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Japanese Mythology 101: The Ultimate Guide

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Welcome to this ultimate guide to Japanese Mythology. My name is Jason Hamilton, and I’m here to introduce you to the fascinating world of Japanese mythology. 

This ancient belief system is filled with mythical creatures, gods and goddesses, and epic tales of good and evil. It has shaped the cultural identity of the Japanese people for centuries, and continues to influence their art, literature, and everyday beliefs. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the major deities, stories, and traditions of Japanese mythology, and gain a deeper understanding of this rich and complex cultural legacy. 

So let’s dive into the world of Japanese mythology together and discover the rich history and traditions of this fascinating culture.

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What is Japanese Mythology?

Japanese mythology is a collection of traditional stories, beliefs, and folktales that originated from the islands of the Japanese archipelago.

Shinto and Buddhist traditions are the foundation of Japanese mythology, and the myths of Korea, Ainu, and Okinawa also play a significant role.

Japanese myths are closely tied to the natural features of the archipelago and its agricultural folk religion.

The Shinto pantheon is home to numerous kami, or gods and spirits. We’ll cover those, as well as fascinating artifacts, mythical creatures, and more.

The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki are two important sources of Japanese mythology as it is understood today. The Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Matters,” is the oldest surviving record of Japan’s myths, legends, and history. 

The Shintōshū, on the other hand, provides a Buddhist perspective on the origins of Japanese deities.

A notable aspect of Japanese mythology, unique from many other mythologies,  is its explanation of the origin of the Imperial Family, which has been used to declare the imperial line as divine.

Prominent Japanese Myths

Of the many myths and legends that exist in Japanese mythology, some of the most well-known are:

  • The creation of Japan: According to the Kojiki, the oldest surviving book of Japanese mythology, the islands of Japan were created by the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami, who descended from the heavens and stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. Using a spear, they churned the ocean until it solidified into land, and from the drops of water that fell from their spear, the islands of Japan were formed.
  • Izanagi’s Journey to the Underworld: After the death of his wife Izanami during childbirth, the god Izanagi journeyed to the land of the dead to retrieve her, but found that her body had already begun to decay. Upon returning to Earth and purifying himself, new deities emerged, including the sun goddess Amaterasu, the moon god Tsukuyomi, and the god of the wind Susanoo.
  • Amaterasu and the cave: the sun goddess Amaterasu was once so angry with her brother Susanoo that she retreated into a cave and refused to come out. This plunged the world into darkness, and the other gods were forced to come up with a plan to lure her out. Finally, they decided to stage a dance and party outside the cave, and the god Ame-no-Uzume performed a bawdy dance that caused the others to laugh. This caused Amaterasu her to peek out of the cave, and the light of the sun returned to the world.
  • The Hare of Inaba: The Hare of Inaba is a Japanese legend that tells the story of a hare who tricks a crocodile into forming a bridge so he can cross to an island. Unfortunately, the other crocodiles figure out the trick and team up to pull off all the hare’s fur. The hare is then helped by some brothers who advise him on how to heal his wounds, and in return the hare rewards them by telling them they will marry the princess. This legend is widely known and celebrated in Japan.
  • The Ghost of Okiku: Okiku is the ghost of a young woman who was drowned by her lover after she refused to steal a precious plate from her mistress. She is said to haunt the well where her body was thrown, and can be heard counting the plates that were left behind. The legend of Okiku is often adapted into plays, books, and movies, and is one of the most famous ghost stories in Japanese folklore.

Japanese Mythology Characters

Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in Japanese mythology:

  • Amaterasu: The goddess of the Sun and the universe, Amaterasu was an exceptionally important character to Japanese mythology. She was the ancestor of the ruling dynasty of Japan and was often portrayed as a powerful and benevolent deity.
  • Susanoo: The god of the sea and storms, Susanoo was the brother of Amaterasu. In many myths, he is portrayed as a trickster and mischievous figure who causes chaos and destruction.
  • Tsukuyomi: Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto is the moon god in Japanese mythology and the Shinto religion, and is one of the three noble children born to Izanagi-no-Mikoto. In some stories, Tsukuyomi is male, while in others they are sexless. 
  • Inari: The god of fertility, agriculture, and prosperity, Inari was one of the most widely worshipped gods in Japan. He was often represented as a fox or as a human with fox-like features.
  • Yamato Takeru: A legendary hero of Japanese mythology, Yamato Takeru was a brave and powerful warrior who fought against evil spirits and monsters. He was known for his great strength and cunning.
  • Fukurokuju: The god of wisdom, happiness, and longevity, Fukurokuju was one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. He was often depicted as an old man with a long beard and a wise expression.
  • Hachiman: Hachiman is a popular Shinto deity in Japan, known as the god of war and the patron deity of the Minamoto clan and of warriors. Hachiman is also known as a Buddhist divinity and is the first Japanese deity to be given the title of Daibosatsu.
  • Benzaiten: The goddess of art, music, and knowledge, Benzaiten was one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. She was often depicted as a beautiful woman playing a biwa, a traditional Japanese instrument.

