Select Page

Japanese Gods and Goddesses: A Tapestry of Ancient Legends and Myths

Japan’s mythological tapestry is woven with tales that date back to the very beginnings of time. With a pantheon of gods and goddesses, its myths are rooted in the ancient Kojiki and Nihon Shoki texts, which offer insights into the creation of the islands of Japan and the celestial beings that watched over them.

Japanese mythology and the Shinto religion feature a pantheon of kami (gods and spirits) who are significant in various legends, myths, and religious practices.

Japanese gods

  1. Izanagi:
    • Title/Role: God of creation and life.
    • Description: Together with his wife, Izanami, they birthed the islands of Japan and its many gods. After a tragic separation from Izanami, he performed the first purification ritual, birthing several other deities in the process.
  2. Susano-o:
    • Title/Role: Storm God and the god of the seas.
    • Description: Brother to Amaterasu, he’s best known for his tempestuous nature and for slaying the eight-headed dragon, Yamata-no-Orochi, saving the deity Kushinada-hime.
  3. Hachiman:
    • Title/Role: God of war and warriors.
    • Description: Originally an agricultural god, he became associated with warriors and is often recognized as the divine protector of Japan and the Japanese people.
  4. Tsukuyomi:
    • Title/Role: Moon God.
    • Description: Brother to Amaterasu and Susano-o. He’s known for killing the food goddess Uke Mochi, which created a rift between him and Amaterasu.
  5. Raijin (and Fujin):
    • Title/Role: God of thunder (and wind, in Fujin’s case).
    • Description: Often depicted with fierce and fearsome features, Raijin is known for the drums he carries, which create the sound of thunder. Fujin, his companion, carries a bag of winds.
  6. Inari:
    • Title/Role: Kami of rice, fertility, and prosperity.
    • Description: While sometimes referred to as female, Inari can be represented as both male and female or even androgynous. Foxes are considered messengers of Inari and are thus sacred to his shrines.
  7. Ebisu:
    • Title/Role: God of fishermen and luck.
    • Description: Often depicted with a fishing rod in one hand and a fish in the other, he’s one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan.
  8. Daikokuten:
    • Title/Role: God of wealth, commerce, and trade.
    • Description: Another of the Seven Lucky Gods, he’s often portrayed holding a magic mallet and standing or sitting on bales of rice.
  9. Ninigi-no-Mikoto:
    • Title/Role: Grandson of Amaterasu.
    • Description: He’s known for his descent to the earthly realm, establishing the lineage of the Japanese Emperors.
  10. Omoikane:
    • Title/Role: God of wisdom and intelligence.
    • Description: Often called upon to think and ponder during divine assemblies. He embodies wisdom and is skilled in making decisions.

Japanese goddesses

  1. Amaterasu:
    • Title/Role: Sun Goddess; ruler of the heavens.
    • Description: One of the central figures in Japanese mythology, she is the deity from whom the Japanese imperial family claims descent. She’s associated with the sun and the universe. The most important shrine dedicated to her is the Grand Shrine of Ise.
  2. Uzume (Ame-no-Uzume):
    • Title/Role: Goddess of dawn, mirth, and revelry.
    • Description: Best known for her lively dance that lured Amaterasu out of the cave, restoring light to the world.
  3. Izanami:
    • Title/Role: Creation Goddess; mother of the islands of Japan and many deities.
    • Description: Together with her consort Izanagi, they created the islands of Japan and gave birth to many of the country’s gods and goddesses. She died after giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi and resides in the underworld.
  4. Konohanasakuya-hime:
    • Title/Role: Cherry blossom princess; goddess of Mount Fuji, flowers, and volcanoes.
    • Description: She symbolizes life’s fleeting nature. She’s also the deity of safe childbirth, given her own experience of proving her fidelity and the divine nature of her offspring.
  5. Inari:
    • Title/Role: Goddess of rice, fertility, tea, sake, and agriculture.
    • Description: Often represented as a fox, or with fox messengers, she is one of the most revered deities in Japan with numerous shrines, like the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, dedicated to her.
  6. Sarasvati (Benzaiten):
    • Title/Role: Goddess of everything that flows – water, music, words, speech, eloquence, and learning.
    • Description: Originating from the Hindu goddess Saraswati, she was adapted and incorporated into Buddhism and then Shinto. She is one of the Seven Lucky Gods in Japanese belief.
  7. Toyotama-hime (Luminous Pearl Princess):
    • Title/Role: Sea goddess.
    • Description: Daughter of the sea deity Watatsumi, she married a hunter named Hoori and gave birth to a son, but then transformed into a dragon or a wani (crocodile) and returned to the sea.

