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Amaterasu and the Rock Cave

In Japanese History, Japanese Mythology, Japanese Shrines & Temples on July 2, 2020 at 7:00 am

天岩戸
Ama no Iwato
The Rock Cave

AMATERASU IN THE CAVE

When you finish reading, check out the details of this woodblock print.

If you thought the Creation Myth was weird, brace yourself. I told you that the kami were self-absorbed and capricious, but things are going to get truly bizarre now. First, we looked at the birth of the universe and the creation of Japan[i]. This time we’ll look at the most famous legend in all of Japan, that of Amaterasu, the sun goddess and divine ancestor of the emperors of Japan. This tale begins with the birth of the sun kami, so if you’re just joining the story in progress, I highly suggest you read the previous articles first. Also, as with the previous myth, I’ve been liberal in my retelling so as to make the narrative more palatable to our modern sensibilities. That said, be prepared. A dude will take massive dump inside a house and then just fling crap everywhere like Donald Trump throwing a temper tantrum[ii]. I’m not joking.

Anyhoo, this story is divided into three parts. First, it describes the realms given to the Three Noble Children by Izanagi no Mikoto. Next, we experience the petulance of Susano’o. The story concludes with the Rock Cave Myth. All right, let’s get into it!

Further Reading:

SANKISHI

The Three Noble Children and the Three Divine Commands

After cleansing himself of the defilement he received during his journey to the Land of Yomi[iii], the last living creator god, Izanagi, gave birth one last time. “For many years[iv], I’ve been giving birth to kami after kami, but finally I’ve made Three Noble Children[v]. He removed his necklace[vi] which was decorated with 勾玉 magatama comma shaped jewels[vii]. He shook it so that the stones rattled and sounded throughout the land. Then he gave the necklace to Amaterasu Ōmikami the sun goddess. Placing it around her neck, he commanded her to rule the Heavenly High Plains and the Central Land of Reed Plains[viii]. Then, he commanded Tsukuyomi to rule the realm of the night and Susano’o to rule the storms and seas[ix].

Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi were obedient and followed their father’s wishes, worthy of being called “noble.” However, Susano’o was not obedient and disobeyed his father’s commands. Instead, he just threw tantrums and wept and howled until his beard grew down well past his chest[x]. In fact, he cried so much that it caused the green mountains to turn brown and the rivers and seas to dry up[xi]. As a result, the malevolent kami throughout the Central Land of Reeds also began to cry, and they swarmed around everywhere like summer flies causing all kinds of calamities[xii] all over the world.

All of this weeping and wailing was annoying AF to the other kami and all living creatures, so finally Izanagi came to Susano’o and scolded him. “Why are just weeping and howling like a man-baby when you should be ruling the storms and seas that I entrusted to you?” asked his father. “I wish to go to the land of my mother, Izanami – the Land of Yomi[xiii],” sniffled Susano’o. “That is why I weep[xiv].”

“Are you freaking kidding me?” Izanagi roared. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re destroying the world Izanami and I created. If you can’t rule properly like Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, then I forbid you from living in my lands!” And with that, Izanagi banished Susano’o from the world.

[And with that Izanagi disappeared from the world[xv].]

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Amaterasu looking bad ass. Notice she is holding a mirror and is wearing the magatama necklace given to her by her father, Izanagi. Her headdress is both sun-shaped and mirror-shaped.

Susano’o Says Goodbye to Amaterasu

Having been expelled from the Central Land of Reed Plains, Susano’o announced that he would say farewell to his sister, Amaterasu. As he ascended to the Heavenly High Plain, the mountains and rivers and all the lands shook violently.

Amaterasu, ruling the heavens, was startled by this and said “This can’t be good. Surely my brother wants to steal my lands in the High Plains of Heaven and in the Central Land of Reeds.” She undid her hair[xvi] and put up it up in buns on her left and right sides. She decorated her hair and arms with long strings decorated with priceless magatama beads. She donned a 1000-arrow quiver on her back and a 500-arrow quiver on her chest. She also put an arm-guard on her left arm and then shook the tip of her bow and stamped her feet on the ground kicking up dust everywhere and let out a war cry.

“Why have you come here?” she asked.

“It’s all good, sis. I swear I have no bad intentions.” Susano’o declared. “Our father, Izanagi, asked why I’ve been weeping and howling for years, and so I told him that I wanted to visit the land of my mother, so he banished me from this land. Therefore, I’ve come here to say goodbye to you.”

“You’re a frickin’ weirdo. Anyways, how do I know your intentions are pure and bright?” Amaterasu asked.

“I propose a competition! Let’s each have a bunch of babies and the person has the most beautiful children wins!” Susano’o suggested.

Despite this being one of the dumbest ideas to prove one’s intentions that I’ve ever heard, Amaterasu agreed to this competition, and so they both immediately squatted down on the ground and began to grunt, pushing really hard in order to squeeze out some kami babies.

The Kokiji then goes on to spend an entire chapter describing the births of all the gods they created. And yes, they each have long-ass names like every other kami we’ve encountered up to this point. Skip!

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Susano’o

Susano’o Rages with Victory

After Amaterasu babbles on and on about the new genealogies linking herself and Susano’o to the birth of a handful of divine ancestors of the most elite clans of the future Yamato Court, they assess the quality of their respective offspring. Ultimately, Amaterasu popped out five sons while Susano’o popped out three daughters[xvii].

Susano’o bragged, “Look at this! My Three Divine Girls are purer, brighter, and more beautiful than your stupid five sons. Sucks to you be you, bitch!” And therewith he claimed total victory in this asinine competition[xviii]. He proceeded to raged with victory by breaking down the ridges between Amaterasu’s rice paddies[xix] causing them to flood. This destroyed all of her crops which meant there would be no harvest in the fall. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he ran into Amaterasu’s house, pulled down his pants to squat, and just took a massive shit inside her dining hall[xx]. Then he bounced around like a monkey just flinging feces everywhere – on the walls, on the ceiling, even in her cat’s litter box[xxi].

horse susanoo

Amaterasu was all like “WTF?” in her mind, but didn’t complain. No, she took it way better than you or I would. She just looked around her palace inspecting each room and said “Hmmmm. What is all this stuff on the walls, the ceiling, and in my kitty litter box?”[xxii] Susano’o didn’t say anything. “Umm, this stuff that looks like…uh, shit. This must just be vomit from the last time you passed out drunk[xxiii],” she suggested. “And you probably trashed my rice paddies because you thought I wasn’t using my lands correctly.”[xxiv] Susano’o had an out. She literally just gave him an excuse to calm down and move on without consequences, but instead he just got more obnoxious.

After cleaning up the shit her brother smeared throughout her entire palace, Amaterasu went to oversee the making of divine garments in her weaving hall. Susano’o took a “heavenly piebald colt[xxv]” and skinned it alive – yes, you read that correctly, he literally skinned it alive – from the tail up to the head causing the baby horse unimaginable pain. Dragging the dying animal with him, he climbed up her wall, crawled up on her thatched roof, tore open a hole, and tossed the bloody carcass into the weaving hall. As you can imagine, this startled her weaving maiden who was so terrified she accidentally pierced her pussy with the loom’s shuttle and died right there on the spot[xxvi].

WTAF???

encampment outside the heavenly rock cave

After you read the next section, see how many kami and how many sacred items you can identify in this picture.

The Heavenly Rock Cave[xxvii]

As you can imagine, Amaterasu was freaked the fuck out and opened the Heavenly Rock Cave[xxviii], went inside, and locked herself there – plunging the High Plain of Heaven and the Central Land of Reeds into total darkness. The natural order of things was broken and the world continued as if night was now eternal. The millions of other kami were pretty cool about it for a while, but eventually they got tired of walking around and bumping into each other all the time.

The other kami all decided to gather together beside the riverbed of 天安河 Ame no Yasu no Kawa the Tranquil River of Heaven which flowed past the Heavenly Rock Cave. They set up a camp where they could all work together to plead with Amaterasu to come out and restore sunlight to the heavens and earth.

First, the gods gathered together a bunch of roosters to crow in hopes that they could trick the sun into rising again. Then, they brought a large stone to use as an anvil[xxix] from the upper stream of the river and they took metal from 天金山 Ame no Kanayama the Heavenly Metal Mountain (because, of course, they did). The gods then commanded 天津麻羅 Ama tsu Mara and 伊斯許理度売命 Ishikoridome no Mikoto[xxx] to use the metal and anvil to forge a mighty bronze mirror[xxxi]. And finally, they brought out the big guns. They ordered 玉祖命 Tama no Ya no Mikoto the god of jewelry to make a long strings decorated with thousands of magatama beads.

They also ordered two priestly kami, 布刀玉命 Futo Tama no Mikoto and 天児屋命 Ame no Koyane no Mikoto[xxxii], to climb 天香久山 Ame no Kaguyama[xxxiii] Mt. Amanokagu to remove the whole shoulder of a male deer and gather up bird cherry wood[xxxiv] in order to perform divination rituals[xxxv]. They also uprooted a large, verdant evergreen[xxxvi] and brought it to the encampment in front of the cave. The gods tied the long strings of magatama beads to the upper branches. Next, they hung the large sacred mirror on the middle branches. And lastly, on the lower branches, they draped white and blue prayer clothes. After everything was prepared, Futotama held up sacred objects in his hands as a sacred offering while Amenokoyane chanted sacred words. But these rituals were not enough to soften Amaterasu’s heart and coax her out of the Heavenly Rock Cave[xxxvii].

Then 天鈿女命 Ame no Uzume no Mikoto who is the kami of parties and art suddenly had an idea. An idea, as they say, so crazy it just might work. She ordered the god of physical strength[xxxviii] to run up to the Heavenly Rock Cave and hide next to the door. Then she rolled up her sleeves[xxxix] and fixed her hair so she looked sexy and grabbed an overturned wooden tub to make an impromptu stage. Ame no Uzume hopped up on to the tub and began to dance. She stamped her feet upon the stage making sounds that caused the ground to shake, this grabbed the attention of all the kami, including Amaterasu who was hiding in the cave.

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Ame no Uzume dancing on the tub for all the gods

She became divinely possessed[xl] and her dancing became more intense. Each move, each turn entranced the other kami who followed her closely with their eyes. She raised one hand to her breast and slowly opened her shirt exposing her cleavage. The other kami cheered with loud voices, and Amaterasu could here all this from inside the cave. Continuing her dance, Ame no Uzume pulled open her top exposing her nipples which caused the gods to clap and howl, and several gods tossed a few ¥1000 notes on the stage to encourage her to show more. Slowly, she pushed down her skirt past her belly button. All the kami gasped. She pulled it down further exposing her glorious, hairy black bush[xli].

All of the millions of kami lost their shit and started cracking up[xlii].

All of the ruckus outside had Amaterasu’s curiosity piqued. She just had to see what was going on outside, so she nervously peaked out the door of the Heavenly Rock Cave, but couldn’t really see what was happening. She scooted up a little farther to get a better look and saw Ame no Uzume dancing half naked and the millions of other kami falling out of their seat with laughter.

Announcing her presence, Amaterasu shouted, “I locked myself in this cave and thought the High Heavenly Plain and Central Plain of Reeds would be plunged into darkness. And, yet Ame no Uzume is singing and dancing[xliii] and getting nekkid out here and all of you can see it and are laughing! What’s going on?” Adjusting her skirt, Ame no Uzume replied to her, “Just sitting around in the dark was boring, so we’re just having a little fun. Oh, and guess what? We found another kami who is superior to you!”

Just then, Amenokoyane and Futotama grabbed the bronze mirror[xliv] and shined in Amaterasu’s eyes. To her astonishment, she saw what looked like another sun goddess. “Wait, what?” she thought, “how can there be another…?” She crept closer to the entrance of the cave to get a better look when…

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Tajikarao no Kami, the god of strength hiding next to the door of the Heavenly Rock Cave

The god of strength, who was hiding beside the door, seized her and pulled out of the cave by her arm, and this suddenly brought light back to the heavens and earth. Futotama ran behind her and blocked the entrance with a magical rope[xlv]. “Now you can’t run back into the cave!” he said. And thus, the sun was restored to both the Heavenly High Plain and Central Land of Plain of Reeds, and the natural order of things returned[xlvi].

After that, all the kami had a meeting and decided to kick Susano’o out of the Central Land of Reeds forever.

Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.

Pretty Nifty Story, Right?

I hope you enjoyed the story of the Rock Cave Myth as much as I did. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, this has become one of the most important of all Japanese myths. While they might not remember all the details and all the names of the various kami, most Japanese people know the basics of Amaterasu hiding in the cave and the striptease that lured her out, thus returning sunlight to the world. That said, the story is dense with deeper meanings, so if you’re curious about that, please check out my next article which dives deep into the significance of this legend.

