of the sea. He lived in a palace under the ocean and, depending on the legend, has played both heroic and villainous roles, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the sea.
  • Making a Splash: Ryuujin, the Dragon God of the Ocean, who owns the jewels of the tides. Another memorable example is when Izanagi, in order to escape the hordes of Hell, pee against a tree, creating a giant river that stops the monsters.
  • Meaningful Name: Amaterasu (Shining Heaven), Ryuujin (Dragon God), Okuninushi (Master of the Great Country) just to name a few.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Ame-no-Uzume performed a strip dance to lure Amaterasu from her hiding. Later, when Ninigi no Mikoto was prevented from going to the Earth by the god of pathways Sarutahiko, Uzume convinced him to let Ninigi pass by... taking off her robe. Sarutahiko was so impressed by her boldness (also a few other things...) that he proposed marriage to Uzume, which she agreed to.
  • Naked People Are Funny: When Uzume danced about naked on an upturned tub while Amaterasu was hiding in a cave what got her interest was the other Gods laughing at the sight.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: Averted with Oto-hime: after giving birth to her mortal son, she turned into a Wani (alligator) nine fathoms long and crawled back into the ocean, never to be seen again.
  • Night and Day Duo: Siblings Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi are the solar and lunar deities, respectively. One legend goes that, after Tsukuyomi killed the goddess of food, Amaterasu was so offended by his violent act she demanded she never see him again. Thus, the sun and the moon rose separately.
  • Noble Wolf: Amaterasu is sometimes depicted as a white wolf. While Light Is Good in this case, white is generally associated with death.
  • Offing the Offspring: Izanagi killed Kagutsuchi in fury of losing Izanami.
  • Overly Long Name: Ame-nigishi-kuni-nigishi-amatsuhi-kohiko-ho-no-ninigi-no-Mikoto, better known as Ninigi-no-Mikoto or simply Ninigi.
    • His father, Masaka-Akatsu-Kachihayahi-Ame-no-Oshihomimi-no-Mikoto, is not any better. Again, he's better known as Ame-no-Oshihomimi-no-Mikoto or simply as Oshihomimi.
    • Basically ALL the gods have ridiculously long names. The ones used frequently are nearly always dramatically shortened.
  • Orochi: The Real deal. Said to be so long and large that he had forests on his back, inhabited by animals.
  • Power of the Void: The Amatsu-Mikaboshi, kami of the Primordial Chaos and the stars.
  • Primordial Chaos: The "primordial chaos" from which the Gods came (and created the Heavenly Plains and later Earth) is described as dark, cold and jelly-like. The Star God Amatsu Mikaboshi is usually associated with the pre-Earth chaos.
  • Rash Promise: There's a story that goes like this: A man nearly freezes to death in a blizzard, only to be saved by a winter animal. It only asks in return that the man swear an oath to never tell anyone what has transpired here. The man agrees and keeps this oath until after he has fallen in love and gotten married. He experiences a blizzard nearly identical to the first time and he is so spooked he can't tell but tell his wife about his first experience. As soon as he finishes gelling the story is wife backs away and wails, "you PROMISED not to TELL ANYONE! YOU PROMISED!" and transforms into the very animal that rescued him so long ago. Not only does she leave him, weeping, she freezes him to death on the way out.
  • Residual Evil Entity:
    • In Shinto creation myth, the god Izanagi returned from the underworld after a failed attempt to rescue his deceased wife Izanami and cleansed himself. The gods born from this, Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi and Susanoo were not evil per se, but are decidedly three of the most powerful and influential in all of Shinto belief.
    • In general, physical and spirtual impurities are called "kegare". In Shinto doctrine, they must be washed and/or purified through specific rituals called misogi and harae. There are also many Japanese Yōkai, or spirits, which are cast-offs or byproduct of other oddities which may not have been dealt with properly or at all.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Amaterasu and Susanoo. He threw a skinned pony at her. They seem to have gotten over it after Susanoo gave her the Kusanagi sword.
  • Solitary Sorceress: The mountain hag Yama-Uba lives in the remote mountains and eats people.
  • Thunder Drum: One of oldest examples with the local thunder god Raijin, who pounds on the ring of drums on his back to create thunder and lightning.
  • Toilet Humour: Japanese mythology is particularly notable for how frequently scatological it is. Susanoo gets thrown out of heaven for defecating in a temple; Izanagi stops when running away from the Legions of Hell to urinate (and creates another kami that way), and that's not even mentioning some versions of the story of Momotaro feature a cowpat kami.
  • Unscrupulous Hero: Susanoo is a Jerkass, cheater and Spoiled Brat, but he's the god to call when an eight-headed dragon is eating your daughters. He does seem to grow up during his exile, later gifting a sword to Amaterasu.
  • Visible to Believers: In Shinto mythology, the kami are Anthropomorphic Personifications of natural phenomena, objects, or concepts that reside in an "invisible world" outside of human perception, but that is still part of the real world. In order to see them, the first step is to already believe they're there, but that's not the only requirement. Only the Pure of Heart will be able to fully see and interact with them.
  • War God: At least two: Hachiman and Bishamonten.
    • Hachiman was originally Emperor Ōjin who was deified after his death. During the Kamakura period, he became widely worshipped among samurai due to the Minamoto shoguns considering him their ancestor and patron kami.
    • Bishamonten is the Japanese form of Vaiśravaṇa, a Buddhist guardian deity associated with warriors and wealth.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Susanoo changes the peasant's last daughter into a comb and hides her in his hair before he goes to face Orochi... and she is never mentioned again. Some stories tell that he marries Kushinada as promised by her parents after defeating Orochi, but she's generally forgotten after they had Yashimashinumo, Okuninushi's ancestor.
  • Womanliness as Pathos: The traditional Japanese creation myth states that when the first woman, Izanami, dies from giving birth to fire (literally), her husband Izanagi tries to go down to the underworld to retrieve her. Unfortunately, he gets freaked out when he sees her as a half-rotted corpse, and so Izanami lays a curse that will cause 1,000 humans to die every year. Luckily, Izanagi counters by promising that 1,500 humans will be 'born' every year.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Izanami no Mikoto dies horribly by being burned alive by her own son, and when her husband comes to retrieve her to the world of the living, he flees simply because she is undead. No wonder she gets pissed.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman:
    • Amaterasu is the most beautiful goddess.
    • Konohanasakuya is the most beautiful woman of her generation.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Okuninushi was younger than all his brothers, as well as the one who succeeded in winning the hand of the princess of the Inaba province and became the king of the terrestrial world. This may be a remnant of ancient Japanese succession rules, which were based on ultimogeniture (youngest child inherits) rather than primogeniture (eldest child inherits).