A Brief Brush Up on Japanese Mythology

Mythology is an element of culture in every country; there is no exception. Because science wasn’t as advanced back then as it is now, there is no doubt that our ancestors would attribute certain phenomenon that they couldn’t explain to some kind of mythical creature. The history and traditions in each country highly influence the content of the mythology it produces, as western and eastern countries have their differences, albeit some similarities.

Shintoism and Buddhism were very prevalent in Japan as it developed, and so was agriculture. This combination of beliefs and ways of living thus made a huge mark on its folk tales. In Japanese, folk tales are known as “minkan densho”, which, when translated, literally means “transmissions among the folk”.

Categories in Japanese Mythology

Under Japanese mythology, there is a wide range of topics to cover. It is basically a part of their practices and beliefs that people used to participate in at that time, which included performing ritual dances, joining different cultural festivals, and cleansing themselves through purifying ceremonies. Notable folklorists who would contribute to continuing such tales (be it through propagating culture through compiling stories, storytelling, or other media such as manga and television shows) include Inoue Enryo, Kunio Yanagita, Shigeru Mizuki, and Lafcadio Hearn.

One aspect of Japanese mythology deals with unseen paranormal forces such as spirits and monsters (Yokai), as well as creatures both legendary and common. There are also places in Japan that are deemed to be holy and sacred, such as the tangible Mt. Fuji, and the mythological Takamagahara. Not only do they consider places sacred, but objects too – specifically a few weapons, a jewel, and a mirror (the Three Sacred Treasures, the Amenonuhoko, Sessho-seki, among others).

Out of these factors, a large part of Japanese mythology includes the worshiping several kami, which constitutionally comprises polytheism and animism.

The Gods in Japanese Mythology

As for the divinities; they are entities worshiped, and are still worshiped by devout Shinto believers. There are a huge number of gods in the Shinto religion, some of them still being constantly worshiped, as it is a pantheon. The Japanese word for god is “kami”. Kami are intrinsically countless in their belief system. Kami can be everywhere; they are part of nature and the earth, and include spirits of people who have passed on but are still highly respected. An example of this are the spirits of Emperors (both ancient and recent) who have passed on.

As with most religions, the line between myth and reality is often blurred, as people come to accept that many of these legends are highly anecdotal but still worth honoring. Gods in Japanese mythology are still very well-known and embraced as a part of Japanese mythology and culture. Just as Greek Gods are used as literary forms and conversation pieces, so are the stories of the popular kami.

Japanese mythology is vast and contains many details about gods (there are around 8 million kami overall) – both good and evil, as they represent the universe’s energies. Mythology deals with the most popular kami of them all. Notable figures include Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the God of storms, his sister Amaterasu, who is the sun Goddess, the God of war and archery, Hachiman, Inari Okami, who is the deity worshiped for agriculture, and Kotoamatsukami, which is the name of a group of gods who created the world. Amaterasu also has a grandson, Ninigi, (Ninigi-ko-Mikoto) who is also a deity worshiped for flourishing rice crops.

Each of these divinities, items, lands, and spirits have a story to tell that has roots back to how ancient people perceived and understood life and its origins.

The Most Interesting Stories in Japanese Mythology

Within Japanese mythology there are a series of literature; folktales, and “setsuwa”, (otherwise known as “spoken story”) they are narrations of both Buddhist anecdotes and general folk tales from hundreds to a thousand or so years ago. These venerated texts that have been passed down from generation to generation. Some of these include the “Kojiki”, which details how the islands of Japan came to exist. Another is the Nihon Ryōiki, which talks about the supernatural ghostly sightings that have been recorded around Japan at the time it was written (from 787 to 824 A.D.).

The Story of Susanoo, the Storm God in Japanese Mythology

Known as the Summer god of both storm and sea in the Shinto religion, (須佐之男 (スサノオ), or Susanoo, can otherwise be known at the kumano shrine as Kumano Ketsumiko. His full name is Takehaya Susanoo-no-Mikoto, sibling of both Moon God Tsukuyomi, and the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. He is also and Kushinadahime’s husband. The story behind Susanoo begins when he was born. It started when Izanagi came from Yogi (the world of darkness) and cleaned his nose from the remnants of the underworld, thus producing Susanoo.

According to the Kokiji and Nihon Shoki, Susanoo was constantly trying to prove himself to his sister, Amaterasu. He tried to prove a sincere act by challenging his sister to a competition of birthing gods from their sacred items. He declared himself a winner of that competition because despite Amaratasu having birthed goddesses, he insisted that his sword (Totsuka-no-tsurugi) had produced it on her behalf.

The Goddess was fine with this, but Susanoo’s storms couldn’t help but obliterate her crops. Also, with Amaterasu cherishing a half-flayed pony, Susanoo threw it at her, resulting in the murder of one of the Goddess’ attendees. Amaterasu was so brokenhearted by Susanoo’s flare-up that she took cover in Iwayado, a cave. For days, the world went without the sun, as all the other divine beings persuaded her to come out. She eventually did, after being gently eased out by the other kami. As for Susanoo – his loss of temper ultimately cost him banishment from heaven. He did, however, try to make it up to Amaterasu later on with a dragon tail sword, jewel, and mirror – thus, the Three Sacred Treasures.

