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The Japanese Creation Myth Explained

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on June 22, 2020 at 11:02 am

天地開闢神話の説明
Tenchi Kaibyaku Shinwa no Setsumei

Explanation of the Creation Myth

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

This article is not a standalone affair. It’s the companion piece to my article on the Japanese Creation Myth. Please read that first, then refer to this one. Also, this article is more than twice as long as my version of the story itself, so it’s probably not a very exciting read if you aren’t super familiar with the myth beat by beat. So, please read the original article first and then knock yourself out with this one.

  • Also, if you’re only interested in the myths and not the explanations, I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped this article altogether. 
  • There are more than 50 end-notes. I spent time writing them. Do a brother a favor and read them.

Also, these are myths, so a lot of what we understand about them is speculative. Scholars hotly debate many aspects of these legends. Others point at linguistic, archaeological, and cultural evidence to explain them. Other times, I think people are just taking educated guesses. Non-scholars have also interpreted these stories in all sorts of ways over the centuries. I’ve compiled a chapter by chapter list of explanations and insights that I find really interesting – including some of my own personal theories. Hopefully, you have some insights or come up with personal interpretations of your own. If so, feel free to share them in the comments section!Abrahamic_Religions.svgJapanese Religion vs Your Religion

Before we break down the actual stories in the Creation Myth, we have to get some perspective of what Japanese religion is. If you’re reading this – and I’m sure you are – there is a 90% chance you live in a culture with monotheistic tradition, ie; a religion with only one god. Whether you believe or not, your country’s traditions are probably of that sort (judging by where my readers tend to live[i]).

Japanese religion is very different from most modern western religions. Unlike the so-called Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[ii]) which preach that there is only one god and all other god claims are untrue, Japan’s emergent spirituality was polytheistic. There is an infinite number of 神 kami gods, and because polytheism isn’t obsessed with elevating a single deity to the exclusion of all others, this tends to be a more flexible and, in many ways, more tolerant model. Such systems can be so tolerant, in fact, that they easily accept and then include other deities when encountering new belief systems or regional variants. This tendency to blend spiritual traditions is known as syncretism.

While the creation myths of Japan are Shintō at their core, we must keep a few things in mind:

  • Prior to the arrival of 仏教 Bukkyō Buddhism, the word Shintō didn’t even exist.
  • There is no “Shintō Bible” or “Shintō Orthodoxy.”

It wasn’t until Buddhism offered an alternative cosmology, philosophy, and ritual practices that a word was needed to distinguish the native animist beliefs with the exotic, foreign beliefs of Buddhism. Today, it’s hard to imagine Japan without Shintō and Buddhism[iii] because the two systems played well together and coexist harmoniously. There was an infinite number of kami and a (potentially) infinite number Buddhas (ie; people who have reached “enlightenment”). Compare this to the Abrahamic religions and their myths. A claim of a single god at the exclusion of all others is problematic, even antagonist to the syncretic polytheism of Japan[iv]. So, it’s important to try to jettison your own religious context, be it of true faith or just a cultural thing.

Anyhoo, at the time these creation myths were compiled in the 7th century, foreign influences like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were making inroads throughout the Japanese archipelago, but they were just that – foreign, unfamiliar, and often strange. Texts like the 古事記 Kojiki and 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki are relatively nativistic, that is, they are Shintō at heart. However, from time to time we’ll see hits of foreign influences appear in the narratives. Buddhism is almost completely unrepresented in these myths because they were definitely seen as foreign at this time. Furthermore, even though Shintō and Buddhism would eventually syncretize, initially Buddhism found a lot of push back from the Shintō priestly caste who saw it as threatening their hereditary ritual authority which derived from their ancestors who were described as illustrious kami who came to Japan in the Age of the Gods.

KAMI TSU MAKI

Cultic Practice vs “Religions of the Book”

Another huge difference between a polytheistic religion like Shintō and a second generation monotheistic religion like Christianity is that Japanese religion is cultic[v] in nature – very much like Greek and Roman religion – whereas Christianity is depended on articles of faith derived from sacred texts (eg; the Old Testament and the New Testament). Cultic religions don’t have authoritative books and they rely on performing rituals correctly, offering sacrifices correctly, and observing important calendar dates. Conversely, Christianity emphasizes belief – especially so-called “correct beliefs”[vi] as dictated by canonical texts and interpretation by ecclesiastical authorities.

Our main sources for Japanese myths are not “authoritative texts” like the Torah, the Bible, or the Qur’an. Shintō myths are descriptive at best[vii], painting verbal pictures of the acts of the gods. They rarely preach morality directly. They usually don’t tell people what to do and how to do it. They don’t prohibit behavior or catalog and categorize “sins.”[viii] They absolutely do not include declarations of faith like the Apostles’ Creed. They don’t contain prayers or regulations regarding the proper observance of rituals[ix]. This is a huge difference between Shintō and western religions. All of that said, once these myths were compiled by the 大和朝廷 Yamato Chōtei Yamato Court, the priestly caste now had texts that had been “corrected” by court authorities. As a result, a hierarchy of 神社 jinja shrines arose subsequently from these stories. It was clear that the most important kami was Amaterasu and the other gods associated with her. Suddenly, local kami with no illustrious tales[x] were seen as less important than the cults of gods who had participated in the creation of the world, the founding of the state, or the ancestors of ancient noble families.

OK, that’s enough of that. Let’s actually dig into the events of the creation myth. I’m going to divide my 釈義 shakugi exegesis[xi] into the same chapter headings that the Kojiki uses because the compilers clearly broke the stories up into bite-sized chunks perfect for discussion[xii]. In my article, The Japanese Creation Myth, I used both the Kojiki and some glosses (and a little creative writing!) to tell the story as coherently as possible and therefore I intentionally ignored the chapter headings.

