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Japanese Cosmology

Welcome to the wonderful world of Japanese Mythology

大和の宇宙誌
Yamato no Uchūshi
Japanese Cosmography

We’re gonna try something new this time. JapanThis! usually focuses on the etymology of Edo-Tōkyō place names, then uses that as an excuse to explore the history and culture of various neighborhoods in what I think is the greatest city in the world. However, from time to time, I like to deviate from the standard model to explore things like Tōkyō train lines, the graves of the shōguns, and — in one foolhardy attempt — the history of a handful of rivers in the capital.

What we’re going to do today is explore Japanese cosmography. And by that, I mean we are going back to 神世 kamiyo or kami no yo the Age of Gods[i]. After that, we will dip our toes into 現世 utsushiyo the Age of Man[ii]. In the following articles (coming soon!), we’ll explore the Japanese creation myths and the descent of the gods to the realm of humans. After that, we’ll witness the transfer of divine authority from the gods to the Yamato Clan which we know today as the imperial family.

Poetically, Japan is often referred to as 神国 shinkoku or kami no kuni the land of the kami. Fans of the 80’s TV mini-series event SHŌGUN[iii] may recall the phrase “the Land of the Gods.” Sure, Japan is a country of astounding beauty, but I’d like to turn to Japan’s native myths and legends to explore how pre-modern Japanese people thought of their origins and place in the universe.

A Quick Historical Background

The beginnings of religious practices and general history of very early Japan are pretty murky. Writing didn’t arrive until the 400’s, so we don’t have any records by the Japanese themselves until the 5th century at the earliest. That said, since 1000 BCE invaders from the Asian mainland had been living side by side with the aboriginal inhabitants of the islands. Archaeology has shown that these cultures merged and the original hunter-gatherers, who we call today 縄文人 Jōmonjin the Jōmon peoples, who were eventually absorbed into communities of the technologically advanced 弥生人 Yayoijin Yayoi populations. From about 300 to 538, a new culture emerged in what we call the Kofun Period where we see an emergent culture of  和人 Wajin the people of Wa[iv]. Supposedly, there were about 100 ancient kingdoms in the Land of Wa, but over time, power was consolidated under the most powerful 国 kuni kingdoms/provinces. The strongest authority was that controlled by the 大和朝廷 Yamato Chōtei Yamato Court (ie; the imperial court). If all of these dates and periodization seems confusing, you can refer to my cheat sheet for Japanese Eras (or just skip to the cosmography section below).

Okuninushi Sporting Kofun Period Fashion

Compilation of the Myths

In the 6th century, 仏教 Bukkyō Buddhism began to trickle into Japan and with it came a flurry of learning and innovative ideas from China. By the late 600’s, the Yamato Court began using a new Chinese term for the emperor (more about this later) and it seems they felt the need to collect all of the myths into a single text that would explain and legitimize the imperial family’s claim to authority. This was important because they weren’t just claiming political authority, but divine authority given to them by the gods themselves.

It’s about this time that the imperial clan began keeping written records of their mytho-history, as had the other powerful families that made up the court. As you can imagine with any group of oral traditions dating back to preliterate times, not all of the family records matched up. 天武天皇 Emperor Tenmu (reigned 673-686) wanted to collect all the legends, compare them, “correct” them where necessary, and compile an official history from the beginning of the universe until the current era. In the official succession, Tenmu is considered the 40th emperor, so there was quite a long period of history to cover[v]. The results of all this research were the two oldest surviving Japanese texts: 古事記 Kojiki the Records of Ancient Matters and 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki the Chronicles of Japan.

Further Reading:

The Land of the Gods

Japanese religion is often described as polytheistic and syncretic. Basically, there are an infinite number of 神 kami gods. When I say infinite, I’m not exaggerating. There are gods of fire, gods of making money, gods of love and relationships, etc. See a beautiful bend in the river? That’s probably a kami. Is there a stunning, snow-capped volcano?[vi] It must be a kami. Oh, look at that strange shaped crag jutting out of a cliff. Chances are that’s a kami, too. In fact, every person who dies becomes a kami. And any existing kami can 分霊される bunrei sareru be split and re-enshrined in an infinite number of places anywhere on the planet an infinite number of times. Infinity is a mind-blowing concept if you try to think about it too hard, but luckily, the Japanese have two handy poetic terms that go back to the earliest texts.

