Japanese Gods and Mythology: The Shinto Religion

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Japanese mythology is as confusing and inconsistent as it is ancient and vivid. Historically, Shintoism was the primary religion practiced in Japan, but there’s more to the stories than that.

Many Japanese gods have their roots in Buddhist, Korean, and Chinese traditions and stories, creating an intricate web of deities and myths in the Japanese world.

The first records of Japanese mythology are in two books called the Kohiki and the Nihon shoki. They were commissioned by 8th century Emperor Temmu to be a compilation of myths and genealogies — but more importantly, they were meant to tie the genealogy of the imperial families to the gods and to the foundation of the world. After all, who has more authority than a god?

Nowadays, we don’t really have to worry about the influence of emperors or gods. Instead, there’s a different cast of characters that has a pretty big effect on your life — your neighbors.

So, if you lived in an apartment building full of Japanese gods, here’s what it might look like.

The Landlords You’ve Never Met

Names: Amenominakanushi, Takamimusubi, and Kamimusubi
Decorating style: ???
Pets: ???

The three creation gods are like landlords because they’re responsible for the existence and management of the world (the building), but you don’t really see them that often.

You know they’re around — you’ll get a letter once in a while saying they’re hiking up the cost of electricity or that their phone number has changed — but you’ve never actually seen them in person. You always just mail them the rent.

According to Japanese creation myth, in the beginning, there was chaos. No apartment building, no neighbors, no you.

In that chaos, there were particles of light, and eventually, some of that light rose and collected in what would become Takamagahara — or the High Plain of Heaven; the gods’ realm. The darker, heavier particles settled lower and became the earthly realm.

From the light, the three creation gods came to be. The first Japanese god was Amenominakanushi, who was more of a genderless concept than a deity. They are the source of the universe and the first being. After them, Takamimusubi and Kamimusubi were born — the first male and female beings.

These three gods brought in the first tenants. After, they gave rise to five pairs of sibling-couples (who were brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives), the fifth of whom was Izanagi and Izanami, whose names mean “He Who Invites” and “She Who Invites.”

They’ve been living in the building ever since, and it’s now their job to bring in the new residents.

The Married Couple That’s Always Fighting

Names: Izanami and Izanagi
Decorating style: Traditional Japanese
Pets: None

Izanagi and Izanami are one of those couples who seem like they’ve been living in the building since the beginning of time. Maybe because they actually have.

In fact, you could say they helped create the building. After they were born, Izanagi and Izanami were given a spear named Amenonuhoko by the Japanese creation gods and told to create land in the earthly realm.

They brought into being the first island and called it Onogoro-shima — this would become the foundation for the world, or, in our case, the foundation for the new apartment building.

After a while, Izanagi and Izanami decided they wanted to create more space to live in. But to do this, they needed to be mated first. So the two built a pillar called Ame-no-mihashira (“pillar of heaven”) and around it a palace. They really settled into that first room/island they built.

Then, in order to be officially married, they performed a ceremony that involved walking around the pillar in opposite directions, meeting each other on the other side. Izanami spoke first and Izanagi— the man — thought it was inappropriate, but they got married and got down anyway.

The children they produced were supposed to become the Japanese archipelago, but they were born deformed instead. The couple implored the gods to tell them what they had done wrong, and the gods said that Izanagi should have spoken first during the ceremony.

So, the two performed the ceremony again — properly this time — and Izanami gave birth to the eight great islands of the Japanese chain. She went on to have many more children who became the deities of the Japanese pantheon, but the last, Kagu-tsuchi, the god of fire, killed her in childbirth.

Izanagi killed the child in a rage, and resolved to chase his wife to the underworld. He found her there, but couldn’t see her in the darkness. She told him that she had already eaten food from the underworld and couldn’t leave anymore, and not to light a fire — she didn’t want him to see her in the state she was in.

