Creation of Heaven and Earth
First off, I want to say this article is written for a range of people, from those who only know a little about Japanese mythology and religion up to people who love Japanese history but find the mythology only tangentially interesting[i]. In short, if you’re super into Japanese mythology — and the 古事記 Kojiki Records of Ancient Matters and 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki The Chronicles of Japan[ii] in particular – you may notice I’ve made some omissions or blended some traditions. If you’re not familiar with those texts, here’s the TLDR explanation: various versions of the same myths have been passed down – many of which contradict each other. I’m not teaching a graduate course on Japanese religion, so please understand that I have to keep things relatively simple.
I’ll be referring to certain aspects of Shintō cosmology in this article, so if you don’t know terms like 高天原 Takama ga Hara the Plain of High Heaven or 黄泉国 Yomi tsu Kuni the Land of Yomi, please read my general overview here. Seriously, if you don’t have a grasp of that, none of this will make any sense.
The Japanese Creation Myth was compiled by the Imperial Court in Kyōto in the 7th century out of various oral traditions, many of which varied slightly by clan and location. It’s essentially broken up into three parts. First, we learn about the formation of the heavens and earth and the spawning of the first seven generations of 神 kami deities. Second, we learn about the divine acts of the creator kami, married siblings[iii] named 伊邪那岐命 Izanagi no Mikoto[iv] and 伊邪那美命 Izanami no Mikoto[v], followed by their adventure in the underworld. Finally, the story concludes with the birth of the sun goddess/imperial ancestor, 天照大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami[vi].
- Japanese Cosmology (this is my introduction to the mythology universe)
- What are kami?
- What is the Kojiki?
- What is the Nihon Shoki?
- What is Shintō?
After you’re done reading the myth, be sure to check out my 9000-word in-depth explanation of the entire thing!
In the Beginning…
The universe used to be silent. Heaven and earth were not separated, but there was a shapeless blob like the inside of an egg containing three divine embryos. At one moment, the thin, lightweight matter began to rise upward and formed the heavens, while the heavier bits were weighed down until they formed a mass that would become earth, though it had no shape yet. Light shone above all the universe. Below that, clouds like pillows materialized which became the Plain of High Heaven. Being much heavier, under the heavens there formed the Central Plain of Reeds. Deep within the belly of the earth, the Land of Yomi took shape, dark, damp, and defiled. The heavens, made of beautiful clouds illuminated by the sun, became the realm of the heavenly kami. The earth, still without shape, would become the realm of the earthly kami. But Yomi was a realm only suitable for the dead.
The Heavenly Kami Appear
Up in the Heavenly High Plain, the first three kami[vii] spawned from the same primordial ooze that formed the world. These gods were single, sexless, invisible and without shape. They came into existence and then they hid[viii]. After that, also in heaven, two more kami[ix] appeared. They, too, were single, sexless, invisible, and without shape and they, too, came into existence and then hid. These first two generations are 別天神 Kotoama tsu Kami the Special Heavenly Kami. They miraculously appeared in the heavens without procreation; that is to say they materialized without siblings and had no need for mates.
The Five Special Heavenly Kami
the two on the right side ordered the creation of the world
Ame no Minakanushi no Kami
Takamimusubi no Kami
Kamimusubi no Kami
|The name Ame no Minakanushi means something like “heavenly ancestor who rules the center of the universe.”|
Umashi Ashikabi Hikoji no Kami
Ame no Tokotachi no Kami
|The name Ame no Tokotachi means something like “heavenly sprout that shoots forth from the ground.”|
Despite being specifically mentioned during the creation event, these kami disappear from the narrative almost immediately, never to be heard from again[x].
The Seven Generations of Kami Appear
The Plain of High Heaven was again empty because the Special Heavenly Gods had hidden. To fill the void, seven generations of kami came into existence. The first two generations that spawned were also genderless and had no siblings or mates. They were also invisible.
However, because the world was super boring with only hiding, invisible gods, the first kami made five successive generations of heavenly siblings[xi]. These heavenly spirits were male and female pairs, born as divine spouses[xii]. The seventh and final duo is the most well-known and the most important. They were the creators of the world, Izanagi and Izanami.
