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Posts Tagged ‘cosmology’

Amaterasu and the Rock Cave Explained

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 2, 2020 at 7:01 am

天岩戸の説明
Ama no Iwato Shinwa no Setsumei

Explanation of the Creation Myth

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

Welcome to Japan’s Most Famous Legend

Also, if you haven’t read Amaterasu and the Rock Cave and all of my footnotes, go do that first. Otherwise, none of this will make any sense to you.

The Rock Cave Myth is by far the most famous of all Japanese myths. If we keep in mind that 天武天皇 Tenmu Tennō Emperor Tenmu commissioned the Kojiki in order to emphasize the imperial family’s divine origins[i] and to clarify their position as the rightful rulers of the realm. It also legitimized the ranks and duties of the most noble clans of the 大和朝廷 Yamato Chōtei Yamato Court by illustrating their divine descent as well. In a not unobvious way, the Kojiki describes how the divine ancestors of the courtiers assisted the divine ancestor of the imperial family in the Rock Cave Myth which implies their subservience to the royal family. Furthermore, we see descriptions of Shintō rituals – either the origins of them or hints that these rites and beliefs existed prior to the compilation of these myths in the 7th century.

One thing that I’ve kept coming back to is the precocious and sometimes silly or self-absorbed nature of the heavenly kami depicted in these myths. If these are indeed divine beings, they don’t impart any sort of morality and they rarely – if ever – act as role models. That’s not their role in the universe. They are part of a natural order that are bound by the same rules as the humans who study these stories. As I mentioned in a previous article, Japanese religion is not a system based on authoritative texts like the Torah, the Bible, or the Q’uran. It is a syncretic polytheistic system which requires cultic practices[ii] similar to the Greek and Roman gods. Doing the correct rituals at the right time to appease them or to ask for their help is the most important thing for humans who wish to interact with kami. If Japanese gods teach us anything, it’s how to observe rituals correctly.

So, I’m assuming that you’ve already read my version of Amaterasu and the Rock Cave, so I’ve broken down my exegesis into about four sections going through each part of the myth. If you haven’t, I’m pretty sure none of this will make any sense. If you have, then let’s get right into it!

Further Reading:

616121AB-DFF1-48CF-9843-385A0CF08C45What’s up with Susano’o?

Some have speculated that Susano’o’s obnoxious behavior is a memory of ancient rite whereby people summoned kami by howling and weeping. This might be true, but I think it’s easier to just say gods are self-absorbed and you have to really work at getting their attention. In the Rock Cave Myth, the other kami campout and basically through a party with a stripper just to get Amaterasu’s attention. If you’ve ever visited a Shintō shrine, you’ve probably walked up to the main hall, bowed, and then clapped twice to call the kami over to you. Shrine festivals usually included temporarily enshrining the kami in 御神輿 o-mikoshi a portable shrine which is picked up and carried around town while being shaken nonstop to the sound of chanting parishioners – just to make sure the kami stays present for the whole day.

A lot has been written about Susano’o. In the ancient records, he is depicted as hero god who slays a mythical snake and saves a sexy damsel in distress, but in the Kojiki, he is depicted as a whiny and obnoxious man-baby who throws a bizarre temper tantrum including animal torture and throwing shit all over his sister’s house. In my retelling of the myth, I call him the kami of winds and seas – a common attribution. The great 20th century historian Tsuda Sōkichi thought that Susano’o could be interpreted as a purely political actor in these myths and that he represented a faction of the Yamato Court that rebelled or went rogue, which is why he is portrayed as selfish and destructive[iii].

However, there are scholars who think that the angry 須佐之男命 Susano’o in the Kojiki and the heroic 素戔嗚尊等 Susano’o in the Nihon Shoki are two completely different deities who were assumed by the ancients to be the same (remember, orthography[iv] wasn’t standardized at the time, at least not as it is today). Some have even made the case that Susano’o isn’t a native Japanese kami, but a god imported from the Korean peninsula original worshiped by immigrants from the Kingdom of Silla. There’s no consensus as to Susano’o’s origins, and I’ve based my retelling only of the version in the Kojiki, so I’m not going to get into his character too deeply. Regardless of where he came from, scholar Emilia Gadeleva has suggested that Amaterasu and Susano’o came to form “a pair consisting of a sun-deity and a water-deity” whose worship was critical to the cultivation of rice.