Further Reading:

 

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[i] ie; the world.
[ii] I’m not joking.
[iii] If you don’t know what the Land of Yomi, you really, really, really read my article on Japanese Cosmogony and the Japanese Creation Myth. Seriously, dude. You’ve been warned.
[iv] This is my insertion. The Kojiki has no sense of time. In a way this annoying to modern readers, but on the other hand, it creates this interesting disconnect between the mundane Age of Men and the mythical Age of the Gods.
[v] The Three Noble Children: Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susano’o. In Japanese they are called 三貴子 Mihashira no Uzu no Miko. If that name is too long for you, the short form is Sankishi which is by far the easier reading and, of course, easier to pronounce.
[vi] The name of the necklace is 御倉板挙之神 Mikuratana no Kami.
[vii] We talked about magatama in my last article so I’m not going to repeat myself. Look it up in your own.
[viii] Seriously, read the previous articles. I’m not explaining this shit twice.
[ix] Readers have wondered a lot about Tsukuyomi. We’re unsure of this kami’s gender, appearance, and divine duties. Basically, after this mention, we never hear from Tsukuyomi again!
[x] ie; until he matured. Essentially, he was a big ol’ man-baby – just like #BunkerBoy aka Donald Trump.
[xi] Not sure why the rivers and seas dried up since he was incessantly crying. Seems counter-intuitive, if you ask me.
[xii] Calamatitties. Follow me on Twitter, you won’t regret it.
[xiii] Actually, in the Kojiki, it doesn’t say the Land of Yomi, rather 根之堅洲國 Ne no Katasu Kuni the Realm at the Borderland of Roots, and later in the text 妣國 Haha no Kuni the Land of my Dead Mother. Sometimes these are synonymous with Yomi, but other times they seem to be different, but related places.
[xiv] This is weird because Izanami died well before Susano’o was born so she couldn’t possibly be his mother under “normal” circumstances, or perhaps she impregnated her brusband Izanagi before she died, and thus the Three Noble Children are still the genealogically related to both Izanagi and Izanami. Weird shit, huh?
[xv] Remember, I used the term “hide” in the previous articles.
The Kojiki merely states that Izanagi is enshrined at Taga of Awaji. Apparently, this is a gloss and not part of the narrative. It’s a reference to 伊弉諾神宮 Izanagi Jingū Izanagi Shrine which is located in 兵庫県淡路市多賀 Hyōgo-ken Awaji-shi Taga Taga, Awaji City, Hyōgo Prefecture on Awaji Island. Some glosses claim it refers to 多賀大社 Taga Taisha Taga Grand Shrine in 滋賀県犬上郡多賀町 Shiga-ken Inukami-gun Taga-chō Taga-chō, Inukami District, Shiga Prefecture which lies on 旧仲仙道 Kyū-Nakadendō the Old Nakasendō highway. Scholars think glosses mentioning the larger and more famous shrine in Shiga date from the Heian Period when many local shrines on well-traveled routes tried to boost their status by claiming relevance to ancient myths. Gotta get those sweet, sweet pilgrim yen!
[xvi] Which up to this point was apparently done in some other Yayoi style hairdo. Who knows?
[xvii] Susano’o’s three daughters are: Takiri Hime no Mikoto, Ichikishima Hime no Mikoto, and Takitsu Hime no Mikoto. If you’ve ever been to 宮島 Miyajima in Hiroshima, you’ve probably been to the famous shrine 厳島神社 Itsukushima Jinja Itsukushima Shrine. 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 sacred island. If the name Ichikishima (sometimes read as Itsukishima) sounds similar to Isukushima, well, I think you can put two and two together.
By the way, the Nihon Shoki claims Susano’o has three sons, not daughters.
[xviii] One wants to say, “oh, wow, he’s such a proud father,” but let’s face it. In the end, Susano’o is just a dick.
[xix] These days, the footpaths between rice paddies are usually called 畦道 azemichi. Long time readers maybe recall that in Old Japanese the word 谷地 yachi was used to describe the same thing, but in the old Kantō dialects near Edo, 瀬田 seta was the common term in the Heian Period. I talked about this in my 2013 article What does Setagaya mean?
[xx] The Hall of First Fruits – this is a reference to a place where harvest festivals were held. In imperial times, the first rice of the harvest would be presented to the emperor in a special ceremony at 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine which was the favored shrine of Emperor Tenmu who ordered the Kojiki to be compiled. Amaterasu is enshrined at Ise and Emperor Tenmu strongly supported her cult.
[xxi] And the cat was PISSED.
[xxii] OK, I have to be honest. I made up the kitty litter box part.
[xxiii] Because who the fuck would take a dump in someone’s dining room and then throw the shit all over the place?? Come to think of it. Why would anyone vomit in every room of someone’s house when they were drunk?
[xxiv] The modern reader gets the impression that Amaterasu isn’t the sharpest knife in the kitchen. I mean, why does she take Susano’o’s bullshit like a chump and not call him out or get angry at him? Who knows? This part of the myth is kinda stupid, if you ask me, so it’s not terribly important. That said, scholars have put some thought in to it – because that’s what they get paid to do. You know, think about shit-flinging deities. Don Philippi suggests it might be an ancient belief that “one could turn evil into good by speaking well of it.” He points out that in the past Japanese people believed in kotodama (kotoba tama) “word-spirit” (a magical power of words) which was used to bring out desired results by speaking them into existence.
[xxv] WTF does “piebald” mean? (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too! The pronunciation, btw, is /ˈpaɪbɔld/). This is an animal – a horse in particular – that is black with white spots. 天斑駒 Ame no Fuchikoma Heavenly Spotted Pony/Horse/Foal is probably meant to evoke the stars dotted across the blackness of the night sky.
[xxvi] Remember that Shintō is obsessed with ritual purity. Having a dead and bloody animal in your home was considered utterly contaminated. Having an actual human death occur inside your home? That was the absolute worst.
[xxvii] Interestingly, the Ainu allegedly have a similar myth where the sun-goddess is kidnapped and the world is plunged in to darkness. Because they don’t know when to waken up, the gods and humans literally sleep themselves to death.
[xxviii] Why this cave has a door is beyond me. It’s often depicted in art a large boulder, similar to the boulder that blocks the Land of Yomi from the Central Land of Reeds.
[xxix] In the Kojiki just calls this stone a heavenly hard rock. I added the anvil bit because that is how the stone is used and that is how it is depicted in traditional artwork.
[xxx] Amatsumara is an obscure kami of iron-working. It’s been suggested that his name means “heavenly one-eyed diviner.” Losing an eye was a common work hazard among blacksmiths. On the other hand, Ishikoridome is much better known as the divine ancestor of the clans who produced ceremonial mirrors for the Yamato Court. Her name means “special woman who is can cast mirrors using stone molds.”
[xxxi] Called 八咫鏡 Yata no Kagami the Eight Ta Mirror. A ta is an ancient Chinese measurement. I think eight ta is the equivalent of 64 thumb lengths. And no, I didn’t just make that up.
Interestingly, in 938, some ladies of the court discovered Ishikoridome’s bronze mirror (Yata no Kagami) in a palace store at Heian-Kyō (the ancient name of Kyōto). This story is interesting for two reasons. First, it sparked renewed interest in the Rock Cave Myth among court nobles and subsequently among Shintō shrines associated with the Yamato Court. Secondly, it implies that perhaps the imperial regalia (the mirror, the sword, and the magatama beads) were not critical to 大嘗祭 daijōsai the ritual of imperial accession prior to the mirror’s rediscovery. I mean, how do you lose an ancient mirror made by the gods before the Yamato Court or its imperial family even existed?
[xxxii] Also, these kami aren’t actually priestly, I just added that to make it easier to understand. They are, however, the divine ancestors of two of the more important priestly families in the Yamato Court.
[xxxiii] Also read as Ama no Kaguyama. This mountain is located in 奈良県橿原市 Nara-ken Kashihara-shi Kashihara City, Nara Prefecture.
[xxxiv] In the text, this is 波波迦 hahaka. And now you know the word for Japanese bird cherry (Prunus grayana).
[xxxv] This divination ritual was performed by placing the shoulder bone over burning bird cherry wood and then “reading” the cracks that formed in the bones.
[xxxvi] The evergreen in question is 榊 sakaki (Cleyera japonica) which is sacred in Shintō.
[xxxvii] This isn’t said directly in the text of the Kojiki, but any person in the Kofun Period would have understood the symbolism. They would recognize the rituals performed by these kami as typically Shintō and they would also expect them to be effective, but they are not. Therefore, there is a tension in the original lost on modern readers. We will soon see that, it isn’t going through the motions of using sacred objects and chanting that will coax Amaterasu out of the Rock-Cave, it will be the impromptu striptease that comes up next.
[xxxviii] Ame no Tajikarao no Kami
[xxxix] Well, actually, she bound them up with a cord (Yayoi Period clothing was very loose).
[xl] The Kojiki uses the term 神懸かり kamu-gakari kami-possession (with an emphasis on sudden divine utterances). Shamanism was practiced in ancient Japan, but persisted in many ways up until the Meiji Period when the influence of western organized religion (ie; Christianity) made it look uncool to Japanese elites who saw themselves as purveyors of “modernization.” Traditional Korean religion is still shamanistic, as are many of traditional practices of the Ainu and Okinawans.
[xli] Before you jump all over me for getting graphic here, this is intentional. Exposing the breasts or genitals is pretty much limited to this myth in Japan. Anyone familiar with the extreme formality of most Shintō dance and other rituals immediately will find this shocking. However, in many other cultures, exposing the genitals is often used as a way to drive away evil influences (thru the pussy power? lol) while at the same time amusing the spectators to alleviate the scene. It should also be noted that Japan has traditionally been a very, how shall we say, prurient culture. Pornography, casual public nudity, and 下ネタ shimoneta dirty jokes have enjoyed long popularity right up to present times. In recent years, especially during the 64 Tōkyō Olympics and the 98 Nagano Olympics, great effort was made by the government to shield foreigners and foreign press from the casual presence of the sex industry, even going so far as to shutting down entire red-light districts. As a result, the presence of this vibrant and storied aspect of Japanese culture is very much diminished today on the surface, and only thrives underground or in the seedy parts of town. That said, the caricature of the Japanese “dirty old man” is very much alive and well, and one can image telling this myth and really going to town during Ame no Uzume’s striptease while everyone enjoys another round of sake.
[xlii] Believe it or not, some scholars believe that the gods dying of laughter is a reference to ritual laughter meant to provoke the anger of a kami who is not paying attention to them. By laughing (perhaps even mocking) the kami, you can grab the god or goddess’s attention and then submit your prayer to them.
[xliii] Here’s one for all you language nerds out there. The word for “singing and dancing” is written as (read in Modern Japanese as raku/gaku), but the glosses tell that the kanji should be pronounced as /asobi/ or /utamaɸi/. The first reading is modern 遊び asobi play/playing, the second reading is 歌舞 utamai singing & dancing. Utamai is a rare kun’yomi (Japanese reading) for modern 歌舞 kabu singing and dancing, which is on’yomi (Chinese reading).
[xliv] Remember, mirrors are a symbol of the sun kami.
[xlv] In Japanese, this magic rope is called 尻久米縄 shirikume nawa ass-shroud rope. 尻 shiri is butt (not as rough as ketsu ass, which uses the same kanji) and 久米 kume is modern 籠め kome to enshroud, to block off.
[xlvi] I took a lot of liberties with the last handful of paragraphs to make the narrative more palatable to modern audiences. The Kojiki is really choppy and while I try to stay as faithful as I can, sometimes I just have to extend bits to make it flow better. Keep in mind, the texts were compiled from oral traditions, so it’s easy to imagine storytellers embellishing bits here and there to pique the listeners’ interest. The Kojiki itself was meant to establish a basic text that preserved these myths in an efficient manner while emphasizing the parts that legitimized the imperial family’s position and the positions of the most important noble families of their court.

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.

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Cultic Practice vs “Religions of the Book”

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

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

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

Further Reading:

Spiral galaxy, illustration of Milky Way

The Beginning of Heaven & Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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The Seven Divine Generations

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

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

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Onogoro Shrine on Nushima in Hyogo Prefecture

The Island of Onogoro

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

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

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

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

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

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Courtship of the Deities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birth of the Various Deities

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

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

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

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

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

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

oyashima

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

大八洲
Ōyashima the Great Eight Islands

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

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

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Death of Izanami & the Slaying of the Fire-Deity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kofun map

The Land of Hades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 The Purification of the August Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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).

What does Inaricho mean?

In Japanese History, Japanese Shrines & Temples on November 28, 2019 at 3:28 am

稲荷町
Inarichō
(Inari town)

inaricho station

Let’s give a hearty thanks to reader Will on fire who suggested this topic on Twitter. You should follow him and if you don’t already follow me, you should. I share lots of Japan-related news, pix, and just vent from time to time. It’s good fun[i]. Also, Twitter and Facebook are great ways to suggest new place names that you’re curious about. Anyhoo, let’s get into it, shall we?

Here’s the original post:

Where is Inarichō?

OK. So, let’s do this. Anyone who’s ever taken the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line to 上野 Ueno Ueno or 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa has passed by 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. With Asakusa becoming an ever-increasing tourist trap[ii], chances are high that most people who visit 東京 Tōkyō will pass by here, though chances of them getting off the train are slim. In general, old timers might refer to this area as 下谷 Shitaya which literally means “the lower valley.”[iii] However, these days Inarichō is located in 台東区 Taitō-ku Taitō Ward, an area famous for its traditional 下町 shitamachi low city vibe[iv].

Further Reading:

inaricho station ginza line.jpg

The Ginza Line stopping at Inaricho Station

Let’s Look at the Kanji

稲荷
Inari
Inari, the primary rice deity

machi, chō
town, city;
neighborhood

Etymology

The origin of this place name is pretty basic. It’s named after a local 稲荷神社 Inari jinja Inari shrine. As I mentioned before, the old timers may call this area Shitaya. This term refers to the areas that lie beneath 上野山 Ueno Yama the Ueno Plateau – the low city areas of 浅草 Asakusa Asakusa, 本所 Honjo Honjo, and 深川 Fukagawa Fukagawa. To this day, these areas are famous for their non-fancy, traditional atmospheres.