Because the Central Plain of Reeds was still just a shapeless blob of matter, the Special Heavenly Kami gave Izanagi and Izanami a magical spear decorated with jewels, named 天沼矛 Ame no Nuboko[xiii], and ordered them to use the weapon to give shape to the world. The couple went to 天浮橋 Ame no Ukihashi the Heavenly Floating Bridge connecting the High Plain of Heaven with the Central Plain of Reeds. There they dipped the spear into the primordial soup and began slowly stirring it around like an egg[xiv]. The bulk of the solid mass was shapeless, like a slippery jellyfish-shaped oil slick. From this matter they created 淤能碁呂島 Onogorojima Onogoro Island[xv] as their home.
First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage
Being tasked with creation by the Special Heavenly Kami, Izanagi and Izanami used the Heavenly Floating Bridge to descend to Onogoro Island so they could procreate and populate the world with earthly kami that would eventually become the kingdoms of the Central Land of Reed Plains. After all, it was pretty boring up in the clouds where the gods just sorta hung out doing nothing other than being invisible and hiding (or both). They had created a beautiful world, and what’s the first thing a couple wants to do in their beautiful new home? That’s right. You do what happens when a mommy kami and daddy kami love each other very much. You break in all the rooms, baby.
Since no one had married or made babies before, the couple naturally got off to a shaky start. Being all non-invisible and whatnot, they started to notice things about their bodies. Izanami remarked that she had a body, but something was missing compared to her lover’s body. Izanagi commented that he too had a body, but he had a little bit extra sticking out and he asked if he could slip his hard, protruding extra part into her wet and juicy empty part. Izanami was all like, “Jesus Christ, I thought you’d never ask!”
Thinking a ritual was necessary to make their union official, they erected a huge stone phallus called 天御柱 Ame no Mihashira the Heavenly Pillar on Onogoro Island to mark it as the Middle of the Central Plain of Reeds. Standing back to back, they slowly walked away from each other, circling around the pillar, until they met on the other side. When Izanami saw Izanagi, she spoke first saying, あなにやし ana ni yashi which roughly translates to “you’re so fine you blow my mind,” to which he replied あなにやし ana ni yashi “damn, you danker than a meme, girl.” However, Izanagi also noted that it was awkward for a girl to initiate sex, but they were already really horny so that didn’t stop them from being the first couple to ever fuck on earth.
Awwwwww yeah. Mythology!
Then Comes the Baby in a Burning Carriage
Eventually, Izanami gave birth to a nasty-ass deformed child named 蛭子 Hiruko the Leech Child[xvi]. The couple was so appalled by this hideous and disgusting filth-baby that they constructed a beautiful boat made of reeds and took it to the beach. They lovingly placed this vile abomination onboard, and gave it a little love tap out to sea… because, seriously, fuck that baby.
Despairing, the couple once again ascended up the Heavenly Floating Bridge to consult with the Heavenly Kami about why their offspring had been born deformed. The gods convened and performed a special divination ritual, then reported back to the grief-stricken newlyweds. Apparently, they said, the correct way to mate was for the male to approach the female[xvii] and they should try to consummate their marriage one more time. This time, the male, Izanagi, should initiate sex.
The couple took the floating bridge back to Onogoro Island and tried walking around the Heavenly Pillar again. Following the the advice of the Heavenly Kami, Izanagi greeted his wife first with the same phrase, ANA NI YASHI, and Izanami greeted her husband in the same way, ANA NI YASHI. They put on a little Marvin Gaye and tried again.
Bow Chicka Bowbow ( ᵕ́ૢ‧̮ᵕ̀ૢ)‧̊·*
Lo and behold, this time it worked! They produced healthy baby gods. And what’s more, they couldn’t get enough of this whole sex thing, so they gave birth to the kami of the mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, oceans, fields, and even created 大八洲 Ōyashima the Great Eight Islands of Japan[xviii]. They gave birth to about 35 gods in all[xix], but the last one was problematic. His name was 火之迦具土神 Hi no Kagutsuchi no Kami and he was the kami of fire. While gestating inside and passing from her womb and out her overworked baby-hole, Kagutsuchi burned Izanami so badly that she died during labor in the birthing hut[xx].
Izanagi was furious that this evil baby kami had burned his lovely bride to death. He grabbed his sword, beheaded Kagutsuchi, and continued to slice his body into eight pieces. Eight kami leapt forth from his blood and eight more from his flesh. Distraught at losing his beautiful wife, Izanagi carried Izanami’s lifeless body to the border of 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province and 伯耆国 Hōki no Kuni Hōki Province. Today, you can still visit her grave on 比婆山 Hiba-san Mt. Hiba in present-day 島根県安来市 Shimane-ken Yasugi-shi Yasugi City, Shimane Prefecture.
