Japan - Creational Myths


Because of the thought and philosophy of the Tokugawa period in Japan (1600-1868), nothing says "Japan" like the Shinto religion. The Tokugawa "Enlightenment" inspired a group of thinkers who studied what they called kokugaku , which can be roughly translated "nativism," "Japanese Studies," or "Native Studies." Kokugaku was no dry-as-dust academic discipline as the term "Japanese Studies" seems to imply; it was a concerted philosophical, literary and academic effort to recover the essential "Japanese character" as it existed before the early influences of foreigners, especially the Chinese, "corrupted" Japanese culture. Recovering the essential Japanese character meant in the end distinguishing what was Japanese from what is not and purging from the Japanese culture various foreign influences including Confucianism (Chinese), Taoism (Chinese), Buddhism (Indian and Chinese), and Christianity (Western European). The kokugakushu ("nativists") focussed most of their efforts on recovering the Shinto religion, the native Japanese religion, from fragmentary texts and isolated and unrelated popular religious practices.

Despite this optimism, Shinto is probably not a native religion of Japan (since the Japanese were not the original "natives" of Japan), and seems to be an agglomeration of a multitude of diverse and unrelated religions and mythologies. There really is no one thing that can be called "Shinto," since there are a multitude of religious cults that gather beneath this category. The name itself is a bit misleading, for "Shinto" is a combination of two Chinese words meaning "the way of the gods" (shen : "spiritual power, divinity"; tao : "the way or path") and was first used at the beginning of the early modern period. The Japanese word is kannagara: "the way of the kami ." Calling the religion of the early Japanese "Shinto" is a gross and unsupportable anachronism.

Despite the difficulty in pinning down the form and nature of early Shinto, several general assertions can be drawn about it. First, early Shinto was a tribal religion, not a state one. Individual tribes or clans, which originally crossed over to Japan from Korea, generally held onto their Shinto beliefs even after they were organized into coherent and centralized states.

Second, all Shinto cults believe in kami , which generally refers to the "divine." Individual clans (uji ), which were simultaneously political, military, and religious units, worshipped a single kami in particular which was regarded as the founder or principal ancestor of the clan. As a clan spread out, it took its worship of a particular kami with it; should a clan conquer another clan, the defeated clan was subsumed into the worship of the victorious clan's kami . What the kami consists of is hard to pin down. Kami first of all refers to the gods of heaven, earth, and the underworld, of whom the most important are creator gods - all Shinto cults, even the earliest, seem to have had an extremely developed creation mythology. But kami also are all those things that have divinity in them to some degree: the ghosts of ancestors, living human beings, particular regions or villages, animals, plants, landscape - in fact, most of creation, anything that might be considered wondrous, magnificent, or affecting human life.

This meant that the early Japanese felt themselves to be under the control not only of the clan's principal kami , but by an innumerable crowd of ancestors, spiritual beings, and divine natural forces. As an example of the potential for divinity: there is a story of an emperor who, while travelling in a rainstorm encountered a cat on a porch that waved a greeting to him. Intrigued by this extraordinary phenomenon, the emperor dismounted and approached the porch. As soon as he reached the porch, a bolt of lightning crashed down on the spot his horse was standing and killed it instantly. From that point on, cats were, in Shinto, worshipped as beneficent and protective kami ; if you walk into a Japanese restaurant, you are sure to find a porcelain statue of the waving cat which protects the establishment from harm.

Third, all Shinto involves some sort of shrine worship, the most important was the Izumo Shrine on the coast of the Japan Sea. Originally, these shrines were either a piece of unpolluted land surrounded by trees (himorogi ) or a piece of unpolluted ground surrounded by stones (iwasaka ). Shinto shrines are usually a single room (or miniature room), raised from the ground, with objects placed inside. One worshipped the kami inside the shrine. Outside the shrine was placed a wash-basin, called a torii , where one cleaned one's hands and sometimes one's face before entering the shrine. This procedure of washing, called the misogi, is one of the principal rituals of Shinto, which also included prayer and spells. One worships a Shinto shrine by "attending" it, that is, devoting oneself to the object worshipped, and by giving offerings to it: anything from vegetables to great riches. Shinto prayer (Norito ) is based on koto-dama , the belief that spoken words have a spiritual power; if spoken correctly, the Norito would bring about favorable results.

Unfortunately, we know almost nothing at all about early Shinto, since nobody wrote about it. Early Shinto may, in fact, be a myth; what is called early Shinto may simply be a large number of unrelated local religions that began to combine with the advent of centralized states. History has accreted an enormous amount of non-Shinto ideas into this original religion: Buddhism, Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism have all significantly changed the religion.

The two great texts of Shinto belief and mythology, the Kojiki (The Records of Ancient Matters ) and the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan ), were written down around 700 A.D., two centuries after Buddhism had been declared the state religion of Japan. Although these texts contain the only versions of Shinto mythology, including Shinto creation stories, both of these texts are heavily influenced by both Buddhism and Confucianism and the stories of the kami had been deeply corrupted by Chinese and Korean thought long before.