Further Reading:

Spiral galaxy, illustration of Milky Way

The Beginning of Heaven & Earth

The world begins very much like the Greek Creation Myth. There is nothing, simply χάος chaos a void state preceding creation. The “nothing” before there was “something.” There is some matter, but it separates. We don’t know if the beginning of the story comes from a Jōmon tradition, a Yayoi tradition, or both, but what we can definitely say is that the preliterate people knew that heavy things fell and light things might “float” (be carried away by the wind). They also understood that the sun was always above everything, including the clouds. Therefore, it makes sense that the heavy matter was weighed down and became land, while the lighter matter rose up and became clouds. Already we can see a sort of cosmic geography take place. The sun is above all[xiii]. the heavens form a celestial plain[xiv] upon which the sun can live. The earth, while still shapeless, is burdened by its heaviness forms the ground upon which the people telling these stories currently live.

The Japanese cosmogony isn’t simply heaven and earth, though. Curiously, they call terra firma the Central Land of Reeds[xv] and place it in the middle of the universe. From this we can imply that the Wajin familiar with this story already had a conception of an afterlife and they were fairly certain about where it was located. It was either beneath the earth or it was within the earth. Whether the Land of Yomi was below the Central Land of Reeds or within wasn’t particularly important, though. Jōmon graves and Yayoi graves were in the ground – both below the surface and in the ground[xvi].

There aren’t many details about the Land of Yomi, but we can infer that it is dark. Later in the narrative, when Izanagi and Izanami descend to the underworld, it seems that the world has some aspects that are similar to the inner chambers of 古墳 kofun burial tombs of the time[xvii]. But more about that later.

The first five kami get their own status in the categorization of gods. We’re not sure why. The compilers of the myths must not have known either, nor did they make any attempt to explain it. But their name 別天神 Kotoama tsu Kami does literally mean “separate heavenly kami.” I think it could be read as “kami of a separate heaven” which might refer to them “hiding” and more or less disappearing from the narrative. Since the stories don’t say they died, just hid, they could be hiding in another heaven. However, this is purely conjecture on my part.

I have a final observation about the tripartite cosmology presented in the creation myth[xviii]. I think that there is some memory of clans crossing over from the Asian mainland and settling in Japan recorded in parts of these stories, as well as memories of interacting with advanced kingdoms on the mainland. More than once we see kami descending from the Heavenly High Plain to the Central Land of Reeds. I personally think these recall a time immemorial when Chinese explorers came to the Land of Wa or when related clan members crossed over from the Korean Peninsula to the Land of Wa. Their technology (metalworking and agricultural techniques) would have been advanced. Also, if we can think of China as the Roman Empire of Asia, any philosophies, technologies – hell, even basic things like writing, might have seemed like magic[xix] to the backwards inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago. Therefore, the High Plain of Heaven could sometimes be a reference to advanced cultures overseas and a memory of a former homeland. The Central Plain of Reeds could be a reference to the harsh reality of life in the untamed archipelago. The grass is always greener on the other side, while we toil and die over here.

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The Seven Divine Generations

The final five generations of the Seven Generations of Kami are born as siblings, one male and one female. The females are described as 妹 imō “younger sister” or “spouse.” It’s been suggested that noble families in the Yayoi Period allowed for incestuous marriages, but by the time these stories were compiled the influence of Chinese proscriptions against sibling marriage had taken hold in the Yamato Court. Therefore, the brother-sister pairing was reinterpreted as “ready-made married couple” pairing. Regardless of the origin of the myth or how it was eventually written down, none of these male-female paired generations procreated until the very final pairing, which is Izanagi and Izanami. Even if the previous generations had consummated their marriages sexually and that was ignored in the texts, the Izanagi and Izanami myth is so vital to the story of creation that it couldn’t be overlooked.

Much has been made of the etymology of Izanagi and Izanami. Both names are written in ateji, ie; phonetically 伊邪那岐 Izanagi literally reads “that-wicked-what-branch off” and 伊邪那美 “Izanami that-wicked-what-beautiful.” The Chinese characters are literally meaningless, just used to facilitate pronunciation when reading. The only thing I can say is that the kanji 美 mi/bi at the end of the goddess’ name marks her as clearly feminine by Japanese naming traditions[xx]. The gibberish spelling aside, the length of this couple’s inclusion in the narrative and their importance in the act of creation implies a long and widespread familiarity with their story. Japanese commentators have often said these names derive from 誘う izanau to invite[xxi]. Izanagi = he who invites. Izanami = she who invites. There are other less accepted etymologies that have been proposed. I guess the main argument is that when the couple attempts to marry and then consummate the relationship, Izanami invites Izanagi to fuck first. After they give birth to a disgusting leech baby, they try again and Izanagi invites Izanami to fuck, and then things go well. If this etymology is correct, their names may only foreshadow a Confucian retcon to what we know about Japanese acceptance of female rule in ancient times. Anyways, we’ll get to that in due time.

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Onogoro Shrine on Nushima in Hyogo Prefecture

The Island of Onogoro

The Special Heavenly Kami order Izanagi and Izanami to create the world – even though they were hiding. These are the kind of continuity mistakes that plague these myths. There’s no explanation of why they came out of hiding or where they were when they were hiding or why it was necessary for them to come out of hiding for this to happen at all. I mean, Izanagi and Izanami could have come up with the idea of creation on their own, right?

Well, one clue is that the Special Heavenly Kami give the creator couple a jewel-encrusted spear. If we go with my personal theory that the Heavenly High Plain could sometimes represent the Asian mainland, the first batch of gods went back to the mainland (ie; they were hidden to the kingdoms on the archipelago) and eventually came back with advanced technology, ie; metalworking. And not just metalworking, but weapons! They gave weapons to the settlers in the Land of Wa who proceeded to subdue the native Jōmon people and other Wajin tribes. While there is no hint of military actions of any kind in the creation myth, it’s curious to me that Izanagi and Izanami use a weapon to shape the islands of Japan.

