Do you have a fascination for Japanese mythology or Japanese legends? It can be very fun and exciting to learn about these unique aspects of Japanese history and culture.
A little bit of background first: Japanese mythology consists of stories derived from old folk beliefs, as well as the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Japanese mythology is also made up of a vast number of tales, but here we’ll share five of the most well-known Japanese legends.
Japanese Mythology: 5 Famous Japanese Legends
1. Japanese Creation Myth
The story begins in a limitless, formless chaos of a dark, silent universe. After many eons, particles begin to move and create sound. The lightest particles rise to form the heavens, where the first three gods appear — the Three Creating Deities.
The remaining particles drop down and create a mass called “Earth,” but it takes many millions of years for this to solidify. Instantaneously, two more deities emerge, this time on Earth, sprouting from a reed.
Many more gods follow, but they have nothing to do other than merely exist while the universe remains in chaos.
Two gods, Izanagi and Izanami, are summoned and told to descend to the land to rule creation. Thus, life on Earth begins.
2. The Sun, the Moon, and the Wind
Shortly after creation, Izanami dies during childbirth. Distraught, Izanagi takes a journey to Yomi, the land of the dead, to bring her back.
Izanagi is too late. Izanami’s body has already started to rot. Izanagi returns to Earth and purifies himself, and as he does so, new deities appear including Amaterasu, the sun goddess, Tsukuyomi, the moon god, and Susanoo, god of the wind.
As you can see, many Japanese legends have to do with the creation of everyday things in the world around us.
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3. Amaterasu and the Cave
Amaterasu is the most well-known Japanese goddess, and much of Japanese mythology tells of her rivalry with her brother Susano-o.
In the most famous tale, Amaterasu hides inside a cave after another conflict with Susano-o. This causes the entire world to sink into darkness, and evil spirits begin to roam the Earth.
After several attempts by the gods to draw her from the cave, they are finally successful when the Ame-No-Uzume, the goddess of merriment, dresses in flowers and dances on an upturned washtub.
As the flowers fall from her body, the male gods laugh uproariously. As Amaterasu peaks out of the cave, Amenotejikara pulls her from the cave, and light returns to the world.
Today, this Japanese legend is remembered through Shinto theatrical performances.
4. Hare of Inaba
There are two versions of the Hare of Inaba, but here is one of the most widely-accepted versions. This Japanese legend is a metaphor of how civilization struggled against barbarism to form the nation of Japan.
The myth tells how a hare tricks a crocodile into forming a bridge to enable him to cross to an island. Unfortunately, the crocodiles figure out the trick, and team up on the hare and pull off all of his fur.
Around the same time, some men who resembled the king’s son pass the hare. The hare calls out to them and asks for help. The brothers advise the hare to wash in seawater and dry in the sun. The salt from the seawater makes the hare even more uncomfortable, and the hare lays in the field crying out in pain.
Soon after, another brother tells the hare to wash in fresh water and roll in cattails pollen. After the treatment, the hare rewards the brother, who is actually the fairy Okuni-nushi-no-Mikoto, by telling him that he will marry Princess Yakami.
The hare of Inaba is remembered for his role in bringing out modern Japan by his representation in festivals, on artwork, and in shrines around the country. This is one of the most well known Japanese legends.
5. The Japanese Legend of Emperor Jimmu
Jimmu, the great-grandson of the goddess Amaterasu, is the mythical founder of Japan and first emperor on traditional lists.
Legend says that he was born in 711 BCE and died in 585 BCE, which would mean he was 126 years old at his death. There is little evidence that Jimmu ever existed. In fact, modern-day scholars believe that of the nine emperors, Suizei, Jimmu’s successor, was the only one who actually lived.
Despite this historical discrepancy, the Japanese myth is still important as it tells the story of how the Imperial Family, which still exists today, began.
Learning Japanese mythology can enrich your overall learning experience if you’re taking Japanese lessons. The stories are interesting and they generally teach readers important life lessons.
Which legend in Japanese mythology is your favorite? Are there any other Japanese myths that you enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!
Photo by Yevgen Pogoryelov