The most profound change in Japanese government was the adoption of Chinese, particularly Confucian, models of government in Prince Shotoku's Seventeen Article Constitution . The reforms undertaken by Shotoku not only addressed the internal problems the Yamato court was faced with, they also dramatically changed Japanese history.

The various Japanese states are named for the regions in which the capital was located. In 710, the capital was moved north to Nara. It was a carefully planned city laid out on a rigorous grid after the Chinese capital of Chang-an. Meant to be a permanent capital, it was moved again only eighty years later.

Japan during the Nara period, however, was primarily an agricultural and village-based society. Most Japanese lived in pit houses and worshipped the kami of natural forces and ancestors. Building a capital city on the model of a Chinese capital produced a dramatic alienation of Japanese aristocracy from the Japanese population. In this region of villages, pit-houses, and kami -worship, grew up a city of palaces, silks, wealth, Chinese writing and Chinese thought, and Buddhism. The Nara capital represents the definitive break of the Japanese aristocracy from their roots in the uji.

The most influential cultural development in the Nara was the flowering of Buddhism. Several schools of Buddhist thought imported from T'ang China made their way to the capital city. For the most part, Buddhism was a phenomenon of the capital city well into the Heian period. However, the vitality of Buddhism at this time led to a closer integration of Buddhism with Japanese government. The Nara emperors in particular deeply reverenced a Buddhist teaching called the Sutra of Golden Light ; in it, Buddha is established not only as a historical human being but also as the Law or Truth of the universe. Each human has reason, prajna , with which to distinguish good from bad. The life of reason, then, is the beginning of a proper Buddhist life. Politically, the sutra claimed that all human law must reflect the Ultimate Law of the universe; however, since law was a phenomenon of the material world, it was subject to change. This gave Japanese monarchs a moral basis for their rule and a justification for adapting rules and laws to changing circumstances.

The devoutness that the Nara emperors held for Buddhism guaranteed its rapid and dramatic expansion into Japanese culture. Although Buddhism entered Japan in 518, it was during the Nara period that it became a solid presence in Japanese culture.


The Heian period (794-1192) was one of those amazing periods in Japanese history, equaled only by the later Tokugawa period in pre-modern Japan, in which an unprecedented peace and security passed over the land under the powerful rule of the Heian dynasty. Japanese culture during the Heian flourished as it never had before; such a cultural efflorescence would only occur again during the long Tokugawa peace. For this reason, Heian Japan along with Nara Japan (710-794) is called "Classical" Japan.

The Nara period was marked by struggles over the throne and which of the clans would control that throne. In order to quiet these disturbances, the capital was moved in 795 to modern-day Kyoto, which at that time was give the name "Heian-kyo," or city of peace and tranquility. The struggles for the throne ceased, but Japan still did not completely unite under a central government. What happened instead was that power accumulated under a single family, the Fujiwara, who managed to skillfully manipulate and hold onto their power in the face of changes and rivalry for over three centuries. With such stability, the Heian imperial court at thrived.

The Japanese at the Heian court began to develop a culture independent of the Chinese culture that had formed the cultural life of imperial Japan up until that point. First, they began to develop their own system of writing, since Chinese writing was adopted to an entirely different language and world view. Second, they developed a court culture with values and concepts uniquely Japanese rather than derived from imperial China, values such as miyabi, "courtliness," makoto , or "simplicity," and aware, or "sensitivity, sorrow." This culture was forged largely among the women's communities at court and reached their pinnacle in the book considered to be the greatest classic of Japanese literature, the Genji monogatari (Tales of the Genji) by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

Heian government solidified the reforms of the late Yamoto and Nara periods. At the top of the official hierarchy was the Tenno, or "Divine Emperor." The Emperor was both Confucian and Shinto; he ruled by virtue of the Mandate of Heaven and by legitimate descent from the Shinto Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Because of this, the imperial line of descent has remained unbroken in Japanese history from the late Yamato period.

The government hierarchy beneath the Emperor was built along Chinese lines. The Japanese borrowed the T'ang Council of the State, which held most of the power in Japan. The most powerful clans vied for the position as Council of State, for from that seat they could control the emperor and the entire government itself. Like T'ang government, there were several ministries (eight instead of six). There was, however, a profound difference between T'ang China and Heian Japan. China was a country of some sixty-five million people; Japan was a loose confederacy of some five million people.

The Chinese lived relatively prosperously, and T'ang China had by and large become an urban and an industrial culture. Japan, on the other hand, was still very backward when one left the capital city of Heian-kyo. Uji bonds were still felt, and outlying areas still exercised a degree of autonomy. The result for court government was very simple: most of court government concerned the court alone. There were six thousand employees of the imperial government; four thousand administered the imperial house. So the Heian court was not overly involved in the day to day governing of outlying provinces, which numbered sixty-six.

In both the Nara period and the Heian period, regional chiefs were replaced by court-appointed governors of the provinces. This was a demotion for the traditional aristocracy; it did not mean, however, that Heian government exercised a great deal of control over these regional governors who ran their provinces more or less autonomously.

