The Legendary Past: The Age of the Gods

Although many questions about the origins and early development of the Japanese people remain unanswered, archaeologists have done particularly impressive work since World War II in tracing the existence of human habitation in Japan to a vastly earlier time — perhaps hundreds of thousands of years BCE — than previously thought.

Among the sources for our present knowledge of prehistoric Japan are chronicles written by Chinese scholars in the first few centuries CE. The Chinese knew of the islands and their people from a very early date, and although their historians deal with Japan only briefly and as a distant and rather insignificant tributary area, their accounts give many clues to the growth and culture of the early Japanese state.

The accounts show that during the first five centuries CE the central and southern areas of "Wa," as the Chinese called Japan, were occupied by numerous communities of fairly closely related people who kept some contact with the mainland. Later accounts point to the rise of the kingdom of Yamato in central Honshu, and by at least the fifth century the Yamato ruler was called "King of Wa" by the Chinese. Yamato was securely established, and the stage was set for the true foundation of the historic Japanese state.

The Japanese did not begin to write histories until the seventh century. Inspired by the written histories of China, scholars worked for years assembling information, most of it oral, on the myths, legends, and true stories of the Japanese past. The oldest extant "histories" are the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) of 712 and the Nihon Shoki (or Nihongi, Chronicles of Japan), which was completed in 720.

Since the authors of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki made no sharp distinction between myth and history, here are set forth the early Japanese beliefs about the creation of the universe and the Japanese islands. Here too we are introduced to the first beings, the gods of the Japanese who are called kami.

The myths recounted in the following section are the sources of two important traditions: belief in the divine origin of Japan and in the divine descent of her emperors.

The Early Myths of Japan: A Paraphrase of the Creation Myths in the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki (1)

Out of a mass of vague and contradictory details emerged a mythical picture of the creation of Japan and its people. For generations the story was transmitted orally and finally written down. It begins thus:

Now when Chaos had begun to condense, but force and form were not yet manifest, and there was naught named, naught done, who could know its shape? Nevertheless, Heaven and Earth first parted and the Three Deities performed the commencement of Creation; the Passive-Active Essences then developed and the Two Spirits became the ancestors of all things.(2)

[These] last two were Izanagi, the Male-Who-Invites, and his younger sister Izanami, the Female Who-Invites. Upon Izanagi and Izanami the command was laid:

to make, consolidate, and give birth to this drifting land. So the two deities standing upon the Floating Bridge of Heaven pushed down the jeweled spear and stirred with it; whereupon when they had stirred the brine until it [curdled] and drew the spear up, the brine that dripped down from the end of the spear piled up and became an island.(3)

Fourteen islands the pair created — eight great islands and six lesser ones. The island with one body and four faces was called the Lovely-Princess. Others were called by such names as Prince-Good-Boiled-Rice, brave-Good-Youth, Luxuriant-Sun-Youth. Last born was Great-Yamato, the Luxuriant-Island-of-the Dragonfly.

Having given birth to the islands of Japan, the creative pair produced numerous gods and goddesses... The last of these was known as the Deity of Fire. After his birth Izanami retired to Hades, leaving the process of creation to be carried on by Izanagi alone. From his sword, [belt], and other articles of clothing were born various deities. The three most illustrious among them were... the Sun Goddess, the Moon Goddess, and the God of Force, or Impetuous Male... Little more is written of the moon Goddess, but the Sun Goddess and her brother, Impetuous Male, carried on the task of creation by biting off and crunching parts of the jewels and swords which they wore and blowing them away. From the fragments were formed numerous gods and goddesses who became the heads of various clans. Thus was man created to inhabit the islands.

Finally, the Sun Goddess and her brother quarreled violently. The climax of the quarrel came when Impetuous Male broke a hole in the roof of heaven, over the place where his sister and her celestial weaving maidens were sitting at work. Through the hole he let fall a piebald (black and white) horse. The Sun Goddess, infuriated, retired into a cave, and darkness prevailed over all the universe. "The Plain-of-High-Heaven was obscured, and all the Central-Land-of-Reed-Plains darkened."