Japanese Mythology Sources

There are many different texts that are important in the mythology of Japan. Here are a few of the most important and influential:

  • Kojiki: The Kojiki is one of the oldest and most important texts in Japanese mythology. It was written in 711-12 AD, and is a collection of myths and legends that tell the story of the origins of the Japanese people, as well as the gods and goddesses who are associated with them. This text is often considered to be the basis for much of Japanese mythology, and is still studied and revered today.
  • Nihon Shoki: The Nihon Shoki is another ancient text that is important in Japanese mythology. It was written in 720 AD, and is similar to the Kojiki in many ways. It contains many of the same stories and legends, but also includes more historical and political information about the early rulers of Japan.
  • The Tale of Genji: The Tale of Genji is a famous work of Japanese literature that was written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. It is considered to be one of the world’s first novels, and is a long and complex work that tells the story of the life and loves of the titular Genji, a nobleman who is considered to be one of the greatest lovers in Japanese history.
  • The Tales of Ise: The Tales of Ise is a collection of poems and stories that were written in the 9th and 10th centuries. These stories are based on the life of a real-life poet named Ariwara no Narihira, and they are known for their elegant and graceful style. They are often considered to be some of the greatest works of Japanese literature, and are still read and admired today.
  • The Manyoshu: The Manyoshu is a collection of poems that was compiled in the 8th century. It is the oldest surviving collection of Classical Japanese poetry, and contains more than 4,500 poems that were written by a wide variety of poets. These poems cover a wide range of subjects, from love and nature to politics and war.

Japanese Mythology Artifacts and Weapons

Japanese mythology is full of artifacts and weapons. Here are just some of them:

  • The Kusanagi Sword: The Kusanagi Sword, also known as the Grass Cutting Sword, was given to the god Susanoo by the sun goddess Amaterasu. It was later passed down to the legendary hero Yamato Takeru.
  • The Yata no Kagami: The Yata no Kagami, also known as the Eight-Hand Mirror, was one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. It was believed to have the power to reflect the truth and was used to symbolize the goddess Amaterasu.
  • The Yasakani no Magatama: The Yasakani no Magatama, also known as the Eight-Span Jewel, was another one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. It was a crescent-shaped jewel that was said to have the power to pacify the hearts of people and restore order.
  • The Totsuka no Tsurugi: The Totsuka no Tsurugi, also known as the Ten-Hand Sword, was a legendary sword that was wielded by the god Susanoo. It was said to have the power to defeat any enemy with a single strike.

Japanese Mythology Creatures

Japanese mythology is full of strange and fascinating creatures. Here are a few:

  • Kappa: Kappa are mythical humanoid creatures in Japanese folklore that have features resembling amphibians and reptiles, and are considered to be Water Gods. They tend to look different from one another and have a turtle shell on their back, a beak-like mouth, and a bowl on their head that contains their life force.
  • Tengu: This is a type of powerful and magical bird that has the body of a human and the head of a crow or a hawk. It is known for its martial arts skills and its ability to fly.
  • Yokai: This is a general term that refers to a wide range of supernatural creatures in Japanese mythology. These creatures can take many different forms, from animals to ghosts, and they often have magical powers.
  • Oni: These are demonic creatures that are usually depicted as having horns, sharp claws, and fangs. They are known for their strength and their fearsome appearance, and they are often associated with the underworld.
  • Kitsune: This is a type of fox spirit that is known for its intelligence and its magical powers. Kitsune are said to be able to transform into beautiful women, and they are sometimes associated with the god Inari.

Japanese Mythology in Popular Culture

Japanese Mythology has appeared throughout Japanese and popular culture, especially given the rise of anime. Here are some examples:

  • In the anime Dream Saga, Susanoo destroys the earth whenever it has been polluted by humans. The main characters join in this process as he consumes Amaterasu, causing the world to be plunged into darkness.
  • In the anime and manga series Naruto, certain special abilities are named after Shinto gods, such as Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi, and Susanoo.
  • The video game Final Fantasy XIV features Susanoo as a primal boss fight, with Tsukuyomi appearing soon after.
  • The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventure series includes a battle between Izunami and Izanagi to save Japan from a nuclear demon.
  • The Ghibli movie Spirited Away includes a bath house filled with kami, which is entered by the protagonist Chihiro as she enters the spirit world.

Cosmogony of Japanese Mythology

The cosmogony of Japanese mythology describes the universe and its various components:

  • Kuniumi/Kamiumi: In Japanese mythology, the creation narrative can be divided into the birth of the deities and the birth of the land. The birth of the deities involves the appearance of the first generation of gods who were born from primordial oil, followed by the birth of Izanagi and Izanami who create the islands of Japan. The creation narrative also includes themes of death, decay, and contamination, and emphasizes purification, ceremonial order, and the masculine. Scholars have noted the incestuous themes in the creation myth and the graphic and taboo imagery used.
  • Yomi: After Izanami’s death, the myth of Izanagi’s efforts to rescue her from Yomi, an underworld in Japanese mythology, explains the origins of the cycle of birth and death. Izanami’s pursuit of Izanagi, which features obstacles created by Izanagi and the use of food as distractions, is a common theme in Japanese mythology.
  • Sun/Moon/Storm: In Japanese mythology, the origins of the Sun and the Moon are explained through the myth of Izanagi’s return from Yomi, an underworld. Amaterasu, the Sun goddess and divine ancestor of the first Emperor Jimmu, was born from Izanagi’s eye. Conflict between the Sun goddess and her siblings, the Moon god and Susanoo the Storm god, explains why the Sun and the Moon do not stay in the sky at the same time. Amaterasu’s importance as a sun goddess and ancestor of the Japanese imperial line has political and cultural significance.
  • First Emperor Jimmu: Japanese mythology includes the creation narrative of the first gods and the formation of the land, as well as the story of the first Emperor Jimmu and the origin of the Imperial family.
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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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