For the purposes of my retelling of this myth, we only see Susano’o briefly. He’s a major player, and one day, I’ll get to him, I’m sure. In the Kojiki, his life unfolds in four parts: 1) as a petulant child who cries incessantly which brings disorder to the world; 2) as a teenager or young man who is rebellious and terrifying (especially to Amaterasu); 3) a mature man who slays a serpent, gets married, and builds a home; 4) as a father, he is the Lord of the Underworld[v] and protective father who harasses his daughter’s suitor[vi]. Today we only see stages one and two, which, let’s be honest, don’t paint him in a very good light.

I’d like to say one more thing about Susano’o before we move on. After bringing devastation to the world by his “weeping and howling,” he tells Izanagi that he wants to go to the Land of his Deceased Mother[vii]. This is strange since his mother died before his birth (which kinda makes her not his mother, technically, right?), but Gadeleva insists that “the land” is his destination, not his mother. And that land is the underworld, which will become his realm later in his life. If this is true, then including Susano’o’s troubled early years is a kind of foreshadowing of his ultimate destiny. But yeah, for the time being he’s just an annoying brat.

Lastly, in support of the theory that Amaterasu and Susano’o were worshipped as a pair of agricultural deities (sun and rain), there is a hint in their actions that is not so obvious upon your first reading. Both Amaterasu and Susano’o accidentally cause great disasters to the Central Land of Reeds. The brother’s incessant crying (storms and rains) made the trees wither and the rivers run dry[viii]. The sister’s retreat into the Heavenly Rock Cave plunged the world in darkness and brought the evil kami out of the shadows. If you don’t believe me that there are parallels between these two deities (I was skeptical myself at first, too), just check this out:

Amaterasu and Susano’o as Divine Foils[ix]

Amaterasu

Susano’o

Female

Male

Disciplined

Undisciplined

Cosmos

Chaos

Order

Disorder

Pure

Impure

Associated with heaven

Associated with Earth, later the Underworld

Establishes the rightful clan at Yamato

Establishes the rival clan at Izumo

Weaver

Warrior

Wears jewels (magatama beads)[x]

Wears a sword

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The Divine Commands

After purifying himself from the contagions he was covered in after leaving the Land of Yomi, Izanagi gives birth to the Three Noble Children. Susano’o is given control of the seas and storms, fitting his character nicely (at least as portrayed in the Kojiki). Tsukuyomi is given control of the night (which is inherently mysterious and fits his character nicely). However, before giving Amaterasu rule over the heavens and earth, Izanagi does something special. He takes off his necklace decorated with magatama beads and places it around his daughter’s neck. He doesn’t do this for the other two Noble Children.

In the text, the necklace is called 御倉板挙之神 Mikuratama no Kami. In that name we have 板挙 tama which is probably ateji for the homophones /tama/ which mean jewel/bead, ball, or soul. In Modern Japanese the kanji /霊 tama conveys the idea of soul while 玉 tama means ball, bead, or jewel. The word appears in the term 勾玉 maga-tama comma-shaped jewels prized by Yayoi and Kofun Period Wajin. One way to read the necklace’s name Mikuratama no Kami is “deity of the treasury of divine spirits” which demonstrates that the necklace isn’t just a necklace, but it is, in fact, a kami in its own right. Furthermore, it implies that this kami protects the souls of the imperial family and its divine ancestors.

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Izanagi shakes the necklace before putting it on Amaterasu. This action is instantly recognizable as a Shintō ritual. It’s reminiscent of cultic practices to pacify spirits called 鎮魂 chinkon, which we will discuss later. Ultimately, the shaking of the beads indicates that this is a sacred act. In the Age of Gods, the rattling sound attracted the attention of nearby kami as witnesses; and in the Age of Man, it beckons both kami and humans.

This is thought to be a prayer for Amaterasu’s longevity, an act Izanagi doesn’t perform for Tsukuyomi or Susano’o. Therefore, I think it’s pretty clear that giving Amaterasu these beads represents a transfer of divine authority from Izanagi the creator kami to the sun goddess[xi]. Make no mistake about it. This is foreshadowing. It reminds us of Amaterasu’s later transfer of divine authority to her grandson who later transfers this sacred rulership to his grandson, thus establishing the imperial line. In European terms, the imperial family can later be seen to rule Dei gratiā by the grace of God[xii].

After being banished, Susano’o storms up to the heavens to – presumably – say farewell to Amaterasu. She immediately thinks he wants to steal her lands. She suits up for battle complete with bow and arrow. She stands ready to confront her immature brother and defend her realm, but oddly, she doesn’t shoot him nor does she reprimand him. To modern minds, Amaterasu seems weak and incapable of protecting herself and standing up to her brother. Even after Susano’o destroys her rice paddies, shits in her dining room, and then throws a dead horse in her weaving room, she forgives him by pretending to misunderstand his intentions. And when things get so bad, she can’t take it anymore; rather than fight, she retreats to the Rock Cave and hides. However, this shouldn’t be seen as weakness, but magnanimity. She is the divine ancestor of the emperors. She may rule during a state of war, but she does not fight herself. Rather, she delegates that power to others and they fight to defend her, just as the Japanese emperors ruled from their palaces and engaged in rituals while warriors fought on behalf of the imperial family[xiii].