The eight hundred deities, terrified at the darkness, undertook to placate the Sun Goddess. For this purpose they met in assembly. They ordered iron to be taken from the Heavenly-Metal Mountains. Then they called in the smith, charged the Again Forging-Old-Woman to make a mirror, and commanded His-Augustness-Grand-Jewel-Ancestor to produce a string eight feet long of five hundred curved jewels. They hung the newly wrought mirror and the jewels, together with white... and blue... offerings, upon the branches of a tree. His-Augustness-Grand-Jewel Ancestor recited [rituals] concerning Her Highness, the Sun Goddess and danced wildly. Amused at his antics, the eight hundred deities shook the Plain-of-High-Heaven with laughter. The Sun Goddess was thus surprised out of her seclusion, and came forth asking how it was that, with all heaven and earth darkened, the deities could indulge in laughter. They answered that they rejoiced because there was a deity more beautiful than Her Augustness; but, while they were speaking, the mirror was brought forward for her to see this most beautiful one. When she looked, she was so surprised at the beauty of the goddess mirrored there that she came forth from the cave. ... The-Plain-of-High-Heaven and the Central-Land-of-Reed-Plains (Japan) were again light. Thus were light and darkness created.

For his misdeeds, Impetuous Male was banished from heaven. He wandered on the earth and begged food of the Deity-Princess-of-Great-Food, who took all sorts of things from her nose, her mouth, and other parts of her body, and turned them into food for him. Thinking she was offering him filth, however, he killed her. After her death the Deity-Producing-Wondrous-Ancestor commanded that these useful things born from her body be used propagate food and clothing — silkworms from her head, rice seeds from her eyes, millet from her ears, beans from her nose, barley from her torso.

Besides looking for food, the Impetuous-Male-Deity performed many wondrous deeds while wandering about on earth... At one time he came upon an old man and an old woman who were crying. Inquiring the cause of their sorrow, he found that the eight-forked serpent of Hoshi had been visiting them each year, and on each visit had devoured one of their eight daughters, until now only one was left, and they were full of apprehension about the fate of their last daughter.

When Impetuous Male heard the story, he asked for the hand of this last daughter in marriage. Having been granted his request, he turned the girl into a comb which he stuck in his hair. He then lay in wait for the coming of the eight-forked serpent whom he overpowered and cut in pieces; but when he cut into the middle tail, the edge of his sword broke. When he looked to see the cause of this accident, he found concealed in the serpent a sharp great sword, over which he marveled, and then presented it to the gods of heaven. This became known as the Herb-Quelling-Great-Sword, which still serves as one of the emblems in the regalia of Japanese emperors.

Thus do the myths account for the symbols of the imperial [power] — the mirror, the jewels, and the sword.

Finally, Impetuous Male sought a permanent [home] upon the earth. It is said that he "sought in the land of Izumo for a place where he might build a palace. Then he arrived at a place [called] Suga, and said: 'On coming to this palace, my august heart is pure,' and in that place he built a palace to dwell in. So that place is now called Suga." His descendants continued to live in Izumo until the descendant of the sixth generation was vested with the sovereignty of Japan.

This position he was not allowed to hold, however, for the Sun Goddess, who had never forgiven her brother for his pranks and [misbehavior], felt that none of his children should rule the Central-Land-of-Reed-Plains, in spite of the fact that they had so long been wandering in them. She therefore decided to send a grandson of her own who should rule the earth. For this task she chose a prince..., giving him as parting gifts the eight feet of curved jewels and the mirror which had lured her from the cave, and, also, the Herb-Quelling-Great-Sword which her brother had presented to the gods of heaven.

After receiving [these, the] prince... left the heavenly rock seat... and descended to the peak of a mountain... on the island of Kyushu. Then began the struggles between the grandson of the Sun Goddess and the descendants of Impetuous Male. The conflict ended when the god... retaining spiritual power only gave up his temporal power to the Sun Goddess' grandson. From the latter descended a prince who is known as the first emperor of Japan — Jimmu — whose reign the Japanese have fixed as beginning in 660 BCE. Thus was created a divine sovereign who is still worshipped as the first in a "lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal."

(1) With the exception of the footnoted passages, the text is from Kodo: The Way of the Emperor by Mary A. Nourse, pp. 14-18. ©1940 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc. The text is copied as it appears in Japan: Selected Readings by Hyman Kublin, pp. 25,34-38. © 1968 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
(2) Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), translated by B. H. Chamberlain (Kobe: J. L. Thompson and Company Ltd. 1932, with permission of the Asia Society of Japan), 4.
(3) Ibid., 5.

Discussion Questions

  1. What country wrote the oldest records about Japan? What does 'Yamato' refer to?
  2. What are the names of the texts that give an account of Japan's deities? When were these texts written?
  3. Who is Izanagi? Izanami? What was their mandate?
  4. How was the Sun Goddess created?
  5. Who was Jimmu?
  6. What role does light and darkness play in this myth?
  7. What are the three symbols of imperial regalia? What role do they play in the succession battle described at the end of the story?