Japanese legends are an integral part of the country's cultural heritage and tell us the mystical and historical narratives that have shaped Japan. Much like you, I've always been fascinated by Japanese stories, myths, and legends, which is why I decided to dedicate time to learning more about them.
I recently finished reading the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, the most ancient preserved records of Japan's mythology, folklore, and historical narratives. These legends, rich in symbolism and imagination, resonate deeply within the Japanese ethos, reflecting centuries-old beliefs and traditions.
In this article, I want to share some of the most important legends that discuss the creation of Japan, the Japanese pantheon and their relation to Shintoism. You'll learn how the Emperor descended from the Goddess of Sun and how the Imperial Family continues to have Regalia connected with the Gods. I've also included my favourite tales of Gods and mythical creatures.
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Izanagi and Izanami
Izanagi and Izanami are said to be the divine creators of Japan. Their tale comes from the Kojiki, the Japanese chronical which dates back to the 6th century.
According to the legend, Izanagi and Izanami were given a spear decorated with jewels, named Ame-no-nuboko, by the older gods. They were instructed to use this spear to create the first land. Standing on the floating bridge of heaven, Ame-no-ukihashi, they stirred the ocean with the spear. When they lifted the spear, the drops that fell back into the water formed the island of Onogoro.
After creating this island, they descended onto it and built a pillar called Ame-no-mihashira. Around this pillar, they performed a ritual to unite as husband and wife. From their union, they birthed numerous islands, thus establishing the Japanese archipelago, and several kami (deities).
The story takes a tragic turn when Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god, Kagutsuchi. Overcome with grief, Izanagi follows her into the underworld (Yomi-no-kuni), to bring her back.
When Izanami shows her face, Izanagi is horrified by her decomposed appearance. Frightened, he runs away, with Izanami chasing after him in anger. Izanagi manages to escape from the underworld and seals the entrance with a large boulder. This act separates the worlds of the living and the dead.
After escaping, Izanagi performs a purification ritual to cleanse himself from the impurities of the underworld. During this process, he births several other deities. One of these deities, born from the washing of his left eye, is Amaterasu, the sun goddess, another important deity in Shinto.
Amaterasu is the sun Goddess in Japan and is revered at the Ise Grand Shrine located in the Mie Prefecture. It is considered the most important Shrine in the whole of Japan.
One of the most famous legends about Amaterasu is her conflict with her brother, Susanoo, the god of the sea and storms. Susanoo, after being banished from Heaven, went to bid farewell to his sister Amaterasu. His violent and erratic behaviour frightened her, and to prove his sincerity, they performed a challenge to produce gods from objects (if only it were so easy).
Amaterasu produced three goddesses from Susanoo's sword (Kusanagi no Tsurugi), while Susanoo produced five gods from Amaterasu's necklace (Yasakani no Magatama). Amaterasu claimed the five gods as her own since they came from her necklace, which enraged Susanoo.
In his anger, Susanoo wreaked havoc on Amaterasu's rice fields, killed one of her attendants, and threw a flayed horse into her weaving hall. Distraught and angered by her brother's actions, Amaterasu retreated into a cave, Amano-Iwato, and sealed it with a large rock, plunging the world into darkness.
The other gods and goddesses, worried about the state of the world without the sun, tried various methods to coax Amaterasu out of the cave. They performed noisy rituals and set up a mirror (Yata no Kagami) outside the cave. When Amaterasu peeked out to see what the commotion was about, she saw her own reflection in the mirror. Thinking it was another deity, she came out, and the world was bathed in light once again. The other Gods quickly sealed the cave to ensure Amaterasu doesn't go back in.
Legends of Japan's Imperial Regalia
The Japanese Imperial Regalia, also known as the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, hold immense significance in Japanese history and mythology. These treasures consist of the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grass-Cutting Sword), the jewel Yasakani no Magatama, and the mirror Yata no Kagami.
Kusanagi no Tsurugi (The Sword)
The legend of Kusanagi no Tsurugi, also known as the Grass-Cutting Sword, is associated with the sea and storm god Susanoo.
Susanoo, after being banished from Heaven, descended to the province of Izumo. There, he encountered an elderly couple who were grieving because they had lost their eighth daughter, Kushinada-hime, to the fearsome eight-headed serpent, Yamata no Orochi.
Moved by their difficulty, Susanoo proposed a plan. He asked that Kushinada-hime be transformed into a comb, which he then placed in his hair. He also instructed the couple to prepare eight gates with a vat of sake (Japanese rice wine) at each gate.