And like I said, there was an ancient Inari shrine in the area. When a train station first opened here in 1927, they chose the name Inarichō “Inari Town” because this particular neighborhood was historically known by that name – the shrine being the area’s only claim to fame. That’s the long story short[v].

shitaya shrine.jpg

There’s Always More to the Story

The shrine that started the whole thing still exists and is called 下谷神社 Shitaya Jinja Shitaya Shrine and according to their records it was established in 730 by what were basically regional tax collectors. They collected rice tax on behalf of the 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto[vi]. At this time, eastern Japan was barely under the control of the imperial court. The court’s legend says that a certain samurai warlord named 平将門 Taira no Masakado Taira no Masakado decided to call himself “Emperor of the East.” Historical records point more at regional territorial disputes, but Masakado became a bit of a folk hero in Edo as an easterner who stuck it to the man.

taira no masakado painting

Anyhoo, depending on how you slice up the dates, Masakado’s unsuccessful uprising came to an end when he was unceremoniously beheaded in 940[vii]. Shrine records say that one year before, in 939, a certain 藤原秀郷 Fujiwara no Hidesato Fujiwara no Hidesato rebuilt the shrine complex to pray for the defeat of Masakado because he was a dick like that. Religion is dumb but praying for someone’s death is pretty gross. As a result of his defeat, Taira no Masakado became a symbol of eastern pride, especially in Edo, while Hidesato came to be seen as a toadie of the distant and rarified court in the west. However, Masakado is still famous throughout the country, while Hidesato is a footnote in history books. The fact that he gets a paragraph on JapanThis! is probably the most attention he’s gotten in a thousand years. Yeah, fuck that guy. I’m #TeamMasakado all day long, baby.

And for those of you who follow Japanese baseball, the east/west rivalry pre-dates the 東京ジャイアンツ Tōkyō Jaiantsu Tōkyō Giants and 阪神タイガース Hanshin Taigāsu Hanshin Tigers[viii] by more than a thousand years. Masakado’s uprising wasn’t the beginning, but it was definitely an incident in which eastern Japan, and Edo in particular, finally grew a pair and realized they could be contenders in a country controlled nominally by a bunch of snooty aristocrats in Kyōto who claimed to be the descendants of 神 kami deities, rather than samurai bad asses from the hinterland. But, just to set the record straight, here at Japan this we know that Edo-Tōkyō is cooler. Always has been. Always will be[ix].

Further Reading:

rice plants.jpg

Inari, God of Rice

So, the etymology of Inarichō is very straightforward. Shrine to Inari. Station gets a name. All good. So, who is Inari? Longtime readers probably already know this, but if you’re new to JapanThis! or want a refresher, I’ll give a quick breakdown.

On the most basic level, 稲荷神 Inari no Kami[x] Inari is the 神 kami deity of rice production. His[xi] name is made of two characters 稲 ine/ina rice and 荷 ri something you carry. The kanji clearly imply “rice harvest.”[xii] When the cult of Inari began isn’t known, but we can assume it dates back well into prehistory[xiii]. Rice fields take a lot of time and manpower to build[xiv]. Rice represents food. Surplus rice means money. Large scale rice production requires protection and is a symbol of status because in a world of haves and have nots, the haves can feed more loyal subjects than their neighbors.

rice paddy japan

Hopefully, you can see where this is going. By the time we get to 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai the Warring States Period[xv], you have samurai warlords all around the country making all kinds of territory grabs to control agricultural production (read: money and power). An underlying religious component is that since ancient times, powerful clans often venerated Inari for profitable harvests. The Warring States 大名 daimyō feudal lords often adopted their local Inari as a tutelary kami.

In the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the shōgun’s capital was in… umm… Edo, hence the name, an institution called 参勤交代 sankin kōtai alternate attendance was established. This required the various daimyō to maintain palaces in Edo to take part in the shōgun’s government. Most of them, through a process called 分霊 bunrei splitting a kami, would re-enshrine their local Inari in Edo. Because the area presumably had thousands of Inari shrines to begin with, the addition of new Inari shrines by more than 200 daimyō during the Edo Period, this particular kami became the most recognizable deity in the capital and probably all of Japan[xvi]. I’ve said this many times in many articles, the Edoites had a proverb, 伊勢屋、稲荷に、犬の糞 Iseya, Inari ni, inu no fun which essentially means “you can’t go anywhere in Edo without seeing shops named Iseya, Inari shrines, and dog shit.” To this day, you can still find shops called Iseya everywhere – maybe as many or more Inari shrines. Dog shit… not so much. And, for those of you who are fans of spatial anthropology, know that when you see free-standing Inari shrines in Tōkyō, there’s a good chance you’ve arrived at a former daimyō’s palace.

Further Reading:

 

fushimi inari taisha kyoto

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine in Kyoto

Inari and Foxes

Anyone who has visited 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Shrine in 京都 Kyōto Kyōto knows exactly what to expect of an Inari shrine. In fact, if the image of this shrine isn’t burned into your brain, you need to learn a little more about Japan. No shame, though. We all start somewhere. And so, while a vermilion 鳥居 torii gate is common[xvii], the most striking feature is the shrine being flanked by two semi-tame 狐 kitsune foxes, often holding objects in their mouths, such as scrolls, toy balls, or jewels.

inari kitsune.jpg

The association of Inari with foxes is strong, but the origins are unclear. Obviously, in the Japanese countryside, you’d probably find foxes near rice fields. But as Shintō and Buddhist teachings aren’t very dogmatic or standardized between sects and regions, the link between Inari and foxes is not set in stone – although Inari shrines without fox guardians are almost unheard of. Most people think Inari is a fox, or at least the avatar of Inari is a fox. Others believe foxes are merely emissaries of Inari, as the kami doesn’t possess a physical body. I personally don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer to why foxes are associated with Inari other than the fact that you find foxes in the countryside. I tend to think that foxes are messengers of Inari and not Inari himself[xviii]. That said, Inari and foxes – white foxes specifically – are inextricably tied together.

ginza line 1927

Ginza Line in 1927, somewhere between Asakusa and Ueno, which means there’s a 50/50 chance this is Inaricho Station.

Inarichō Station

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, Inarichō is a station name. Despite the area being known by locals as Inari-chō, it’s not an official postal address. The neighborhood is located in 台東区東上野三丁目に Taitō-ku Higashi Ueno 3-chōme 3rd block of East Ueno, Taitō Ward. Only the station name preserves this traditional appellation.

In 1927, 東京地下鉄道 Tōkyō Chikatetsudō the company that would become today’s 東京メトロ Tōkyō Metoro Tōkyō Metro that we all know and love opened 稲荷町駅 Inarichō Eki Inarichō Station. Even though it’s gone under many renovations over the years, the station is pretty much the same one that we got in the 1920’s for the 銀座線 Ginza-sen Ginza Line. Essentially an unofficial local nickname based on an Inari shrine in former Shitaya Ward, which is now Taitō Ward birthed a train station name. It could have faded into obscurity, but it didn’t. The train station preserves that legacy.

shitaya shrine entrance.jpg

Entrance to Shitaya Shrine

In Conclusion

Sadly, the etymology of Inarichō is not particularly exciting. But I hope long time readers enjoyed the reiteration of who Inari is and I hope knew readers learned something knew and useful. Coincidentally, I spent the evening tonight at a fashionable tea café called Inari Tea in 恵比寿 Ebisu Ebisu[xix]. It’s nowhere near Inarichō Station, but as Inari shrines are everywhere, it’s impossible to avoid this kind of reference to the auspicious rice god. Inari is a super common place name, so if you see an area named after Inari, I think you can assume its named after the rice god or is at least referencing it. And why not? White foxes are super cute!

Further Reading:

.

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[i] By the way, iTunes forced my computer to reboot and MS Word didn’t save a good 20-30% of the original article. So I apologize for this being so brief. There was actually a lot more to say, but computers suck. Or at least my computer sucks.
[ii] Still worth a visit, mind you.
[iii] And believe me, we’ll be talking about that later.
[iv] This may be a topic for another day, but Taitō Ward is comprised of former 下谷区 Shitaya-ku Shitaya Ward and 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward. However, the name Shitaya is still used casually by locals for the lowlands in Taitō Ward, but only appears officially in the block names (eg; 下谷一丁目 Shitaya Icchōme 1st Block, Shitaya and so on).
[v] It’s important to remember that today Inarichō is not a postal address, it’s only a station name. Today this area is 東上野三丁目 Higashi Ueno San-chōme 3rd Block of East Ueno. That said, it used to be a place name.
[vi] More about that in a moment.
[vii] OK, I made up the “unceremoniously” part. The imperial court went to great lengths to put down Masakado’s rebellion and… I don’t know… there might have been some “ceremony” surrounding his execution. Or maybe he died in battle and was beheaded ex post facto. We don’t really know.
[viii] If you don’t follow Japanese baseball, this has traditionally been the biggest rivalry. Basically Tōkyō vs. those losers in Ōsaka.
[ix] And yes, I’m shit posting. If you don’t like it, go read that other website about Ōsaka and Kyōto place names. Oh, riiiiiiight….
[x] Also read as Inarishin. Also known by other names like 稲荷大明神 Inari Daimyōjin. In common speech this kami or his shrines can be referred to as 御稲荷様 o-Inari-sama or more casually 御稲荷さん o-Inari-san.
[xi] Actually, Inari’s gender is somewhat ambiguous. Unimportant might be a better way to think of it.
[xii] Though, it should be known that different kanji were used throughout history, but most of them did include a reference to rice. Many historians (I don’t know about linguists), seem to think the name derives from 稲成 ine-nari becoming rice, hence “rice growing.” I’d like to speak to a Japanese diachronic linguist about that one, though. Not sure if I believe it.
[xiii] Just a reminder, “prehistory” means “before written documents.”
[xiv] The kanji 男 otoko man is actually made of two characters rice paddy and power. This doesn’t refer to the manpower required to build rice paddies, rather the power acquired by controlling rice paddies and the power required to protect them.
[xv] Sengoku Period on Samurai Archives.
[xvi] But make no mistake about it. The cult of Inari was pervasive. It had been popular since time immemorial.
[xvii] Non-vermilion gates also exist.
[xviii] But whatever. We’re talking about religion. All of this is made up bullshit anyways lol.
[xix] If you know your Japanese beers, you know YEBISU. Same thing.

What does Meoto-bashi mean?

In Japanese History on October 26, 2019 at 3:20 pm

夫婦橋
Meoto-bashi (“lovers’ bridge,” more at “wedded couple’s bridge”)

meotobashi.jpg
I often get asked, “Marky, how do you find new place names?” Believe it or not, it’s just random. However, I’d say 80% of the time, I’m just riding a bus or train, and something jumps out and I wonder “why is this place called what it’s called?” That other 20% comes from just looking at random places on maps and wondering the same thing, “why is this place called what it’s called?” In today’s case, something really strange happened.

I’m an avid Pokemon GO player. As a result, the app discovers weird place names all the time. I was on the 京急線 Keikyū-sen Keikyū Line coming back to 東京 Tōkyō from 韓国 Kankoku Korea and I had the app open. En route, it found 夫婦橋 Meoto-bashi which I read as Fūfu-bashi. There must be a good story here, I thought.

musume

We’ll talk more about this grave later…

Let’s look at the Kanji


fu, , bu; otto, oto; sore
husband; man


fu; yome

wife, bride; woman


hashi, -bashi; kyō

bridge

夫婦 fūfu is the standard word for a married couple. Sometimes, you might be invited to a party with the phrase ご夫婦で来てください go-fūfu de kite kudasai please come with your spouse. Another common expression is 夫婦生活 fūfu seikatsu married life and 夫婦墓 fūfubaka[i] husband and wife shared grave[ii]. That last term can also be read as meotobaka. While meoto is a proper reading of the kanji, fūfu is far and away the more common pronunciation. In the case of this bridge, the correct reading is Meoto-bashi. That said, the meaning is exactly the same: married couple’s bridge.

open marriage
Where is Meoto-bashi?

That’s a good question, because I’d never heard of this bridge. But, as I said before, Pokemon GO found the location for me and I was just sitting on the train. A quick internet search sorted things out nicely. I soon learned that Meoto-bashi is located in 大田区 Ōta-ku Ōta Ward and spans the 平作川 Hirasaku-gawa Hirasaku River[iii] — essentially a three-minute walk from 京急蒲田駅 Keikyū Kamata Eki Keikyū Kamata Station. Nearby the bridge is 夫婦橋親水公園 Meoto-bashi Shinsui Kōen Meotobashi Riverside Park[iv]. Anyhoo, the bridge and the park are a 15-minute train ride from 品川駅 Shinagawa Eki Shinagawa Station.

Further Reading

sunamura-san

Grave of Sunamura Shinzaemon

Construction of Meoto-bashi

According to records, the first bridge to span the Hirasaku River in this area was built in 1667 by a local farmer named 砂村新左衛門 Sunamura Shinzaemon. When people hear the term farmer, they might think of some kind of country bumpkin peasant, but make no mistake about it, Shinzaemon was a very wealthy landholder and extremely well educated. Despite being a farmer according the class system of the day, it’s probably better to think of him as a pre-modern civil engineer[v].

edo period bridge

Typical, old Japanese bridge minus the mud surface.