SANKISHI

 

The Divine Competition

Upon first reading, this seemed like little more than a cosmic dick waving competition disguised as a super-boring sacred genealogy. Basically, this chapter is an excuse to have Amaterasu and Susano’o pop out some baby kami who the compilers of the Kojiki assumed were the divine ancestors of high-ranking clans in the Yamato Court or at very least kami enshrined at very important shrines of the 6th and 7th centuries. I skipped that entire part of the story because it’s just as boring as any of the ”begats” you read in the Bible or Torah. A lot of scholars get boners for this sort of thing, but I’m not even half-mast about it, so…

Anyhoo, in the Kojiki, Susano’o gives birth to 三貴子 Miharashi no Uzu no Miko the Three Divine Daughters[xiv]. The ancient Japanese name is unwieldy, so I’ll use the Chinese reading San Kishi[xv] if I ever have to refer to them again. These girls’ names are: 多紀理毗売命 Takiri-hime no Mikoto, 市寸嶋比売命 Ichikishima-hime no Mikoto[xvi], and 多岐都比売命 Takitsu-hime no Mikoto. The middle name is the only one important these days. If you’ve ever been to the sacred island of 宮島 Miyajima in Hiroshima, you’ve probably visited the famous shrine 厳島神社 Itsukushima Jinja Itsukushima Shrine (the one with the floating gate). The three daughters are enshrined there and you may have seen their images in the underground passage that leads from 宮島口駅 Miyajimaguchi Eki Miyajimaguchi Station over to the ferries that take you to the island. If the name Ichikishima (sometimes read as Itsukishima) sounds similar to Itsukushima, well, I think you can put two and two together.

Susanoo1
Susano’o Rages with Victory

As the kami of the oceans and storms, Susano’o is seen as a negative and even destructive nature god. This is definitely in line with his popular image, but as I mentioned earlier, my account only includes stages one and two of his character arc[xvii]. Some scholars claim he represents unsuccessful revolts by other kingdoms against a rising Yamato hegemony – or even a rogue faction within the Yamato Court itself, which had to be exiled[xviii]. An older version of this myth, which appears in the Nihon Shoki, states that Susano’o gave birth to three sons reflecting the patrilineal hierarchy of the Kofun Period and later Heian Period. However, the version in the Kojiki, has Susano’o give birth to three females, which some scholars believe remembers a matrilineal monarchy that existed in the earlier Yayoi Period[xix]. Again, this kami is quite the conundrum.

Susano’o commits several significant desecrations of Amaterasu’s palace. First, he destroys rice paddies. Next, he shits in her dining room and throws poo everywhere. Then he flays a horse, throws it into her weaving hall, and kills her weaving maiden.

Now, this is all pretty fucked up stuff. First, I want to say that many scholars from the Edo Period until present day have interpreted the Rock Cave Myth as an allegory comparable to the autumn equinox or even a solar eclipse (death and rebirth of the sun, yada yada yada). If we accept the autumn equinox hypothesis, that puts us in harvest season. 新嘗祭 Niiname no Matsuri the Festival of the First Fruits was an important ritual in which the first harvest was presented to the village headman or local magistrate, or in the case of the capital, to the emperor and his court. Rice paddies take a lot of work to build and maintain, but the payoff is great. Rice is food. Excess rice is income. To destroy someone’s rice paddies is to undo all of the backbreaking hard work invested in feeding people. If the village headman can’t keep the agricultural kami happy, the village starves. If the emperor can’t keep the agricultural kami happy on a national scale, the country starves. Also, he loses money. He loses respect. He theoretically could lose his family’s right to rule. So, destroying rice paddies should be seen as an outrageous sacrilege.