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This spear is decorated with jewels, which is probably a reference to 勾玉 magatama comma shaped gems used for status symbols. We know these stones were not used by the Jōmon people and are specifically associated with the Yayoi/Wajin people. Furthermore, by the time of the compilation of these myths, expensive and exotic mainland technologies like bronze mirrors and swords were treasured by Kofun Period elites. Magatama were also prized in this culture. In fact, to this day, the imperial regalia are a mirror, a sword, and this sort of jewel.

The floating bridge is also interesting. In art and writing, it’s been interpreted as a boat, a bridge of clouds, a stairway, a rainbow bridge, or bridge of stars. If my interpretation of the heavens being a mixed metaphor for the Asian mainland, the boat theory fits very well. However, these are divine beings and so walking across a bridge of clouds is just as valid.

The name Onogoro Island is written using ateji, 淤能碁呂 Onogoro “muddy-talent-captured-territory- spine” in the Kojiki, 磤馭慮 Onogoro “/on/-control-consideration” in the Nihon Shoki.  The kanji are clearly gibberish and don’t give us any information about the island itself. There is a small island called 沼島 Nushima in Hyōgo-ken Hyōgo Prefecture which has a shrine called 自凝神社 Onogoro Jinja Onogoro Shrine which commemorated the creation of Japan by Izanagi and Izanami. This shrine’s name is also ateji (and therefore gibberish) which means “self-lump” and probably reflects a local tradition. This shows that the name of the island and this myth was widespread, but no one knew how to write it because the original meaning had been lost long before the myths were compiled.

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Courtship of the Deities

I don’t know if I’d actually call this a “courtship,” but in addition to being the first kami with personalities and who actually did stuff, they perform the first marriage and the first act of sexual procreation. I’ll be honest, the writers coulda made this scene hotter[xxii], but it is what it is. In my version, I said that Izanagi and Izanami erected a phallus. Well, the texts say they erected a sacred pillar, but it’s pretty clear what that signified. I’d also like to add that as far as I know, the impromptu wedding “ceremony” never played out in future wedding ceremonies, as Shintō never developed standard rites for marriage. In fact, weddings have never really had a religious component in Japan. Even today, getting married is a legal act, not a spiritual one – at least as far as the state is concerned. Shintō shrines do perform weddings now, but that’s a relatively recent economic-driven development in reaction to so-called “Western-style weddings[xxiii]” as a way for shrines to penetrate the wedding market and get some of those sweet, sweet wedding yen.

The first time Izanagi and Izanami walk in a circle around the sacred pillar, she greets him first. At first, it seems like a throwaway line, but Izanagi mentions that something about this doesn’t seem right. Marriage and sex being non-things at this point in “history,” the couple proceeds with the unscripted ritual, despite his gut feeling[xxiv].

When the lovers met on the other side of the long, hard pole, Izanami takes one look at her lover and cries out あなにやし、えをとこを!Ana ni yashi, e wotoko wo! What a wonderful man! Upon seeing his lover, Izanagi similarly exclaims あなにやし、えをとめを! Ana ni yashi, e woto-me wo! What a wonderful woman! These phrases are Old Japanese, but are somewhat famous in Japan among romantic history nerds. The grammar and orthography are quite alien to Modern Japanese readers (the lack of kanji makes it cumbersome to modern eyes) and its written in an extinct southwestern dialect (which makes it cumbersome to anyone unfamiliar with western dialects, especially their ancient versions).

Let’s take a quick language nerd detour, shall we?

あなにやしana ni yashiDon Philippi explains this phrase as “an exclamation of wonder and delight.” Both Izanagi and Izanami use this phrase. Repetition is an attribute of oral storytelling. やし yashi is an ancient western dialectal variant of the modern よし yoshi good which became よい yoi good and finally いい ii in good ol’ Standard Japanese.

Apart from gendering, the second part of these two sentences are also identical:

えをとこ
e woto-ko
いいおとこ
ii otoko
a good guy
えをとめ
e woto-me
いいおとめ
ii otome
a good girl
In modern western dialects “good” is said as ええ ee, while いい ii is the prevalent Standard form.

おとこ otoko is still the standard word for “man” in all of Japan, while おとめ otome girl is only used in Shintō contexts, usually referring to female kami. In the modern Standard, the word otome has long since been replaced with おんな onna woman.

In Modern Japanese, these ancient utterances can be rendered thus:

あなにやし、えをとこを! あー、なんて素敵な男か!
Wow, what a handsome guy!
あなにやし、えをとめを! あー、なんて素敵な女か!
Wow, what a beautiful girl!

I don’t recommend using these as pickup lines because they sound just as ridiculous in Modern Japanese as they do in Modern English. But who knows, maybe if you do some weird hybrid cosplay Shintō wedding, you could include these before you state your vows. If you’re into that sorta thing.

Anyhoo, the lovers get married and consummate the union, ie; they fuuuuuuuck.

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Birth of the Various Deities

Izanami gets pregnant and gives birth to 蛭子 Hiruko, the leech-child. This has been interpreted as a child being born crippled in some way[xxv]. Many ancient cultures practiced infanticide by exposure to the elements a means of disposing of burdensome or unplanned children before birth control or safe abortion techniques. In short, you’d just dump a baby somewhere, hope for the best, then go home and get on with your life.

As horrific as this sounds to our modern sensibilities, in pre-scientific societies child birth was often a dangerous prospect for women[xxvi], but attempting abortion using poisons, magic potions, or straight up physical violence were far riskier to both the mother and the child[xxvii]. As a result, it was considered safer to bring a baby to term and once the situation was stable the parents, family, or society could decide what to do with the child. I can’t say that killing babies is tasteful in any way, but in a world inhabited by gods and magical beings, “exposing” a baby was actually seen as more humane because the child actually had a chance of survival via some sort of divine intervention. As a result, there are myths all over the world about children being exposed to nature and then becoming epic heroes. Some well-known examples from western mythologies are Moses and Romulus & Remus.