The point of creating the bridge wasn’t only to get people from Point A to Point B, but also to create a 水門 suimon floodgate to prevent back current from 江戸湾 Edo-wan Edo Bay flowing against the river and flooding the riverside villages. An unexpected side effect of the floodgate was a buildup of silt that created a sand bar upon which another bridge was eventually built. Having two bridges so close together in what was literally the boonies was extremely rare and the people came to think of them as a pair, a married couple, if you will. The bridges seem very rustic when compared to the flashy wooden bridges of Edo that we all know and love from 浮世絵 ukiyo-e woodblock prints of daily life in the Edo Period. In fact, an 1825 description of Meoto-bashi describes it as a rough, log bridge covered in dirt and mud[vi].

The current concrete bridge was built in 1954, and other than a major update in 1988, it remains unchanged.

meato bridge.jpg

Two Bridges.

A Married Couple. End of Story?

Nope. Not a chance.

Prior to Shinzaemon’s bridge/floodgate, apparently there had been bridges here before. We don’t have specific dates about their construction (remember, this was the boonies), but it’s fair to say there were bridges crossing the Hirasaku River in this area as far back as the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate – roughly 800 years ago, which is when Eastern Japan really began to take off. Because of the counter currents from the bay during typhoons and tropical storms[vii], these ancient bridges were often destroyed and washed away by nature’s temper tantrums.

A local legend persists among the old timers in the area. According to them, after a particularly brutal storm that ruined the bridge and devastated the villages along the Hirasaku River, the village headman called an assembly. In order to appease whatever kami deity was allowing these horrible things to happen to the people, it was decided that a sacrifice must be made. The most beautiful, unmarried girl of the village was chosen by the people. She was dressed in white garments[viii] and marched down to the riverbank where they had begun construction of a new bridge. The young girl was placed into the hole where the first pillar was to be inserted. Her family and the villagers said their farewells – presumably much crying ensued. And then they lowered the pillar into the slot, believing her sacrifice would preserve the safety and prosperity of the village and the bridge which was vital to their survival. This practice is called 人柱 hitobashira. It literally means “human pillar.”

emma ai

Whoa. Human Sacrifice?! Was That Really a Thing???!

Without archaeological evidence to back up certain famous claims of hitobashira, it’s hard to say definitively. However, records going back as far as the 700’s, including 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki The Chronicles of Japan, claim this sort of human sacrifice existed in 神道 Shintō the native religion. From time to time, you’ll hear ghost stories in Japan that say things like “underneath every beautiful cherry blossom tree lies a dead body” – often a samurai who fell in battle or committed 切腹 seppuku ritual suicide or a fair maiden who was sacrificed for the good of the village. In 地獄少女 Jigoku Shōjo Hell Girl, the only anime you need to watch[ix], the main character 閻魔愛 Enma Ai is condemned to her role of, um, condemning other people to “hell” after being selected by local villagers to be hitobashira to protect the village. Many Japanese castles have stories about retainers or local beauties being buried alive for the protection of the lord’s keep and therefore, the domain’s security. I sincerely hope these are just spooky stories, but there are a lot of them in the folklore and mythology in Japan, so I wipe a little tear from my eye while I say, this practice most definitely happened in some form or another.

hitobashira grave

Edo Period grave erected to commemorate the life of the young girl sacrificed for the sake of the village.

Happy Halloween

On that note, get your costumes ready. Go be spooky and sexxxy! Also, if you’re trying to get laid, you might want to leave this dark story out of your repertoire. That said, I have a few other Halloween-related articles you might like to share with a friend[x].

Further Reading

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō With Me Japan This Guided Tours
(It’s not for tourists, it’s for history nerds!)

 

______________________________________
[i] This word can get giggles because it also sounds like 夫婦馬鹿 fūfu, baka couples are stupid.
[ii] As uncomfortable as this may be for some, 夫婦ぶっかけ fūfu bukkake refers to couples who, um, get the bukkake treatment together or engage in cockhold bukkake play. Just trying to be thorough here, folks. This is research.
[iii] I’d never heard of this river before, but for those curious, it flows from 横須賀 Yokosuka in 神奈川県 Kanagawa-ken Kanagawa Prefecture to 東京湾 Tōkyō-wan Tōkyō Bay.
[iv] The official English name of the park is “riverside park.” However, the word 親水 shinsui parent water is sometimes translated as “hydrophilic” which means “water loving.” I don’t think there’s an equivalent English word, but the nuance is something like “next to the water” or “intimate with the water” and can be found in other Tōkyō parks that are located on rivers or sometimes have fountains powered by the nearby river.
[v] Also, just for reference, this part of Tōkyō was not part of Edo. It was just rice paddies and forests as far as the eye could see in 武蔵国荏原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.
[vi] I’m going out on a limb an guessing that the dirt and mud was to make pulling carts across the bridge smoother, as logs would have been bumpy and could probably damage axels and goods.
[vii] And the lack of technological know how to combat back currents.
[viii] In Japan, white is a symbol of death. Corpses are dressed in white at funerals and samurai who performed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment wore white.
[ix] My opinion. I don’t watch other anime.
[x] PS: Any English article you read on these topics was done after I did the research, so please don’t support those lazy “journalists.” You heard it hear first, my friends.

What does Kanda mean?

In #rivered, Japanese History, Travel in Japan on August 23, 2017 at 5:54 am

神田
Kanda (holy rice paddies, Batman!)

IMG_5689.jpg
What does Kanda mean?
(Short Version)

神田 Kanda means something like “holy rice field” or “field of the gods.” You can find places all over Japan that use the same characters (with various pronunciations) that derive from this meaning. In short, these place names are references to special agricultural spaces which originally produced food for shrines connected to the imperial court during the Nara Period. These holy fields were technically tax exempt as they usually had to only send the first harvest to the court. The rest was profit. The court then used the produce as currency to fund the maintenance of the shrines they deemed most important. In the case of Edo-Tōkyō, this place name is generally associated with a religious complex called 神田明神 Kanda Myōjin Kanda Shrine[i].

There are three 神 kami deities[ii] enshrined at Kanda Myōjin. All three are earthly kami[iii], though the first two enshrinements are gods included in the earliest recorded creation and foundation myths. The third and final enshrinement was so beloved by locals in Kantō (Eastern Japan) that he subsumed the popularity of the original kami until the Meiji Coup in 1868[iv].

大国主命
Ōkuninushi no Mikoto

An earthly kami who handed over control of the world to the heavenly kami who were ancestors of the imperial family and the original court. He was blended with a Buddhist kami, Daitokuten.

大己貴命
Ōnamuchi no Mikoto

This kami, who may or may not be the same as Ōkuninushi, was involved in the transfer of earthly lands to the control of the imperial family.

平将門
Taira no Masakado no Mikoto

A Kantō-based samurai who revolted against the imperial family in the 900’s. His attempt to secede failed, but the locals saw him as a hero defending the east’s cultural difference from the west[v]. After the Meiji Coup, he was de-enshrined, only to be re-enshrined after WWII[vi].

 

IMG_5688

Ōkuninushi, Ōnamuchi, Daikokuten – many names, basically the same kami.

What does Kanda mean?
(Hardcore Version)

Today we’re looking at a place name that I’ve wanted to write about since 2013. At that time, my pieces were more short form blog posts. Obviously, things have gotten more long form and “article-like” since then, yet every time I went back to visit the subject of Kanda, it just seemed too convoluted. I couldn’t figure out a way to present the material in a coherent way. Long time readers will remember when I “got riverred” doing a series on seven great waterways of Edo[vii]. I didn’t want that to happen again.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that as far as place names go, Kanda seems as superficially straightforward as they come. However, the truth is complex as fuck. It requires a solid knowledge of geography – not just of Edo-Tōkyō, but all of Japan. It also requires a strong understanding of Japanese mythology[viii], religion[ix], and the economic system of the Nara Period[x].

I tried to keep things concise, but after 11 pages of text, it became clear that I should divide the topic into two parts. Even after that, the article got longer and longer. Long time readers will know what you’re in store for. New readers, welcome aboard. Help us batten down the hatches. Every article on JapanThis! sails through rough waters.

Anyhoo, let’s get back to the topic at hand (and be prepared for lots of tables).

kanda map
Where is Kanda?

First of all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with this: in Tōkyō today there is no official place name Kanda. After WWII, in 1947 the former 神田区 Kanda-ku Kanda Ward and 麹町区 Kōjimachi-ku Kōjimachi Ward were combined to make modern 千代田区 Chiyoda-ku Chiyoda Ward. Now, don’t think Kanda just disappeared off the map completely. A few postal addresses actually still exist. For example, 外神田 Soto-Kanda is where 秋葉原駅 Akihabara Eki Akihabara Station is located, and 神田錦町 Kanda Nishiki-chō Kanda Nishiki Town is still part of 日本橋 Nihonbashi.

But in short, the area from modern 大手町 Ōtemachi to 駿河台 Surugadai (originally 神田山 Kanda-yama Mt. Kanda)[xi] was called 神田 Kanda in general. This changed over the centuries, but for our purposes today, this is good enough. That was Kanda and you can see it originally referred to a large and relatively vague area[xii].

kanda myojin mountain side

Apparently, the view from Kanda Shrine used to be pretty good and this stairway used to be hella effed up. I’m not sure what part of the shrine this depicts, but I guess it’s from the opposite point of view of Hokusai’s painting posted above.

This is a very informal rule of thumb, but if I look at a modern map, I tend to think of Kanda as the area stretching from Kanda Station to Akihabara Station to Ochanomizu Station. However, prior to the Edo Period, the area from 大手町 Ōtemachi[xiii] to Kanda Station could be considered Kanda. What changed was the building of the 神田上水 Kanda Jōsui Kanda Aqueduct. With that, the name Kanda moved farther away from the castle along the waterway into the generic area of Tōkyō that we call Kanda today.

Further Reading:

 

IMG_5667.jpg

Main gate of Kanda Shrine. Impressive.

So, what the hell does Kanda mean?

Well, I already told you at the beginning of this article. Are you saying that isn’t enough? Are you saying you want more? Are you a glutton for this shit?

Of course, you are.
You wouldn’t have read this far if you weren’t.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves, cuz we’re about to get knee deep in all kinds of muck and mire. This is a messy swamp of history, mythology, and linguistics. You ready to hold your nose and get down and dirty?

If that’s a yes, then let’s do this.

sleeve.gif

First, Let’s Look at some Kanji


kami, shin/-jin

deity (kami)


ta/da, den

planted field (usually rice)


myō

bright, enlightened; fucking obvious


miya, –

divine descendant of a heavenly kami; relative of the imperial family; imperial prince/princess


na, mei

name; well known; apparent/obvious

And, Here are 2 Words Ya Best Know, Son.

神田
kanda, shinden

literally, “god field”

御田[xiv]
mita, o-den

literally, “honorable field” – nuance is more at “field owned by a ruler”[xv] or “field owned by a god”

IMG_5669.jpg

Now, Let’s Look at a Brief History of the Shrine

OK, so… I know this is gonna be a little annoying, but bear with me a bit more on the timeline. We need some historical framework before we can go any farther. Also, it will be good to have all of these charts to refer back some time… you know, when you need to refer back them for some reason…

703
Nara Period

An ancient court clan from 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province establishes a shrine in 武蔵国豊嶋郡芝崎村 Musashi no Kuni Shibazaki Mura Shibazaki Village, Mushashi Province. The shrine is called 神田ノ宮 Kanda no Miya Kanda Shrine and by orders of the imperial court in 平城京 Heijō-kyō[xvi], it is responsible for providing rice to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine.

939
Heian Period

Taira no Masakado, a belligerent Kantō-based samurai (east), takes over hostile fiefs on his borders. When the imperial court (west) demands submission, he says “fuck no!” and goes rogue. Samurai armies loyal to the imperial court in Kyōto (west), are ordered to suppress his rebellion.

940
Heian Period

Masakado is killed in battle. His in-house biographers portray him as a hero of the Kantō region and Eastern Japan[xvii]. According to legend, Masakado’s head flies back to the East and rests at Shibazaki Village where a burial mound is made for him near Kanda no Miya.

1185
Kamakura Period
(end of Heian Period)

源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo is appointed 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun shogun[xviii] and becomes the first samurai government to rule Japan (thus achieving what Masakado couldn’t). He rules safely (but briefly[xix]) from his capital in Kamakura (also in Kantō). The system of court control over shrines and their fields is disrupted.

1309
End of Kamakura Period

Masakado is enshrined at Kanda no Miya as a kind of local hero, he soon becomes the de factō principal kami[xx]. It’s around this time Shibazaki Village is renamed Kanda Village.

1590
Sengoku Period

徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu formally takes control of Edo Castle.

1603
Edo Period

Tokugawa Ieyasu is granted the title 征夷大将軍 sei’i taishōgun shōgun. When 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle is expanded in 1603, Kanda no Miya is moved to the 神田台 Kanda-dai Kanda Plateau in order to make room for the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon the grand entrance of the castle and a new neighborhood of samurai and high-ranking merchants and artisans in 大手町 Ōtemachi, literally “main gate town.” Because of mysterious deaths and superstitions surrounding Masakado’s burial mound, his enshrinement at Kanda no Miya is considered adequate for the protection of Edo, but the burial mound is left in sitū so as not to disturb his spirit, in hopes that he will protect the castle and the samurai who come and go through the main gate, including the shōgun himself. Also, 江戸神社 Edo Jinja Edo Shrine, which was located on the castle grounds since the time of 太田道灌 Ōta Dōkan, is moved to the shrine precincts[xxi].