When the serpent arrived, it was lured by the sake. Each of its eight heads drank from the vats, becoming intoxicated. Seizing the opportunity, Susanoo attacked Yamata no Orochi, chopping it into pieces. When he sliced into the middle tail of the serpent, his sword struck something hard. Upon inspection, he discovered a magnificent sword, which he named Kusanagi no Tsurugi, or the Grass-Cutting Sword.
This sword was later presented to the goddess Amaterasu as part of reconciliation and became one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, symbolizing the valour and bravery of the emperor.
Yasakani no Magatama (The Jewel)
The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki tell the legend of the magatama and how Susanoo and Amaterasu used these to create five gods. Susanoo receiving magatama from Tamanoya no mikoto, the jewel-making deity, and brought them to Amaterasu to create offsprings.
The Yasakani no Magatama stands out as part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, and it is currently in storage at the Kashiko-dokoro within the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Yata no Kagami (The Mirror)
As mentioned above, when Amaterasu hid in a cave, plunging the world into darkness, the other deities used the Yata no Kagami to lure her out. As part of the Imperial Regalia, this mirror, now represents the wisdom and honesty of the emperor. It is related to the importance of seeing oneself clearly and ruling with insight.
First Emperor Jimmu
According to the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, Emperor Jimmu (the first emperor of Japan) was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
His lineage traces back to her grandson, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, who descended from the heavens to the island of Kyushu. Jimmu's father was the deity Ugayafukiaezu, and his mother was Tamayori-hime, who was a princess and also a divine being.
The legend says that Jimmu, originally named Kamuyamato Iwarebiko, embarked on an expedition from Hyuga (in present-day Miyazaki Prefecture) towards the east. His goal was to find a more suitable land for establishing his kingdom.
One of the key moments in the legend is when Jimmu and his brothers encountered a divine creature, Yatagarasu, a three-legged crow sent by Amaterasu. Yatagarasu is said to have guided them through the rough landscapes, symbolizing divine intervention and the sun goddess’s blessing on Jimmu's endeavour.
Eventually, Jimmu reached the Yamato plain (in present-day Nara Prefecture) and established his kingdom there. He is said to have acceded to the throne on the first day of the first month, marking the beginning of the Japanese monarchy. This event is traditionally dated to 660 BC, and Jimmu is celebrated as the first human emperor of Japan, unifying the country under a centralized monarchy.
Inari Ōkami is known primarily as the deity of rice and agriculture and general prosperity. While Inari ensures good harvests, over time, Inari's domain expanded to include commerce and industry, making the deity popular among businessmen and merchants seeking prosperity and success.
Legend has it that Inari made her appearance during a time of great famine. She is portrayed as descending from the heavens riding on a white fox. In her hands, she held sheaves of cereal or grain.
Interestingly, the Japanese word for rice, Ine, traces back to this very cereal. What Inari brought wasn't the rice we know today, but a type of cereal that grew in swamps. The legend paints an ancient picture of Japan, suggesting it was once a land of water and swamps.
Inari's story is very interesting because it involves foxes, or kitsune. These foxes serve as Inari’s messengers and are often seen in statues at Inari shrines, usually in pairs. They are believed to possess the ability to ward off evil, and they sometimes carry keys, sheaves of rice, or scrolls in their mouths. It's said that the kitsune have the power to transform into human form, and numerous folk tales describe them interacting with humans, sometimes tricking them, but often helping them.
Another popular legend related to Inari tells of a poor man who was kind to a fox, believing it to be a messenger of Inari. In gratitude, the fox used its magical powers to bring prosperity to the man's rice field, making it bountiful and prosperous.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, with its iconic rows of red torii gates, is the most important shrine dedicated to Inari.
The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter
According to the legend, an old bamboo cutter named Okina found a tiny, shining princess inside a bamboo stalk. He and his wife, Ona, named her Kaguya-hime and raised her as their own daughter. Kaguya-hime grew rapidly into a beautiful woman, attracting suitors from far and wide, including five noble princes.
These princes tried to win her hand in marriage by fulfilling impossible tasks she set for them, such as finding a jewelled branch from the mythical island of Horai. However, all of them failed in their quests, as Kaguya-hime had no desire to marry.
Eventually, even the Emperor of Japan came to see Kaguya-hime and fell in love with her. Although she refused his marriage proposals, they maintained a friendship through letters. Over time, Kaguya-hime grew increasingly melancholic, often gazing at the moon and weeping.
As the story unfolds, it's revealed that Kaguya-hime is actually from the Moon. She had been sent to Earth as a temporary escape from a celestial battle. As her time on Earth comes to an end, she confesses her origins to her earthly parents.
Despite the efforts of the Emperor to prevent her departure, celestial beings descended from the Moon to take Kaguya-hime back. She reluctantly left her earthly parents, giving them a robe of feathers as a parting gift and a letter of apology to the Emperor, along with the elixir of life.
