Japanese Gods and Goddesses

The Main Mythological Tales of Traditional Shinto Religion

Amaterasu in her cave (Nebuta Float, Aomori province 2016)
In this Nebuta Float in Aomori province, Taijkarao heaves away the stone in front of Amaterasu's cave, and Amero-Uzume performs a dance, convincing her to come out of her cave. Sodia Gomi

Japanese gods and goddesses are mostly those of the traditional religion of Japan, known as Shinto ("The Way of the Gods"), or kami-no-michi. The mythologies of Shinto religion were first written down in the 8th century CE, in two documents known as the "Kojiki" (712 CE) and "Nihonshoki" (720 CE). But gods and goddesses of Japan have also been influenced to a degree by both Indian (Buddhism and Hindu) and Chinese (Buddhism and Confucianism) mythologies.

Twentieth-century folklorists Yanagita Kunio and Origuchi Shinobu collected the folklore of the peasants and common people; that folklore varies from community to community, tends to be flexible, and are rarely recorded. As a contrast, the main Shinto gods and goddesses from the Kojiki and Nihonshoki are shared by the entire nation, ideas which are written down and reinforce the national myths of the political state.

The Primordial Couple: Izanami and Izanagi

In Shinto mythology, the first gods who arose out of chaos were two genderless or dual-gendered deities, Kunitokotachi and Amenominakanushi, the supreme being who sits alone in a nine-fold layer of clouds. Together they created the first couple Izanami and Izanagi and assigned them the task of creating the land and the gods.

Izanami ("she who invites you to enter") is a primordial goddess and personification of the Earth and darkness. Izanagi is "the Lord who invites you to enter," and the embodiment of all that is bright and heavenly, ruling the sky.

Before giving birth to additional gods, they first bore islands, creating the Japanese archipelago. Their first child was Kagutsuchi (or Hinokagutsuchi), the Japanese god of fire, who burned his mother to death when she gave birth to him, a metamorphosis linked to the death of the old year and the birth of the new.

In a rage, Izanagi killed Kagutsuchi and went off in search of his wife in the underworld: but like Persephone, Izanami had eaten while in the underworld and could not leave. Izanami became Queen of the Underworld.

When Izanagi returned, he produced three noble children: from his left eye came Amaterasu, the sun goddess; from his right eye the moon god Tsukiyomi no Mikoto; and from his nose, Susanowo, the sea god.

Sun, Moon, and Sea

Amaterasu (or Amaterasu Omikami) is the Shinto sun goddess and the mythical ancestor of the Japanese imperial family. Her name means "Shining in the Heaven," and her epithet is Omikami, "Great and Exalted Divinity." Scholars trace the first version of the solar deity as a male, "Amateru Kuniteru Hoakari," or "Heaven and Earth Shining Fire," but by the 5th century CE, shrines to the goddess Amaterasu were constructed on the Isaru river. As the sun goddess, she is the greatest of the Japanese gods, ruler of the Plain of Heaven.

Tsukiyomi no Mikoto is the Shinto moon god and a brother of Amaterasu, born from the right eye of Izanagi. After climbing a celestial ladder, he lived in the heavens as Takamagahara, the husband of his sister Amaterasu.

Susanoh, also spelled Susanowo, ruled the oceans and is the Shinto god of rain, thunder, and lightning.

He was banished from heaven after a power struggle with his sister turned ugly—Susanoh went on a rampage, destroying Amaterasu's rice fields and killing one of her attendants. In response to his actions, Amaterasu retreated to a cave, effectively hiding the sun, a situation that was only ameliorated when the goddess Uzume danced. The banished Susanoh became an underworld god, associated with snakes and dragons.

Other Gods and Goddesses

Ukemochi (Ogetsu-no-hime) is a fertility and food goddess, who prepared a feast for Tsukiyomi by facing the ocean and spitting up a fish, facing the forest and vomiting up wild game, and facing a rice paddy and spitting up a bowl of rice. For this, she was killed by Tsukiyomi, but her dead body still produced millet, rice, beans, and silkworms.

Uzume, or Ame-no-Uzume, is the Shinto goddess of joy, happiness, and good health.

Uzume danced to bring the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu back from her cave, ensuring the return of spring sunshine bringing life and fertility.

Ninigi (or Ninigi-no-Mikoto), was the grandson of Amaterasu, sent to earth to rule over it. He was the great-grandfather of the first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, and thus the progenitor of all the later emperors of Japan.

Hoderi, the son of Ninigi (first ruler of the Japanese islands) and Ko-no-Hana (daughter of the mountain god Oho-Yama) and the brother of Hoori, was an enchanted fisherman, and the divine ancestor of the immigrants coming from the south over the sea to Japan.

Inari is the god of foodstuffs and a shapeshifter, illustrated as a bearded man who carries two bundles of rice. His messenger is the fox and there are always stone or wooden foxes sitting front of Inari shrines. There is also a goddess of rice known as Inara, another shapeshifter.

Seven Japanese Shinto Gods of Good Fortune (Shichi-fukujin)

The Seven Lucky Gods reflect input from both Chinese and Indian religions.

  • Benten (Benzaiten, Bentensama) is the Buddhist goddess of eloquence, dance, and music, patron saint of the geishas, often represented wearing a jeweled diadem and holding a stringed instrument. From the Hindu goddess Saraswati.
  • Hotei (or Budai) was a Zen priest and god of diviners and bartenders. He is the friend of the weak and children and depicted with a great bare belly. He is the god of happiness, laughter, and the wisdom of contentment and friendly good cheer.
  • Jurojin is the incarnation of the southern polestar in Japanese Buddhist mythology, the giver of immortality and god of longevity and the elderly. He rides on a deer and is often accompanied by cranes and tortoises as symbols of a long life and happy old age.

  • Fukurokuju, a reincarnation of the Taoist god Hsuan-wu and a Chinese Song Dynasty hermit, is the god of wisdom, luck, longevity, and happiness. In some Seven Lucky God lists, he is sometimes replaced by Kichijoten, adopted from the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
  • Bishamon or Bishamonten is the god of fortune in wars and battles, protector of those who follow the rules, from the Hindu God Kubera or Vaisravana.
  • Daikoku or Daikokuten is the god of commerce and prosperity, patron of crooks, farmers, and bankers
  • Ebisu is a traditional Japanese lucky god, unrelated to other religions, of fishermen, prosperity and wealth in business, crops, and food.

Sources

  • Ashkenazi, Michal. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC Clio, 2003. Print.
  • Leeming, David. "Shinto Mythology." Dictionary of Asian Mythology. Ed. Leeming, David. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
  • Lurker, Manfred. A Dictionary of Gods, Goddesses, Devils and Demons. London: Routledge, 2015. Print.
  • Murakami, Fuminobu. "Incest and Rebirth in Kojiki." Monumenta Nipponica 43.4 (1988): 455-63. Print.
  • Roberts, Jeremy. Japanese Mythology A to Z. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010. Print.
  • Takeshi, Matsumae. "Origin and Growth of the Worship of Amaterasu." Asian Folklore Studies 37.1 (1978): 1–11. Print.