Japanese mythology has a history that goes back more than 2,000 years. It includes a vast number of gods, goddesses and spirits, and most of the stories concern the creation of the world, the foundation of the islands of Japan, and the activities of deities, humans, animals, spirits, and magical creatures.
Gods and spirits
In Japanese mythology, everything in nature has a kami, a deity or a spirit that inhabits that body. And in addition to gods, Kami can also be used to describe the spirits of deceased loved ones or animal spirits. As a result, the Japanese pantheon is huge!
In Japanese mythology there are eight million kami (八 百万). This is a number traditionally used to express the infinite in Japan.
Throughout Japan, local myths and legends tell that specific places, such as forests and mountains, have a Kami attached to them. These Kami can be good or evil, they can be incredibly powerful, represent forces of nature, and some have very important roles in the country’s myths and stories.
1. Izanami and Izanagi – The gods of creation
The two most important creator deities are Izanagi and his sister Izanami. According to the myths, they created the land with a jeweled spear called Amenonuhoko.
Using this spear, they connected heaven and earth and stirred the sea between them; every time a drop of water fell from the spear, an island was created. They also gave rise to many of the other gods and goddesses in Japanese mythology.
2. Amaterasu – The goddess of the Sun and the Universe
Amaterasu is the goddess of the Sun and the Universe, and is considered by many to be the most important of the Shinto gods.
The emperor is considered to be a direct descendant of Amaterasu, and this was strongly emphasized during the period of State Shinto, from 1868 to 1945, when Shinto functioned as a government organization.
Amaterasu is responsible for bringing light and fertility to the world, and her sanctuary in Ise is the most important in Japan.
3. Tsukuyomi and Susanoo – Gods of the moon and storm
Amaterasu has two brothers: moon god Tsukuyomi and Susanoo, a powerful and violent god often associated with storms.
Of the two, Susanoo plays a more important role in Japanese mythology, appearing in several famous legends, including several stories with Amaterasu.
4. Inari – The fox kami
Inari is the kami of everything important in Japan, including rice, tea, fertility, love, and success. He uses foxes as his messengers, and as a result, this animal is highly respected in Japan.
Many Japanese shrines have a small shrine next to them dedicated to foxes. It is common to make offerings to these animals, and many shrines have statues dedicated to them.
The god Inari appears in few myths, but he is important because of his association with rice cultivation, a staple part of the Japanese diet. Since he is also associated with prosperity, Inari is the patron of sword traders and manufacturers.
5. Shitenno – The protectors
Shitenno are four terrifying gods who came from Hinduism and are known to protect Japanese Buddhist temples. Each god is associated with a direction, season, virtue, and an element.
In many cases, the Shitenno are portrayed as demons, but the translation of their name literally means “Four Heavenly Kings”.
6. Raijin and Fujin – Gods of lightning and wind
Raijin is the kami of lightning, thunder, and storm and is typically depicted with hammers and surrounded by drums. Fujin is the kami of wind, portrayed holding a bag of wind.
Raijin and Fujin often appear together, and both are feared deities in Japan, due to the damage that typhoons and storms have caused in the country over the centuries.
7. Hachiman – The patron of warriors
One of the most popular deities in Japanese mythology is Hachiman, a patron of warriors. Hachiman’s character is based on the emperor Ôjin, who lived in 300 AD and was known for his military skills.
According to mythology, after Ôjin died, he became the god Hachiman. In the 700s, he became part of the Shinto pantheon.
8. Jizo – The guardian of children and childbirth
Jizo statues are usually small and appear in large numbers in temples across Japan. There are more than 1 million statues of him in the country, and they are usually donated by parents who have lost their children.
According to Japanese belief, children who die before their parents, cannot cross the mythical Sanzu River, which leads into the afterlife, as they have not accumulated sufficient good deeds.
These children would be condemned to stay on the banks of the river forever, piling up small stones. But according to the myth, Jizo helps them cross the river, hiding them in his mantle.
9. Agyo and Ungyo – The guardians of Buddha
Agyo and Ungyo are the fearsome guardians of Buddha who often stand at the entrance of Japanese temples.
Agyo is a symbol of violence. He is always depicted showing his teeth, with raised fists, or holding a weapon. Ungyo is a symbol of strength. His mouth is always closed and he usually shows his empty hands as a gesture of trust.
10. Kannon – Goddess of mercy
Kannon is the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She is a Bodhisattva – someone who attains enlightenment, but who postpones his Buddhahood until everyone can be enlightened.
Many Japanese temples are dedicated to the worship of Kannon, and she also appears in Japanese Christian images from the Edo period. In the 17th century, Christianity was banned in Japan, but Japanese Christians continued to practice their religion in secret.
These Christians made statues of Kannon that closely resembled the Roman Catholic image of Mary, including symbols such as crosses. Some of these statues have survived and can be seen in Japanese temples to this day.
11. Benzaiten – Goddess of fluidity
Benzaiten, or Benten, is the goddess of everything that flows: be it words, eloquence, or music. In the popular imagination she is also associated with love, and is one of the Seven Lucky Gods.
The shrines dedicated to Benzaiten are considered romantic places among Japanese couples.
12. Ebisu – God of fishermen
Ebisu is the god of fishermen, luck, and also one of the Seven Lucky Gods. He is a cheerful spirit, despite his difficult life. He is usually depicted as a chubby guy wearing a hat and carrying a fishing rod.
This kami was born boneless and fought to survive. At the age of two, he was thrown into the sea, and according to mythology, he managed to survive, create bones, and returned from the sea like a god.
13. Tengu – The bird monster
Tengu is a Japanese bird monster that often takes on human form. For a long time, they were considered enemies of Buddhism, for corrupting followers and monks.
However, in modern times, they are seen as protectors of sacred forests and mountains. According to tradition, they live in the trees of mountainous regions and like to play with humans.
14. Sugawara no Michizane – A vengeful Kami
Sugawara no Michizane was a prominent Japanese poet and politician who was exiled by his rivals in the year 901. Shortly thereafter, he died alone.
Immediately after his death, Kyoto was hit by terrible rainstorms and floods. The emperor’s children died in unusual accidents, and plague and drought spread throughout Japan. Authorities attributed this to Sugawara no Michizane’s vengeful spirit.
To try to reverse the situation, they restored his position and status and tried to destroy all evidence of his punishment. When the disasters continued, they granted his spirit the title of Kami, building a shrine in Kyoto in his honor. After that, the disasters were finally over.
15. Taira no Masakado – The samurai
Taira no Masakado was a samurai who defied the imperial court in Kyoto. He conquered large parts of Japan before being defeated in battle in 940. His head was brought to Tokyo and his kami was consecrated at the Kanda Shrine.
He was popular among people because he defied the authorities. The revolt he led is said to have been preceded by earthquakes, swarms of butterflies, lunar eclipses, and rainbows in Kyoto.
Taira no Masakado is considered an extremely powerful Kami, who must be constantly appeased or bad luck is certain.