Izanagi, still grieving his wife, ignored her plea and set his comb on fire, desperate to see her one more time. But in the dim light, he saw that she had become a monster. Her skin was rotting and falling off, her hair was either gone or in a tangled web, and there were maggots wriggling in and out of holes in her flesh.

Izanagi took off in horror and disgust, and Izanami — enraged and embarrassed — sent her hellish minions after him. He raced around the underworld, heaven, and earth realm, pushing an enormous boulder in front of the entrance to hell to create the division between life and death. Izanami cursed him, promising to kill one thousand of his men every day. To this, he replied that fifteen hundred would be born every day.

He then immediately created and practiced the concept of divorce.

So, the couple doesn’t have a super harmonious history, and things really haven’t changed much since. They’re constantly slamming the door on each other and, as the oldest tenants in the building and the originators of most of the other deities, they have a lot of sway over the community.

You can count on them to defend the building at all costs, at least. They keep rent prices down and they’ve fought off developers looking to turn the lot into a mall. When they turn their fury on people other than each other, they can be pretty effective.

The Siblings Who Made the Mistake of Living Together

Names: Amaterasu Omikami (sun goddess), Susanoo (god of storms), and Tsukuyomi (moon god)
Decorating style: Wordly and elegant
Pets: They couldn’t agree on one

Amaterasu, Susanoo, and Tsukuyomi are three of the most important gods in all of Japanese mythology and the Shinto religion, representing the sun, storms, and the moon, respectively. They were born from the water that Izanagi used to wash his body with after climbing out of the underworld. As siblings, they’re also probably the worst choice to be each others’ roommates.

They’ve had a few big fights, naturally. Or rather, Amaterasu’s brothers are frequently causing trouble for her.

Amaterasu, the sun goddess, once sent Tsukuyomi to represent her at a feast being thrown by Uke Mochi — the goddess of food. But her cooking style was a little unorthodox.

Tsukuyomi watched in shock as Uke Mochi turned to the ocean and spit out a fish. Then she turned to a forest and spit out game. Finally, she faced a rice paddy and coughed up a bowl of rice. The food looked amazing and seemed to be saliva-free somehow, but Tsukuyomi was disgusted and infuriated by this process and so killed the goddess.

When she heard of what Tsukuyomi had done, Amaterasu was infuriated. She couldn’t believe that her brother would kill the host of a feast where he was supposed to be representing her. She was so angry that she refused to ever face him again — and with that, the sun and the moon stopped sharing the sky, thus creating day and night.

That’s not the only family feud they’ve had, though. Susanoo had been banished from the heavens for being destructive and rambunctious, but stopped to say goodbye to his sister. She allowed him to approach, suspicious of his motivations. But all Susanoo wanted was to propose a challenge to her.

The challenge was to take an object that belonged to the other and to create new gods from it. Susanoo took a necklace from his sister, and Amaterasu took her brother’s sword.

From their siblings’ respective items, Susanoo made five gods and Amaterasu made three goddesses. Deciding that the male gods had more value, Amaterasu declared herself the winner — the gods had come from her item, even though she hadn’t been the one to create them.

Enraged, Susanoo rampaged through the earth and heavens, destroying rice fields and mountains. He killed one of Amaterasu’s attendants and then hurled a flayed pony into her loom. Amaterasu, furious and grieving, fled the heavens and hid in a cave. Her disappearance plunged the world into darkness and chaos.

Living in the same building as these guys means putting up with their fights (one of them will frequently lock the other two out as an act of spite) and also having to deal with the fact that they represent a good chunk of the earthly realm.

Susanoo has a secondary role as a trickster god, so even when he’s not accidentally annoying his sister, he’s purposefully causing trouble somewhere in the building by switching your hot and cold water, or replacing your ketchup with hot sauce.

Tsukuyomi’s feud with Amaterasu can make things hard too — they refuse to even be in the hallway together. Sometimes Amaterasu will even go off in a huff and plunge the building into darkness during a tantrum.

You might have to just deal with it. Or, maybe try and get some advice from the hippy lady next door.