The Land of Yomi
So stricken with grief that his tears also became kami, Izanagi descended to the Land of Yomi, which was very dark. He went straight to Izanami’s chamber[xxi]. When she cracked open the door to greet him, he said “My lovely sister, the lands we made together are not complete. Please return with me to the Central Land of Reeds so we can finish creating the world.” To which Izanami replied, “My lovely brother, I wish you had come sooner. However, I can’t go back with you since I’ve already eaten food prepared in the Land of Yomi.”
But maybe there was hope. She said she would go speak to the kami who govern the underworld to see if they would make an exception and let her return to the land of the living with her husband. Before she left, she made Izanagi swear that whatever he does, he must not look at her in the light. “Do not look at me directly, or I will be ashamed,” she said. “I promise not look,” he said. “Just hurry up cuz I wanna create more, um, stuff, if you know what I mean.” “I do,” she replied. “I’ll just be a second.”
Just like my ex who used to take two hours (no joke!) to do her make up in the morning, Izanami’s meeting with the gods of Yomi also took freakin’ forever. “How long can this meeting go?” he thought. “We just made the whole world and yet the land of the dead is already understaffed?” But he waited longer because he loved her. And a lot of time went by. I mean, a LOT of time. So, getting bored just sitting there in the dark all by himself, Izanagi pulled a comb out of his left hair bun[xxii], broke off a tooth, and lit it on fire to make a small torch. He then entered his sister’s chamber to see if he could find her. The room was dark and damp like a cave, shadows from his tiny flame danced around the walls. He thought he heard movement…
From out of fucking nowhere, Izanami appeared – a rotting corpse, animated but crawling with maggots. Her putrid body was now the home of the horrible eight kami of thunder[xxiii].
Terrified, Izanagi tried to run away back to the Central Plain of Reeds, but Izanami, now 黄泉津 Yomi tsu Ōkami the Queen of Yomi, shrieked at him, “You promised not to look at me in this hideous form! You prooooooomised!” and straight away she ordered 黄泉津丑女 Yomi tsu shikome[xxiv] the monstrous hags of Yomi to capture him and bring him back to her to rot together in the Land of Yomi for eternity.
Izanagi took off and ran like hell towards the exit of Yomi. The rotting hags gained on him quickly, so Izanagi pulled off his headdress and dashed it to the ground where it magically turned into bunches of grapes. The hags were distracted by the delicious fruit and picked them up and started eating them. This bought him some time, but the hell hags quickly resumed their pursuit, and so Izanagi pulled the comb out of his right hair bun and scattered the teeth across the ground, where they magically transformed into bamboo shoots. Again, the hags stopped to pull the shoots out of the ground and eat them, which allowed Izanagi time to get farther away. Because the hags were clearly incompetent, Izanami summoned the eight thunder kami who lived inside her dead body and 1500 warriors to chase after her fleeing husband. However, Izanagi was now too far ahead of them. Sword in hand, he made his way towards the wide hill separating the Land of Yomi and the Central Land of Reed Plains[xxv]. He picked three peaches from a tree and waited until his pursuers arrived and threw the peaches at them. This, ummm, apparently scared away the eight thunder gods and 1500 warriors, because… peaches. His attackers retreated away from the slope, allowing Izanagi to run up the hill. Because this peach trick was so crazy effective, he gave peaches the title 大迦牟豆美命 Ōkamuzumi no Mikoto the Great Fruit Kami and ordered them to save mankind whenever people needed saving, because… peaches[xxvi].
Finally making it to the top of the hill, Izanagi rolled a boulder across the cave entrance and closed off the Land of Yomi from the Central Land of the Reed Plains. Huffing and puffing, he rested safely outside of the cave and leaned on the rock, trying to catch his breath. On the other side of the boulder, still within the Land of Yomi, Izanami stood, separated from her brother/husband[xxvii]. She saw now their situation was untenable and it was best to dissolve their marriage. This was the end, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, so she fired up the insult machine.