Again, it seems so awful and inhumane to leave a helpless baby under a tree, on the top of a mountain, or in this case, on a tiny reed boat set sail upon the turbulent ocean[xxviii]. However, if we understand why this act was seen by ancients as a humane choice, take heart that these people weren’t all diabolical, baby-hating monsters. Clearly, they had serious moral problems with this practice. This is probably why we find massive ancient trash dumps, but rarely do we find massive ancient baby dumps[xxix]. Furthermore, we find myths around the world where good luck or divine actors intervene and spare the abandoned child. After all, in the Jewish myths, Moses became a hero who led his people out of Egyptian captivity[xxx], and Romulus & Remus were central to the mythological Founding of Rome[xxxi]. So too with the Japanese, all is not evil here. Later generations of Japanese would come to believe Hiruko survived and now he’s associated Hiruko with 恵比寿 Ebisu, one of the 七福神 Shichi Fukujin Seven Gods of Good Luck[xxxii]. To this day, Ebisu probably the most easily-recognized and beloved kami in all of modern Japan. There’s even a beer named after him!

After this, Izanagi and Izanami cross the floating bridge and return to the High Plain of Heaven to consult with the Special Heavenly Gods as to what went wrong. The heavenly kami do some rituals and discuss this and return to the creator couple and tell them they go the order wrong in their mating ritual.

Now, this may seem silly or unimportant, but do you remember when Izanagi and Izanami performed their impromptu marriage ceremony? There was that throwaway line where Izanagi thought something wasn’t right. The council of heavenly gods confirmed his suspicions. They deemed that it was inappropriate for a woman to begin matrimonial bonds and initiate sex. The male should do all of that first.

If you’re thinking this sounds kinda misogynistic, you win a prize. We have ancient Chinese records describing life in the Land of Wa centuries before these myths were compiled and the stories that stand out the most are those of a Late Yayoi Period shaman queen known as 卑弥呼 Himiko[xxxiii] (reigned 189-248). whose massive grave may have ushered in the Kofun Period. She was so revered that he huge burial mound[xxxiv] is thought to be an exemplar for the most important future tumuli that characterize this era of Japanese history. The brilliant 20th century historian Tsuda Sōkichi first put forth the idea the ancient Japanese culture didn’t insist on male supremacy over women. In fact, Izanagi’s curious hesitancy about submitting to Izanami’s initiation of sex (which produced deformed offspring) and the requirement that they try again with the male initiating sex (which produced healthy offspring) was probably the influence of Confucian teachings that had later become popular among the imperial court. Sure, some great women may have held the highest political and religious authority in time immemorial, but the natural order – as established by the heavenly kami themselves – was that of male primacy. This peculiar ideological insertion is most likely anachronistic, deemed a necessary “correction” of the existing ancient tales.

oyashima

Once Izanagi and Izanami get the ritual rite[xxxv], they give birth to a bunch of kami, including Japan itself, which is described as 大八洲 Ōyashima the Great Eight Islands. Keep in mind, Japan as we know it today didn’t exist at the time these myths proliferated around the archipelago, nor did it exist at the time these stories were written down. The Great Eight Islands refer to the world of the dominant Wajin kingdoms and the Yamato Court. Some of these locations are insignificant today, but reflect important locations to the people who knew these stories. These islands are:

大八洲
Ōyashima the Great Eight Islands

淡道之穂之狭別島
Awaji no Ho no Sawake Shima
Modern Awaji Island off the coast of Hyōgo Prefecture.
伊予之二名島
Iyo no Futana no Shima
Modern Motoyama City in Kōchi Prefecture[xxxvi].
隠伎之三子島
Oki no Mitsugo no Shima
Modern Oki Islands off the coast of modern Shimane Prefecture.
筑紫島
Tsukushi no Shima
The ancient name of the entire island of Kyūshū.
伊伎島
Iki no Shima[xxxvii]
Modern Iki Island off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture.
津島
Tsu (no) Shima[xxxviii]
Modern Tsu Island, part of Nagasaki Prefecture, but lies between Kyūshū and the Korean Peninsula.
佐渡島
Sado no Shima
Modern Sado Island island off the coast of Niigata Prefecture.
大倭豊秋津島
Ōyamato-Toyoaki tsu Shima
Thought to be the entire main island of Japan, Honshū, including territories yet unconquered at the time of the compilation of the myths.

In my opinion, the inclusion of these kami/islands in the creation myths serves a twofold purpose. The original inclusion probably reflected the geographic competency of earlier generations. If you plot these locations onto a map, you can see trade routes and locations that were critical to the rising Yamato State. By the time these myths were written down, eastern expansion across Japan’s main island was already in progress. The name of the last territory, Ōyamato-Toyoaki no Shima, reflects the ancient attitudes to Honshū (it was just an island) and a kind of Yamato Court Manifest Destiny (this island was way larger than they thought at the time these myths took shape). In short, Ōyamato “Greater Yamato” and Toyoaki “Abundant Autumns.” Yamato was no longer a single kingdom, but a confederation of Wajin kingdoms, one that was taking control of land of rich rice harvests[xxxix].

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Death of Izanami & the Slaying of the Fire-Deity

Ever since Izanagi and Izanami got the sexual ritual right; they’d been popping out kami non-stop. You have to admit, birthing huge swaps of conquered territory was pretty advantageous, as well. This all came to a crashing halt when Izanami gave birth to Kagutsuchi the fire god. He burned her internally and destroyed her genitals.

In my telling of the myth, I presented Izanagi as more sympathetic, emphasizing his love for her. Actually, I emphasized their love from the beginning. The fact is, in the Kojiki, love is never mentioned and there’s no emotional reaction on the either partner’s side. I just wanted a little drama because otherwise, the story is kinda fucking boring. But in the text, Izanami just matter-of-factly dies giving birth to Kagutsuchi.