The Cool Hippy Lady Next Door

Name: Ame-no-Uzume
Decorating style: Bohemian and eclectic
Pets: Songbirds

If there’s one of your neighbors you can count on to cheer someone up, it’s Ame-no-Uzume. As the Japanese goddess of dancing and revelry, she’s bound to have good music, kooky outfits, and regular plans for dance parties.

She even managed to sway the sun goddess Amaterasu once. When Amaterasu hid herself in the cave after Susanoo offended her, Ama-no-Uzume and her husband Omoikane threw a party at the mouth of the cave, hoping to draw the other goddess out. Amaterasu refused to emerge, though, even as the gods drank and sang and danced.

Finally, Uzume knew what had to be done. She hung a shiny bronze mirror and a polished jade stone from a tree near the entrance of the cave to distract Amaterasu once she came out.

Then, Uzume flipped over a barrel and started dancing on top of it, flinging off her clothes as she did. The other gods rioted with laughter as Uzume stripped, and the noise finally caught Amaterasu’s attention.

She emerged from the cave, and once she was distracted by the mirror and the jewel, Omoikane pushed a stone in front of the entrance of the cave. Uzume convinced Amaterasu to return to the world and enjoy the party with the rest of the gods, and she acquiesced. And with that, Uzume brought the light back to the world.

The Quiet One You Never See

Name: Omoikane
Decorating style: Simple and bookish
Pets: None; they’re too distracting

Omoikane is the neighbor that you’ve only ever seen twice: the first time when he moved in, and the second time when Susanoo pulled the fire alarm as a joke and the entire building evacuated to the parking lot. Omoikane was fully dressed and wide awake with a notebook in hand, even though it was 3am.

Omoikane had probably been awake pondering — it’s his regular role for the other gods. As the deity of wisdom and intelligence, he can hold many thoughts in his head at once. He’s counted on to be able to think things through and come up with answers to the deities’ problems, usually all at the same time.

But every once in a while he can be coaxed into partying by his wife Uzume, so keep an eye out for the two of them together.

The Troublemaker and His Long-Suffering Brother

Names: Raijin and Fūjin
Decorating style: Divided down the middle with tape
Pets: None; they have their hands full enough with each other as it is

Raijin and Fūjin are weather gods — Rajin of thunder, lightning, and storms; Fūjin of wind. They take the forms of onis, huge demon-like monsters with horns and tusks.

Raijin is typically depicted as being red, and only has three fingers on each hand (one for the past, present, and future). Fūjin is usually green and only has four (representing the cardinal directions).

They each have a signature item that they carry around. Raijin wields hammers that he uses to play his drums, which produce the thundering sound of lightning. Fūjin carries a bag of winds that he releases to stir up storms and typhoons.

The two are almost always fighting, and it’s mostly because one of Raijin’s main pastimes — besides his other hobby of playing or fixing his drums and making as much noise as possible — is pulling pranks on his brother.

But Fūjin and Raijin are also known to be protectors. Many times, they’ve stirred up vicious storms to repel enemies of Japan, and their statues stand guard outside many temples.

The Upstairs Neighbors Who Are Always Making Noise

Names: Ryujin and Sarutahiko Ōkami
Decorating style: Mostly Ikea; they keep breaking things and then having to replace them
Pets: Turtles (a compromise between land and sea)

Ryujin and Sarutahiko Ōkami are two of the louder Japanese gods for a few reasons. First, they’re both huge — Ryujin is a literal dragon, who must crash into walls a lot and probably has a hard time getting in and out of the building. He must come in through the window.

Sarutahiko Ōkami, on the other hand, is a giant with a big beard and a long nose whose heavy footsteps can be heard all the way down on the ground floor. He carries a huge jeweled spear that thunks! on the laminate tiles with every step.

They’re also pretty rowdy. As the Japanese gods of the sea (Ryujin) and earth (Sarutahiko), they tend to get in a lot of disagreements about whose element is more powerful, or more important.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if one of their arguments turned into a wall-shaking fist fight because they’ve both got a history of being willing to get physical.

