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The Japanese Founding Myth
by Alexandra Pereira
2008-05-07 07:43:57
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Japan is an incredibly rich country in poetic myths and legends, many of these derived from folk tales, Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. The majority of them were recorded in the Kojiki or “Book of Ancient Things”, the oldest chronicle of Japan, compiled in 712 CE by O No Yasumaro. Another source is the Nihongi, completed in 720. One interesting peculiarity of the myths for the origin of Japan is that they explain the origin of the Imperial family as well. In Japanese mythology, everything in nature (a rock, a pair of trees, a bush, a mountain, a water stream) has a deity or spirit called kami.

According to the Japanese Creation Myth, before the heavens and the earth were born all that existed was limitless chaos without definite shape or form. Out of this shapeless mass, something light and transparent rose up, the Plain of High Heaven, in which the Three Creating Deities materialized. What was heavy and opaque in the void gradually precipitated and became the earth, which remained a floating, not solid mass for millions of years. Suddenly two immortals were born from its bosom: The Pleasant-Reed-Shoot-Prince-Elder-Deity and The Heavenly-Eternally-Standing-Deity.

Many gods were born after that, but there was nothing for them to do, as long as the world would remain in a chaotic state. So all the Heavenly deities called the two divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, and proposed them to descend to the nebulous place and consolidate it into firm land once and for all, helping each other in that task. They handed them a spear (Ama-no-Nuboko) embellished with costly gems for Izanami and Izanagi to rule the land with, and the divine couple received it ceremoniously.

They were given a world not yet condensed and, while admiring it from the Floating Bridge of Heaven, which lay between the heaven and the earth, Izanagi suggested to his companion that they could try to stir up the brine with their spear. He pushed it down and felt it touch something. Then, when drawing it up, Izanagi discovered that the great drops which fell from it almost immediately coagulated into an island, which is today the island of Onokoro.

Delighted, the two deities descended the Floating Bridge to reach the island and made it the basis for their task of building a country. They wished to get espoused, so they erected in the center of the island the Heavenly August Pillar and built around it a great palace called the Hall of Eight Fathoms. The male Deity turning to the left and the female Deity to the right, each went round the pillar in opposite directions. When they again met each other on the further side of the pillar, Izanami, speaking first, exclaimed: "How delightful it is to meet so handsome a youth!" To which Izanagi replied: "How delightful I am to have fallen in with such a lovely maiden!" After having spoken thus, the male Deity said that it was not in order that woman should anticipate man in a greeting.

Nevertheless, they fell into connubial relationship, having been instructed by two wagtails which flew to the spot. Presently the Goddess bore her divine consort a son, but the baby was weak and boneless as a leech. Disgusted with it, they abandoned it on the waters, putting it in a boat made of reeds. Their second offspring was as disappointing as the first. The two Deities, now sorely disappointed at their failure and full of misgivings, ascended to Heaven to inquire of the Heavenly Deities the causes of their misfortunes. The latter performed the ceremony of divining and said to them: "It is the woman's fault. In turning round the Pillar, it was not right and proper that the female Deity should in speaking have taken precedence of the male. That is the reason."

The two Deities saw the truth of this divine suggestion, and made up their minds to rectify the error. So, returning to the earth again, they went once more around the Heavenly Pillar. This time Izanagi spoke first saying: "How delightful to meet so beautiful a maiden!" "How happy I am," responded Izanami, "that I should meet such a handsome youth!" This process was more appropriate and in accordance with the law of nature.

They married and produced eight children, who became the islands of Japan. All the children born to them left nothing to be desired. First, the island of Awaji was born, next, Shikoku, then, the island of Oki, followed by Kyushu; after that, the island Tsushima came into being, and lastly, Honshu, the main island of Japan. The name of Oyashi-ma-kuni (the Country of the Eight Great Islands) was given to these eight islands. After this, the two Deities became the parents of numerous smaller islands destined to surround the larger ones.

Izanagi and Izanami then created gods and goddesses of the trees, valleys, mountains, winds, streams, and other natural features of Japan. While giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi, Izanami was badly burned. As she lay dying, she produced more gods and goddesses. Other deities emerged from the tears of her grief-stricken husband.

When Izanami died, she went to Yomi-tsu Kuni, the land of darkness and death. Izanagi followed her there and tried to bring her back. But Izanami's body had already begun to decay, and she hid in the shadows and told Izanagi that she could not leave that place. Though Izanagi could not resist looking at his wife one last time. When he lit a torch and saw her rotting corpse, he fled in terror. Angry that Izanagi had seen her, Izanami sent hideous spirits to chase him. Izanagi managed to escape, and he sealed off the passage to Yomi-tsu Kuni with a huge boulder. Izanami remained there and ruled over the dead.

Feeling unclean from his contact with the dead, Izanagi decided to bathe in a stream to purify himself. As he undressed, gods and goddesses emerged from his discarded clothing. Others came forth while he washed. Susano-ô came from his nose, Tsuki-yomi emerged from his right eye, and Amaterasu appeared from his left eye. Izanagi divided the world among these three gods. He gave Susano-ô control of the oceans, assigned Tsuki-yomi the realm of the night, and made Amaterasu the ruler of the sun and the heavens.

The goddess Amaterasu established the imperial family of Japan. She began by sending her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, to live on earth. Before Ninigi left heaven, the goddess gave him the mirror that drew her from the cave, as well as jewels and a sword belonging to the god Susano-ô. When Ninigi arrived on earth, he was accepted as the ruler of Japan, and the gifts he brought from Amaterasu became treasures of the imperial family. Ninigi married the goddess of Mount Fuji, who bore him three sons. One of the sons was the father of Jimmu Tenno, the first historical emperor of Japan. By tradition, the Japanese imperial family traces its ancestry to Jimmu Tenno.



Genji Shibukawa, Tales from the Kojiki

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