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Anyhoo, Izanagi is definitely angered by the death of his sister/spouse and reacts violently, as if the fire god murdered her. Remember that ancient cultures often valued a healthy wife of child-bearing age over a deformed child. Therefore, a difficult birth that caused the death of a mother during labor could easily be blamed for the murder of a valuable familial and societal asset (ie; the mother). In the end, Izanagi beheads the baby and cuts it up into eight pieces. Kagutsuchi’s blood and body parts become kami associated with volcanos and hot springs. Some say that the image of Izanagi’s rage, his flashing sword, spurting blood, and fire everywhere point at a possible reference to an ancient volcanic eruption. The presence of fire and a metal sword could also point to the emergence of metalsmithing techniques in the Land of Wa. This technology developed on the Asia mainland much earlier and eventually made its way to the archipelago. Regional kings in the Yayoi Period would have exploited metalsmithing in order to build up caches of weapons to protect their lands and arm their warriors. Since Japan has volcanos, hot springs, and developed a warrior culture in the Yayoi and Kofun Periods, the kami born of Kagutsuchi were probably considered divine ancestors of a handful of early clans.

The big take away is that being pregnant, carrying a baby to term, and birthing a healthy child is extremely valued. You must protect the wife of your child. And whether you are a peasant or a noble or a kami, everyone is affected by death. 18th century scholar and founder of nativist “Japanese Studies” Motoori Norinaga[xl] went so far as to say “Even the great god Izanagi, who formed the land and all things in it, mourned the death of his sister/wife. He sorrowfully wept with all his heart like an infant, and yearning for her, followed Izanami to the Land of Yomi. This is human nature at its core.”

In the compiled texts, Izanami’s death while giving birth feels like a throwaway line (until we get to the next chapter[xli]), but Izanagi’s response, though impulsive, childish, and violent, can be seen in a somewhat sympathetic light. Anyone who’s lost a lover, either through a breakup or even death, has probably wanted to lash out at the world. They might even sink into deep depression as they try to justify their existence and, in some kind of fucked up way, pull themselves through the sadness and darkness and then ultimately find the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel – which is exactly what happens next.

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When Izanagi cries, his tears became 泣沢女神 Nakisawame no Kami who was later regarded as a water goddess[xlii]. Some scholars believe her birth occurring between the death of Izanami and her burial as evidence for the custom of hiring female professional mourners at Kofun Period funerals[xliii]. Professional lamenters were a thing in Ancient Rome and it’s my understanding they still exist in Korea and parts of China.

Lastly, if one views Izanami of as Earth Mother Goddess and Kagutsuchi as a volcanic kami, it’s possible to interpret her death as the earth becoming barren after a devastating eruption. The earth can no longer produce crops (a metaphorical death), but after she is buried in ash and volcanic ejecta (ie; descends to the underworld) she is reborn as the Queen of the Underworld. Her rebirth is also reflects in the Earth itself, which slowly returns to normal and again become fecund and life giving. Also, there appear to be many associations of “fire” and “rot or decay” in the Kojiki, which reinforces this interpretation. In the next section, lights a fire to see in the dark, but only sees Izanagi’s nasty-ass rotting corpse, then he throws the burning comb tooth down to the ground.

kofun map

The Land of Hades

In Christian and Islamic cosmology, you have Heaven, Earth, and Hell. This term “hell” is essentially a world of eternal punishment for finite moral infractions. A land where demons torture you forever and ever and ever and ever and ever – lakes of fire, pitchforks, and fallen angels. It’s a veritable horror movie waiting for you after your short life on this earth. This view of an afterlife is quite extreme, and quite rare in cultures throughout the ages. A life after death, as implausible and unrealistic as it is to us moderns, is a fairly common belief among all kinds of modern humans and we see evidence of such beliefs going back to prehistoric times.

The Land of Yomi, as Chamberlain saw it in the 1880’s, was a Japanese version of Hades with Japanese aspects. It was just another world that human souls went to after this one. But let’s go back to the beginning of our understanding of kami. They are infinite, right? After you die, you can become a kami, right? Did the ancient Japanese – or modern Japanese, for that matter – believe that dead people went to another plain of existence? We don’t know. There are no authoritative texts on the subject. What we know from the stories is that kami can hide and/or die. We also know that humans can become kami. We also know that ancestor worship was part and parcel of humans becoming kami. In this world view, an afterworld without punishments and rewards is possible. Therefore, this afterlife is just inhabited by ghosts.

To make things more complicated, the Land of Yomi is really vague in the myths. We know it’s for dead people. We know it’s contaminated and spiritually impure. We also know it’s – for the most part – dark. We also know that it’s the first mythic tale that read like an adventure in the western sense. Everything prior to this part of the narrative is kinda boring. It’s simple AF, but Izanagi’s descent into Yomi and escape makes for fascinating storytelling. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are not the origins of Japanese Horror, but they show us that the spiritual framework required to make a unique tradition of scary stories and tales of ghosts and demons had existed generations before the compilers wrote these stories down. Also, please keep in mind, the texts we get these myths from weren’t written in the name of good storytelling. All of this was to collect myths the Kofun Period imperial court thought would back up their divine claims to authority.

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Some have suggested that the description of Izanagi’s descent into the Land of Yomi was influenced by Kofun Period burial practices of the time when these myths were compiled. Kofun were enormous burial mounds that featured stone passageways leading to subterranean stone burial chambers. The height of these tombs symbolized an ascent to the heavens. The ground level was still very much the Central Plain of Reeds, while the act of descent into the depths of the earth where the burial chamber was symbolized Yomi. In fact, Izanagi finds Izanami in a kind of inner chamber. In fact, the entrance to Yomi is guarded by a large boulder, which we’ll discuss later, similar to how kofun tombs were also closed off[xliv].

