Raijin, the Japanese god of thunder, lighting, and rain, is a dualistic god. He represents the destructive power of storms, but is also recognized for the rain that he brings, without which there would be no crops.
Known by many names and with origins arising from death, there’s plenty of history and a rich mythology behind this fearsome god. Raijin’s story lives on in Japanese culture even today, and has inspired modern characters that borrow many characteristics from the demon-like being.
One of Japan’s major religions, Shintoism, is the context for the origins of Raijin and other kami like him. In the Shinto religion, kami are spirits or gods, although this is an oversimplification.
The first recorded evidence of Shintoism is said to be around the 8th century, although it’s likely that Raijin and his kami brethren had been a part of Japanese culture long before then.
According to the myths, Raijin was born after the death of Izanami, the creator goddess. In fact, he was born from her corpse in the Yomi no Kuni, the land of the dead or “World of Darkness.”
The story goes that Izanagi, the creator god and Izanami’s husband, went searching for her in the underworld to bring her back to life after she died giving birth to the god of fire, Kagutsuchi. He came upon her decomposing corpse and saw that she had birthed eight Raijins, each from a different part of her body. These eight Raijins were all the different kinds of thunder: Great-Thunder (head), Fire-Thunder (breast), Black-Thunder (stomach), Blossoming-Thunder (vagina), Young-Thunder (left hand), Earth-Thunder (right hand), Rumbling-Thunder (left foot), and Couchant-Thunder (right foot).
Taken as a whole of his eight different parts, the Japanese god is known simply as Raijin. So when Izanami saw that her husband followed her to the underworld and saw her corpse, it made her angry and shameful. As Izanagi fled, Izanami sent Raijin and many female demons (Oni) after him, chasing him back to the land of the living.
This is how Raijin came to be born and came to be out of the Yomi no Kuni.
Appearance and Abilities
For a country that’s no stranger to destructive storms, it’s not surprising that the thunder god and controller of lightning has such a fearsome and demon-like appearance.
From the top down, Raijin’s chaotic style begins with his unruly hair, which sticks up in spikes. His eyebrows sit at savage angles above his mischievous eyes. He’s often depicted grinning, showing his sharp teeth.
Sometimes, he’s shown with an upturned nose, long, pointed ears, and even horns, all of which add to his inhuman image.
He’s a powerful, muscular deity, as is evidenced in his lack of attire: a single pair of pants and no shirt, where most other Japanese gods are cloaked in flowing robes.
Paintings and statues show Raijin with only three fingers on each hand, which are said to signify the future, past, and present. He’s also often depicted with a halo surrounding his entire body, whereas it’s common in Buddhist imagery to have divine figures with a halo surrounding their heads. This encompassing halo around Raijin is commonly adorned with plates featuring Taoist, Buddhist, and Shinto marks.
So although Raijin looks like a demon that will only bring damage and destruction, there’s no question that he is much more than this in Japanese mythology.
Raijin’s abilities are much like you’d expect from a thunder god. He has the ability to bring destructive storms, and he’s often depicted with hammers in his hands and a drum, which is how he’s said to create thunder. He’s almost always accompanied by Fujin, who is Raijin’s brother and the wind god. Sometimes he’s also seen with the thunder beast, Raiju, which is made out of lightning and appears as a wide variety of animals, depending on the depiction.
But just as important as Raijin’s ability to bring destruction through storms is his ability to bring rain to crops. Without Raijin, according to mythology, drought comes to the land, a fate far worse than any storm. Perhaps this duality is why he’s also seen as a protector of shrines and temples, and why some believed that if lightning struck a crop, it would mean that crop’s bounty would be plentiful, thanks to Raijin.
We’ve already mentioned Raijin’s mother and father: Izanami and Izanagi. And it’s no surprise that Raijin and his brother Fujin, the god of wind, are almost always depicted side-by-side. After all, a storm without wind is rare indeed. However, the two aren’t always working together. Sometimes the brothers are seen quarrelling for control of the skies. And since they’re so closely tied, they share temples in Japan, with Japanese people praying to both gods to bring them rain without bringing damage to the land.
But Fujin isn’t Raijin’s only brother. Given that his parents are the creation gods that birthed most other gods in Japanese mythology, Raijin has many siblings, including:
Raijin also has a son, another thunder god, named Raitaro.
Raijin has a hand in countless myths dating back centuries. In this section, we’ll summarize three popular Raijin myths that give a good perspective on this multifaceted god.
Raijin the Protector
In the 13th century, Kublai Kai and his Mongol army attempted to invade Japan. The army had already conquered much of the east Asian mainland and had its sights set on the island nation.
In November 1274, the Mongol army had invaded several islands and was advancing toward the bulk of Japan when an overnight storm pushed the Mongol fleet back out to sea, decimating nearly half of their forces and leaving a wake of damage. This gave Japan some much needed time to prepare for another battle, which allowed them to keep the Mongols back for years.
Five years later, the Mongols were advancing again, their ships close to the Japanese coast, when a kamikaze typhoon came through and destroyed nearly 90% of the Mongol army’s forces.
Raijin and Fujin were hailed as guardians of the Japanese people for holding off their enemy forces not once, but twice, with these powerful storms.
Raijin and Children
Like all good frightening gods, there are stories about Raijin coming for children. It is said that Raijin will come for any child who doesn’t cover their belly button. This leads some Japanese parents to warn their children to cover their belly buttons when a storm comes if they don’t want to be eaten up by Raijin.
This is thought to be because Raijin and others like him are jealous of humans born naturally, and therefore covetous of their belly buttons.
Appearances in Popular Culture
Raijin has influenced many pop culture characters over the years. Here are a few of the more well-known ones.
- Raiden from the Mortal Kombat video game series – This character has the ability to control lightning, much like Raijin, although Raiden appears as a human and not a demon-like creature.
- Tornadus and Thundurus Pokemon – These two Pokemon are inspired by Raijin and Fujin.
- Naruto – Raijin and Fujin are known in Naruto as the Legendary Stupid Brothers. One could also argue that the two main characters of this manga series, Naruto and Sasuke, are based on Raijin and Fujin. Although these manga characters are not brothers, they do spend much of their time fighting each other, with Naruto controlling wind and Sasuke controlling the lightning.
Other Names for Raijin
- Kaminari-sama (雷様): Lord of Thunder
- Raiden-sama (雷電様): Lord of Thunder and Lightning
- Yakusa no ikazuchi no kami (厄災の雷の神): God of Storms and Disaster
- Ho-no-Ikadzuchi-no-Kami (火雷大神): A name for the eight thunder deities born in Yomi to Izanami
- Narukami (鳴る神): The Resounding God
Perhaps the most famous depiction of Raijin is a statue in the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. His enormous statue protects one side of the gateway into the shrine and his brother Fujin’s statue protects the other. These statues are considered national treasures, which tells you just how much Raijin means to the people of Japan.
Raijin has been portrayed as a trickster, a demon-like figure, and a protector. He stands apart from many other gods in Japanese mythology, both in his appearance and in his divine spirit. He’s anything but lost to modern culture, and his traits are commonplace today even in some aspects of Western culture. As long as there are storms and lightning, Raijin, or some similar deity, will likely have a place in human mythology.