1616
Edo Period

The shrine is moved to its current location when the Tokugawa Shōgunate reorganized parts of the city. Although it seems very urban today, until the post-WWII period, this area was wooded and considered very 山手 yamanote high city. During the Edo Period the shrine came to be called Kanda Myōjin. The new name reflected the Buddhist philosophy of the samurai class and distanced itself from the ancient imperial court traditions.

1690
Edo Period

The 5th shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, relocated a Confucian school next to Kanda Shrine called 湯島聖堂 Yushima Seidō Yushima Hall of Wise Men[xxii]. The shrine and temple were closely connected until 1868 when the 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzen-rei Separation of Kami and Buddhas Edict was decreed. However, Yushima Seidō still has an entrance called 明神門 Myōjin Mon Kanda Shrine Gate where people could easily come and go between the temple and shrine.

1868
Meiji Period

Taira no Masakado was de-enshrined because he was seen as a rebel against the authority of the imperial family and he offended the sensitivities of the delicate snowflake known as the Meiji Emperor who had just moved into Edo Castle – newly renamed 東京城 Tōkyō-jō Tōkyō Castle.

1984
Shōwa Period

 

Because of his local popularity and the constitutional guarantee of separation of religion and government in Article 20 of the Constitution of Japan, Masakado was re-enshrined. This move was made roughly 30 years after end of WWII, presumably because the political climate was such that the anti-imperial connection was more or less lost on the general public and the concept of a divine emperor had been lying in the trash bin of history for three decades.
kanda myojin yushima seido hokusai

In the left background, you can see Yushima Seidō and its stone walls (still extant), in the right foreground, Kanda Myōjin. Thanks, Hokusai-dono.

The Five Great Etymologies

OK, so there are 5 basic theories about the origin of the place name Kanda. All of them, except for two, are related to the shrine, Kanda Myōjin – or Kanda no Miya (as it was also known). I’m going to list the theories, and then I’m going to break them all down.

jomon-period-inlets

Map of Edo-Tokyo in the paleolithic era. No wonder rivers are so crucial to the development of the city.

1. The Kami no To Theory

This theory states that Kanda is a contraction of 神田 Kamida, which itself is a corruption of 神ノ戸 kami no to. The idea is based on a possible etymology of 江戸 Edo which postulates that the city got its name from 江ノ戸 e no to “door to the estuary,” a reference to the hamlet’s location on the bay[xxiii]. Proponents of this theory point at the city of 神戸 Kōbe, claiming that it derives from 神ノ戸 kami no he “door to the kami” (contracted as Kanbe or Kōbe) due the presence of 生田神社 Ikuta Jinja Ikuta Shrine[xxiv] near the bay. The original location of Kanda no Miya was very near the bay before it was moved in the Edo Period. In fact, the former place name of this area was 芝崎 Shibazaki which literally means grassy cape, a clear indication that it was on the water.

While I find the similarities between Kōbe and Edo intriguing, I’m not sure if I’m onboard with kami no to breaking down to Kanda. It’s not unimaginable[xxv], but I think there are more convincing etymologies.

ise shrin

Ise Grand Shrine

2. The Kamida Theory

This is the most straight forward hypothesis. It states the name literally derives from 神ノ田 kami no tanbo sacred rice field or rice field of the kami. As I mentioned earlier, at the time Kanda no Miya was founded, shrines were expected to send 初穂 hatsuho the first harvest[xxvi] as an offering to a major shrine associated with the imperial court. In this case, the first harvest went to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine. These fields were in an area that sits roughly between the original location of Kanda no Miya and the modern location of Kanda Shrine[xxvii]. As a phrase, 神ノ田 would be read “kami no tanbo,” but as a place name it would be written 神田kamida,” which then could easily be contracted to Kanda. There are hundreds of place names throughout Japan written with the same kanji, and while their readings may differ, the etymology is generally the same. A change from /kamida/ to /kaɴda/ is quite plausible and, surprisingly, preserves the same number of mōræ of the original[xxviii].

Michinoomi_no_Mikoto-2.jpg

Michi no Omi no Mikoto, a male version of the Empress Jingū, is one of the three great war gods of Japan. The Ōtomo clan, very closely tied to the ancient imperial court, claimed descent from this particular kami.

3. The Kanda Clan Theory

This theory is related to the last one, but it gets a little more political. While the foundation of Kanda no Miya dates back to historical times, it dates back to a time when eastern Japan was a fucking backwater and records are scant to say the least. While we don’t know exactly who established the shrine, a little knowledge of Nara Period court bureaucracy may shine a bit of light on the issue.

A few high-ranking clans in the imperial court were given the title 神田宿禰 kanda no sukune lords of the fields of the kami[xxix]. Many branch families and descendants from clans that held this hereditary title eventually came to use the characters 神田 as a surname, adopting a range of regional variations, including Kanda. One of the most ancient and elite families to bear the title kanda no sukune was the 大伴氏 Ōtomo-shi Ōtomo clan from 出雲国 Izumo no Kuni Izumo Province[xxx]. If you remember from the beginning of the article, the original kami enshrined at Kanda no Miya were two earthly gods from Izumo who play major roles in the earliest written histories of Japan.

I’ll talk more about this clan later.

masakado

Taira no Masakado was one bad muthafucka. Sadly, his life ended without his head. Happily, his story lives on… and is pretty much all about his head.

4. The Taira no Masakado Did it Theory

Again, if you’ll refer to the list of kami enshrined here and the historical timeline, you’ll recall that in 940, a samurai by the name of Taira no Masakado was killed in battle during his uprising against the imperial court. Scholars debate the motivation for Masakado’s so-called “revolt,” but one thing is certain: the people of the Kantō Area, and the area near Edo in particular, latched on to him as a kind of folk hero. He stood up against a western court that they thought lorded power over them. According to legend, Masakado’s decapitated head was reanimated and fled the imperial court of Kyōto to return to his beloved Kantō. His spirit was then enshrined as Masakado no Taira no Mikoto. This theory states that the name Kanda is a corruption of 躯 karada corpse[xxxi]. A change from /kaɾada/ to /kaɴda/ is quite plausible and, surprisingly, preserves the same number of mōræ of the original[xxxii].

fashion_pct_img

Kofun Period Fashion™

5. The Fuck It, Nobody Knows Theory

This sort of theory, like all ancient place names is a last resort when all other etymologies fail. This is the diachronic linguistics version of the God of the Gaps. In short, if we can’t prove anything with historical records and can’t come up with satisfactory hypotheses, there’s a chance that the name may be hiding in proto-history. That is to say, Kanda may be a vestige of pre-literate Japan. People superimposed kanji on locally existing place names that may reflect an unrecorded Jōmon (Emishi/Ainu) place name or an unrecorded Yayoi/Kofun period dialect. In such cases, the kanji is considered 当て字 ateji, or characters used for phonetic values rather than meaning.

show me what you got-2
So, What do I Think?

Today we have such a complicated mess, I hope you can understand why I’ve hesitated to tackle this subject for so many years. I started this article but it rapidly got out of control.

First of all, I think the first theory which relates the etymology of Kōbe and Edo to Kanda is a bit of a stretch. If anything, it illustrates a fascinating link between the naming of Kōbe[xxxiii] and Edo[xxxiv], but it doesn’t do shit to explain Kanda, in my opinion. It’s an interesting pattern, and we see many place names (and subsequent family names) in the 東北地方 Tōhoku Chihō Tōhoku Region that are clearly derived from this model[xxxv]. However, applying it to Kanda doesn’t make any sense.

Secondly, the “Fuck It, Nobody Knows” theory is one that we can’t really prove one way or the other[xxxvi]. If we had some Ainu words suggested, then maybe we could make some kind of conjecture, but I couldn’t find any ideas tossed out there. Furthermore, we have a pretty nice linguistic sandbox to play in if we combine the remaining theories.

IMG_5671

The Sandbox

So…, we know the original name of the shrine was Kanda no Miya. This name is somewhat ambiguous. It can mean “Imperial Shrine of Kanda” or “Imperial Shrine of the Holy Fields.” I think these are absolutely related. Imperial Shrine of Kanda (by that, I mean the Kanda clan) seems to be a reference to a branch of the Ōtomo clan, while Imperial Shrine of the Holy Fields seems to be a reference to the fields required by law for the Kanda to maintain on behalf of the court to maintain Ise Grand Shrine. We also know that the Ōtomo (and therefore the Kanda) came from Izumo Province. In my mind, it can’t be a coincidence that the kami who were originally enshrined were Ōkuninushi and Ōnamuchi – the most important deities from Izumo.

I think we’re looking at a cut and dry example of the Nara Period system of establishing shrines dedicated to the imperial cult in the outlands and I think the name of the shrine clearly reflects that. I think the presence of the “holy fields” isn’t just related to that, it reinforces that imperial connection. However, after the gradual breakdown of imperial power in the East, the Kantō Area started to feel a little more autonomous.

This autonomy was writ large on the pages of history when Taira no Masakado essentially said “fuck you” to the imperial court and went to war[xxxvii].

Sure, he lost.

Sure, he was killed.

Sure, his decapitated head was put on display.

But like they say in Game of Thrones, “the North remembers.” Well, in this case, the East remembered, and they enshrined him at Kanda no Miya in the 1300’s. It’s also around this time that the area formerly called 芝崎村 Shibazaki Mura Shibazaki Village was renamed 神田村 Kanda Mura Kanda Village.

Do I think the /kaɾada/ (body) → /kaɴda/ etymology was the main reason? No. But I do think the timing of the name change from Shibazaki to Kanda and the strength of Masakado’s fame and spectral power worked its way into local lore and folk etymology. I can’t give a “hard no” to this theory, but I think it’s very much a part of the history of this area and its cultural tapestry.

hiroshige kanda myojin

One of Utagawa Hiroshige’s takes on Kanda Shrine in the Edo Period. This time, he chose to focus on a tree.

The End… or is it?

For most people, that’s about as much as you need to know about the origins of Kanda. In fact, that’s probably more than anyone needs to know. If you stop reading now, you’re probably doing yourself a favor. But for those of you with a masochistic streak, I’d like to explore a few tangents so we can tie up a few loose knots before I wrap this bitch up.

I’ll do that in part two of this article, which is pretty much complete as you’re reading this. I just need to find some pictures, proofread, and double check my facts. Anyhoo, expect me to post that in a day or two.

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to leave comments and questions down below, and if you’d like to support JapanThis! on social media or throw me a dollar or two, all the details are directly below this sentence.

 

