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What Are the Major Elements of Japanese Mythology?

By Nicole Etolen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Japanese mythology primarily revolves around the Shinto religion, and includes thousands of gods, goddesses, and spirits. In fact, according to Shinto beliefs, every object in nature, from the smallest rock to the largest tree, has its own spirit; this can make understanding the major elements of the belief system a little overwhelming to the lay person. Despite the vast number of deities in Japanese mythology, however, a few core deities play a large role, including Amaterasu, Hachiman, and Susano.

In the Shinto religion, the deities are referred to as “kami.” The term, however, is more than just a name for the deities, it also represents the life force that is said to flow through every being and piece of nature in the world. After death, human spirits become kami, and to honor this, the most influential citizens are often entombed in one of the numerous shrines found throughout Japan, so that the devotions of the faithful may reach them.

Susano, the kami of storms, is inexorably tied to the environment of Japan. Japan is surrounded by water, and sometimes that water can be particularly rough, giving way to strong typhoons and massive tsunamis. Japan in part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a term used to describe the area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Susano is thought to have little care for the earth and its people.

Amaterasu is the sun and fertility kami in Japanese mythology, and one of the most important kami. She plays a large role in creating the light that allows the rice fields, one of Japan’s primary crops, to grow each season. Her grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, is said to be the grandfather of Jimmu Tenno, Japan’s first Divine Emperor. While an Emperor no longer rules Japan, the symbolic role of the royal family remains very significant to the nation.

Hachiman is primarily the kami of war and warriors, but he is also worshiped by those who work in the fishing and agricultural industry. The samurai, a group of highly trained and fiercely loyal Japanese warriors, look to Hachiman for protection. He is one of the most popular deities in Japan, with thousands of shrines dedicated to him throughout the country.

Japanese mythology also features numerous stories about evil spirits, and the majority of the rituals performed in the country are designed to thwart these spirits from causing harm. One popular ritual occurs before New Year's Day, when the Japanese clean their homes and use a broom to sweep the evil spirits away. Cedar leaves may also be placed above the entryway of a Japanese home to keep away Amazake-babaa, an elderly woman who brings disease to all who answer the door when she comes knocking.

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