Major Deities and Characters

  1. Amaterasu – The sun goddess and perhaps the most significant deity in the Shinto pantheon. She’s known for hiding in a cave, thereby plunging the world into darkness, only to be lured out by the dance of the goddess Uzume.
  2. Susanoo – The storm god, and brother to Amaterasu. He’s famed for his tempestuous nature and the tale where he slayed the eight-headed serpent, Yamata-no-Orochi.
  3. Izanagi and Izanami – The primordial couple responsible for creating the islands of Japan. Their story involves themes of life, death, and rebirth.
  4. Tsukuyomi – The moon god, and another sibling to Amaterasu. His most famed tale involves his clash with the food goddess, Uke Mochi, resulting in his separation from the sun.
  5. Raijin and Fujin – The gods of lightning and wind respectively, often depicted together. Their fearsome visages are popular in art and culture.

Japanese Myths and Stories

Japanese mythology is a treasure trove of tales about gods, goddesses, and supernatural beings. Let’s explore more of these stories:

  1. The Creation of Japan – A tale from the Kojiki that narrates how Izanagi and Izanami, using a heavenly jeweled spear, churned the ocean, leading to the birth of the Japanese islands. “From the brine thus dripped, a deity there emerged, and this deity was named Onogoro-shima” – Kojiki
  2. The Descent of Amaterasu – After a conflict with her brother Susanoo, the sun goddess Amaterasu retreated to a cave, plunging the world into darkness. To lure her out, the other gods held a party outside the cave and the goddess Ame-no-Uzume performed a humorous dance, making the gods laugh loudly. Curious, Amaterasu peeked out, and seeing her reflection in a mirror, came out of the cave, restoring light to the world. “All the Heavenly Deities thereupon assembled in a divine assembly, and devised a way to lead her out.” – Kojiki
  3. Susanoo and the Dragon – Susanoo encounters a grieving family whose daughters were devoured by the serpent, Yamata-no-Orochi. Susanoo vowed to slay the beast, setting forth a cunning plan using sake to intoxicate the creature.” Then he made a fence in preparation for the serpent, and he caused to be distilled some eight-fold refined liquor, and to be put into eight tubs.” – Kojiki
  4. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (The Tale of Princess Kaguya):
    • Summary: An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny, radiant princess inside a shining stalk of bamboo. He and his wife raise this child, named Kaguya-hime. As she grows, her beauty becomes legendary, attracting numerous wealthy suitors. However, she rejects them all, revealing her celestial origins and eventually returning to the moon, leaving her earthly parents heartbroken.
    • Excerpt: “When I thought of telling you beforehand, my heart ached and ached with the pain, but I put it off and said nothing about it to the last. Now I find I must go back to the silver-crested summits of the moon this very night…”
    • Appearance in Media: Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is an animated retelling of this story.
  5. Urashima Tarō:
    • Summary: A fisherman named Urashima Tarō saves a turtle and is rewarded with a visit to the Dragon Palace (Ryūgū-jō) beneath the sea. He spends what seems like days with the beautiful princess Otohime, but upon returning to his village, he realizes that many years have passed on land. He opens a mysterious box given to him by Otohime, and ages rapidly.
    • Excerpt: “This is a treasure box called ‘tamate-bako’, and it will protect you from harm, but you must not open it…”
    • Appearance in Media: The story has inspired several films, TV dramas, and even episodes in anime like “Pokémon”.
  6. Momotarō (Peach Boy):
    • Summary: An elderly couple discovers a large peach floating in the river. Upon opening it, they find a boy inside who claims to have been sent by heaven to be their son. They name him Momotarō. When he grows up, he leaves to fight a band of ogres on a distant island and returns victorious with their treasures.
    • Excerpt: “I have been sent to be your child. Please take care of me.”
    • Appearance in Media: “Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei” is a famous wartime film where Momotarō and his animal friends invade the island of ogres, representing the Allies.
  7. The White Hare of Inaba:
    • Summary: A hare tricks some sharks into forming a bridge to cross the sea but is tricked in return and loses its fur. A kind prince, Ōnamuji (later known as Ōkuninushi), helps the hare regain its fur, and in gratitude, the hare predicts he will marry Princess Yagami.
    • Excerpt: “Little hare, little hare, what has befallen thee that thou art so red and bloody?…”
    • Appearance in Media: The myth has been referenced in video games like “Ōkami” and the manga “Inaba Rabbits”.
  8. Kintarō:
    • Summary: Kintarō is a child of superhuman strength, raised by a mountain hag on Mount Ashigara. He becomes friends with animals and challenges them to sumo matches. As an adult, he’s renamed Sakata no Kintoki and becomes a legendary warrior.
    • Excerpt: “With this strength, I shall protect the innocent and serve justice!”
    • Appearance in Media: Kintarō has appeared in countless manga, anime, and video games. He’s often portrayed wielding an ax.
  9. Izanagi and Izanami:
    • Summary: The two deities, Izanagi and Izanami, were tasked with creating the islands of Japan. Using a jeweled spear, they stirred the ocean and created the islands. Later, they birthed many gods, but tragedy struck when Izanami died during childbirth. Grief-stricken, Izanagi went to the underworld to retrieve her, but was horrified to see her decaying form. Pursued by the hag of the underworld and other spirits, he barely escaped and sealed the entrance.
  10. Amaterasu and the Cave:
    • Summary: After a conflict with her brother Susanoo, the sun goddess Amaterasu retreated to a cave, plunging the world into darkness. To lure her out, the other gods held a party outside the cave and the goddess Ame-no-Uzume performed a humorous dance, making the gods laugh loudly. Curious, Amaterasu peeked out, and seeing her reflection in a mirror, came out of the cave, restoring light to the world.
  11. The Grateful Crane:
    • Summary: A man saves a crane caught in a trap. Later, a mysterious woman arrives at his home, claiming to be a weaver. She weaves beautiful cloth on the condition that he never watches her work. The cloth sells for a high price, but curiosity gets the better of the man. He peeks and discovers the woman is the crane he saved, plucking her own feathers to weave the cloth. Realizing he’s seen her, she transforms back into a crane and flies away.
  12. The Tale of Okuninushi:
    • Summary: Okuninushi was a descendant of Susanoo. In one tale, he helped a white hare, as mentioned before. In another, he was in love with Princess Suseri-Hime, the daughter of Susanoo. Despite her father’s opposition, they married. Later, Okuninushi established the land of Japan and built the Izumo Shrine, after which he handed control to the heavenly gods and became a ruler of the unseen world.
  13. Tamamo-no-Mae:
    • Summary: An intelligent woman named Tamamo-no-Mae was a favorite courtesan in the imperial court. However, she was eventually revealed to be a nine-tailed fox using magic to appear human. She had been draining the life force of the emperor. Once exposed, she transformed back into her fox form, and after a fierce battle, was killed.
  14. Konohanasakuya-hime:
    • Summary: The blossom-princess and symbol of delicate earthly life, she is the wife of the god Ninigi. She became pregnant in just one night, causing suspicion in Ninigi. To prove her fidelity, she set a doorless hut on fire, declaring that the child would not be harmed if she had been faithful. She emerged unscathed, and her child was later deemed divine.