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[i] The original name was 神田ノ宮 Kanda no Miya Kanda Shrine.
[ii] Deity and god are just rough translations. To learn more about what a kami is, check out this article on Wikipedia. If you already have a good understanding of how kami differ from the English words “god/goddess,” “deity,” and “spirit,” then you might want to do a little further reading.
[iii] I’m not going to get into the intricacies of Shintō cosmology, but in short, kami are generally divided into two groups: 天津神 ama tsu kami heavenly kami and 国津神 kuni tsu kami earthly kami. At the end of the 神世 Kami no Yo Age of the Gods, the heavenly deities descended to earth with a mandate from the sun goddess 天照大神 Amaterasu Ōmikami to rule over the lands of the earthly gods and all of humans that inhabited those lands, thereby establishing the Yamato clan – the imperial family.
[iv] This is something we’re gonna talk about in part two.
[v] A rivalry still very much alive in Japan today, particularly in Japanese Professional Baseball, with the Tōkyō Giants and Hanshin Tigers being the fiercest rivalry.
[vi] As I said, more about that later.
[vii] Years ago, I did a series on Edo’s rivers, which you can read here. I didn’t really understand the scope of what I was getting into and I got to a point where I literally almost quit JapanThis! completely – or at least I was ready to quit the series.
[viii] Because of a recent project, I’m getting more and more familiar with Japanese mythology.
[ix] I think I have this down to a certain degree, but I’m def not an expert.
[x] I’m gradually getting better acquainted with ancient and classical Japanese culture, but since Edo-Tōkyō is my favorite period, all of my recent studies on these three topics (mythology, religion, and ancient/classical Japan) are all strictly for improving the quality of JapanThis!.
[xi] Roughly 千代田区神田駿河台一丁目と二丁目 Chiyoda-ku Kanda-Surugadai Icchōme to Nichōme 1st and 2nd blocks of Kanda-Surugadai, Chiyoda Ward.
[xii] Long time readers will know that before the Meiji Coup in 1868, place names were quite generic. machi/-chō tended to be fixed but only referred to blocks (neighborhoods organized by social class and rank). But areas like 上野 Ueno, 麻布 Azabu, 芝 Shiba, 品川 Shinagawa, etc., were slightly ambiguous.
[xiii] Ōtemachi refers to the neighborhood of rich merchants and high ranking samurai bureaucrats that sat in front of the 大手御門 Ōte Go-mon main entrance of Edo Castle.
[xiv] Don’t worry, you don’t need this word for this etymology, but if you go back to my old article about Mita, it might be helpful, since this article sheds light on the old one.
[xv] Usually the imperial court.
[xvi] Modern day 奈良県 Nara-ken Nara Prefecture.
[xvii] Game of Thrones fans could think of him as Rob Stark. And rather than “the North remembers,” this is “the East remembers.” Masakado became the archetype of eastern samurai, Kantō samurai in particular, overcoming the overbearing and failing imperial court in the west.
[xviii] Who is Minamoto no Yoritomo? Glad you asked!
[xix] Dude had bad luck with horses, and that bad luck finally caught up with him. The whole article is interesting, but if you’re interested Yoritomo and horses, check out the section on Ashige-zuka and the associated footnotes.
[xx] I say de factō because the locals saw Masakado as the most powerful kami of Kanda no Miya, even though he was officially 3rd in rank.
[xxi] Who is Ōta Dōkan? Maybe you should read What does Toshima mean? You might also want to learn a little about Edo Castle, by reading What does Edo mean? Oh, I almost forgot. The kami enshrined at Edo Shrine (established in 武蔵国豊嶋郡 Musashi no Kuni Toshima-gun Toshima District, Musashi Province in 702) is 建速須佐之男命 Takehaya Susano’o no Mikoto, usually shortened to Susano’o – the kami of seas and storms (and brother of the sun goddess, 天照大御神 Amaterasu Ōmikami).
[xxii] While not popular today, this is one of the few spots where you can really feel the 山手 yamanote high city atmosphere of the Edo Period. Of course, Kanda Shrine was high city, but it was always open to the public. It also banks on its popularity with the masses. Yushima Seidō shuns the masses, maintaining its Edo Period elite status as a center of Confucian and Buddhist learning. The amount of greenery on the site is testimony enough to its desire to left to its own devices – a very Edo Period mentality. Not sure about low city vs. high city? Check out my article about Yamanote vs Shitamachi.
[xxiii] There were many inlets from the bay that pushed far inland. The Kanda River once flowed out into the bay before the Tokugawa Shōgunate re-routed it into something closer to its modern course.
[xxiv] There are three major ancient shrines in Kōbe, not all of them near the bay. But apparently the area where Ikuta Shrine is located was home to a handful of other shrines as well.
[xxv] One idea being that as the land was reclaimed for agriculture and the sea retreated, the kanji 戸 to door was replaced with 田 ta/da field. But, I’m not going to lie, I think this is a stretch.
[xxvi] Usually rice, but sometimes wheat.
[xxvii] The place is called 神田美土代町 Kanda Mitoshiro-chō today, and I’m thinking about covering that place name next time.
[xxviii] WTF is a mōra? Glad you asked!
[xxix] This translation is mine. I might also render it as “lords of the kanda,” or “overseers of the kanda.”
[xxx] In modern 島根県 Shimane-ken Shimane Prefecture.
[xxxi] This word usually appears as and 身体/ kaɾada and usually just means “body.” The kanji listed above is specifically for dead bodies and has a ghostly or spectral connotation.
[xxxii] WTF is a mōra? Glad you asked!
[xxxiii] In the west of Japan…
[xxxiv] In the east of Japan…
[xxxv] The primary examples are family names like Kanbe (rather than Kōbe), and 一戸 Ichinohe, 二戸 Ninohe, and 三戸 Sannohe – Tōhoku place/family names that literally mean “first door,” “second door,” third door,” and so on…
[xxxvi] If you take this position, you have to deal with some evidence that might not be so clear at first. One, the name Kanda no Miya doesn’t appear in records until the Heian Period. Two, the Ōtomo clan’s peak was in the 5th century. By the 700’s when Kanda no Miya was established they were in steady decline. In fact, they disappear from the historical record in about 940. It’s not hard to understand why branch families would have seen using new names as wise political moves.
[xxxvii] In short, once the imperial court had consolidated power, it adopted and promulgated a Chinese socio-political framework. It held for a while, but as Japanese culture and society was different from that of China, it slowly broke down. During this breakdown, power vacuums came to be filled by samurai. This trend continued until the samurai class took power in the Kamakura Period.

What does Ōji mean?

In Japanese History on October 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm

王子
Ōji (imperial prince, but more at “a kami divided from another kami”)

16919450696_95b2f6c5c1_k

Otonashi Park in Ōji is one of Tōkyō’s secret cherry blossom viewing spots. Nearby Asukayama is even more beautiful and also a little bit off the beaten path.

Hello all! Sorry for the gap since my last article. I got bogged down with work and this article and its follow up.

Here’s the honest truth. I started re-searching and writing this article in January. It turned out to be such a colossal mess that I just made a bunch of notes taken from Japanese texts and left them as they were. I ignored the article after that.
Totally abandoned it.


But during 花見 hanami the cherry blossom season, I revisited it. As the weather got better, I found myself with a confusing list of quotes in Japanese and English and nary a timeline to speak of. So I abandoned the topic again. But then lost my research notes. Couldn’t find them anywhere.

But something amazing happened at the middle of October.

I was able to recover my notes.

The notes rambled and were pretty much all over the place. But most of the research was intact. And so, submitted for your approval, here is an article started some 6-7 months ago and finally finished now.
If it’s unpolished and rambling, I apologize, but I just wanted to get it over with. 

Ōji – A Princely Namesake… or Something Like That…

To modern eyes, this place name means “prince.” In a very general sense, it could be understood as a son of a king or emperor. In this case, it most likely isn’t a reference to a literal prince. The name of the area seems to be derived from 王子神社 Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine. If you visit today, the shrine doesn’t look so ancient. It was lost during WWII and rebuilt in 1959 and again in 1982 with some of that sweet, sweet Bubble Economy money. But don’t let the modern veneer fool you. There’s good evidence that this shrine dates from at least the Kamakura Period. Some even suggests its history goes farther back than that.

oji shrine

Where is Ōji?

Ōji is in present day 北区 Kita-ku Kita Ward[i]. Today the area has a shitamachi image, though this area was the straight up boonies in the Edo Period. The area surrounding the shrine was actually a favorite 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing spot of the upper echelons of the Tokugawa shōgunate[ii]. These days, the area boasts 紙の博物館 Kami no Hakubutsukan the Paper Museum, 狐の行列 Kitsune no Gyōretsu the Fox Parade every New Year’s Eve, and a station catering to 都電荒川線 Toden Arakawa-sen the Toden Arakawa Line, Tōkyō’s last remaining street car. Interestingly, the area is also home to a certain ラッコズニューヨークスタイルピザ Rakkozu Nyū Yōku Sutairu Piza Rocco’s New York Style Pizza. Having lived in New York for 3 years, I definitely developed a taste for a proper New York slice. In Tōkyō, this is as close as you’re going to get. The shop has a nice New York vibe with red & white checkered tablecloths and the essential shakers: oregano, parmesan cheese, and crushed red pepper. It’s not the most convenient location for me, but I’ll make the trek if I have a hankering[iii]

roccos

Click the pic for Rocco’s website

NYC TOPPINGS

New York style pizza toppings

So, anyways, that’s the short answer to the question “What does Ōji mean?” and I threw in some reasons that I think you might want to visit the area. The short answer ends here. If you wanna get deep into what Ōji means, find yourself a nice chair and let’s get into it proper[iv]

kumano

A Long Time Ago in a Province Far, Far Away

One of the most ancient temple and shrine complexes in Japan is a cluster of 3 major mountaintop sites called 熊野三山 Kumano Sanzan in modern Wakayama Prefecture which is in western Japan. You could translate the name as the 3 Muthafuckin’ Mountains of Kumano, but most people don’t – they usually just call them the Kumano Sanzan and are done with it[v]. That means the 3 Mountains of Kumano. Between the 3 religious complexes, something like 12 神 kami Shintō deities called 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen[vi] are enshrined. Since the Heian Period, the 3 mountains have been the focus of a major pilgrimage which is still popular today. It’s my understanding that today the entire pilgrimage course – mountains and manmade structures alike – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The shrines themselves seem to be quite ancient. The history of these shrines clearly predates their appearance in the historical record and as such is probably affiliated with the rise of the imperial cult and the Yamato State. The shrines are mentioned in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki, which is Japan’s second oldest written history (finished in 720 or 750). I’m assuming the capital was in Nara at this time, but there was some reshuffling of things from 740-745ish that I can’t say with certainty. But the Nara Period is generally thought of as the time from 710 to 794. I’ll get back to this aspect at the end of the article.

kumano1

Why Are We Going Back This Far in History? And Will Talk About Ōji, Tōkyō Again?

Great questions and I’m glad you asked! As for your second question, yes, we’ll be getting back to that later. As for your first question, well… while the Tōkyō place name, Ōji, has little to do with the daily concerns of the modern Tōkyōite, all of this backstory is critical to understanding few aspects of religion in Japan.

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So, Back to the… Backstory[vii]

You see, in the 500’s, Buddhism first showed up in Japan. The native Shintō priests, of course, weren’t having any of this foreign Buddhist bullcrap. After all, they had a lucrative monopoly on the traditional spirituality of the people. Nonetheless, various factions within the imperial court at Nara either embraced it or rejected it. But ultimately, the imperial court got on board with the whole idea of Buddhism (see my article on Taishi-dō) and in the end everyone seemed to agree that there wasn’t much of a conflict with the native Shintō religion.

One way of reconciling the native Shintō beliefs with Buddhism was the creation of 権現 gongen. When a Buddhist temple was established, it had to appeal to the Shintō believers of the area. They understood their own traditions but the Buddhist stuff was foreign and strange in those early days of Buddhism in Japan. The quick fix was this: if a foreign or native Japanese 菩薩 bodhisattva (a person who has reached Buddhist enlightenment) wants to communicate with Japanese people, he/she would take the shape of a Shintō 神 kami. In short, use the local language to communicate with the local people. Buddhists could endear themselves to the skeptics by saying, yes, this is a Buddhist object of veneration/reflection, but it is appearing as a native Japanese avatar that can operate on a Shintō platform. A 権現 gongen, while Buddhist in nature, was flexible and thus could be experienced through a Shintō filter and was subject to Shintō rituals – in our case, ritual division and re-enshrinement.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Gongen are often depicted as half-nekkid, pissed off, sword wielding demons. In this picture, not Kumano Gongen, he appears to be wielding a karaoke microphone.

Why Didn’t They See a Conflict?

Because syncretism.

Most western countries have a cultural heritage derived from the 3 batshit crazy Abrahamic religions, the so-called Big 3 Monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[viii]. These religions, by definition, just hate other religions because if you only have 1 god you can’t accept or tolerate another one. That is, when you think there can only be one god, everyone else is just flat out wrong. End of story. If you’re polytheistic (ie; you believe more than one god exists), another god is no big stretch of the imagination and doesn’t threaten your world view. Polytheistic societies like Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt were able to mix and match their native religions with foreign religions easily. This is called syncretism. You could also call it, “just getting along” (as far as religious ideologies are concerned)[ix]. Japan was/is pretty much the same way. Once people got over the initial fear of something strange and foreign, they found ways to incorporate the 2 systems, as they obviously weren’t mutually exclusive. This is syncretism

kumo shrine

And just in case you’re wondering, the Japanese word for syncretism is 習合 shūgō “learning joined.”[x] This word is derived from the 四字熟語 yoji jukugo 4 kanji word 神仏習合 shinbutsu shūgō which means “syncretism of bodhisattvas and Japanese kami.”

Your average person on the street in the Edo Period wouldn’t have even thought about the blending of Buddhism and Shintō – they were so perfectly intertwined. The native Shintō and foreign Buddhism blended well in Japan for centuries until the Meiji Government tried to separate the two in order to establish a proper Shintō-based cult based on the Imperial Family. Shrines would act as organs of the Imperial State[xi]. They succeeded in promulgating what came to be called “State Shintō”[xii] and suppressed certain Buddhist sects. Much to the chagrin of the so-called “Modern Statesmen” of the Meiji Coup who hailed from Satsuma and Chōshū, they never quite separated the two completely. After WWII, separating Shintō and Buddhism was illegal – in fact any connection between government and religious institutions became unconstitutional – so don’t be surprised to find syncretic shrine complexes still exist throughout the country. Even more so, don’t be surprised to find bizarre, modern cultish hybrids from time to time.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū. Dedicated to the great gongen of the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Dividing Up Deities

OK, I’ve explained syncretism and finished my anti-monotheistic rant. So, let’s talk a little bit about the mechanics of Shintō and Japanese Buddhism, shall we? In the past at JapanThis!, we’ve talked about shrines called 東照宮 Tōshō-gū dedicated to the deified 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu[xiii]. There are something like 130 shrines dedicated to 東照宮大権現 Tōshō-gū Daigongen throughout the country. The name, by the way means something like “The Great Gongen Prince of the East.” You might think that this is a lot. Were they hacking up Ieyasu’s corpse and sending bits and pieces to various domains all over the country?

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Kunōzan, the birthplace of the cult of Tōshō-gū.

Of course not. Ieyasu’s corpse is most likely very much intact and rests at either 日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshō-gū or 久能山東照宮 Kunōzan Tōshō-gū[xiv]. But just as Buddhism venerates objects associated with a particular bodhisattva (person who has achieved pure enlightenment) and allows for those objects and images to be copied or even modified for each culture, Shintō allows for kami to be divided. Again for people in western cultures, it’s hard to imagine this. Without a physical body or some holy event having occurred on a spot, how is there anything to venerate?

Interestingly, Shintō has a mechanism that operates on a level similar to biological cell division. A kami can divide and a new kami is thus born. Just as a Buddhist statue or similar object of veneration can be copied or recreated infinitely, a Shintō kami can be divided infinitely.

Tokugawa Ieyasu - Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

Tokugawa Ieyasu – Tōshō-gū Daigongen (the Great Gongen Eastern Prince).

130 Tōshō Daigongen?

We’re Not Even Getting Started.