The second desecration is closely related to the first, and is probably equally as impactful to modern minds as it was to ancient ones. Susano’o broke into Amaterasu’s home, proceeded to her “dining hall” which conjures up the imagery of the Festival of the First Fruits, a sacred space to present the harvest that will get the people through the harsh winter and guarantee the stability of the ruling family. Rather than respect this room, the petulant brother takes a crap on the floor and throws shit everywhere. Obviously, this is dirty and disgusting. I mean, it’s just not sanitary. Nobody wants to shit where they eat. But Susano’o deliberately intends to up end the cosmic order by not shitting in proper toilet, rather he does it inside his sister’s house. Human excrement was collected and repurposed as fertilizer, so shit had a monetary value that was being wasted here. Not only did he poop in the wrong place, his poop was just wasted. Well, he already destroyed the rice paddies, so… whatever.

horse susanoo

The Weaving Room & the Flayed Pony

The final desecration is the weirdest one. Despite being armed with a bow and two quivers of arrows, Amaterasu makes excuses for Susano’o’s behavior and hopes he’ll calm down and behave. She quietly retreats to the Heavenly Weaving Room in her palace to oversee the manufacture of sacred, ritual garments by her weaving maiden. We know that during the celebration of the First Fruits Festival at 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine, the center of the Amaterasu cult, expensive new garments were woven by women and presented by women to the goddess[xx]. The original readers of the Kojiki or anyone who heard this myth retold probably would have an instant image in their head of what is going on by placing Susano’o’s final act of sabotage in the Weaving Room. One other image they may have had in mind is the 大嘗祭 daijō-sai Imperial Accession Ceremony which developed out of the Festival of the First Fruits[xxi]. There are ritual elements drawn from the Weaving Room Myth and the Rock Cave Myth.

While Amaterasu is overseeing this important ritual activity to ensure a good harvest and healthy winter for all, her dickhead brother goes out and finds a baby horse and flays it alive. Flaying is the act of removing the skin from an animal[xxii] usually from head to tail which is easier. Instead, Susano’o doesn’t kill the colt first, no. He flays skins the animal alive backwards – ie; from tail to head[xxiii]. This has long been interpreted as a kind of black magic or curse. And as if torturing an innocent animal to death in the most drawn out, agonizing way wasn’t enough; he drags the animal up to the top of the house and then destroyed her thatched roof (very expensive and winter is coming) and tosses the poor creature into the Weaving Hall. The weaving maiden is caught off guard, and accidentally runs the weaving shuttle into her vagina which kills her instantly.

OK, there’s a lot to unpack there. First, why a pony? Well, remember, this is Shintō. These days, many shrines may have some sacred animals on their premises. Roosters and deer are the most common in my experience. Some very important shrines may have stables with some sacred horses – 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū comes to mind[xxiv] – but more often than not, there may be a statue of a white horse in a symbolic “stable.” The horse is meant to represent the kami’s personal steed, so until the Meiji Period, local lords or courtiers would donate expensive horses to shrines as an act of ritual piety. Perhaps this horse was Amaterasu’s personal ride?

The death of the weaving maiden is often thought to be a substitute for the death of Amaterasu and a foreshadowing of her symbolic death in the Rock Cave. First, if the heavenly ancestor of the imperial family stabbed herself in the vagina by accident and died, it wouldn’t be a good look. Right? Therefore, the maiden dies in her place. Claude Lévi-Strauss calls the maiden’s death and Amaterasu’s symbolic death in the cave “a single chord sounded by several notes” which is just a poetic, French way of saying foreshadowing. Why’d the weaver have to get stabbed in the pussy? Your guess is as good as mine, but I suppose it makes a good parallel with Izanami’s death by having her pussy burned to death by Kagutsuchi the fire kami[xxv].

One final comment about the Weaving Room. The act of weaving can be interpreted as bringing order to chaos, and even to the myth-making process itself. In Modern English, we have a phrase “to weave a tale” which means “to create a story” which shows this concept isn’t far removed from us in this day and age. We can think of humans engaging in agriculture as bringing order to chaos, something which Alan Miller has called “cosmic weaving.” If this is the case, then all three of the desecration committed by Susano’o can be seen as related. He undoes cosmic order by destroying the agricultural cycle by “unweaving” Amaterasu’s divine order. He kills her priestess preparing the cultic offering usually given in exchange for a good harvest. That ceremony was the prototype for the ritual of imperial accession, so he threatens the cosmic order brought by the imperial clan. He defiles the purity of the weaving room and therefore the myths and rituals themselves. He craps in her dining hall making it impossible to perform the Festival of First Fruits and wastes much needed fertilizer for the fields by just flinging it around inside the palace. And lastly, he destroys the sacred rice paddies which deprive the people of food and the offerings they need to ask for good luck during the harvest and for the cold winter when resources are scarce – ultimately bankrupting and potentially starving the world.

These are unforgivable transgressions, yet Amaterasu does not seek vengeance. She does not destroy Susano’o. Instead, she hides.