八百万の神
yaoyorozu no kami

the eight million kami
“eight million” shouldn’t be taken at face value. This is just a poetic term for myriad/countless.

神祇[vii]
jingi

all kami
if committing to “eight million” doesn’t work for you, maybe jingi is more your style[viii].

Japanese Cosmology

So, what did the universe look to Japanese people[ix] of the Kofun Period?

To the average peasant, it probably just looked like agricultural cycles peppered with bouts of luck or malady. For them, a spiritual realm existed and people visited sacred sites that were predecessors of what we now call 神社 jinja Shintō shrines to pray for harvests and health or to thank the gods such things.

However, to the elites of the Kofun Period, the universe’s spiritual realm was a bit more relevant. It described the trials and tribulations of their ancestors who lived in a fabled time, barely remembered by man. The peasants were fine just knowing bits and pieces of these fantastic stories of yore because they were more interested in praying for good harvests, healthy families, and keeping away ghosts, but the elite clans treasured these epic stories because they described the exploits of their divine ancestors. Also, if anyone questioned your family’s high position in society, you could cite your divine lineage and tell them to suck it.

These tales — some just-so-stories, others folklore, and yet others just veiled peaks into the politics of an era long-hidden since time immemorial, handed down by illiterate generation upon illiterate generation — described a universe populated by heavenly kami and earthly kami, humans and animals, ghosts and monsters. They attempted to explain the mysterious, the magical, the inexplicable, and everything and everyone’s place in the world.

Land of the Gods

Although these legends took place in a mysterious epoch long ago, the people of early Japan seemed to view their universe in a very peculiar way. It’s from those early texts, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, that we know how they understood the history of the universe. It’s clear that by the 7th century, the universe was generally understood to have consisted of two distinct ages: one is a mysterious and magical “land before time” and the other is the mundane world in which we all live and can only tell stories of ancient times.

Epoch NameTranslation
神代
Kamiyo
The Age of the Gods (Age of the Kami)
現世[x]
Utsushiyo
The Present Age[xi]
(The Age of the Mundane)[xii]


Now, in the Age of the Gods, the cosmos was physically divided into three distinct realms, each populated by different castes of magical beings. Notice the hierarchy. The heavens are purely divine. The earth is mostly mundane. And beneath the realm of man, is a polluted and meaningless world of death and decay, only accessible by dark, damp caves or death itself.

Basic Cosmography

高天原
Takama ga Hara[xiii]
Heavenly High Plain[xiv]
葦原中国
Ashihara no Naka tsu Kuni
Central Land of Reed Plains [xv]
黄泉国
Yomi tsu Kuni
[xvi]
Land of Yomi[xvii], Underworld;
Realm of Ghosts[xviii]; Hades[xix]
The Entrance to Yomi

Between the High Plain of Heaven and the Central Land of Reed Plains was a bridge that connected these worlds. In paintings, it looks like a bridge made of little, fluffy clouds. In the texts, it seems like there was only a single pathway, but other myths and local legends are either inconsistent with its location or there were multiple bridges that came to exist over time. The Land of Yomi, on the other hand, was accessible via certain caves or tombs built on the Central Land of Reed Plains[xx].

Access Points

黄泉比良坂
Yomi tsu Hirasaka
[xxi]
Heavenly Floating Bridge
黄泉比良坂
Yomi tsu Hirasaka
[xxi]
Wide Slope of Yomi

Each realm was populated by specific types of kami.