I mentioned Tōshō-gū. Ieyasu was deified as 大正大権現 Tōshō Daigongen the Great Deity Who Guards the East. There were about 500 shrines dedicated to Ieyasu in the Edo Period. This means that the kami named Tōshō Daigongen was divided at least 500 times. And for those who have a short memory, a 権現 gongen is a 菩薩 bosatsu bodhisattva (buddha) who manifests him/herself  to the Japanese in the form of a 神 kami[xv]. But other kami were divided far more times than this. I’ll put it this way, Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616 and so he was relatively late to the game. But he’s a perfect example of a syncretic deity – a “gongen” for the Edo Period, if you will. He was buried in a perfectly normal syncretic tradition for a person of his stature. He was both a buddha and a kami.

分霊

Bunrei – separating a kami

How Widespread Was Dividing Kami and Gongen?

As a Tōkyō resident, one of my favorite kami is 稲荷神 Inari-gami. This is kami visually characterized by foxes. In Edo, this kami was associated with the daimyō class and the samurai class. In the outskirts of the city, he was associated with farmers. But as far out as you go in 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan, Inari was originally a tutelary kami of the 大名家 daimyō-ke daimyō families during the Sengoku Period. Since the daimyō families were expected to take care of their farmers, the farmers also latched on to this kami. Veneration of Inari exploded during the Edo Period.

It exploded to such a point that the number of Inari shrines in Japan is literally impossible to count[xvi]. One great example is 伏見稲荷大社 Fushimi Inari Taisha Fushimi Grand Inari Shrine in Kyōto – truly one of the world’s greatest treasures. But you can find dollhouse sized Inari shrines and shrines on temple precincts that seen like after thoughts. My point? Inari has been popular for ages and divided again and again.

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

The 2nd place holder is 八幡 Hachiman, the god of war who is the tutelary kami of 武家 buke samurai families. Veneration of Hachiman was spread by 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo. The most famous shrine is 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsurugaoka Hachimangū in 鎌倉 Kamakura. But this shrine wasn’t the first shrine dedicated to Hachiman. There are an estimated 44,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan.

OK, so there are an unknowable number of Inari shrines, some 44,000 Hachiman shrines, about 130 remaining Tōshō-gū shrines, and roughly 3000 shrines dedicated Kumano Gongen. and 13 shrines dedicated to various kami in Hawaii, Colorado, and Washington. I’m assuming those were brought from Japan[xvii].

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū at Kamakura. Many say the cult of Hachimangū was the main cult of the post-Minamoto samurai families.

OK, Time to Bring the Story Back to Edo-Tōkyō

The Toshima were granted control of 豊島郡 Toshima-gun Toshima District in the 1000’s, which included this area. It’s not clear when the Kumano Gongen was installed in the area because there are two contradictory stories about how the place name Ōji came about.

oji

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Theory 1: The Shrine Dates From Well Before the Kamakura Period

Some claim that Ōji Shrine existed in some form or another before the Kamakura Period.

A popular story says that pre-shōgun Yoritomo passed through Toshima District near Edo[xviii] on his way to fight the 奥州藤原 Ōshū Fujiwara in Tōhoku[xix] in 1189. Praying for good luck, Yoritomo presented a full set of armor to 若一王子社 Nyakuichi Ōji-sha Nyakuichi Ōji Shrine – later Ōji Shrine Ōji Jinja Ōji Shrine.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

Conspicuously, Ōji Shrine possesses no armor from Minamoto no Yoritomo.

The earliest textual evidence seems to come from an obscure reference in a war chronicle thought to have been written between the 南北朝時 Nanbokuchō Jidai Nanbokuchō Period[xx] (1334-1392) and the very early 室町時代 Muromachi Jidai Muromachi Period (1337-1573)[xxi]. This war chronicle is called the 義経記 Gikeiki[xxii] and it sings the praises of 源義経 Minamoto no Yoshitsune[xxiii], brother of Yoritomo.

A passing reference is made to Yoshitsune crossing the 王子板橋 Ōji Itabashi Ōji Plank Bridge. Was there an epic battle here? Did Yoshitsune give a rousing speech here? Probably not. The reason the “plank bridge” is probably even mentioned at all is that the area was such a backwater at the time that elegant plank bridges were few and far between. You could see them in Kyōto and maybe in Yoritomo’s capital at Kamakura, but never in the nasty, rural marshlands of the Toshima. People would take a boat across a river or just stay on their side of the river.  Interestingly, this plank bridge is most likely the same bridge related to the etymology of nearby 板橋 Itabashi[xxiv], which literally means “plank bridge.

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Yoritomo vs Yoshitsune

Theory 2: The Shrine Dates From the Kamakura Period

There’s a contradictory claim about the age of the Ōji Shrine in an Edo Period text called the 新編武蔵風土記稿 Shinpen Musashi Fūdokikō Lands and Customs of Musashi Province (New Edition)[xxv].  This text claims, quite clearly, that in 1322, the Toshima Clan had the 熊野若一王子 Kumano Nyakuichi Ōji brought from 熊野新宮 Kumano Shingū New Main Kumano Shrine of Kumanoto Toshima District.

New Grand Shrine

New Grand Shrine

Nyakuichi Ōji is the name given to kami that are separated from 浜王子Hama Ōji. Hama Ōji itself was split from the 熊野権現 Kumano Gongen at the 熊野本宮 Kumano Hongū Kumano Main Shrine. So it’s a split of a split.

SH3E0110

SH3E0110

The 新宮 shingū “new main temple,” itself a branch temple of the 本宮 hongū “officially designated main temple,” is cited in the 日本書紀 Nihon Shoki Japan Chronicles[xxvi] and so is believed to have existed before 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin the Taika Reforms of 645. The Nihon Shoki refers to the title 熊野国造 Kumano no Kuni Miyatsuko – a provincial governor of the Yamato court controlling the area[xxvii]. The argument for the shrine’s antiquity is that 熊野国 Kumano no Kuni Kumano Province was a pre-Taika Reforms province, 造 miyatsuko is a pre-Taika Reforms title, and the Nihon Shoki was finished about 75 years later in 720 after Kumano Province had been abolished[xxviii]. Most of the provinces we encounter at JapanThis! are post-Taika Reforms – Kumano was abolished. The provinces remained relatively unchanged until the abolition of domains and provinces in the early Meiji Period. Of course, in the Edo Period, 藩 han domains were more important than provinces (which were archaic territories with no practical civil administration).

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[i] Literally, the North Ward. And yes. I have an article about that.
[ii] 飛鳥山 Asuka-yama Mt. Asuka is still a popular spot for hanami today. It’s located a short distance from Ōji Station. The park is not very well known, so it doesn’t attract huge crowds. I highly recommend it.
[iii] On the topic of pizza, there is another shop also big among the expats in Tōkyō that specializes in Chicago style pizza called DevilCraft. The shop has been successful enough to open 2 shops, one in Kanda and one in Hamamatsu-chō. But I fucking can’t stand Chicago style pizza. It’s not pizza. It’s pizza flavored quiche – and it needs to get over itself. That said, DevilCraft brews their own beer and I respect that. Beer is good.
[-iv] Read that with a British accent – or else it’s just ungrammatical.
[v] Believe it or not, Japanese doesn’t have a word for “muthafuckin’.”
[vi] What’s a “gongen?” Have patience, my flower. All in due time.
[vii] Unfortunately, not a porno – though it may sound like one.
[viii] And just to be fair, yours truly thinks all religions are batshit crazy. I tend to show a little more respect to the peaceful ones and a great amount of disdain to the overbearing or violent ones. #AntiTheism
[ix] Yes, this is a simplification, but I think it’s more or less the case. Before a funerary memorial service, I was talking with the officiating Buddhist priest about the history of the graveyard at the temple. He said that while religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam reject Japanese spirituality altogether, the Japanese tradition can make room for aspects of those religions and even adopt aspects of them while ignoring other aspects. I believe his conclusion was “the Japanese have the potential for a richer spiritual tapestry.” I both agree and disagree with that statement, but it was the first time I heard a Buddhist priest say it in a cemetery. So, there’s that.
[x] Pssst! Hey dude, you still haven’t told us what a fucking “gongen” is yet. FFS, will you settle down, I’m getting to it now! I told you this was going to be a convoluted story.
[xi] Though, to be honest, this was nothing new. The Tokugawa and other shōgunates and the imperial family itself were always harnessing the power of both shrines and temples.
[xii] “State Shintō” is a term invented by the Americans during the post-WWII occupation. There was no “separation of church & state” in the Meiji Constitution, but in many ways Shintō was just seen as Japanese tradition. Some argue the term “State Shintō” isn’t accurate or fair. But c’mon, let’s be real here. What the winners of the Meiji Coup set in motion, got waaaaaaaaaaay out of control. And while I’ll grant they didn’t create “State Shintō,” by the 1930’s and 1940’s they definitely had something that looked like, smelled liked, and quacked like “State Shintō.”
[xiii] You can find my article about Tōshō-gū here.
[xiv] Interestingly, both shrines bicker over who has the body. Simply opening up the 宝塔 hōtō 2 story urns would solve the question once and for all, but neither shrine wants to allow that – probably because neither wants to be the one who was wrong.
[xv] This is one way that Buddhism tried to one up the native Shintō religion. Shintō was originally of shamanic roots, but Buddhism offered a kind of salvation (or second chance) through reincarnation or transcendence. Shintō seems to have been more daily and superstitious. Both were as ridiculous as any modern religion, though.
[xvi] Tiny shrines are littered all over the country, especially in agricultural areas or in the confines of castles and the detached residences of daimyō. In Edo, there was a idiom used by Edoites to describe common place sights and occurrences: 火事喧嘩伊勢屋稲荷に犬の糞 kaji kenka, Iseya Inari ni, inu no kuso which essentially means “fires and fights, shops named Iseya and Inari shrines are scattered like dog shit in the streets.” I can vouch for this one. If I walk 15 minutes in any direction from my home, I’ll stumble across 2 or more Inari Shrines. In some places you’ll find shrines so small they look like Edo Period doll houses.
[xvii] But I don’t know for sure.
[xviii] Long time readers will know that I’ve talked about the Toshima extensively throughout the blog. This isn’t a focused list, but this link will bring up any article in which I referenced the Toshima.
[xix] His victory in this battle paved his way for receiving the title shōgun.
[xx] Read about the Nanbokuchō Period here.
[xxi] The dates I gave for the Muromachi Period are one of many reckonings. Samurai Archives has a brief summary of the Muromachi Period here, they also have a pretty handy timeline of the Muromachi Period here.
[xxii] The name Gikeiki is sometimes misread as Yoshitsune-ki. The title means “Yoshitsune’s Story.”
[xxiii] Yoshitsune is the archetypal tragic samurai character in Japanese culture. He’s not important to our story today, but he is interesting. You can read about him here.
[xxiv] Long time readers will recognize this as the spot where 近藤勇 Kondō Isami of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi was executed in the 1860’s. Read my article here.
[xxv] The translation is mine. Not sure if this book has a standard English title. The book was compiled from 1804 to 1829.
[xxvi] Japan’s second oldest book.
[xxvii] From what I can tell, the hereditary title Kuni no Miyatsuko was not as much a governmental official as a person who oversaw regional Shintō matters. But I don’t know about it in detail.
[xxviii] Interestingly, the title wasn’t abolished and was still passed down among the same families until the mid 1300’s. It had fallen out of use by the end of the Nanboku-chō Period.

What does Ushima mean?

In Japanese History on August 31, 2015 at 6:20 am

牛島
Ushima (cow/ox island)

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Today’s article is a bit of whimsy. I want to investigate some really obscure and unknown aspects of Japanese religion that tangentially hit on the history of Edo-Tōkyō. In my article on 向島 Mukōjima, I mentioned that one of the theories is that there were a collection of islands (or more likely sandbars in a flood plain) dotting the east bank of the 隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River. According to this story, these were collectively called mukōjima “the islands on the other side of the river” by the people of the west bank who lived in 浅草 Asakusa. Today I want to talk about the name 牛島 Ushima Cow Island[i]. It’s not preserved as an official place name today, but there is shrine in Mukōjima that bears the name. It’s a quite ancient name – possibly as ancient as Asakusa[ii].

Eat more chikin, bitches

Eat mor chikin, bitches

As I’ve said many times before, the west bank of the 大川 Ōkawa the Great River (as this stretch of the river was known as in the Edo Period) had been fairly developed since the Heian Period. It got a major boost with the rise of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura Shōgunate in the 1200’s and was one of the few shining centers of art and commerce in the Edo area in those early days. The area really rose to prominence with the establishment of the 江戸幕府 Edo Bakufu Edo Shōgunate in the early 1600’s by the 徳川家 Tokugawa-ke Tokugawa family.

As I said earlier, today there isn’t any area officially called Ushima, but prior to the Meiji Period, there was an area of present day 墨田区本所 Sumida-ku Honjo Honjo, Sumida Ward that was referred to by that name. The east bank of the river was essentially grassland, even during most of the Edo Period this side of the river was relatively rustic[iii]. During the Asuka Period and Nara Period[iv], the grounds on the flood plains of the eastern bank of the Sumida River were used for grazing cattle. Thus the area came to be called 牛島 Ushijima Cow Island – a name that was eventually contracted to Ushima[v].