Influence in Modern Culture:

Japanese myths and their deities continue to play an integral role in popular culture. They inspire anime, movies, and books. Amaterasu, for instance, is a central figure in the video game Okami. Studio Ghibli’s films often draw upon themes from Shintoism and traditional myths, weaving them into tales for new generations. On Netflix, series like Noragami and Kamisama Kiss depict gods navigating the modern world, while keeping ties to their ancient origins.

Whether it’s the haunting tales of vengeful spirits or the inspiring stories of deities bringing forth life and light, Japanese mythology offers a vast and rich tapestry that bridges the ancient and the contemporary.

Japanese gods and goddesses in Anime and Manga

Anime is a medium where the intricate web of Japanese myth, folklore, and contemporary themes often intertwine. Here’s a deeper exploration of how some renowned Japanese deities make appearances or influence storylines in anime:

  1. Amaterasu:
    • Okami-san and Her Seven Companions (Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi): The protagonist, Ryouko Ookami, draws inspiration from Amaterasu. Not only is her name a play on the word for “wolf”, but her strong and radiant character mirrors the sun goddess’s attributes.
    • Naruto: Amaterasu is a Mangekyou Sharingan technique used by Itachi and Sasuke Uchiha. It manifests as black flames which burn anything within the user’s field of vision.
  2. Susanoo:
    • Naruto: Susanoo is another advanced technique in the Uchiha clan’s arsenal. Those who awaken this ability can summon a giant, ethereal warrior to protect them and attack on their behalf.
    • Blue Seed: The antagonist, Susanoo, attempts to reclaim the world from humans, bearing a stormy personality much like the deity.
  3. Izanagi and Izanami:
    • Naruto: These names are given to a pair of powerful techniques wielded by members of the Uchiha clan. Izanagi allows the user to rewrite reality for a short time, while Izanami can decide a person’s fate.
    • Persona 4 The Animation: Izanagi is the Persona of the protagonist, Yu Narukami, and plays a central role in the storyline.
  4. Tsukuyomi:
    • Naruto: Tsukuyomi is an extremely powerful genjutsu (illusion technique) used by Itachi Uchiha. It’s reputed for its ability to manipulate time and torture the victim within a span of seconds in their perception.
    • Cardcaptor Sakura: Yue, one of the guardians, has an attack named “Tsukuyomi”, a homage to the moon god.
  5. Raijin and Fujin:
    • Yu Yu Hakusho: Two demon brothers named Risho and Jin, who serve under the demon Suzaku, exhibit powers that mirror Raijin and Fujin, controlling earth and wind respectively.
    • Final Fantasy: While not strictly an anime, the influence of Raijin and Fujin is evident in the various adaptations, including games and films, where they appear as recurring characters or summonable entities.
  6. General Influence:
    • Noragami: This anime revolves around the lesser god Yato, who wishes to be revered like the major deities. The narrative often touches upon Shinto beliefs, practices, and the Celestial Plain where gods like Amaterasu reside.
    • Kamisama Kiss (Kamisama Hajimemashita): This story of a human girl turned deity touches upon aspects of Shinto rituals, gods, and familiar spirits reminiscent of the celestial beings from the myths.