RealmJapanese NameInhabitants
Heavenly High Plain天津神
ama tsu kami
heavenly kami
Central Land of Reed Plains国津神
kuni tsu kami
earthly kami[xxii]
Land of YomiYomi tsu kami[xxiii]contaminated kami[xxiv]

Although some heavenly gods have famously interacted with the Central Land of Reed Plains and the Land of Yomi, for the most part, these deities “hide.” When a kami hides, they stop interacting with other gods and living creatures. An interesting example is the first batch of kami who pop into existence. Most of them are born and immediately hide – never to be mentioned again. Unlike Indo-European gods who are immortal, the Japanese kami can die – and quite a few are killed, actually[xxv]. The gods of Yomi are more mysterious. Since death is considered impure and spaces in which these beings reside or travel to are defiled, I think it’s fair to think of them as prisoners in the netherworld. If they escape to the Central Land of Reed Plains, they must be cast back down to the Land of Yomi for the benefit of mankind and the earthly kami. This restores the natural order.

A ghost…

Here I’d like to mention a few things that I think are very interesting about this cosmology. First, the Central Land of Reed Plains is also home to humans, animals, and plants, yet this is the only system that I know of which has no mythological explanation for the creation or existence of these lifeforms. They simply just exist. The early Wajin (proto-Japanese) only seem concerned with the stories of various kami and take for granted the mundane existence of non-divine lifeforms[xxvi]. Second, Shintō is famously obsessed with ritual cleanliness and purity – we’ll see this in the myths we explore in upcoming articles. It has no problem with the heavenly kami coming and going between the Plain of High Heaven and the Central Land of Reed Plains. It even allows for kami and humans coming and going between the Central Land of Reed Plains and the Land of Yomi[xxvii]. That said, any being relegated to the underworld must be kept locked out of the earth and the heavens. To this purpose, there is a sacred boulder blocking the exit of Yomi – itself a kami – called 道反の大神 Chigaeshi no Ōkami the Great God of the Way Back. In order to preserve natural harmony in the Land of Wa[xxviii] (ie; the Central Land of Reed Plains), no contaminated soul should be allowed to leave the Realm of Ghosts. Ancient texts suggest various locations for this so-called “gateway to hell,” but the most famous location is in former 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province which is modern-day 島根県 Shimane-ken Shimane Prefecture.

The Entrance to Yomi

Origins of the Myths

So where do we get this cosmology and these stories? The answer may feel a bit hollow to you. I mean, it does to me. The oldest tales probably evolved during the middle of the Yayoi Period and began to be consolidated during the Kofun Period[xxix]. Admittedly, I’m tempted to imagine the most ancient kami as mythicized representations of actual leaders who emigrated from the Asian mainland via the Korean Peninsula in the Yayoi Period to establish kingdoms in the Japanese archipelago. The names of kami and legendary places seem grandiose and childish at the same time, so it’s hard to tell where kernels of real history lurk beneath the acts described in this fantastic world of storytelling.

I mentioned earlier that in the 7th century, the Japanese began using a new title for the successive heads of the imperial family. Generally, the Yamato rulers were referred to as 大王 Ōkimi the Great King (ie; the king greater than all the other kings). From Emperor Tenmu’s time, the Chinese title 天皇 tennō[xxx] was used. The characters literally mean “heavenly emperor” but is often translated as “son of heaven.” By using this title, Tenmu and his successors were elevating themselves to the same position as the emperors of China – the equivalent of a non-Roman ruler calling himself Augustus or Caesar while emperors are still running the Roman Empire. This was a ballsy claim to say the least. I’m sure the Chinese courts were not amused[xxxi], but more important to the Yamato court was how this new title would be received at home. The word tennō implies rule by divine right, similar to European monarchs who ruled Deī grātiā by the grace of God. But the imperial family didn’t just rule at the leisure of the gods, they claimed divine descent. 天照大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami, the sun goddess herself, transferred her authority over the Central Land of Reed Plains directly to the first emperor, 神武大王 Jinmu Ōkimi[xxxii] (ie; the imperial bloodline was divine). This was the impetus for compiling and “correcting” these myths. The stories in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki legitimized the imperial family’s claim to authority[xxxiii].