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

A stone lantern at Ushima Shrine circa 1868.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Asakusa is the Rockstar of the Area, but…

Meanwhile, on the west bank of the Sumida River, in 628 or 645[vi] (the Asuka Period) Sensō-ji was founded in Asakusa Village. Sensō-ji was a key temple in the area and it was pivotal in the spreading of Buddhism in the Kantō area. In the 850’s (Heian Period), a famous itinerant monk who had recently studied Buddhism in China visited Sensō-ji to view the secret image of Buddha that was alleged fished out of a stretch of the river and is the alleged raison d’être of the great temple. That monk was a certain 慈覚大師 Jikaku Daishi[vii] and he is about to play the biggest part of the Ushima story.

Jikaku Daishi

Jikaku Daishi

The story goes that Jikaku Daishi, who had been studying Buddhism in China, was ejected from the country during the Great Buddhism Purge of 845 and forced to return to Japan. Upon his return he visited various centers of Buddhism in the country to share his knowledge and engage in philosophical discussions with other monks. While visiting a hermitage called 一草庵 Issōan, Jikaku Daishi took a walk and happened upon an old man. The old man told him that he should build a shrine to protect the local people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The old man then revealed that he was an incarnation of the Shintō 神 kami deity named 須佐之男命 Susano’o no Mikoto.

Susano’o no Mikoto

Susano’o no Mikoto

Wait. Whaaaa?!!

You may be scratching your head now. Buddhism builds temples to reflect upon enlightened souls… or something like that. Shintō builds shrines to house 神 kami deities[viii]… or something like that. At the very least, these are just 2 distinct belief systems!

Long time readers should be well aware that Japanese religions – and polytheistic religions in general – tend to be syncretic. This means they are open to blending, mixing and matching, and picking and choosing. Roman religion was like this prior to Christianity and is probably the best example I can think of in terms of western syncretism. In short, while for some people Buddhism and Shintō may have been diametrically opposed to one another in many ways; for the most part both can accommodate each other. Indeed, until a Meiji Era imperial decree separating Buddhism and Shintō[ix], the two faiths were essentially in bed together. Other faiths like 庚申 Kōshin[x] flourished in conjunction with Buddhism and Shintō. It was all one spiritual tapestry. A Buddhist founding a Shintō shrine was nothing out of the ordinary.

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues

2 diagrams of typical Kōshin statues. The Kōshin faith is neither Shintō nor Buddhist, but rather Taoist.

But Back To Ushima

Jikaku Daishi set about founding a shrine on the east bank of the Sumida River in the Ushima area. The name of the original shrine was 牛御前社 Ushi Gozen-sha[xi]. It was built sometime between 859 and 879[xii]. Keep in mind, this all went down in the 800’s. If the Tokugawa Shōgunate hadn’t been established in the 1600’s, Sensō-ji may have remained the temple with the largest influence in the area until today.

The wishes of the old man that Jikaku Daishi encountered were that the shrine would protect the people on the east bank of the Sumida River. The shrine would become home to the 本所総鎮守 Honjo sō-chinju the tutelary kami of the entire Honjo area. The west bankers had their Sensō-ji but the people on the east bank needed a tutelary kami[xiii], too. The Sumida River even had its own deity[xiv]. So the people who lived in the eastern flood plain needed equal protection from the powerful river god.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

Ushi Gozen-sha on the banks of the Sumida River in the Edo Period.

The Gods of Ushi Gozen-sha

Ushi Gozen-sha didn’t only enshrine one deity. It enshrined 3 specific kami to protect the people of Honjo (present Mukōjima). Let’s take a quick look at these 3 kami.

須佐之男命
Susano’o no Mikoto

a major kami associated with rough seas and summer storms (typhoons)[xv]

天之穂日命
Ame no Hohi no Mikoto[xvi]

a minor kami with close ties to Susano’o no Mikoto[xvii]

貞辰親王命
Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto

my understanding is that this is the kami of an imperial prince whose death coincided with the construction of the shrine[xviii]

At the beginning of the Edo Period, the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu began to patronize the shrine as the Tokugawa family came down to their beautiful palace where the river met the bay. In its time, it must have been a gorgeous villa with a spectacular view of the sea.

Iemitsu called for a secondary shrine to be created. That shrine was called 若宮牛嶋神社 Wakamiya Ushima Jinja Wakamiya Ushima Shrine[xix]. It is a 20 minute walk from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine. During the shrines’ festival on 9/15, the kami is carried in a 神輿 mikoshi portable shrine from Ushima Shrine in Mukōjima to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine in Honjo.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

This is roughly the route from Ushima Shrine to Wakamiya Ushima Shrine.

Sadly, both shrines were completely destroyed in the 関東大震災 Kantō Daishinsai Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. For some reason, the main shrine was relocated and rebuilt a little bit south at its present location[xx]. In the Meiji Period, the rank of the shrine was officially demoted by the government to the status of 郷社 gōsha village shrine[xxi]. Like many shrines and temples that didn’t fully recover after the earfquake and/or WWII, Ushijima Shrine is clearly a shadow of its former glory. But it’s not as dismal as, say, Shiogama Shrine, and its summer festival still draws substantial crowds.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

This monument marks the former location of the shrine.

As for the place name, Ushima has all but vanished from Tōkyō’s civil administration and postal code system. Mukōjima and Honjo have superseded officially. But today the shrine sits in the shade enjoying its quiet solitude. It eschews the modern writing, 牛島 Ushima, for the pre-Modern writing, 牛嶋 Ushima. While the city has moved on and Sensō-ji has grown in fame and Tōkyō Skytree has become yet another symbol of a city replete with symbols, Ushima Shrine proudly holds on to its former glory as the protector of the people on the east bank of the Sumida River.If you’re interested further reading, I have related articles:

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[i] Could be “ox” island, too. The Japanese is ambiguous.
[ii] The name 浅草 Asakusa is without a doubt much older than 浅草寺 Sensō-ji Sensō Temple (literally, Asakusa Temple). See my article on Asakusa.
[iii] This is why the 隅田川御殿 Sumida-gawa Goten Sumida River Palace was built by the shōguns here – they had plenty of space for private villa.
[iv] And presumably later, too.
[v] Because syllables are hard.
[vi] Depending on what you consider the foundational act. See my article on Asakusa.
[vii] He is best known in Japan by his 諡号 shigō (okurigō) posthumous name, Jikaku Daishi. His name as a monk was 円仁 Ennin.  He was born into the 壬生氏 Mibu-shi Mibu clan of 下野国 Shimozuke no Kuni Shimozuke Province which is modern day 栃木県 Tochigi-ken Tochigi Prefecture. Jikaku Daishi means Great Teacher of Merciful Enlightenment (satori).
[viii] Kami isn’t a word that translates easily into English. The English language has spent most of its life with a Judeo-Christian backdrop, ie; Abrahamic monotheism. If you want to understand more about the concept of kami, here is a good place to start.
[ix] Read more about the policy here.
[x] This is a totally unrelated article, but I talk about the Kōshin faith in my article on Gohongi.
[xi] Another reading is Ushi Gozen-ja. The name means something like “revered shrine in front of the cows.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on the etymology of the original shrine name, but the area’s name of Ushima seems to have had much more influence than the name of the shrine.
[xii] The few surviving documents only list the 年号 nengō era name 貞観年間 Jōgan nenkan (859-879). I rarely use nengō on this site, but here’s Wiki’s explanation of them.
[xiii] Tutelary deity/tutelary kami means a deity who looks out for your best interests and protects you.
[xiv] See my article on Suijin.
[xv] Here’s the Wiki on him.
[xvi] Sometimes rendered as Ama no Hohi no Mikoto.
[xvii] Check out the story here.
[xviii] In Japanese they say 胡麻刷り goma suri brown nosing. In this case, the shōgunate was placating the increasingly irrelevant 朝廷 chōtei imperial court in Kyōto.
[xix] 若宮 wakamiya mean “young prince” and often indicates an auxiliary shrine.
[xx] If you walk a bit north, there is a commemorative sign that marks the original location of the shrine.
[xxi] That means, it wasn’t the tutelary kami of the Honjo area – presumably because it was absorbed into the Mukōjima area.

What does Suitengumae mean?

In Japanese History on April 27, 2014 at 5:18 pm

水天宮前
Suitengūmae
(in front of water heaven, more at “in front of Suiten-gū”)

shrine honden

 

This is a reader request, but I think I can answer it quickly – or at least I’ll try.

Firstly, I have to say this. There is no place called Suitengūmae in Tōkyō. This is the name of a Tōkyō Metro train station. The surrounding area may be referred to as Suitengūmae by the locals, but it’s not a postal address. Such is the life of a city dominated by such an expansive and exacting train system.

I’ve never used the train station before, but I have been to the area before. Officially, the area is known as 日本橋蛎殻町 Nihonbashi Kakigara-chō[i]. I don’t think most Tōkyōites know this postal code unless they live or work in the area. However, pretty much everyone will know the origin of this place name… err, I mean, this station name.

 

Subway stations... hehehehe.

Subway stations… hehehehe.

The name is derived from the famous 水天宮 Suiten-gū Suiten Shrine. Saying you visited this shrine is synonymous with saying “I’m pregnant.[ii]” The attraction to this is that 天御中主神 Ame-no-minaka-nushi-no-kami is enshrined here. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe she/he is the hermaphroditic creator of the universe in Shintō cosmology[iii]. Anyways, by some Shintō thought, this kami is said to be the first kami. So, the idea of creation is strong, thus the connection to creating babies. There are other kami enshrined here, of course, but the main visitors are expectant mothers and their families who are coming to pray for safe delivery and healthy babies.

Ame-no-minaka-nushi-no-kami is one of the most mysterious and elusive kami.

Ame-no-minaka-nushi-no-kami is one of the most mysterious and elusive kami.

Looking at the architecture, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a famous picture of the 上屋敷 kami-yashiki upper residence of  福岡藩 Fukuoka Han Fukuoka Domain which was located in Kasumigaseki. In the picture, the mansion is built on a slope, with a large stone stairway leading up to it. Suiten-gū is built the same way.

Fukuoka Domain's upper residence in Kasumigaseki is considered a masterpiece of Edo Period administrative building style.

Fukuoka Domain’s upper residence in Kasumigaseki is considered a masterpiece of Edo Period administrative building style.

I know this is a coincidence, but imagine my surprise when I learned that this shrine was once located on the grounds of the upper residence of 久留米藩 Kurume Han Kurume Domain in 三田 Mita. Kurume is located in present day Fukuoka Prefecture[iv]. After the Meiji Coup, the Arima Family, lords of Kurume, moved to this area and rebuilt the shrine here. But the connection to Fukuoka goes deeper. 久留米水天宮 Kurume Suiten-gū located in Kurume City is the main shrine of Ame-no-minaka-nushi-no-kami. His/her cult spread from this region and flourished during the Edo Period under the trend towards 国学 kokugaku native learning[v]. According to the Japanese Wikipedia page, there are about 25 Suiten-gū located throughout Japan, 4 of which are located in the Tōkyō Metropolis.

 

Pretty sure it's coincidence, but the architectural relation is uncanny.

Pretty sure it’s coincidence, but the architectural relation is uncanny.

 

On a slightly related note, a visit to Suiten-gū to pray for your safe delivery can always come after a visit to 東京大神宮 Tōkyō Daijingū Tōkyō Grand Shrine. This shrine was built in 1880 as part of the newly established Meiji government’s propaganda campaign to distract people from all things Tokugawa, including temples and shrines[vi]. Anyways, the shrine is known today as the place where single women go in droves to pray for a boyfriend or husband[vii]. Rurōsha has a nice blog entry about Tōkyō Grand Shrine. Check it out.

Oh, I almost forgot. Suiten-gū is part of the 人形町町七福神巡り Ningyō-chō Shichi Fukujin Meguri the Ningyō-chō Pilgrimage of the 7 Gods of Good Luck. As I’ve mentioned before, 7 Fukujin pilgrimages are popular during the New Year’s holiday. Most of the temples and shrines on this pilgrimage are minor, but when you get to Suiten-gū, you’ll find yourself at one of the busiest shrines in the area.

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[i] A name we may have to come back to… in the future.
[ii] I’m not even kidding here. Uploading a picture of the shrine with only the caption “Suiten-gū” onto social media is a common and modest way for Japanese girls to break the news to their friends.
[iii] Again, don’t quote me, but I think some argue that she is an idea imported from China by the 邪馬台国 Yamatai Koku, Japanized, and then spread throughout Japan by the Yamato people. Fukuoka is one of the areas assumed to have been the origin of the Yamato culture (we’ll come back to this in a moment). But if you want to know more about this kami, please read here.
[iv] In the Edo Period, these were autonomous domains ruled by separate families. Today’s Fukuoka Prefecture is a large, modern administrative unit and doesn’t correspond to the former Fukuoka Domain. Case in point, Kurume is now a city located in Fukuoka Prefecture.
[v] Without going into a too much detail, this was a nativist approach to scholarship promoted by people such as 本居宣長 Motoori Norinaga as an alternative to 漢学 kangaku Chinese learning. In the newly established Pax Tokugawa with its restriction on sea travel and trade saw a renewed interested in turning inward and parsing out the “nativist” Japanese narratives from the Chinese classics. The Chinese classics didn’t fall by the wayside, but new passion for Japan’s own contributions to its own culture came to be seen as valuable and was pursued with vigor.
[vi] I think I’ve touched on this a few times. But my most recent allusion to it was in the part about the 10 Shrines of Tōkyō in my article on Hakusan.
[vii] I’ve also been told that it’s one of the best places in Tōkyō to pick up desperate, broken women if you’re into picking up random, lonely chicks at shrines. Hey, this is apparently a thing.

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