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The Rock Cave Myth

Is the Rock Cave Myth simply a solar myth? Is something similar to the Dying God myths of Western Antiquity? I think there’s good reason to think so. The Festival of First Fruits was held throughout ancient Japan up until the Heian Period. There are records from villages big and small, and the most important festival was based at the heart of the Amaterasu cult, Ise Shrine. Harvest festivals celebrated bountiful food resources to get the people through the winter until the next growing season. They gave thanks to the workers who toiled in the fields, gave honor and praise to the kami that helped them and requested continued support in the next cycle. They ensured a financially stable court and imperial family, who in turn guaranteed safety and prosperity to the common people. It was win-win-win[xxvi].

In order to get that win-win-win, you needed the sun and the rain to cooperate[xxvii], but clearly Amaterasu and Susano’o are not playing well together. Things go so badly, that Amaterasu hides in the Heavenly Rock Cave, thus plunging the world into darkness. This darkness brings misery to both the kami and all other living things. This could represent a solar eclipse, which could be seen as trial run for a real eternal cosmic night[xxviii], or just winter, which could be seen as a metaphorical night. At any rate, bringing Amaterasu out of the cave and restoring order was of utmost importance.

daijosai

The Rock Cave Myth is either a description of existing rituals or a template for new rituals regarding this death/rebirth concept. The two rituals in question are:

鎮魂祭
chinkon-sai

a ritual to pacify spirits;

in Modern Japanese, it refers to ceremonies for the repose of departed souls.

大嘗祭
daijō-sai

originally the First Fruits Festival;

a secret ceremony where a newly ascended emperor offers new rice to Amaterasu, ritually eats with her, then spends the night alone with her in a special temporary building called 廻立殿 kairyūden.

If we accept the interpretation that Amaterasu’s retreat to the Rock Cave is a metaphorical death, then the chinkon-sai comparison is particular apt. Even if we disagree with that interpretation, the ritual elements present in this myth are obviously connected with these rites. However, according to John Breen and Mark Teeuven, it’s unclear whether chikon-sai is a Daoist interpretation of the Rock Cave Myth or an older Japanese ritual reflected in the myth told in the Kojiki. Anyhoo, I think we can all agree the connection is obvious.

If we accept the version in the Nihon Shoki, where it’s Amaterasu who gets banged in the pussy by the heavenly weaving loom and dies (as opposed to Amaterasu’s maiden/priestess), we can see the Rock Cave Myth as the death and burial of the sun-goddess, followed by the other kami performing a ritual correctly in order to resurrect her. This is certainly possible and conforms with Shintō rites and cultic practices of other polytheistic cultures. If we superimpose this onto the daijō-sai, we can imagine the emperor entering the kairyūden just as Amaterasu entered the cave, then reappearing later to bring back cosmic order and prosperity to the land. So, both rituals have death/rebirth elements.

This myth is perpetuated in modern Japan through the imported Buddhist concept of お盆 o-Bon which in Japan, is a syncretic observance of the ancestor cults. You can read about it here, but long story short: all of the kami in Japan return to Izumo Province for a month to re-enact the Rock Cave Myth[xxix], in that time, the ancestors of your clan return home[xxx]. This month, in accordance with the agricultural cycles (and a little modern tweaking) is October which is traditionally called 神無月 Kannazuki the month without kami. Conversely, in Shimane Prefecture (ancient Izumo Province) they call this month 神有月 or 神在月 Kamiarizuki the month with all the gods present.

ise jingu

The Divine Camp Out and Sacred Stripper Party

For narrative purposes, the assembly of deities at the Heavenly River in front of the Heavenly Rock-Cave is just to get everyone together to figure out what to do about Amaterasu. She’s supposed to weave order in the cosmos but instead as created chaos. Most textual analysis of this myth tends to view the encampment of kami as a meeting of the Yamato Court. The divine ancestors of many court families are present, which further legitimizes their status in that government. I’ve heard Mark Ravina say that he thinks this myth illustrates “decision by committee” as a kind of Japanese cultural trait that has persisted since time immemorial[xxxi]. Whether it reflects those ideas or not, the narrative is clear: this is big enough problem that all the kami need to come together and get Amaterasu out of the cave. In other myths, some kami help other kami, but this is the only instance in which every single kami[xxxii] comes to the assistance of just one kami. That makes Amaterasu one pretty important deity, I’ll say.

