Japanese Mythology: Izanami and Izanagi

Izanagi and Izanami
Izanagi and Izanami giving birth to Japan, c1870. After a work by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889). From 'The Connoisseur,' 1925.

Print Collector / Getty Images

Every Japanese emperor and empress in the long line of familial succession can trace their ancestry and divine right to rule directly to the deities that, according to Japanese mythology, formed the islands of Japan from the murky darkness of the earth below the heavens. This ancestral lineage and the myths and legends that surround it created a strong foundation for Japanese culture and Shintoism in Japan.

Key Takeaways

  • Izanami and Izanagi are the male and female Japanese deities tasked with creating the islands of Japan.
  • Izanami was killed during childbirth; the deities of the sun, moon, and storms were born from the body of Izanagi.
  • The sun goddess, Amaterasu, sent her son to Japan to rule the people; she gave him a sword, a jewel, and a mirror to prove his divine ancestry.
  • Every emperor of Japan can trace his ancestry back to this first emperor.

The Creation Story: They Who Invite 

Before the formation of the heavens and the world, only dark chaos existed, with particles of light floating throughout the darkness. As time passed, the particles of light rose to the top of the darkness, and the combined particles formed Takamagahara, or the Plain of High Heaven. The remaining darkness and chaos below combined to form a mass, what would later become Earth.

When Takamagahara was formed, Japan’s first three deities or kami appeared. From a shoot of reeds, two more gods appeared, followed by two more gods. These seven kami then birthed five subsequent generations of deities, each with a male and female, a brother and sister. The eighth generation of these deities was a male, Izanagi, meaning “He Who Invites”, and a female, Izanami, meaning She Who Invites”. 

After their birth, Izanagi and Izanami were tasked by the older kami to bring shape and structure to the chaos of floating darkness. They were given a jeweled spear to help them with their task, which they would use to churn up the darkness and create the seas. Once the spear was lifted from the darkness, the water that dripped from the end of the spear formed the first island of Japan, where Izanami and Izanagi made their home. 

The pair decided to marry and procreate in order to form the final islands and the deities that would inhabit the new land. They married by crossing behind a sacred pillar. Once behind the pillar, Izanami exclaimed, “What a fine young man!” The two were married, and they consummated their marriage. 

The product of their union was born deformed and without bones, and he was abandoned in a basket that Izanami and Izanagi pushed out to sea. They tried once more to produce a child but this one too was born deformed. 

Devastated and confused by their inability to create a child, Izanagi and Izanami consulted the kami of previous generations for help. The kami told the pair that the reason for their misfortune was that they had not completed the marriage ritual properly; it was Izanagi, the male, who should have greeted his wife, Izanami, before she greeted him. 

They returned home and completed the ritual as instructed. This time, as they met behind the pillar, Izanagi exclaimed, “What a fine young woman!” 

Their union was fruitful, and they produced all of the islands of Japan and the deities that inhabited them. The pair continued to produce the deities of Japan until the birth of the deity of fire. Though the deity was born unharmed, Izanami died in childbirth. 

Land of the Dead 

Overcome with sorrow, Izanagi traveled to Yomi, the land of the dead, to retrieve Izanami. In the shadowy darkness, Izanagi could make out only the form of Izanami. He asked her to return to the land of the living, and she told him he was too late. She would need to ask permission to leave the land of the dead because she had already consumed the food of the shadowy land.

Izanami asked for Izanagi’s patience, telling him not to look at her in her current state. Izanagi agreed, but after a while, desperate to see his love, Izanagi lit a fire. His beloved Izanami was in a state of bodily decay, with maggots crawling through her flesh.

Overwhelmed by fear, Izanagi left his wife and ran from Yomi. Izanami sent deities to chase Izanagi, but he escaped the land of the dead and blocked the path with a large stone.

After such an ordeal, Izanagi knew that he needed to cleanse himself of the impurities of Yomi, as was ritual. While he cleansed himself, three new kami were born: From his left eye Amaterasu, the sun goddess; from his right eye, Tsuki-yomi, the moon god; and from his nose, Susanoo, the storm god.

The Jewels, the Mirror, and the Sword

Some texts indicate that there was a strong rivalry between Susanoo and Amaterasu that led to a challenge. Amaterasu won the challenge, and angry Susanoo destroyed Amaterasu’s rice paddies and chased her in a cave. Other texts suggest that Susanoo desired Amaterasu’s body, and in fear of rape, she fled into the cave. Both versions of the story, however, end with Amaterasu in a cave, a symbolic eclipse of the sun. 

The kami were angry with Susanoo for eclipsing the sun. They banished him from the heavens and coaxed Amaterasu out of the cave with three gifts: jewels, a mirror, and a sword. After leaving the cave, Amaterasu was tied up to ensure she never went into hiding again.

An Emperor, Son of the Gods 

After a while, Amaterasu looked down at the earth and saw Japan, which desperately needed a leader. Unable to go to the earth herself, she sent her son, Ninigi, to Japan with the sword, the jewels, and the mirror to prove he was a descendant of the gods. Ninigi’s son, called Jimmu, became the first emperor of Japan in 660 BC. 

Ancestry, Divinity, and Lasting Power 

The current emperor of Japan, Akihito, who succeeded his father, Hirohito, in 1989, can trace his ancestry back to Jimmu. Though the jewels, the sword, and the mirror presented to Amaterasu and passed down to Jimmu were reportedly thrown into the ocean in the 12th century, they have since been recovered, though some accounts suggest the recovered items are forgeries. The royal family is currently in possession of the items, keeping them under heavy protection at all times.

As the longest-reigning monarchy in the world, the Japanese royal family is considered to be divine and infallible. The creation story of Japan highlights the importance of rites and rituals in Japanese culture and Japanese Shinto. 

Sources 

  • Hackin, Joseph. Asiatic Mythology 1932. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2005. 
  • Henshall, Kenneth. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  
  • Kidder, J. Edward. Japan: Before Buddhism. Thames & Hudson, 1966.