Izanagi insists that he wants Izanami to return with him to continue their work of creating the world and populating it. I’m not sure if this is significant or just an excuse to further the narrative, but if this myth is a memory of Yayoi invasion of the archipelago or just territorial expansion, the death of a queen could be a traumatic experience for an expanding chiefdom that saw its role as being divinely commanded[xlv]. Izanami says Izanagi is too late because she’s already eaten food prepared in Yomi. I haven’t found a compelling explanation of this seemingly random rule. It may just be a way to show that too much time has passed since she died[xlvi]. Izanami says she’ll petition the gods of Yomi to see if they can make an exception in her case. Mark Ravina thinks this illustrates a Japanese cultural trait of “decision-making by committee,” something he claims is still very much a part of corporate and political culture today[xlvii].

Anyhoo, she asks Izanagi to wait outside her chamber while she consults with the kami, making one very odd request – that he not to look at her. It’s been suggested that this refers to an ancient taboo against looking at corpses. According to this theory, any viewing any contaminated scene was considered ritually impure. Viewing dead bodies, being in the presence of menstruating women, watching a person take a shit, or witnessing a birth were all taboo, thus these acts were separated from the household in special places, for example, special birthing huts in the case of parturition or burying dead bodies in tombs outside of the home or village[xlviii]. Matsumura Takeo has suggested this part of the myth is a reflection of a tradition of entering a tomb[xlix] at regular intervals to see if the deceased person has come back to life. If he is correct, maybe Izanagi checks on Izanami to see if she’s actually not dead, but because she’s been there so long (ie; she’s eaten food prepared in Yomi) she never returns to him from the meeting with the gods. Or maybe both theories have a kernel of truth. The Wajin custom was originally to check on dead bodies regularly, but at some point, a taboo was implemented to “correct” this ritual as it came to be seen as inappropriate.

In my telling of the story, I said that Izanami became 黄泉津大神 Yomi tsu Ōkami the Queen of Yomi[l]. This isn’t exactly true to the text of the Kojiki which is actually inconsistent on this issue. She is clearly subservient to some heretofore unnamed kami of the underworld (I mean, she has to ask them to make an exception so she can return to the Central Land of Reed Plains). However, after Izanagi looks at her, the text describes her as the ultimate authority in the land of the dead. The presence of kami and all manner of beings in Yomi (the hags, the warriors) is probably a glitch in compilation process as this entire myth is pieced together from various oral traditions and clan histories[li] with minimal attention to detail outside of the basic continuity from creation up to the birth of Amaterasu.

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The chase scene is by far the most exciting scene of this entire series of episodes, and in terms of storytelling, it seems to have pretty good pacing. This makes me think that it was a longtime favorite. One can imagine the kids being bored with a lot of these stories, but begging to hear Izanagi’s escape from Yomi again and again. However, the Kojiki betrays the fact that it was so well-known by making a lot of references to things everybody would have known at the time of the compilation, but are totally lost on modern readers.

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To escape, Izanagi throws a bunch of a grapes, a bunch of teeth from his comb, draws his sword and then picks peaches and throws them. His pursuers seem dumb as shit, as they’re immediately distracted by the items that he throws at them, stopping to eat them before continuing their chase. I can’t say much about why these items are significant. However, the grapes are probably a reference to the 角髪 mizura hairstyle of men. The word is thought to derive from  みみづら mimi-zura “hair bunch” and refers to the Princess Leia buns Yayoi Period men wore, the idea being the buns looked like bunches of grapes. Perhaps this was a comedic moment that got big laughs from the kids when they heard it. These buns were bound with strings made of vines and held in place by decorative combs. In an unusual feat of narrative continuity, the compilers record that Izanagi used one comb to light a fire and look at Izanami, and now he uses the other comb to put distance between himself and the Hags of Yomi. To me, this is probably not retconning on behalf of the compilers but evidence of the popularity of this part of the myth, meaning everybody knew about the left comb and right comb[lii]. The peach thing is totally random and may reflect the adoption of some Chinese stories. Apparently, in Ancient China peaches were used to dispel demons or malevolent ghosts… because peaches. Who knows, I’d rather eat a peach than throw one. It seems like a waste of a perfectly delicious fruit.

Finally, Izanagi makes it to the exit of Yomi and slams the boulder shut. This large rock is important to the story because it keeps the beings of the underworld trapped in their cosmic prison, preventing them from bringing their spiritual contagions in to the world of the living. Don Phillipi says, “This boulder is known by such names as 道反の大神 Chigaeshi no Ōkami the great kami of turning-back road,” 黄泉戸の大神 Yomido no Ōkami the great kami of the entrance to the underworld, and 塞坐黄泉戸大神  Sayarimasu Yomido no Ōkami the great kami obstructing the way to the underworld.” The boulder preserves the natural order of the universe. The boulder could reflect the door to a burial chamber of a kofun or it could be a reference to 塞の神 sai no kami a large stone placed at the boundary of a village to protect it from evil spirits. Then again, sometimes a boulder is just a boulder, ie; Izanagi just needed to physically trap Izanami’s ghost in the realm of the dead.

After their divorce, Izanami swears that she will kill a thousand humans a day, to which Izanagi swears that he will create a thousand fifteen hundred humans a day. This is the just-so-story of why people are born and why people die. However, Watanabe Yoshimichi thinks this part of the myth even shows an “awareness of the rapid population increase accompanying the development of agricultural production after the 3rd and 4th centuries” which is pretty cool, if you ask me.

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 The Purification of the August Person

The final episode of the creation is myth is Izanagi’s ritual purification and the birth of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Izanami (who is now the Queen of Yomi) disappears from the mythology forever – presumably she’s still hanging out in the underworld[liii]. Likewise, after the birth of Amaterasu, Izanagi also just sorta fades away forever[liv]. Anyone familiar with Shintō practices will recognize ritual purification in its many forms. In front of shrines, you will always find 手水舎 temizuya (also called chōzuya) water basins for washing your hands and mouth before entering the shrine precinct. However, full immersion into water – often performed under a natural waterfall – is called 禊 misogi, and this is what Izanagi does in the river.