A Kofun Period Grave, ie: a kofun.

Other Clans Also Benefitted

The imperial court was comprised of other important families that also ruled their ancestral lands by right of their divine ancestors in service of the Yamato clan. Some clans served political and ritual functions in the court and those positions were also legitimized by the myths presented in their family histories or even by the newly compiled official texts.

Without going into all the clans, here are three examples for comparison:

Clan

Divine Ancestor

Function

和氏
Yamato-uji

天照大神
Amaterasu Ōmikami

the sun goddess

imperial family

中臣氏
Nakatomi-uji

天児屋根命
Amenokoyane no Mikoto
a heavenly kami who assisted Amaterasu

a priestly clan in charge of the most important Shintō ritual on behalf of the court

斎部氏
Inbe-uji

布刀玉命
Futodama no Mikoto
a heavenly kami who assisted Amaterasu

a priestly clan in charge of the most important Shintō ritual on behalf of the court

So, that’s Japanese cosmography in nutshell. In the next few articles we’ll be exploring the Age of the Gods. This is the framework you must understand before trying to wrap your head around the mythical Age of Gods. I wish I could draw all the pictures I have in my head when thinking about these concepts, but I can’t. I suck at drawing. That said, if any of you are artistically inclined, I’d love to swap ideas, including maps to give readers a better visual representation. You can contact me via this page.

The next article is right around the corner.