An example of Ryujin’s short temper is the story of how jellyfish ended up with no bones.

Ryujin once wanted to eat a monkey’s liver to heal a rash he just couldn’t get rid of, so he sent the jellyfish to go get one. The little jellyfish was tricked by the monkey, though, and went back to Ryujin empty-handed. Infuriated, Ryujin beat the poor jelly until its bones were pulverized, and to this day they still don’t have a skeletal system.

But Sarutahiko is more than able to stand up to Ryujin’s fury — as the god of martial arts, he’s well-practiced in fending off enraged opponents. And they have a lot to fight about. According to myth, Sarutahiko died because of a creature that belonged to Ryujin’s realm: his hand got trapped inside a giant clam and he drowned.

So, if you hear some crashing and banging upstairs, it’s probably the two of them fighting over whose turn it is to buy groceries. Or whether to get a fish or a gerbil as a pet — that’s equally as likely to happen.

Given their enormous sizes and tempers, it’s probably a good idea just to ignore the noise and let it slide, though.

The Art Students

Names: Inari Ōkami and Tenjin
Decorating style: Avante-garde and minimal
Pets: White foxes

Inari Ōkami and Tenjin decided to live together because of their appreciation for the finer things — and because of their eccentricities.

Inari Ōkami is the god/goddess (more on that later) of rice, tea and sake, fertility, agriculture, and industry. Tenjin is the god of scholarship and poetry, and a patron of academics and learning. The two like to sit on their balcony sipping steaming cups of tea prepared by Inari, while discussing politics and art, writing poetry, and watching the city.

Inari Ōkami is one of those gods who never looks the same two days in a row. They have many forms in which they present themselves, the most popular of which are a young female food goddess, an old man carrying rice, or an androgynous bodhisattva — a person who has achieved nirvana but who has chosen to return to Earth to help others.

If you’re ever interested in trying out a new look, Inari could give you some tips on looking great in just about any style.

Things aren’t always smooth sailing, though. Tenjin has a history of causing great disasters when angered. He is said to be the deified form of a Japanese poet known as Sugawara no Michizane, who originally held a high position in government as an artist and political figure, but — because of the machinations of members of his rival clan, the Fujiwara — was demoted and exiled.

There, he died. But less than 30 years later, the capital city was struck by a vicious storm — one that brought heavy rain and lighting, and that flooded or burned many Fujiwara residences.

The Japanese emperor assumed that the storms were brought on by Michizane’s angry spirit, and so he ordered the official exile order to be burned, declaring that Michizane was to be worshipped under the name “Tenjin.”

For this reason, in his early history, Tenjin was also a god of natural disasters.

The Sword Guy

Name: Hachiman
Decorating style: Green-thumbed Spartan
Pets: White doves

If any of the Japanese gods can be said to have sword-guy energy, it would be Hachiman. He’s the Japanese god of war and the divine protector of Japan, which means that even if he’s a little obsessed with sharp things, he’ll probably stick his neck out for you if the landlord is bullying you.

It would be more accurate, though, to call Hachiman a godly mentor of warriors. He was widely worshipped by the samurai — the infamous Japanese swordsmen who dominated the ancient era. So he’d be happy to teach you a thing or two about self-defense for when you’re walking home late.

He was also originally a god of agriculture, so if you ever get an invite to his apartment, you shouldn’t be surprised when you see a whole garden of succulents hanging out on the windowsill.

As for pets, Hachiman’s symbolic animal and messenger was the dove, so that invite may come to your window attached to the leg of the pure white bird. Best not decline — he does have a lot of swords.

Conclusion

At surface level, the gods of Japanese mythology might seem austere and distant. But the truth seems to be that they mostly bicker, like any other pantheon.

It makes it a little easier to piece together their stories when it becomes clear that the gods are a lot like the people you interact with every day. They’re just — you know — gods.

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