The Heian period, though, was one of remarkable stability. There was little dissension or disagreement in the government itself or between the government and provincial governors. The only problems were conflicts between uji either vying for territory or for influence at the court.

In the earliest periods in Japan, warfare was largely confined to battles between separate uji , or clans. The clans would go into battle under a war-chief; there was no separate class of soldiers. At the emergence of the Yamato state, new techniques of larger scale warfare seem to have been adopted including new technologies such as swords and armor. The Nara government, faced with a country of sixty-six provinces of competing clans, tried to change the Japanese military system by conscripting soldiers. By the end of the Nara period, in 792, the idea was given up as a failure.

Instead, the Heian government established a military system based on local militias composed of mounted horsemen. These professional soldiers were spread throughout the country and owed their loyalty to the emperor. They were "servants," or samurai. An important change occurred, however, in the middle of the Heian period. Originally the samurai were servants of the Emperor; they gradually became private armies attached to local aristocracy.

From the middle Heian period onwards, for almost a thousand years, the Japanese military would consist of professional soldiers in numberless private armies owing their loyalty to local aristocracy and warlords. The early samurai were not the noble or acculturated soldiers of Japanese bushido , or "way of the warrior." Bushido was an invention of the Tokugawa period (1601-1868) when the samurai had nothing to do because of the Tokugawa enforced peace. The samurai of early and medieval Japan were drawn from the lower classes. They made their living primarily as farmers; their only function as samurai was to kill the samurai of opposing armies. They were generally illiterate and held in contempt by the aristocracy.


Buddhism developed profoundly during the Heian period as well. Situated near the capital on Mt. Hiei, the monks of the Hiei monastery developed new forms of esoteric Buddhism. The great genius of Japanese Buddhism of the time, however, was Kukai (774-835), who established in Japan a form of Buddhism called the True Words (in Japanese: Shingon) at his monastery at Mount Koya. The three mysteries of Buddhism are body, speech, and mind; each and every human being possesses each of these three faculties. Each of these faculties contain all the secrets of the universe, so that one can attain Buddhahood through any one of these three. Mysteries of the body apply to various ways of positioning the body in meditation; mysteries of the mind apply to ways of perceiving truth; mysteries of speech are the true words.

In Shingon, these mysteries are passed on in the form of speech (true words) from teacher to student; none of these true words are written down or available to anyone outside this line of transmission (hence the term Esoteric Buddhism). Despite this extraordinarily rigid esotericism, the Shingon Buddhism of Mt. Hiei became a vital force in Japanese culture. Kukai believed that the True Words transcended speech, so he encouraged the cultivation of artistic skills: painting, music, and gesture. Anything that had beauty revealed the truth of the Buddha; as a result, the art of the Hiei monks made the religion profoundly popular at the Heian court and deeply influenced the development of Japanese culture that was being forged at that court. It is not unfair to say that Japanese poetic and visual art begin with the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei and Mount Koya.


In the late Heian period, private families began to accrue vast amounts of property (shoen ) and began to support large standing armies, mainly because the Heian government began to rely more on these private armies than on their own weak forces. The result was an exponential growth in the power of the two greatest warrior clans, the Taira (or the Heike) and the Minamoto (or the Genji). The Genji controlled most of eastern Japan; the Heike had power in both eastern and western Japan.

As the powers of these two increased, the clan of the Fujiwara began to control the Emperor closely‹a shrewd move since the Taika reform theoretically gave all final power to the emperor. From 856 until 1086, the Fujiwara were, for all practical purposes, the government of Japan. In 1155, however, the succession to the throne fell vacant, and the naming of Go-Shirakawa as Emperor set off a small revolution, called the Hogen Disturbance, which was quelled by the clans of the Taira and the Minamoto. This was a turning point in Japanese history, for the power to determine the affairs of the state had clearly passed to the warrior clans and their massive private armies.

After the accession of Go-Shirakawa and later his successor Nijo, a lesser lord of the Taira, a dissolute, ambitious and shrewd man named Kiyimori, began to slowly accrue massive power for himself in the Emperor's court. Seeing this, it became apparent that the power of the Taira had to be diminished in some way, so the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa attempted to lay a military trap for Kiyimori with the aid of a minor Genji lord, Yukitsuna. The plot failed and opened an irreparable breach between the Heike and the retired Emperor and the Genji.

In 1179, the head of the Taira, Shigemori, died; his forceful and ruthless leadership had propelled the Taira into the forefront. He was replaced by his brother Munemori, a coward and poor strategist. Go-Shirakawa, seeing he now had an advantage, began to dismiss Taira in the capital, and Kiyimori fired several court officials and marched on the capital, forcing the new Emperor Takakura off the throne by installing his own one-year old grandson, Antoku, as the Emperor. Takakura enlisted the aid of the Genji and the great civil war began, ushering in the feudal age of Japan.

The Japanese Atlas, the Japanese Encyclopedia, Richard Hooker