Japanese Mythology: The 20 Main Gods Of Japan

The Japanese mythology is one of the most complex belief systems, because it consists of more than 800,000 deities are constantly increasing, laying the foundations of Shintoism or Shintô (voice of the gods).

We are talking about the second most influential religion in the eastern country, which has about 108 million faithful, being only surpassed by Japanese Buddhism.

japan god temple

The Shintô would come to Japan from the hand of emigrants from Korea and Mongolia, who would mix with the indigenous peoples of Japan despite being closely linked to Chinese civilization. Much of their beliefs are indigenous, Buddhist traditions and popular beliefs typical of farmers.

Due to its numerous deities, Shintoism is a polytheistic religion that does not consider any of these as unique or predominant, however, it does have mythical narratives that explain the origin of the world and humanity.

Unlike other mythologies such as Greek or Egyptian, it is difficult to define what is considered by the Japanese a myth and what is not.

The 20 most representative gods of Japan

1- Izanagi

Also known as ‘the first man’, along with his wife Izanami, he received the mission to create the first earth. In consensus, the other Kamis gave them a jeweled spear known as Amenonuhoko (spear of the heavens), which was stirred in the ocean and, in contact with the salty water, formed Onogoro Island where they decided to inhabit.

Upon meeting, Izanami spoke first before her husband, causing her first two children: Hiruko and Awashima, to be born deformed, which is why their parents left them at sea on a drifting boat. Being abandoned, these first children are not considered kamis.

Izanagi and his wife ask the higher kami for advice, who explain that in their first meeting, Izanagi should have spoken first before his wife.

Later, by doing things correctly, from their union they created more islands known as the Ohoyashima, which corresponds to each of the great islands that make up Japan today.

2- Izanami

Known as ‘the first woman’, together with her husband they begin to procreate numerous deities. However, she passes away during the delivery of Kagatsuchi, the kami of fire.

In pain, Izanagi sets out on a journey to the Yomi, the land of the dead, and in the midst of darkness, he finds his deceased wife and asks her to return to him. Izanami tells him that it is too late, because now he is part of the world of the dead and it is not possible for him to return to life.

Resigned, the man accepts, but before returning to earth and while Izanami sleeps, he lights a torch in the middle of the darkness of the Yomi. Having light, he realizes that his wife is no longer the beautiful woman she used to be, she is now a decomposing body. Scared, Izanagi flees while his enraged wife pursues him.

The man manages to escape and covers the entrance of the Yomi with a large stone from inside, Izanami yells at him that if he does not let her out, she would destroy 1,000 people every day. He replied that then he would give life to 1,500, thus arising death.

3- Kagatsuchi

Deity of fire and son of Izanagi and Izanami, during his birth he causes burns on Izanami’s genitals causing her death. Angry, his father kills him with a sword, and more kamis are born from the blood and mutilated body of his son.

His body cut into eight parts, from life to eight volcanoes. Kagatsuchi’s death marks the end of the creation of the world and the beginning of death.

Within Japanese beliefs, he is worshiped as the god of fire and patron of blacksmiths. Today they pay tribute to him in different shrines in Shizuoka, Kyoto and Shimane.

4- Amaterasu

After his return from the Yomi, Izanagi is purified and by immersing himself in the water to wash, three of the most important Japanese deities are created, among them Amaterasu, the kami of the sun , considered the director ancestor of the royal family of emperors.

It is said that he was born from Izanagi’s right eye, and that after his birth, his father decided to divide the earth, giving Amaterasu the sky and his brother Susanoo the seas and lightning. However, this cast led to a sibling rivalry.

In a moment of anger, Susanoo destroys her sister’s rice fields, causing Amaterasu to lock herself in a cave. Without the sun, the World falls into the age of cold and darkness and, while the fields die, the other kamis decide to organize a party at the entrance of the cave to attract Amaterasu’s attention. 

The noise outside attracted Amaterasu’s curiosity, who came out and asked what all the fuss was about. The gods replied that it was a new kami, showing her their reflection in a mirror. Amaterasu, who had never seen his reflection before, saw a woman full of light and warmth. At that moment he is convinced to return to heaven and give light to the world.

5- Susanoo

Kami of the sea and of the storms, is the third child born from Izanagi’s face, specifically from his nose. When confronting his sister and causing her confinement, he is judged by the other kamis and expelled from heaven.

Banished and sent to another region, he faces a fearsome eight-headed and eight-tailed snake that frightened the place. To defeat it, he created eight huge doors that hid huge amounts of sake behind them for the serpent to drink. It was a trap.

Being neutralized, Susanoo cut off the heads and tails and within the fourth tail, she found a beautiful sword that she gave as a gift to her sister, regaining her place in heaven.

6- Tsukuyomi

He is the kami of the moon and the second of the children born from Izanagi’s face, specifically his right eye. When his father decides to divide the world between them, Tsukuyomi rises to the skies and takes control of the night, while him sister Amaterasu takes over the day.

Legend has it that his sister once sent him as a representative to the goddess Uke Mochi, to honor her presence. The goddess offered her a delicious meal, created from her mouth and nose, however, Tsukuyomi got so angry that she murdered Uke Mochi.

Upon finding out, Amaterasu, enraged, never wanted to see her brother again. From that moment, the brothers live apart, alternating in the sky, a symbol of how day and night alternate in the sky.

7- Uke Mochi

It is the creative deity of flora and fauna and food. Her death, at the hands of Tsukuyomi, gave the man food, since the five cereals were born from her corpse.

