Japanese Mythology: Past and Present 

Categories: MythologyMyths

Many countries around the world have their own mythology. Their ancestors would share stories about the origins of gods and the adventures they would go on. Japan also has its own mythology and it has a long history. People from ancient Japan would tell myths for a variety of reasons. These stories have found their way into the modern time in one form or another. Mythology was a big part of Japanese society in the past, and it continues to be a part of their present-day society.

Mythology is a collection of stories told about different events. “The word myth, which is presupposed to be real, is the world of the gods. Myth preeminently is word, i.e. a story, narrative, of the deeds of the gods and spirits, whether in heaven or on earth or in the nether world” (Baumgartner et al. 195). These stories are held to be the truth about how something came to be or why something is the way that it is.

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We now know that gods and their temper are not responsible for natural disasters, but this was not known in the past. Each story was regarded as the truth about the matter. Myths held a lot of power. Even though they no longer do, they are still incredibly useful when examining the past. They allow you to take a glimpse into the minds of the people and see how they viewed the world.

The reasons for people telling these stories can vary, but a lot of the time it comes down to people trying to explain the unexplainable.

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“It is the very essence of myth to relate everything to the origin (archē) of all things: in so doing it answers man’s questions about the “what” and the “how” of the universe” (Baumgartner et al. 196). Nowadays science and technology has advanced considerably and we can now get some answers to previously asked questions. The reason why earthquakes occur is because of tectonic movements on the Earth’s crust. Tsunamis occur because of movements on the sea floor like earthquakes. We now know why natural disasters occur and we are even able to predict when they will happen. Our ancestors did not have this information available to them. They had no idea why the ground would suddenly shake or why the ocean would come onto land for some time. This is why they would create stories, to try and explain the unexplainable. Mythology is just humans trying to answer questions that they do not have the answers to. This extends to questions such as why humans die or why humans came to exist.

In Japanese mythology, there are two very important works of literature. “Kojiki and Nihon shoki, completed in the years 712 and 720 respectively, are Japan’s two oldest books” (Borgen and Ury 61). These two books were the physical copies of the verbal stories that were told in ancient Japan. They hold all the stories about the gods, or kami, found in Japan. The Kojiki is seen as the most important and is the one most frequently read and studied by people. The Nihon shoki is just like the Kojiki, the only difference is that some of the gods names are changed and a few other details about the myths as well. “They are important not only because of their antiquity but because they are the principle repositories of the earliest Japanese myths and legends, history and (especially in the case of Kojiki) poetry” (Borgen and Ury 61).

Each of the stories in the books create a connection between nature and humans. Without the unanswered questions about how and why something occurs, the stories would not exist. “The literature of ancient Japan testifies abundantly to the constant and vital contact of the people with nature” (Holtom 44). The environment was a large influence on Japanese mythology and its gods. The problems that ancient Japan encountered were projected onto their ideas. “For centuries they lived in the path of periodic storms, and their god-world was impressed strongly with the image of the East Asiatic typhoon” (Holtom 44). Japan is a country that is located near the Ring of Fire. This is a ring around the Pacific Ocean which consists of volcanos that were created by the subduction plates along the ring. Being located nearby, Japan often has earthquakes and tsunamis. Both are devastating and confusing to people who do not understand the science behind them.

There are many stories and characters within Japanese mythology. Each have their own origins and purpose for existing. One of the most important stories is the creation myth. It follows the story of two kami, Izanami and Izanagi. When they came to be, the world was full of chaos and had no shape to it. Thus, they were given the task of bringing order. This led to the creation of the islands of Japan and a large quantity of kami. After the death of Izanami, and the failed attempt to rescue her, Izanagi produced three children. These children were the gods and goddess of the Sun, Moon, and Sea. Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun. Tsukiyomi no Mikoto is the god of the moon. Susanoo is the god of the oceans. Each of these children were important to Japanese society for different reasons. They and other kami have been seen to have affected the human world in different ways. “The Japanese kami, an enigmatic creature if ever there was one, is not always a benevolent force living in harmony with human beings” (Kelsey 213). Kami didn’t always try to help humans or protect them. They even at times went ahead and did things that caused harm to humans.

Kami were an integral part of ancient Japanese society as they were thought to have control over the environment. People had no way of predicting when rain or storms would occur so they turned to the kami. In modern times, with our technology, we are able to predict the weather. Whenever it is going to rain we have the weather forecast tell us so. Ancient Japan did not have the luxury. When the rainy season was coming, they would have to rely on are shamans who would foretell the rainy season. “The symbolic meaning of these myths is quite clear: the union between a deity of the rice field and one who bring would bring water is of vital importance of the crops” (Gadeleva 193). Kami that were responsible for bringing water were vital as without them, farmers would have difficulties keeping their crops alive. A kami that is known for bringing water is Susanoo, god of the oceans and the son of Izanagi. “Thus Susanoo, a god deeply related with rice farming in ancient Japan, in connection with the different influences from the continent from the royal myth, was revealed as a god with quite complex, contradictory character” (Gadeleva 199). As Susanoo was the god of storms and as such was of great importance when talking about the rainy season. People would turn to kami like Susanoo and his siblings for help. People would perform rituals and give offerings to kami in order to get aid in return.

Myths are also used as cautionary tales. There are many creatures and kami that exist that were used to teach lessons to children. Kappa’s are one of those creatures. “The Kappa is a mythological monster said to inhabit ponds and rivers in Japan. This strange creature is said to have the appearance of both a humanoid and reptile and are extremely cunning” (Geller). The Kappa was portrayed as a mischievous being who often kidnapped children and killed or harmed people who stumbled upon them. The Kappa was used to scare children from going against their parents are getting into dangerous situations. Parents would use the Kappa to keep children from getting near lakes to stop them from seeing the babies that were thrown into the lake by parents for being stillborn or because they were unable to take care of them. By keeping children away from lakes parents could also prevent accidents from occurring such as drownings.