Kaguya-hime returned to the Moon, leaving her loved ones in sorrow. The Emperor, grief-stricken, ordered his men to take the elixir to the top of the closest mountain to Heaven (believed to be Mount Fuji) and burn it, along with the letter, hoping the smoke would reach Kaguya-hime. It's said that this is why smoke still rises from Mount Fuji to this day.
The story of Momotaro (Peach Boy)
Legend has it that an old, childless couple lived in a small village in Japan. One day, while washing clothes in the river, the old woman found a giant peach floating downstream. Excited, she decided to take it home to her husband.
As they were about to eat the peach, it suddenly split open, and to their surprise, a healthy baby boy emerged. They named him Momotaro, which means Peach Boy. The couple, who had always wished for a child, were overjoyed and raised Momotaro as their own son.
Momotaro grew up to be a strong, kind, and brave young man. One day, he learned about a band of ogres (oni) who were tormenting the people on a distant island, stealing their treasures and food. Determined to help, Momotaro decided to go to the island and defeat the ogres.
Before leaving, the old woman prepared kibi dango (millet dumplings) for his journey. Along the way, Momotaro met and befriended a talking dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, sharing his kibi dango with them. In return, they promised to help him in his quest against the ogres.
When they reached the island, Momotaro and his animal friends confronted the ogres and, after a fierce battle, defeated them. The ogres begged for mercy and promised not to cause trouble again. They also gave Momotaro their stolen treasure as a sign of their promise.
Momotaro and his companions returned home as heroes, carrying the treasure with them. The old couple was overjoyed to see Momotaro return safely and were very proud of his courageous deeds.
Another beautiful legend involves Urashima Taro, a kind-hearted fisherman living in a coastal village. One day, while walking along the beach, he saw a group of children tormenting a small turtle. Feeling sorry for the creature, Urashima intervened and set the turtle free.
The next day, as a reward for his kindness, the turtle returned and offered to take Urashima to the Dragon Palace (Ryūgū-jō) under the sea. The palace was a magical and beautiful place, ruled by Princess Otohime. Urashima was warmly welcomed and entertained for what seemed like a few days. He enjoyed a wonderful time, filled with feasts and dances.
However, Urashima began to miss his home and expressed a desire to return to his village. Before he left, Princess Otohime gave him a mysterious box, known as the tamatebako, and warned him never to open it.
Upon returning to his village, Urashima found that everything had changed. He learned that many years had passed since he left, although he had only spent a few days in the Dragon Palace. In his confusion and despair, he forgot the princess's warning and opened the tamatebako.
As soon as he lifted the lid, a cloud of white smoke enveloped him, and he was instantly transformed into an old man. The tamatebako had contained his lost time.
Final Thoughts on Japanese legends
These are but a few of my favourite Japanese legends and some of the most important and prominent which continue to get a lot of attention in Japan. The best way to learn more is to, of course, visit Japan and create an itinerary that takes you to the most important shrines and temples to understand even more about the Japanese way of life. If you also want to read the Kojiki in English you can find it on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition. I found the Nihon Shoki at a local library in Tokyo, but you can also read it for free online via Google Books.
These legends heavily influence how the Japanese people are and their belief system. Even Japanese customs and manners are deeply rooted in Shinto and Buddhism.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most famous Japanese legend?
The most famous Japanese legend is about Izanagi and Izanami, the creators of Japan. They were brother and sister but also husband and wife and together they created the Japanese archipelago as well as many dieties which continue to play an important role in Shinto today.
Izanagi and Izanami used a spear decorated with jewels to be able to create the first land. They were on the floating bridge of heaven and using the spear, stirred the ocean to create the first islands of Japan.
What is the oldest Japanese legend?
The oldest legends of Japan can be found in the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, Japan's oldest surviving texts, containing the country's earliest myths, folklore, and historical accounts. The Kojiki was completed in A.D. 712, and the Nihon Shoki followed in A.D. 720. These texts are the primary sources for understanding ancient Japanese mythology and history.
The story of the creation of Japan by Izanagi and Izanami is from the Kojiki.
Who is the most powerful Japanese folklore?
One of the most prominent and powerful figures in Japanese mythology is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Amaterasu is revered in Shinto, and she is enshrined at the Ise Grand Shrine located in the Mie Prefecture, the most important shrine in Japan.
Amaterasu is believed to be the ruler of Takama no Hara, the High Celestial Plain, and is associated with the sun and the universe's harmony and order. Her significance extends beyond religious aspects, as she is also considered the mythical ancestor of the Japanese imperial family.