From the other side of the boulder, Izanami – now the Queen of Yomi – shouted, “If you leave me, I swear to fucking god I’ll strangle 1000 people in your lands every day!!!” To which Izanagi replied, “Oh yeah? Fine. If you strangle 1000 people every day, I’ll build 1500 産屋ubuya birthing huts… like, every fucking day!!![xxviii]” “Oh yeah?” shouted Izanami. “Yeah. You heard me.” He shouted back. “1500 birthing huts!” His beloved wife sniffled on the other side of the boulder. “1500 birthing huts… with hookers and blow.” he shouted just to rub it in. “And in the future, we’ll have love hotels – with massage chairs, free porn channels, Hitachi Magic Wands, and staff to come into the room and tickle your balls when you’re doing it doggy style.” There was silence as Izanami drifted away. “Yeah, cuz, these balls aren’t gonna tickle themselves, know what I mean?” Not a sound from the other side. “That’s what I thought.” Still there was only silence from inside the cave. “Good. Well, I’m going home without you then.” There was still no reply. “OK then. Hope you like it down there in Yomi or whatever you call it.”
Satisfied, Izanagi decided to return to their empty, lonely home on Onogoro Island[xxix].
The First Bath & the Birth of the Sun Goddess
Because he had visited the dark and damp Land of Yomi, Izanagi realized that his body was filthy, contaminated with death and decay. Before returning home, he stopped at the mouth of a river to purify himself. He undressed, throwing down his walking stick, his bag, and all his clothes. Dozens of kami were born from each item he discarded. He walked into the middle of the stream where it was deep and submerged himself. A dozen more deities came into existence. When he washed his right eye, the brilliant and shining 天照皇大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami was born. When he washed his left eye, the dark and mysterious 月読命 Tsukuyomi no Mikoto was born. When he washed his nose, a bunch of snot came out and that was the temperamental and ornery 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.
Izanagi removed his jeweled necklace[xxx] and placed it around Amaterasu’s neck. “I command thee to rule the High Plain of Heaven and give light to the world” thus she became the sun goddess and the ruler of heaven. He then turned to Tsukuyomi and commanded, “Thou shalt rule the night and the moon.” Lastly, he turned to the snot-baby Susano’o and said, “the turbulent sea shall be thy domain.”
And that, my friends, is the Japanese Creation Myth in a nutshell. From here, Izanami is no longer the female creator kami, she’s now the Queen of Yomi – confined to the underworld, she basically disappears from the narrative. She is either hiding like the gods who came before her generation or she abides in that dark world of ghosts. Izanagi doesn’t hide at this point. In fact, we’ll see him when we begin the legends of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. But he too will soon vanish as the next generation of kami become more active in the Central Land of Reed Plains.
I’m sorry if this seems like a bit of a cliffhanger, but we covered a lot today. We went from an undefined “chaos” familiar to us from Greek Mythology[xxxi] to the spontaneous formation of the world and the first kami all the way up until the transfer of divine authority from a creator deity to the sun goddess, Amaterasu. These stories may seem strange, but I tried to imply some of the deeper meanings as we moved along through the narrative without getting into too many explanations.
In my next article, we’re going to take a break of the mythological narrative to talk about what all these stories mean. Are they just crazy magical stories or is there something we can learn about the history and culture of Japan in the Kofun Period? Are there things in these stories that are relevant today? Stay tuned for an epic breakdown of this entire article, and after that, we’re going to find out why Amaterasu is the most the important kami in all of Japanese mythology.
[i] Dare I say “boring.” I mean, it isn’t actually history, you know.
[ii] These are the earliest written sources we have for Shintō mythology.
[iii] Some claim such familial relationships didn’t exist in the Age of the Gods and therefore they are neither siblings nor could they have engaged in incestuous. Others say, “oh, yeah, this brother and sister duo were totally fucking the shit out of each other.” If you believe it’s incest, you can see the relationship as spiritually contaminated which is why tragedy eventually befalls the couple.
[iv] We’ll just call him Izanagi for short.
[v] We’ll just call her Izanami for short.
[vi] We’ll just call her Amaterasu for short.
[vii] The first generation of kami were: 天之御中主神 Ame no Minakanushi no Kami (creator of the universe and subsequent heavenly gods), 高御産巣日神 Takamimusubi no Kami, and 神産巣日神 Kamimusubi no Kami.
