Japanese mythology is an important medium for transmitting Japanese culture from each generation to the next. Mythology can also been seen as folk-lore or legend; however, it typically includes stories that pertain to gods or stories that are used to present aspects of human nature. Japanese mythology is of fundamental importance in their culture because it is a unique combination of folk-lore and history that relays the creation of the world and the link between the gods and the Japanese. It also contains elements of religiosity and acts as a manual for human behaviours.
The most significant contributions to Japanese mythology are Buddhism, Confucianism and the Shinto religion. Shinto provides the original foundation for the messages in the myths; however, Buddhism and Confucianism have become a part of the myths as well. “[Shinto was] the ancient native religion of Japan, modified later under the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism. ‘Shinto’ means ‘the way of the gods’…” (Ishida, 1974, p.17). Confucianism and the Buddhist elements relay the moralistic messages while the Shinto aspect relates to the spirituality of nature and the gods. This has created a process by which people are given a system of worship that includes separate guidelines for actions and proper behaviour.
The myths of Japan give people an understanding of where they came from, how they came to be and how they should be. The Kojiki and the Nihongi are two works that capture the history of Japan and include the tales that show the Japanese people how they should behave. These two texts are the most important in Japanese history as they were among the first to record the events of Japan and are the main sources of Japanese mythology. It is from these texts that the Japanese are able to trace their connection to the gods. These texts were created in order to record history so that later generation would know their past. It was also created, primarily, in order to preserve as evidence the link of the Emperors to a divine ancestry.
The myths of Japan have captured its history as well as its culture. Historically, one of the most important myths is the creation of Japan. This myth gives people the ability to understand how life was formed which creates the harmonization of the past and present. Along similar lines, the myths present a genealogical history that establishes another link between past and present. Beyond the history that the myths relay is also the culture and behaviourisms. Respect for nature, the importance of beauty, familial piety and group harmony are some of the elements that are present within the system of beliefs that acts as a guideline for behaviour. The value of Japanese mythology is how it relays the creation of Japan and its people, how it establishes a genealogical history, how it gives people a system of beliefs, and how it teaches the Japanese culture by projecting and emphasizing its values.
Japan was created by the deities and it was the deities that were sent to rule it for mankind. In the beginning, Japan was an unruly land that needed taming. The land and its flora and fauna had the ability to speak and move which was associated with its unruliness since these abilities offered the potential for violent tendencies. This element of the myths was due to the Shinto religion. Shinto presents the belief that all natural things from trees to rocks to humans have a kami or spirit (Piggott, 1969, p.12). This was also associated with the idea that many of these natural things came from the deities. Kami can also be used as the term deity. Since Japan has a strong link to the gods, through creation in the myths, it establishes value for the Japanese to understand who they are and the place in which they live. This relation between the kami or spirit and natural objects also presents value in the form of harmony with nature. It is a balance of mankind with nature because they are, essentially, of the same beginnings and are identifiable with one another because of the kami that is within all.
Similarly, the Japanese have gained an appreciation for nature and its beauty as it is impossible to untangle what is natural to earth from the deities. “Next, when the land was young, resembling floating oil and drift-like a jellyfish, there sprouted forward something like reed-shoots. From these came into existence the deity Umasi-asi-kabï-piko-di-nö-kamiï; next, Amë-nö-tökö-tati-nö-kamï.” (Philippi, 1968, p.47). Even some of the gods had their beginnings from objects of nature which secures the importance of the natural world in Japanese mythology which then serves to place importance on nature for the Japanese people themselves. Therein, gives them the value of a connection to nature because of the portrayals of nature in the myths.