To coax Amaterasu out of the cave, the assembled kami perform a ritual. If you’re unfamiliar with Shintō practices, it seems like they improvise these actions. If you’re familiar with Shintō, it seems like they engage in very normal activities. This goes back to Breen and Teeuven’s question: are these religious innovations inserted into the myth or are these older rituals incorporated into the myth? My personal opinion is that there were existing similar practices, easily recognizable to the audience of the Kojiki and the Wajin population as a whole, but the “flavor” was distinctly that of Ise Shrine and the Yamato Court. Whether intentional or not, by writing these things down, the compilers of the Kokiki may have inadvertently ushered in an era of nationwide conformity in Shintō under the umbrella of the court’s most important Shrine[xxxiii].

encampment outside the heavenly rock cave

First, the kami bring roosters on to the scene. When the sun rises, roosters crow. Anyone from any agrarian society can tell you this[xxxiv]. This is a kind of sympathetic magic – ie; if the roosters crow, the sun will come up. That’s the natural order of things to primitive minds. That said, the natural order has broken down. Susano’o has wreaked chaos upon the world and Amaterasu’s retreat into the cave has compounded this upending of order. And the people writing these myths weren’t primitive minds. Maybe shitty storytellers, but not primitive lol.

Anyhoo, the rooster didn’t work. So, next the gods try a real ritual. First, they call two very specific kami associated with metal-working: 天児屋命 Ame no Koyane no Mikoto (Amenokoyane) and 布刀玉命 Futo Tama no Mikoto (Futotama). In my article on Japanese Cosmology, I mentioned that these two kami are presented as divine ancestors of two priestly clans, 中臣氏 Nakatomi-uji the Nakatomi Clan and 斎部氏 Imibe-uji the Inbe Clan respectively[xxxv]. The Nakatomi were responsible for chanting magic incantations, and the Inbe were responsible for performing cultic offerings. We see Amenokoyane and Futotama perform these same roles in front of the Rock Cave. The other main kami to feature prominently in the encampment of the kami is 天宇受賣命 Ama no Uzume no Mikoto (Amano’uzume) who is presented as the divine ancestor of 猿女氏 Surume-uji the Surume clan. As you can probably guess, the Surume provided ritual dancers to the court. The dancing style perfected by the Surume eventually evolved into 神楽 kagura shrine dancing[xxxvi]. All in all, seven kami are specifically listed as present at the encampment outside of the Rock Cave, all of them trying to coax Amaterasu to come outside. These seven kami will appear again in the Descent from Heaven Myth, which I’ll write about later. But for the time being, just recognize that the main actors in the Rock Cave Myth are considered ancestors of the highest-ranking members of the Yamato Court at the time these stories were compiled[xxxvii].

yata no kagami

The metal-working kami forge a bronze mirror. Mirrors were considered symbols of the sun because they reflected light. Metal-working, and mirrors specifically, were foreign technologies and at one time were so rare and expensive, that it seems inevitable they were assigned magical and spiritual values. To this day, you’ll still find mirrors in the 拝殿 haiden front hall and/or 本殿 honden main hall[xxxviii] of most Shintō shrines. The tree replanted in front of the Rock Cave is of a variety that is still considered sacred today, and it is decorated with ropes upon which hang a myriad of magatama beads. Now we have two items included in the future imperial regalia mentioned specifically in writing: 八咫鏡 Yata no Kagami the Eight Ta Mirror[xxxix] and 勾玉 magatama the sacred beads. Just as the presence of the divine ancestors foreshadows the Descent from Heaven Myth, I think the presence of these sacred items also foreshadows that same future myth which is critical to the legitimizing the imperial family’s divine right to rule Japan.

Another point that might seem weird about the campsite is the collection of a deer’s shoulder and hahaka wood from Mt. Amanokagu. This is a reference to an ancient type of divination called 占 uranai[xl]. This practice is not unlike divinations performed by haruspicēs and auspicēs in Ancient Rome. The former pulled out livers and organs of sacrificed animals and read them much as a palm reader might look at your hand today, while the latter looked for meaning in the flight patterns of birds. In ancient Japanese, burning a male deer bone over hahaka wood caused cracks to appear in the osseous material which the diviners “read” – again, just like a palm reader “reads” the lines and fingerprints of your hand[xli]. While any information gleaned from these kinds of acts was meaningless, a lot of cultures have considered it valuable for millennia. The Yamato Court found it so valuable, in fact, that they had courtiers who oversaw such rituals and thought it important enough to include in the Kojiki.

go-hei

Two other terms jumped out at me: 青和幣 ao nikite blue cloth and 白和幣 shiro nikite white cloth. These appear to be the precursors of what is as ubiquitous a symbol of Shintō as a 鳥居 torii gate. That is, 御幣 go-hei lightening-shaped pieces of white paper that decorate purified spaces. There are a few interesting things we can learn about the use of these terms ao nikite and shiro nikite. One is that they are quite ancient ritual items that predate the use of go-hei which are only made of white paper today (often of a very low-grade traditional paper). The second is that the custom predates the introduction of 洋産業  yōsangyō sericulture (ie; silk culture), or at least the widespread cultivation of silkworms in Japan. Ao nikite was made from undyed hemp paper which has a naturally blue/green tint. Shiro nikite could be bleached hemp paper, but was more likely made from white mulberry bark which was naturally white[xlii].