[viii] What does “hide” mean? That’s a good question. Nobody knows! In some cases it can mean “die” but in most cases, it means something like “disappear” or “go away.” Basically, when a kami hides, it means they disappear from the narrative (usually forever). The gods are mysterious, so they can do stuff like that and you just have to except it.
[ix] The second generation of kami were: 宇摩志阿斯訶備比古遅神 Umashi Ashikabi Hikoji no Kami and 天之常立神 Ame no Tokotachi no Kami.
[x] Although they disappear from the legends, you can find them enshrined all throughout Japan.
[xi] Some versions say the Seven Generations were made by the first kami, but other versions imply they just popped into existence. The details are really vague.
[xii] These siblings are sometimes considered married, but these relationships were not incestuous because these pairs did not procreate.
[xiii] The name literally means “heavenly swamp-spear” which probably refers to its use by Izanagi and Izanami to stir up the primordial soup to give shape to the earth.
[xiv] Imagine slowly stirring an egg. The egg yolk is the land mass; the egg white is the water that would become the ocean.
[xv] Onogorojima is a Modern Japanese rendering of the name of this island. Presumably, in Old Japanese it was pronounced /onogoro sima/ or /onogoro ɕima/.
[xvi] Yes, the name literally means “leech” and “child.”
[xvii] To which Izanagi presumably said, “I told you so.”
[xviii] I’ll talk about these locations later, but for now, keep in mind that this creation myth – like all other creation myths – is specific to its people and their traditions. The “creation of Japan” and the “creation of the world” more or less synonymous. Also, the locations of these islands are basically modern-day 九州 Kyūshū, 四国 Shikoku, and southwestern 本州 Honshū.
[xix] Most interestingly, the kami of mud and clay popped out of Izanami’s shit, and the kami of water greens popped out of her piss. This is thought to reflect the importance of human excrement as fertilizer which first appeared in the Yayoi Period. This so-called “night soil” was a booming industry until the post-war years. See my article here.
[xx] Shintō considers birth and death as spiritual contaminated phenomena and as such, you should never give birth or die in the family home, a special hut can be built for this. Afterwards, that hut can be ritually burned to purify the area.
[xxi] Where was she living in Yomi? Presumably, in a space similar to a Kofun Period burial chamber.
[xxii] The popular hairstyle during the Kofun Period was two buns similar to Princess Leia’s hair in Star Wars: A New Hope.
[xxiii] In her head, Great Thunder. In her breasts, Fire Thunder. In her belly, Black Thunder. In her pussy, Slit Thunder. In her left and right hands, Young Thunder and Earth Thunder. In her left and right feet, Rumbling Thunder and Chillin’ Like a Villain Thunder. Nobody knows what the fuck any of this means.
[xxiv] Because vowel sounds from Old Japanese have simplified in Modern Japanese, this term is sometimes romanized as Yomo tsu Shikome. The reconstructed pronunciation is /jömötsu sikome/ or /jömötsu ɕikome/. The kanji for shikome is obsolete, this word still exists in Modern Japanese but it written 醜女.
[xxv] This slope is called 黄泉比良坂 Yomi tsu Hirasaka (“wide hill of Yomi”). Again, because of diachronic sound changes, Yomi sometimes appears as Yomo when combined with the genitive particle tsu.
[xxvi] Apparently, this tradition of magic peaches was imported from China.
[xxvii] Brusband? Can we please make this word in Japanese Studies???
[xxviii] Ubuya were birthing huts. Because Shintō considered births, deaths, excretion, and menstruation as contaminated activities, special shacks were built for this purpose. One extreme case is when emperors died, the defiled palace would be burned and a new palace built in another location. This tradition stopped when permanent palaces were built. Kyōto is a good example of a city with a permanent imperial residence.
[xxix] This myth is the earliest instance in Japanese history of a depressed, lonely, divorced man going to live alone again for the first time.
[xxx] The “jewels” in question are 勾玉 magatama comma-shaped stones used as talismans among Kofun Period elites. They are a symbol of delegated divine authority. To this day, such “jewels” are one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.
[xxxi] While researching this, I had a conversation with a friend about mythology in general. They asked me about the Roman creation myth. It was a good question because I think the Roman’s adopted the Greek creation myth at a very early stage in their developmental history, or it was so similar to theirs – but told way better – that it blended with their own myth and soon supplanted it. Would be interested if anyone knows any “pure” Roman creation stories.