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[i] From here on out, I’ll use Age of Gods, Age of Kami, and Divine Age interchangeably.
[ii] This term literally means “the present world,” but when discussing Japanese cosmography, it simply means “not the Age of the Gods.” By the way, Buddhism uses this same word with the Chinese reading gensei which also means “the present world” but has a connotation of transience and impermanence that the Japanese reading does not.
[iii] Or the novel by James Clavell which was the source material for the tv show.
[iv] This term is used by historians to designate this proto-Japanese culture. Here’s what Wiki says about the Land of Wa.
[v] The official list of emperors is actually bullshit. Well, the dates of many of the first emperors do not line up with what we know about Japanese history from the archaeological record.
[vi] I’m looking at you, Mt. Fuji.
[vii] By the way, for you Kyōto lovers out there, 祇 gi kami of the kingdom is the first character in 祇園 Gion, the area where 八坂神社 Yasaka Jinja Yasaka Shrine was founded. Today the area is famous for 芸子 geiko geisha of the Kyōto persuasion. The 八 ya eight is the same as the first character in 八百万の神 yaoyorozu no kami eight million kami.
[viii] Although outside of scholars and serious practitioners of Shintō, I believe this term is quite rare. I just wanted to point out the linguistic relationship.
[ix] Wajin. You remember that term, right? Because we just fucking talked about it…
[x] This is age is sometimes less imaginatively called 人代 Hitoyo the Age of Man.
[xi] This basically means all of human history that doesn’t have gods running around doing magic shit all over the place.
[xii] That’s my translation, thank you very much.
[xiii] Alternate, Takama no Hara.
[xiv] Forget choirs of angels, roads paved with gold, and St. Peter with his white beard checking the guestlist to see who’s been invited. This is merely the land of the heavenly kami who, literally, live high above the land. And yes, in paintings, they’re depicted as standing on clouds.
[xv] The name refers to the Land of Wa. It’s descriptive as this land lies between the heavens above and the underworld below.
[xvi] Alternate, Yomo tsu Kuni. The vowel sounds changed from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese, so before genitive つ tsu, 黄泉 yomi may have been read as /jömötsu/. This realm is sometimes referred to as 根国 Ne no Kuni (literally, Land of Roots), while sometimes the two are considered separate worlds.
[xvii] This is simply the world of the dead. It’s not hell. It’s not a world of demons torturing souls for eternity amid lakes of fire or anything like that. It was just a dark and contaminated decaying realm.
[xviii] My translation, thank you very much.
[xix] A shitty translation by the dude who first translated the Kojiki into English. Yomi is similar to Hades, but not the same in many ways.
[xx] While not stated specifically in the Kojiki or Nihon Shoki, it seems like there were multiple entrances to Yomi, but the Wide Slope led to a single magical exit that always returned you to the access point you used when you descended into the netherworld.
[xxi] Because of sound changes between Old Japanese and Modern Japanese, sometimes this is written Yomo tsu Hirasaka. The kanji 比良坂 hirasaka (separating from goodness hill) are ateji. They’re sometimes replaced with 平坂 hirasaka (wide hill).
[xxii] Literally, “kami of the kingdom/province.” These are the gods that became the tutelary deities/ancestors of various clan leaders and their kingdoms. Many of the minor earthly kami eventually became protectors of villages and local industries.
[xxiii] Again, due to sound changes between Old Japanese and Modern Japanese, sometimes this is rendered as Yomo tsu Kami.
[xxiv] The kami of Yomi come in all shapes and sizes. Everything from hags to ghosts to monsters, etc. Yomi is also populated by 魂 tama/tamashii spirits of the dead.
[xxv] Often in humorous or sometimes horrific ways lol
[xxvi] I don’t want to jump ahead, because we’ll get into this in a later article on Japanese mythology. However, my personal view is that these stories often seem like veiled recollections of Yayoi peoples invading the Japanese archipelago – which was already populated by the Jōmon peoples. The invaders ultimately took control of the lands, and I think, remembered their conquering ancestors as gods who came from heaven to subdue a land where humans, animals, and plants already existed. There was no need to describe the people who already lived here. They were just here. They were mundane and not descended from elite clans with heavenly (mainland) origins. Think about the heavenly bridge, too. Maybe the Yayoi people didn’t come down from heaven, but they most definitely made a perilous voyage across the sea to Japan.
[xxvii] Providing any visitor to Yomi ritually purifies themselves afterwards.
[xxviii] While the Land of Wa simply means Ancient Japan, the character 和 wa means “harmony.” To disturb someone’s wa means to bother someone, to disturb harmony. Keeping defilement out of the land of the living is the ultimate act of preserving harmony.
[xxix] There are scholars who think some ritual practices and myths originated from the native Jōmon people or may reflect a blending of Yayoi and Jōmon traditions.
[xxx] Another reading of 天皇 was sumeragi.
[xxxi] Although, to be honest, the Chinese used 天帝 tentei (tiān-dì in Chinese) so the Japanese were trying to pull a fast one here.
[xxxii] Today known as 神武天皇 Jinmu Tennō for consistency’s sake.
[xxxiii] Interestingly, the Kojiki was intended for a Japanese audience while the Nihon Shoki was intended for foreign audiences (ie; if any embassy arrived in Japan, they could show off how cool Japanese “history” was to the emissaries).

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13 replies on “Japanese Cosmology”

“In the 6th century, 仏教 Bukkyō Buddhism began to trickle into Japan and with it came a flurry of learning and innovative ideas from 宋朝 Sōchō China’s Song Dynasty.” I kind of remember that this period corresponded to Tang dynasty 唐朝, up until 900 something if I’m not wrong. Otherwise I pretty much enjoy the reading. Thank you.

You are most welcome. I’m far from being an expert but I remember hearing (and reading too) repeatedly here and there that the greatest Chinese influence on many aspects of Japanese culture come from Tang’s dynasty, often referred to as China’s golden age. You might want to cross-check that.

I’m gonna have to tweak the wording there. It’s actually kind of messy now that I’m looking at a chronological list of dates.

467 (Kofun Period) Buddhist monks arrive in Japan (Book of Liang)

552 (Asuka Period) “official” introduction of Buddhism to Japan (Nihon Shoki)

368-589 Northern and Southern Dynasties (467 would be the Northern Wei and Liu Song in the South). 552 would be Western Wei and Northern Qi in the North, Liang in the South.

Definitely not the Song, but way too complicated for this article (I know very little about Chinese history, too).

I’ve got the Tang listed as 618-907.

This is so complicated

552,

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