Today, misogi rituals are generally understood to be spiritual cleansing. However, Edo Period scholar Motoori Norinaga believed that spiritual cleansing was an alien concept to Yayoi and Kofun Period people. He believed that misogi was for purifying polluted bodies – not polluted souls – and as such Izanagi’s ablution in the river was performed in order to remove the 汚れ kegare defilement of Yomi from his physical person. Think of it as taking off your filthy shoes before you track mud all over the carpet after running in from the rain vs. doing a little ritual dance to purify your soul and then tracking mud all over the house. Matsumura Kazuo thought this was a ridiculous idea and suggested that ancient Japanese made no distinction between physical and spiritual purity.

Apparently, misogi rituals are extremely ancient. In fact, the first time we hear about them is a Chinese text, 魏志 Wèi zhì the Records of Wei which were compiled around 297. It records that “when there is a death, they mourn for ten days, during which period they do not eat meat. The chief mourners wail and weep, and the others sing, dance, and drink liquor. After the burial, the whole family goes into the water to bathe, like the Chinese sackcloth-ablutions.” Here, not only do we have a reference to ritual purification by water, but also a possible reference to professional mourners or nakime. Also, anyone who has lived in Japan, know that bathing is a huge part of Japanese culture. Communal bathing in public baths and 音泉 onsen hot springs is extremely popular and, although this is changing these days, the traditional afterwork ritual was to eat dinner with the family, enjoy some 日本酒 nihonshu sake, and then soak in a piping hot bath before going to bed.

In my version of Izanagi’s purification ritual, I only mention the birth of three kami. Because it’s boring and distracting to the narrative, I left out the birth of a bunch of other kami who are listed specifically by name. These kami were important to the compilers of the Kojiki because these offspring of Izanagi are cited by the elite clans of the Yamato Court as their divine ancestors. Our texts aren’t concerned with the histories of those noble families – the imperial family’s illustrious history is more important. However, the Kojiki does give a nod to the pedigree of the other court clans.

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The three main kami that Izanagi births while bathing are the sun goddess, the moon god, and the storm/ocean god. The line that sticks out is when he gives his jeweled necklace to Amaterasu, the sun goddess. This is a not-so-subtle hint that Izanagi is transferring his divine authority to her. Remember, the Special Heavenly Kami commanded him and Izanami to create the world. Now that work was done. Izanagi gives control of the Central Land of Reeds to Amaterasu. This sets up, the next batch of myths in a world that is populated by kami with personalities and actual agency – very different from the actions of the pre-Izanagi/Izanami gods.

Before I wrap up, I want to point out one very curious thing that is missing from the Japanese creation myth in the Kojiki – something that we usually find in all other creation myths around the world. The compiled texts say nothing about the creation of humans. This is omission is weird. Why would that be overlooked or left out? Well, if we accept that there are some ancient “memories” recorded in these stories, the history that we know from earlier Chinese accounts and the archaeology that the Yayoi people were immigrants[lv] to an archipelago already populated by the Jōmon people. Those hunter-gather people may have seemed more primitive or even animal-like to the invaders from the mainland, but they were definitely human. It may be that the question of where did humans come from seemed like a boring thing to wonder about. Afterall, they were already here, fully formed when the Yayoi people arrived. To a highly stratified culture like the Yayoi, the origin of bloodlines was far more important than silly questions like “who created humans?” Their existence may have been self-evident. Humans were just part of the natural word, no different from birds, snakes, and fish. They required no creation explanation.

 