From his eyes the rice seed was born, from his ears millet, from his genitals wheat, from his nose, black beans and from his straight soybeans, giving food to mortals.

8- Inari

Kami of fertility, rice, agriculture, industry and success in general, is sometimes represented as a male figure and at other times as a female. He often uses white foxes as his messengers, which is why he is also sometimes represented in the form of this animal.

Inari is one of the most popular deities in Japan, with 32,000 shrines throughout the country dedicated to her.

9- O-Wata-Tsu-Mi

His name means ‘The old man of the tides’ and stands out from most marine deities. He is considered a good-natured kami, who controls the waters and tides at will, but allows mortals to predict his movements.

Among its characteristics, it stands out that it was born of Izanagi at the time of purification, it dominates all living beings of the ocean and, despite having the appearance of an old man, its true form is that of a green dragon that lives in a great palace in the depths of the sea.

10- Hachiman

According to Shintoism, he is the god of samurai warriors, and is also considered the god of agriculture, happiness and peace. He is given the title of protector of human life, and is symbolized with a white dove.

Although its origin is unknown, since it does not appear in the Kojiki or Nihonshoki manuscripts, with time it became one of the most important kamis.

11- Takemikazuch

It is said that he was born from the blood that Kagatsuchi shed when he was killed, which gave him the gift of being the kami of thunder and the sword. From his combat with another deity known as Takeminakata, the first duel of sumos, a famous sport in the eastern country, would be born.

Takemikazuchi is in charge of subduing the catfish or Namazu, creator of earthquakes.

12- Namazu

Kami of earthquakes, is responsible for the movement of the earth and the creation of tsunamis. It is represented in the shape of a giant catfish, which is said to live underground.

Takemikazuchi is the guardian of this creature, and he keeps it immobile to prevent the earth from moving. However, when earthquakes are neglected they roam the islands of Japan.

13- Shinatobe

Known as the kami of the wind, the Kojiki’s book claims that he is the direct son of Izanagi and Izanami, while the Nihonshoki relates that he was born from the blowing of the morning mist by Izanami.

14- Inugami

They are creatures represented as dogs that fulfill the task of being guardians. The myths say that to create one, it was necessary to bury a dog up to the neck and put food in front without it being able to reach it.

In the process, the master claims that the dog’s suffering is no greater than his own and after the dog’s death, it transforms into Inugami. These are said to be surrounded by success and good luck.

15- Ama no Uzume

It is the kami of happiness, fertility and dance. She was one of the goddesses who managed to get Amaterasu out of the cave in which she hid.

Ama no Uzume danced until her clothes were untied, being naked before the other deities who laughed so much that they caught Amaterasu’s attention.

16- Ebisu

One of the first sons of Izanami and Izanagi, considered the kami of prosperity and wealth in business.

It is also adored by fishermen, which is why it is represented as a fisherman with a typical hat, a fishing rod in his right hand and a large fish that represents abundance.

The Four Sacred Beasts of Japanese mythology

17- Suzaku

It has the appearance of a red phoenix representing the south, summer and the element of fire. This creature, like the other sacred beasts, are some of those that the Chinese share with the Japanese in their mythology.

18- Genbu

He is the guardian of the north and is usually represented as a snake coiled around a turtle. It is the symbol of winter and the earth element.

19- Byakko

Translated it means “white light” and is usually represented as a white tiger that protects the west.

It represents the season of autumn and the element of air. When it roars it draws storms and storms

20- Seiryu

He is the last of the protectors of the city of Kyoto, he is an icon of the element of water and is represented as a huge blue dragon.

It also has a symbolism for spring and, like the previous beasts, it is represented in the constellations of the Chinese tradition.

Shintoism and other Japanese myths

Shintoism is based on the worship of kamis, as they are known in the region, or spirits of nature or higher levels of existence. This concept includes any supernatural forces, ancestors and men who over time acquired the qualification of deities, including some ideals or values ​​that symbolize an abstract power.

The Japanese, as direct descendants of the kami, have a responsibility to live in harmony with the gods in order to be protected and blessed by them. In the same way, the Japanese make offerings to them to solve their problems and ailments.

Japanese myths are supported by the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, the two oldest surviving books on the history of Japan respectively.

The Kojiki narrates the creation of the universe and the world at the hands of the kami, it also contains various myths, legends and relates the appearance of the first emperors, figures that for the Japanese are considered to be divine descendants of the kamis.

In fact, the Japanese word for “emperor” is tennō, which translated means “heavenly sovereign.”

It is at this point that there is no line that differentiates what is a myth and what is history, so the two are usually extremely linked. The book also includes some songs written in a kind of Chinese mixed with Japanese, which suggests the importance that one civilization had over the other. 

References

  1. Addiss, Stephen. Japanese Ghosts & Demons: Art of the Supernatural. New York: G. Braziller, 1985. (pp. 132-137).
  2. Ashkenazy, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 2003.
  3. “History of religions”. Authors: Carlos Cid and Manuel Riu. Hispania Ilustrada Library. Editorial Ramón Sopena. Year 1965. Printed in Spain. Page 175.
  4. Aston, William George, tr. 1896. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to AD 697. 2 vols. Kegan Paul. 1972 Tuttle reprint.
  5. Naumann, Nelly (1998). Ancient Japanese myths. Barcelona: Editorial Herder.
  6. Seco Serra, Irene (2006). Legends and tales of Japan. Madrid: Akal Editions.

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