Approximately 90% of the Japanese population are followers of Shintoism (神道), Buddhism (仏教) or both. This can be attributed to the high regards paid by the Japanese towards their ethnic origins as well as the value they put on ancient traditions.
Shintoism, in particular, has been popular both in traditional and pop culture thanks to its rich mythological roots that frequently introduce gods and goddesses symbolizing various vital elements of life. Amaterasu (天照) the sun goddess, for instance, has been a striking figure in Japan’s literature, stories, movies and even modern-day animation.
Over the years, stories of the astounding feats of the Shinto deities have been handed down from one generation to the next, placing more emphasis on the value of worship and thanksgiving for the high quality of life given by these mythological beings. But where exactly did they come from? What and who is the origin of these gods and goddesses who have gathered millions of Japanese worshipers through the years? The answer lies in the Japanese folktales and mythology.
According to the myth, the heavenly gods Izanagi and Izanami decided to tie the knot on an island called Onogoro shima (オノゴロ島), a place that came to life when they dropped the jeweled spear used for stirring the seas from the heavens.
Stories reveal that when two gods wish to marry they must circle a pole or a fallen spear in the opposite direction to one another. They also make vows in order to finalise the marriage rites. Unfortunately, Izanami spoke first before her husband, which according to practice is the wrong sequence in conducting marriage rites. This resulted in the birth of a deformed deity, Hiruko (ヒルコ), known today as the god Ebisu (蛭子) who is a patron of fishermen and one of the seven Shinto gods that is believed to bring good luck.
The couple performed the process again and gave birth to more islands and deities that are known in modern-day Japan. Everything went well until they gave birth to the fire god, Kagutsuchi (カグツチ). While giving birth, Izanami was badly burned which caused her eventual death and journey to Yomi (黄泉), the land of darkness.
Missing his other half, Izanagi decided to journey to the underworld to meet Izanami. According to the myth, the male god felt the need to finish off the task of creating more islands and giving birth to more deities, which can only be done with their combined efforts.
Izanami agreed, asking her partner to wait as she pleaded with the gods of Yomi to release her despite having already eaten the food of the underworld, which prohibits anyone from leaving.
Izanagi waited, but the lengthy process of the release brought an end to his patience. When he entered the underworld, he found his wife’s decomposing body. Driven by fear, he fled the area, sealing the underworld’s entrance with a stone to prevent Izanami from following.
What is said to be the gate to the underworld is still standing in Matsue.
To cleanse himself from impurities, Izanagi bathed in the sea. In bathing, he was able to birth to three more deities which are now widely popular in Japan’s mythology: the sun goddess Amaterasu, born from Izanagi’s left eye, the moon god Tsukiyomi (月読命), born from his right eye, and the storm god Susanoo (須佐之男) who was born from his nose.
Izanagi’s act of bathing also became the basis of Shintoism’s ritual purification process popularly known as misogi(禊).
Many other revered gods and goddesses came from this mythological couple and each has its own fascinating story. Are you familiar with Izanami and Izanagi’s offsprings? Who are your favorites?