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[i] Don’t be creeped out, but I can see global distribution of my readership lol
[ii] Known to us atheists as Judaism, Judaism 2.0, and Judaism 3.0.
[iii] Throw in a little Taoism and Confucianism for good measure.
[iv] There are a number of reasons why Christianity didn’t “stick” in Japan – mostly political. It’s true that Japan was receptive to Christianity at first (the concept of the Holy Trinity looked just like Polytheism Lite), but the antagonistic nature of monotheism was definitely noted by both 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi and 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu. If you don’t know these guys and their relation to Christianity in Japan, I don’t know why you’re even reading this. But if you must, here’s an article for you.
[v] No, this doesn’t mean cult as in Scientology, Branch Davidians, or the Westboro Baptist Church. The term cult derives from the Roman concept of cultus deōrum devotion to the gods, observance of divine rituals. It refers to religions based on performative acts rather than simple faith in “divine” teachings.
[vi] As opposed to non-orthodox or heretical beliefs.
[vii] Legitimatory at the most cynical.
BTW, I looked it up, “legitimatory” isn’t a word. Sue me.
[viii] In fact, in cultic religions, the concept of “sin” is almost meaningless. The closest concept would be not observing the correct rituals in the appropriate manner. This could displease a deity or genuinely piss them off. They might send you the plague or kill a first born son or something, but they wouldn’t damn you hell to be subjected to infinite torment for a finite infraction of ritual practice. Conversely, cultic religions do not offer “salvation” because there’s nothing to be saved from. Just do the rituals, dude lolololol
[ix] Though they do describe “just so stories” that explain the origins of rituals or were the inspiration for later standardization vis-à-vis foreign religions like Buddhism. After the Meiji Coup in 1868, some mythic acts became justification for further institutionalization of ritual under the government’s highjacking of nativist traditions in the name of 国家神道 Kokka Shintō State Shintō, which devolved into Emperor Worship prior to the end of WWII.
[x] For example, a kami who protected a certain rice field from infestations and had no myths.
[xi] Please tell me you know what exegesis means.
[xii] I’m using the chapter headings as translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain, the first westerner to translate the Kojiki into English in 1919 (Taishō 8).
[xiii] This foreshadows the importance of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.
[xiv] The High Plain of Heaven
[xv] Daniel Holtom translates this word as the “Land of Fresh Rice Ears.” Unfortunately, I only discovered this phrase at the very end of writing this article which is regrettable as I rather like it.
[xvi] “Duh,” you might say, “All graves are in the ground.” Nuh-uh![xvii] Remember, this era of Japanese history is called the Kofun Period.[xviii] I do have to say, the nature of Izanagi and Izanami’s relationship is still hotly debated among scholars. Some insist they are merely husband and wife (therefore no incest), while others insist that they are definitely siblings (therefore incest). The texts, obviously pieced together from multiple sources, are not clear on this. I take the position that they are both because it’s a fucking myth FFS. They can be anything and none of this actually matters.
[xix] Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
[xx] Similar to how -a at the end of many Latinate names usually marks a female name.
[xxi] Remember, kanji are Chinese characters and izanau is a Japanese word, so the kanji doesn’t have anything to do with the etymology of this word or these names – should they be related or not.
[xxii] If the compilers of the texts want to update it, they should contact me. I know some people in the biz.
[xxiii] These are loosely based on Christian weddings that people saw in western movies and TV.
[xxiv] Trust me, we’re coming back to this offhand comment soon.
[xxv] Kokugakuin University’s Encyclopedia of Shintō suggests “a child with arms and legs but without bones.” I have no idea what that means in the real world, but I suppose it could look like a leech or slug or something…
[xxvi] Even in our modern world, giving birth can still cost a woman her life.
[xxvii] As most pre-modern marriages, especially among social elites, were not about love but rather familial/political unions, losing a child was much preferable to losing an elite wife/daughter of childbearing age.
[xxviii] In the case of the ocean, the baby-boat is more likely to wash back ashore where the child will die slowly from starvation, desiccation, or being killed by birds of prey. That, or it would be soon swept under the crashing waves and drowned to death in a matter of minutes…
[xxix] I can’t think of any massive baby dump off the top of my head.
[xxx] BTW, this probably never happened – especially not as presented in the Torah or Old Testament.
[xxxi] This, too, never happened, but the Romans considered it so important to their history that they invented something like the BC/AD or BCE/CE divide we know today. To them AUC was the abbreviation they used. It stood for ab Urbe conditā since the founding of the City (ie; Rome). I’m writing this in 2020 AD/CE which is AUC 2773. And yes, Roman history geeks still use this classical dating system.
[xxxii] That said, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki don’t say anything about Hiruko’s survival. He’s just set afloat and abandoned forever in those texts.
[xxxiii] You can read about her here. The pronunciation of her name in the Proto-Japonic Language of her time and region is uncertain. Many variants have been suggested, but the two most likely reconstructions are /pimiko/ or /pimeko/.
[xxxiv] By tradition, her kofun is said to be 箸墓古墳 Hashihaka Kofun the Hashihaka Kofun in present-day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture.
[xxxv] See what I did there? Eh? I’m so goddamn witty.
[xxxvi] Iyo could also refer to the entire island of 四国 Shikoku.
[xxxvii] Also written 壱岐島 Iki no Shima.
[xxxviii] Also written 対馬島 Tsushima no Shima. There are actually two islands with both spellings. There’s some debate as to which is mentioned in the Kojiki – or if they were both mistaken for the same place.
[xxxix] Rice harvests equaled a strong economy.
[xl] He’s probably the most important scholar when it comes to beginning to understand these myths.
[xli] And even in the next chapter, she becomes a different kami, so she still feels like a throwaway character in the drama.
[xlii] She’s enshrined throughout Japan, but her main enshrinement is thought to be 畝尾都多本神社 Uneo Tsutamoto Jinja Uneo Tsutamoto Shrine in Nara. In fact, locals use an easier, more ancient name and call this place 哭沢神社 Nakisawa Jinja Nakisawa Shrine and the main object of worship is 泣沢井戸 Nakisawa Ido the Well of Nakisawame.
[xliii] In Old Japanese, these professional lamenters were called 泣女 nakime crying women. In Modern Japanese, they are called 泣き女 naki onna, also crying women. This tradition died out with the arrival of Buddhism. The Buddhists probably found it cheesy and annoying.
[xliv] One scholar, Matsumura Kazuo, believes that at this time the Land of Yomi was understood to be inside mountains, only accessible by caves. Therefore, the kofun tomb model mimicked a mountain and the stone passage and burial chamber mimicked a cave.
[xlv] I hate to use the term again, but a kinda Japanese Manifest Destiny.
[xlvi] The crazy thing is that in the Kojiki, there are only a handful of sentences between Izanami’s death and this conversation, so to modern readers it feels as if very little time has actually passed.
[xlvii] I’m not sure if I buy into this interpretation. My experience with business meetings in Japan is: 1) the boss comes in and says what he wants to do, 2) everyone agrees that’s a good idea, 3) everyone gets drunk together at the end of the week and subordinates throw out ideas, 4) another meeting takes place where the boss says they’ll use so-and-so’s new idea. Or all steps are condensed into a single game of じゃんけん jan-ken rock, paper, scissors.
[xlviii] And before you say, Marky, every culture keeps dead bodies out of the house. This tradition changed in Japan after the arrival of Buddhism. Wakes came to be held in homes until funerals could take place. Actually, this still happens in the countryside. In some cultures, people keep corpses for weeks or years in their homes and let the kids play with them.
[xlix] Actually, they built a temporary structure called a 喪 mogari in which the body was laid out until it began rotting. After it started to putrefy, the body would be buried.
[l] In Old Japanese, Yomi tsu was read as /yömötsu/.
[li] Most of which were also probably oral.
[lii] Plus, this was the standard hairstyle for men, so people would spot such a plot hole quickly.
[liii] Also, remember how it was considered inappropriate for a woman to initiate sex and we think this wasn’t a native Japanese concept, but a Confucian patriarchal idea borrowed from China? Writing Izanami out of the next few lines of the Kojiki probably lends itself to making Izanagi the patriarch of all the elite court families of the Kofun Period.
[liv] Presumably he dies or “hides” like many kami before him.
[lv] And sometimes invaders.

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