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Let’s Wrap Things Up

In the Rock Cave Myth, we see a crystallization of Shintō ritual and Shintō symbolism. The paper streams, the magic ropes, the magatama beads, the sacred mirror; ritual incantations, offerings, and dances; the stories of kami from whom the most elite of the elite members of the Yamato Court claimed descent from[xliii]; and we get hints at a fantasy-world cosmology slowly being consolidated into a national mytho-historic narrative that has clearly placed the sun goddess, Amaterasu, at the top of the spiritual hierarchy.

I’m going to take a break from mythology for a while because, wow… please understand that the research I’m doing into this is way above my pay grade (ps: I don’t have a pay grade. I do this for free, so if you like what I do, feel free to make a donation down below). However, when we return to the Japanese Creation Myths, it’s gonna be just as much fun and just as nerdy. I promise.

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[i] Remember in a previous article I mentioned that emperors used to be called 大君Ōkimi great kings, but since the Tenmu Emperor’s time they we called 天皇 tennō heavenly king (a term modeled on the Chinese 天帝 tentei (actual Chinese reading is tiān-dì heavenly emperor). Both the Japanese and Chinese words are often translated as “son of heaven.”
[ii] Remember, the word “cult” in this sense doesn’t mean Scientology or Jehovah’s Witnesses or anything like that. It is the original meaning of the word, which is intrinsically tied to the Roman concept of cultus deōrum devotion to the gods, observance of divine rituals.
[iii] These days, Tsuda’s take on Japanese mythology seems quite cynical, as he seemed to interpret many characters and actions in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki as mytho-historic political machinations within the Yamato Court.
[iv] Orthography is “spelling.”
[v] Ne no Katasu no Kuni; it’s unclear if this is the same of different than the Land of Yomi.
[vi] The suitor is Ōnamuchi no Kami, who later becomes Ōkuninushi no Kami. We’ll hear about him in the next article.
[vii] 妣國 Haha no Kuni the Land of my Dead Mother.
[viii] I’m still not sure how adding more water makes a river run dry, but nobody asked me.
[ix] This chart is taken directly from Alan Miller’s work.
[x] Amaterasu dons bow and arrow, yet never uses them. Therefore, I see her as a symbolic head of an army, but not a warrior herself. Furthermore, this donning of weaponry and striking a warlike pose (similar to what you see before a bout of 相撲 sumō begins) may hearken back to Amaterasu’s prehistoric male origins. This is not, however, the mythological origins of sumō. We’ll cover that in a later article.
[xi] Remember, the Imperial Regalia of Japan are a sword, a mirror, and magatama beads.
[xii] But let’s be truthful with out Latin, the Japanese imperial family ruled deōrum infīnītōrum gratiā by the grace of the infinite gods.
[xiii] Keep in mind that the word 侍 samurai literally means “servant of the imperial court.” Before the rise of the samurai class, the unrefined warriors were the regional military governors who ruled and fought on behalf of their Kyōto benefactors. That is, until they realized they had all the armies and local villages and the courtiers in Kyōto were just a bunch of pussies who didn’t respect them and ordered them around. Then you got the rise of the samurai class.
[xiv] By the way, the Nihon Shoki claims Susano’o has three sons, not daughters.
[xv] Apparently, Sān Guìzǐ in Chinese.
[xvi] Also written 市杵島媛命 Ichikishima-hime no Mikoto.
[xvii] We’ll probably come back to stages 3 and 4 in a future installment – probably next year.
[xviii] And perhaps was later allowed to return to the court after atonement.
[xix] Compare to Queen Himiko who reigned in the first half of the 3rd century, only appearing in ancient Chinese records.
[xx] Priestesses, not just any ol’ woman off the street, mind you.
[xxi] Among other ceremonies.
[xxii] And by animals, of course, I include humans. You can totally flay a human. If you’re interested in flaying humans, this website shows you how.
[xxiii] This would be excruciatingly painful to the animal causing it make a lot of noise and probably try to fight back or escape. Flaying an animal alive is just horrific.
[xxiv] I mention Nikkō Tōshō-gū because you can still see the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s sacred horse there today.
[xxv] Keep in mind that at the time these myths were compiled, Confucianism had begun to take hold at the Yamato Court. This philosophy was very male-oriented (dare I say the word? “patriarchal”) and was all about burning vaginas. In fact, to this day, Confucius’ most famous saying is still “Just kiss. Don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Burn ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
[xxvi] The court won, the people won, and the kami won.
[xxvii] This goes back to the theory that Amaterasu and Susano’o originally represented a relatively indivisible pair of agricultural kami.
[xxviii] Or even death.
[xxix] They also decide the 缘结 en-musubi personal relationships of all humans for the next year.
[xxx] Well, technically, they return to their graves and families leave incense and special dolls made from vegetables and chopsticks to guide the spirits back to the family home. Interestingly, all of the kami return to Izumo except for 恵比須 Ebisu a god of good luck. He came to be associated with 蛭子 Hiruko the Leech Child whom Izanagi and Izanami put in the boat and sent off to sea. The idea is that Hiruko was lost at sea during the events of the Rock Cave Myth and so he stays among the humans, who can still pray to him for good luck.
[xxxi] I find this assessment kind of orientalist. I view “Japanese solve problems in groups/act in groups” as weak as “Japanese are good at copying, but not innovation.”
[xxxii] Minus Hiruko/Ebisu, of course.
[xxxiii] The most important shrine being Ise Shrine, obviously.
[xxxiv] When I lived in Italy, I didn’t need an alarm clock. The roosters always woke me up on time.[xxxv] In Old Japanese, Inbe was pronounced Imibe.
[xxxvi] See my article What does Kagurazaka mean? The term Kagura is supposedly derived from 神 kami and 楽 raku/gaku music/entertainment/leisure.
[xxxvii] After Buddhism arrives, all bets are off. These court ritualists eventually disappear…
[xxxviii] Usually, the back hall which is generally off limits to normal people.
[xxxix] Ta is an ancient Chinese measurement. I think eight ta is the equivalent of 64 thumb lengths. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong. I once heard that “eight ta” actually meant eight lines drawn out from the center of a circle, which created a primitive sun with sunbeams – a prototype of modern 菊御紋 Kiku no Go-Mon the Chrysanthemum Crest (coat of arms of the Imperial Family). I don’t think I believe that second theory, but, again, somebody correct me if I’m wrong.
[xl] This was /ɯɾanapʰi̥/ in Old Japanese.
[xli] That is to say, it’s utter horseshit.
[xlii] Or could be bleached to produce a whiter effect.
[xliii] And these “divine ancestors” may just be imaginary gods or actual historical figures with magical names!