Yokai: Monsters in Japanese Mythology

Another aspect of Japanese mythology that is seen more in popular culture is “Yokai”. Yokai is a Japanese term for a group of paranormal entities. Yokai, when in kanji, depicts the idea of being mysterious, attractive, suspicious, and/or bewitched. Just as the personalities of the kami range from both good and evil, the same goes for yokai. They’ve been mentioned in books for centuries, slowly morphing in concept from each period of Japanese history. The older the history, the more connections were made to yokai being responsible for the unexplainable phenomenon.

The form of the yokai is not restricted to just ghouls, demons, or elementals. They can come in the form of animals, a mood-changing spirit or “Mononoke”, and energies that had power over earthly events such as bountiful harvest. Strictly speaking, there are categories that you can file the yokai under; what its true form is, what it mutates to, and how it appears.

During the Edo period, whenever something happened that couldn’t be explained, artists and folklorists would make up their own yokai to go along with the story, and would later be mistaken for as legendary creatures, but were just literary musings.

The Different Names and Descriptions of Monsters in Japanese Mythology

There are hundreds of different monsters and beings in Japanese mythology, but here are a few of them to familiarize you with how unique and strange these monsters can be.

The Gashadokuro is a ghoulish, menacing manifestation of soldiers who died during battle and were never buried, as well as the spirits of those who died from hunger. Their bones figuratively clump together to form a giant skeleton that’s said to be 90 feet tall, out to sneak behind and prey on innocent people during the dead of the night. They murder human beings by grabbing them with their bony hands, gnawing off the head of the person, and drinking their blood.

The “Ryuu”, a general term for the Japanese dragon has popped up often in ancient texts that detail mythical accounts. Very much akin to the dragons depicted by the ancient Chinese and other Asian accounts, the Ryuu is seen by the Japanese as a water God. Their interpretation of it is an enormous, wingless, claw-footed serpent, and there are many versions of it mentioned in the Nihongi and Kohiji.

The “Yamata no Orochi”, for example; a dragon that had 8 tails and 8 heads. The “Wani” was described to be a cross between a crocodile and shark. The dragon deity, on the other hand, was referred to as Mizuchi, who supposedly got very angry with Emperor Nintoku after he intervened with the natural flow of the river using engineering.

The Japanese also have their own version of demons; wild-haired, fanged, horned, red (sometimes blue), ugly, and angry; they are called “oni”. They are just as wicked as your western demon; as they come from people’s reincarnations from Buddhist hell. They bow down to Enma Daio or “Great King Enma”, who is the ultimate ruler of Meido and Jigoku – also known as hell. The size of an oni is huge and look very much like an ogre.

Heroes in Japanese Mythology

Heroes in Japanese mythology are often deities; they are considered heroes because of what they have contributed to the country by creating something for it or discovering something for it.  There are six well-known culture heroes; these are Amaterasu, Izanami, Izanagi, Susanoo, Okuninushi, and Tsukuyomi. Amaterasu and Susanoo were already previously mentioned, along with their father Izanagi. Izanami (the goddess of death and creation) is Izanagi’s younger sister and former spouse - at the same time. Okuninushi, the god of nation-building, means “Great Land Master” when his name is translated. He ruled Izumo Province and also governs the processes behind medicine, farming, and business.

Popular Tattoos with A Japanese Mythology Theme

Japanese tattoos are currently high in trend. People are looking left and right for Japanese themes to ink themselves with, and Japanese mythology is no exception. The beauty about Japanese mythology is that it has depth, meaning, and history behind it. You can pick a yokai that you believed existed when you were a child. Looking for something more specific and dear to you? Here’s an example - maybe let your tattoo artist do a rendition of the Totsuka-no-tsurugi to symbolize strength.

There’s a style of tattooing native to the Japanese called “irezumi” that has been practiced since the Edo period. Irezumi is a form traditional tattooing, and involves very particular colors and designs. These designs usually amass a large space in the body, be it in the back or in the arm. It is also combined with modern designs and techniques, and usually depicts mythical beasts (dragons), flowers, and folk tales, usually taken from woodblock prints. Man or woman, irezumi is definitely a tattoo style one should consider.

Anime Shows that Include Snippets of Japanese Mythology

A big fan of using Japanese mythology in their work is studio Ghibli. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro all borrow elements from the world of Japanese mythology, particularly yokai. It’s also child-friendly, as they don’t depict the mythology in such a scary way. Other animes include Mushishi, Hotarubi no Morie, and significantly – Youkai watch.

Familiarize yourself with Japanese mythology, and see how much it differentiates with the mythology you are already acquainted with. If you are planning to make a trip to Japan, it will enrich your experience so much more, knowing more about the depth of Japan’s beliefs.