Throughout history there are examples of myths being used for the benefit of those in power, and Japan is no different. The two books Kojiki and Nihon shoki are seen to be propaganda for the Japanese Imperial family. “The Kojiki is the first attempt to link together the genealogy of the Japanese kings with that of the gods, that is, the historical past with the religious beliefs of the different provinces” (Gadeleva 171). The books linked the imperial family with Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the daughter of Izanagi. It was amazing that they were related to a goddess, but it was even better that the goddess was seen to be the greatest of the Japanese gods as she ruled over the Plain of Heaven. By linking the Imperial lineage with that of a god, they are able to maintain their power over the people. “Early Japanese emperors were essentially shamans: human beings endowed with extraordinary power to communicate with deities, but not themselves deities” (Ohnuki-Tierney 204). The public believed that the gods were responsible for everything that happens in nature, so if the imperial line were able to communicate with gods, the people would benefit from them being in power. The emperor could tell the gods to bring the rainy season or just make sure that they stay happy. If the people went against the Imperial family, there could be consequences as well as they could ask the kami to punish them.

Japanese mythology does not just contain stories, it also has their history. The Kojiki functions as a record of the imperial lineage as it was the royal family who had the stories written down. “In the relationship between deities and humans, deities have always been at the mercy of human manipulation” (Ohnuki-Tierney 208). Since the myths started off as verbal stories, they were able to be changed and adapted to fit the imperial family’s narrative. The first time they were ever written down was by their order and as such they were able to add in themselves into it. “Thus, in the records of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, the gods worshiped in old Japan were related with the established state order” (Gadeleva 199). The imperial family leadership was largely kept because of rice agriculture. In order for the imperial system to maintain its power, they had to rely on supernatural powers of gods as they would ask for good crops. The emperor would ask for the blessings of deities.

Shinto is one of the major religions found in Japan. It’s a religion that originated in Japan and is the traditional religion of the country. “Japan’s indigenous religion is called Shinto, meaning ‘the Way of the Gods’” (Kincaid). This religion believes that everything in nature has a spirit. Those spirits are referred to as kami. People believe that kami are responsible for natural disasters and any other terrible thing that happens. A big part of Shinto is an emphasis on the respect a person should have for nature. There are many similarities between Shinto and Japanese mythology. This is because Shinto plays a very important role in mythology. “… it also plays an important role in Japan’s ancient mythology and provides a basis for ancestor and emperor worship” (Toshio et al. 1). The creation myth about Izanagi and Izanami can be found in Japanese mythology, but it can also be found in Shinto. Shinto has the same creation story and a lot of the same gods. Amaterasu and her siblings appear in Shinto. “Shinto has long been regarded as a crucial element in Japanese religion that gives it distinctiveness and individuality” (Toshio et al. 1).

The fear of kami and deities continues to be prevalent in Japanese society. Even in modern times they hold power over people. “They were generally considered friendly to humans, but they could be angered by human actions, particularly if humans polluted holy places with uncleanliness” (Kincaid). People try their best to avoid doing actions that would anger the kami. They care for the areas that the gods are said to inhabit in order to keep the kami pleased.

“But, after all, the kami can and will exercise power over humans, favorably and otherwise. For this reason a great fuss was made over the removal of a torii gate (the gateway to a shrine) with the construction of Narita Airport in Tokyo; the Japanese feared that removing the gate might invite the wrath of deities” (Ohnuki-Tierney 208).

Another way that mythology continues to be a part of Japanese society is through pop culture. There are many films and TV shows that integrate mythological characters or stories into their storylines. A few examples are Spirited Away, Inuyasha, Natsume Yuujinchou, Princess Mononoke, Noragami, Kamisama Kiss, etc. Each of these works have some aspects of Japanese mythology, although most just contain kami. By including mythology into modern works those traditions and history can continue to be shared within Japanese society. Hayao Miyazaki does a great job at integrating Japanese traditions into his films. His films Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are both filled with Japanese mythology.

“The first features a young heroine’s quest to save her parents, who have been transformed into pigs as the threat of human pollution spills over into the spirt world, and the second revolves around a Muromachi Period eco-rebellion leader raised by wolves who battles a physical and metaphorical sickness overtaking the land” (Soong 431).

Many of the kami in the film are not actual kami in Shinto or mythology, but each were inspired by the real kami. Miyazaki created them to connect with Japanese youth as many do not know about Japanese traditions. He reimagines Japanese mythology to try and make it appeal to a modern audience. This way, these stories and traditions can live on in a new generation. “Much of the target audience’s experience of watching the films may solely be as entertainment without any background knowledge of the Japanese myths and storytelling traditions” (Soong 432). Even if the people who watch them do not know the history behind it, they can pull something away from the films.

Japanese mythology was important to the people of the past. It gave them answers about the unknown and served as cautionary tales. As time progressed it became less and less useful and thus it stopped being shared as much as it once used to. Its existence in society is not as noticeable as it once was, but it continues to be there. Shinto has a lot of the same stories and kami as Japanese mythology does. Directors and writers are also using mythology in their works and thus pop culture has continued to spread many parts of Japanese mythology to a wide audience. Japanese mythology is no longer shared as it once used to, but its stories and kami continue to be talked about in different forms.

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Japanese Mythology: Past and Present . (2021, Aug 05). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/japanese-mythology-past-and-present-essay

Japanese Mythology: Past and Present 

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