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.

642807AF-AEFF-46FC-8FD4-4BF9A60E8339

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.

17190662-C9F6-42B2-96A8-8BF27950356F

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.

3219CEAC-5CF5-4805-BC18-2B08353D7ACD

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.

The Japanese Creation Myth

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on June 22, 2020 at 11:01 am

天地開闢
Tenchi Kaibyaku

Creation of Heaven and Earth

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

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].

Further Reading:

After you’re done reading the myth, be sure to check out my 9000-word in-depth explanation of the entire thing!

AMNOMINAKA

Ame no Minakanushi no Kami

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.

HEAVENS

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

天之御中主神
Ame no Minakanushi no Kami

高御産巣日神
Takamimusubi no Kami

神産巣日神
Kamimusubi no Kami

The name Ame no Minakanushi means something like “heavenly ancestor who rules the center of the universe.”

宇摩志阿斯訶備比古遅神
Umashi Ashikabi Hikoji no Kami

天之常立神
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].

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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Ame no Mihashira – Just the tip, baby. Just the tip.

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!

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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.

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This is either the kami of fire or a retarded Charmander

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.

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Izanami’s grave

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.”

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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…

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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.

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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].

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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.

The entrance to Yomi

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].

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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.”

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The birth of our next hero, Amaterasu the sun goddess

The End

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.

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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.

Further Reading:

 

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[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.

Japanese Cosmology

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on June 12, 2020 at 4:47 am

大和の宇宙誌
Yamato no Uchūshi
Japanese Cosmography

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

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.

AMATERASU

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

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:

JINJA

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].

Miyajima

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.

JAPAN MOUNTAINS

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.

Epochs

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]

HIGH PLAIN OF HEAVEN
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.

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]
YOMI

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

天浮橋
Ama no Ukihashi

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.

Divine Inhabitants of the Three Realms

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 Yomi

黄泉津神
Yomi 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.

YUREIZU

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].

KOFUN

A Kofun Period Grave

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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