Posted on

Japanese Myths and Legends: An ancient approach

Japan, like many other countries and cultures, has a rich and mysterious tradition of Japanese Myths and Legends passed down from generation to generation. As is true of any myth, the stories often have different versions and can contrast hugely. Much of Japan’s history is already steeped in mystery, so it can be difficult to distinguish myth from history.

Japan’s Gods and the Creation Myths

There are many religious Japanese Myths and Legends to explore. In Shinto religion, gods are synonymous with nature and are one and the same. There are thousands of kami (deities) in Japan, as there are local gods of every region and town, and many Japanese will revere the kami of their nearest shrine. However, there are also famous deities recognised by all as the main gods of Japanese Myths and Legends. In the Kojiki (‘Record of Ancient Myths) and the Nihon Shoki, which both chronicle Japan’s history and legend, the gods come about in the creation story through particles forming the heavens where the gods appear. These gods are collectively known as the ‘Kotoamatsukami’.
When these celestials formed the earth, more gods appeared. Izanagi (the ‘exalted male’ deity) and Izanami (the ‘exalted female’ deity) are perhaps the most famous of the gods, as they are sent to rule on earth and start life there. They eventually have children, after a failed attempt where two abominations were formed, to the eight great islands of Japan, all representing different aspects of nature. When Izanami died in childbirth, one legend is that Izanagi, stricken with grief, travelled to ‘Yomi’, the underworld, to bring her back. He was too late as her body had already decayed. Izanagi had to flee the underworld after Izanami, who had eaten food there and become one of the dead and decaying spirits, chased him. When he escaped, he purified himself from the effects of Yomi, which fits in with the Japanese ideology of death and decay as impure. From the water of his left eye Amaterasu was formed; from his right eye, Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto the moon god; and from his nose, Susanoo, the trickster god of the sea.

Amaterasu and Susanoo

These two of the three are particularly notorious in Japanese Myths and Legends and modern-day Japan. In all stories surrounding the two, they are seen to have distinct sibling rivalry. Susanoo is often represented as an annoying brother who loved to play tricks and upset Amaterasu. There is also a common portrayal of him as a ‘snot-nosed’ boy, and several stories that suggest he was formed from snot. In the most widely accepted version of the myth of Amaterasu and Susanoo, the brother terrorises his sister after they had a competition to see who could produce the most divine children, by throwing a half-flayed horse (Amaterasu’s sacred animal) into her weaving hall. The display upsets Amaterasu so much that she runs away and shuts herself up in a cave. Since she is the Sun Goddess, the world and the heavens fall into darkness, causing the other gods to get involved. They all go to the cave to try to get her to come out, but she refuses. In the end, she is caught by a ‘strong-armed’ god when she peeks out of her hiding place to see an amusing display put on by the goddess of merriment. The Sun is restored to the universe and Susanoo is exiled. However, on earth he saves a human girl from a dragon which he then defeats, and then marries the girl, creating descendants that Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan in legend, is said to relate to.

The Hare of Inaba

Moving away from Japanese Myths and Legends surrounding gods, Japan has many legends concerning morals and metaphorical political ideals. One of these is the tale of the ‘Hare of Inaba’. In one version of this urban myth, a hare tricks some crocodiles into forming a bridge for him to cross over to an island. The crocodiles learn of the trick and tear off all the hare’s fur. The hare, sobbing about his misfortune, is told by a group of men passing by that he should bathe in sea water and then dry in the sun. He follows this advice but this leads to more pain as the salt burns his wounds. Another man tells him to wash in fresh-water and to then roll in cattails pollen. This time it works and the grateful hare promises the man, who turns out to be the fairy Okumi-nushi-no-Mikoto, that he will marry the princess Yakami. This story is widely taken to metaphorically represent Japan’s struggle to escape barbarism and the beginning of modern Japan. The ‘Hare of Inaba’ is still one of the most popular Japanese Myths and Legends story today, and often features in festivals, artwork and shrines.

The Tale of Genji

Another famous Japanese Myths and Legends story was written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, who was also a lady-in-waiting, around the year 10,000 CE. Centering on Genji, the son of the emperor in the tale and his mistress, this story tells of Genji’s exploits at court. In the tale, Genji’s mother dies and this causes him to be branded a commoner by his father, since Genji was also not popular at court. After having ventures of his own outside court-life, Genji’s position in the palace is later restored after his father dies and the crown prince later abdicates in favour of a son who turns out to be Genji’s. This Japanese Myths and Legends story is believed to be representative of contemporary court life, and provides unrivalled insight into the life of nobles and imperials at this time, despite being entirely fictional.

Mythology Represented on Atelier Japan

Japanese Myths and Legends still have a firm place in current Japanese society, and influence many art forms and religious representations. Atelier Japan features fans, produced by our wonderful makers Komaruya, that embody these ancient Japanese Myths and Legends. The Japanese God of Thunder fan and the Japanese God of Wind fan both draw on the heritage of Japanese kami, and the Tale of Genji fan showcase this legendary story that still has relevance with Japanese society today. Browse our website to discover our unique range of handcrafted Japanese products.