The myths can be categorized in many different ways. There are many hero myths as they project how a Samurai must conduct himself and also represent the harmonization of man with nature. “The myths are filled with an appreciation of the flora and topographic features of the islands of Japan, and the message of the hero tale is that this world is a harmonious union of the life of man with the life of nature.” (Pelzel, 1970, p.20). The heroes create unity between man and nature by taming nature. This also relates to the creation myths as objects of nature were created with the ability to talk and think which contributed to the untamed nature of Japan. In the hero myths, the heroes expel from nature the attributes of speech, mobility and other similar qualities so as to provide a land that people can live harmoniously with nature and not against or in conflict with nature. Through these myths, the Japanese gain an understanding of their place within nature.
The myths give the Japanese people an understanding of their connection to nature. Following this, the myths also give them an understanding of their connection with the past. The myths hold historical importance by providing the Japanese with an explanation of their lineage. “…Ninigi no mikoto, grandson of the Sun Goddess, is the first of the heavenly line to descend and rule the earth, after the emissaries who received the submission of the Master of the Land pacified it and made it a fit place to live.” (Ibid. p.14). Through this ancestry, it can be shown that the emperor of Japan is a descendent of the gods. This is valuable within the ruling system of Japan since it is through this that the emperor gains legitimacy and the right to rule the people of Japan. As the myth continues, it is eventually revealed that Jimmu Tennō was the first emperor of Japan as he was the grandson of the Sea God. It is only through the myths that this lineage is recorded and therefore, the myths themselves become valuable for accrediting the emperors with divine ancestry which is also valuable to the people of Japan for showing that their leaders are capable since they are descendent from the gods.
This also reinforces the balance of man with nature and; therefore, also man’s respect and appreciation for nature. While Emperor Sujin was ruling there were many epidemics; however, when Opo-tata-neko worshipped Mi-Mörö the land was put back to ease and peacefulness (Philippi, 1968, p.201). This myth relayed the importance of proper respect between man, nature and the gods. As already stated, nature is an absolute part of the deities which makes it necessary for man to show proper respect for nature in order to maintain the balance between man, the gods and nature so that the harmony of society will be preserved. Therefore the lineage from the gods to the emperors is valuable for its pathway to harmony.
The harmonization with nature is a significant aspect of mythology as it is also a part of its religiosity. “Shinto consists of both nature and ancestor worship…” (Piggott, 1969, p.42). Religion and worship is a valuable part of society as it creates a belief system that helps to provide a structure to life. Within Japanese society, the combination of the Shinto religion and Buddhism creates a system of worship of the gods and nature while providing a moral code for actions.
The myth of the celibate monk provides an account of a historical event and reflects the expected conduct of monks in association with nature. A woman, desiring the monk, had to cross Lake Biwa a certain amount of times in a washtub in order to be with him and was on her last trip when Hira Hurricane rose and she drown (Ibid. p.49). This myth explains an event in history and also shows the mix of Shinto and Buddhist elements through that act of nature and the behaviour of the monk. Monks must remain celibate and in order to preserve this proper behaviour, the woman was killed. This myth also maintains the importance of the balance of humans and nature. When the woman’s success would destroy the monk’s proper behaviour, the balance was thrown off and nature destroyed her so that the monk would remain celibate. The value of this myth is its guide as a religious structure while emphasizing harmony of man and nature.
The value of a religious system is similar to the value of myths for passing on the Japanese culture. Just as the religious aspects of myths create a system of beliefs that give guidance and direction to people in worship, so too, do the myths provide a foundation for correct conduct and proper behaviour that is of fundamental importance in Japanese culture. An example can be drawn from the myth that reveals the story of a badger that was harassing people which caused an uprising of a group of people where they yelled at the badger while the badger yelled back only to find, after a silence occurred, that the badger had disembowelled itself because of its humiliation of losing by not being able to yell as loudly as the group of people (Mayer, p.159-160). In Japanese culture, humiliation and shame have a large role where suicide often correlates to saving face. The myth of the badger is valued for its ability to relay this message which preserves this aspect of Japanese culture.
The creation myths have proven to be valued for a variety of reasons. One of which is how some have shown the Japanese proper mannerisms and the importance of proper mannerisms. In the myth of Izanagi and Izanami’s first copulation Izanami spoke first which was improper and thus when they procreated the child born was a failure (Philippi, 1968, pp. 50-51). These gods were the first to begin the creation of the islands and other elements of nature; however, due to their improper conduct, their child was deformed and rejected. The value of this myth lies in its purpose of emphasizing the importance of proper behaviour and what proper behaviour is under certain circumstances.
The Japanese put a lot of importance on characteristics of loyalty, courage, honour and beauty among other things. Through the myths, these characteristics are proven to be important by relaying particular messages that indicate what traits are expected and which are not. Kesa Gozen developed a plan in which she fooled a murderer into killing her instead of her husband which saved her husband’s life as well as her mother’s due to the threats the murderer was making to her mother and in doing so she also saved her own honour (Piggott, 1969, p.102). The underlying notion of this myth is of loyalty and maintaining face. By letting herself be killed, she was doing an honour to her family since allowing her husband to be killed would be cowardly. This shows the Japanese people that to be disloyal or cowardly is to shame or humiliate those who are associated with you. It is better to accept death than to bestow humiliation upon the family.
Not all of the myths are direct cause and effects meant to reveal an element of Japanese culture and beliefs. Since the myths come in the form of stories, they are not exact rules for behaviour. They show, through various situations, which characteristics of man are to be embodied and which are disgraceful. Keeping aligned with Shinto and Buddhist beliefs is the myth of the young man whose parents died and because they loved gardening he maintained it after their death and so they returned as butterflies to enjoy their garden (ibid. pp.112-113). The Shinto element is of the parents’ souls or spirits being transferred into the butterflies while the Buddhist element is that of gratitude based on familial piety. This myth does not contain a direct lesson like many others; however, through the events within it, it can be seen that familial piety must be maintained in Japanese culture. The myths that are similar to this one portray a concept that is neither rewarded nor punished, but show an expectation of behaviour.
Japanese mythology’s greatest value is in its ability to shape and form its culture. The tales may be old and out-dated; however, the meaning within them crosses every generation. The situations in the myths may be far different than the situations that Japanese people find themselves in in modern times, but the teachings of the myths show them how to act and what to expect. They are still concerned with harmony, reciprocity and proper manners. The Japanese have become a shame culture through the origins of humiliation and shame in the myths.
The myths established an extensive amount of beliefs. The creation of Japan and its people was through myths describing the gods which created more gods and objects of nature, including man. The value of the creation myths lends to their ability to create a timeless link between past and present. The present is dependent on the past and the myths relay the past of how people came to be as well as their history. The value of knowing who they are as Japanese people extends to the value of being descendents of gods. People are given more security in terms of leadership since the Emperors’ have a divine ancestry. This too establishes a connection to the past and its harmonization with the present because of the genealogical history that the myths present.
The harmonization of past and present is part of the value of Japanese mythology; however, the other part of the value is that the myths provide guidelines for beliefs and actions. The mythology is a combination of religious beliefs that provide an avenue of worship to the gods as well as parameters for taking moralistic action in society. Similarly, mythologies value is its teaching of Japanese culture and behavioural expectations. The myths project and emphasize the values of the Japanese people. It is from the myths that the Japanese culture formed. Japanese mythology has established a right way or proper form to any action due to the Shinto and Buddhist components. Japanese mythology is highly valued for being a unifying manual to which the life of Japanese people is formed and lived by.
Ishida, E. (1974). Japanese Culture: A Study of Origins and Characteristics. (T. Kachi, Trans.) Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.
Mayer, Fanny. (n/d). Ancient Tales in Modern Japan: An Anthology of Japanese Folk Tales. (trans.) Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Pelzel, John C. (1970). Human Nature in the Japanese Myths. In T.S. Lebra & W.P. Lebra (Eds.). Japanese Culture and Behaviour. (pp.7-28). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Philippi, D.L. (1968). Kojiki. (Trans.). Japan: University of Tokyo Press.
Piggott, J. (1969). Japanese Mythology. New York: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.