The Kojiki Creation Story: An Interpretation
The Kojiki Creation Story: An Interpretation
The Kojiki creation story has been translated in various languages and variedly in the English language. The following simplified translation is taken from the online site called Japanese Classroom Resources Page (“Creation of Japan: Myth,” n.d.):
“Once upon a time, when the world was still young, floating like oil, two gods, Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto were commanded by the primal gods to make the land and fix it in place. The two stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven and thrust the Heavenly Jewelled spear into the sea. The brine that dripped from the spear became an island where the two performed a marriage rite around a pillar. Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan and their deities, the gods of the sea, river, mountain, field, tree, stone, fire and many others. But in giving birth to the fire god, she was burned and died. Izanagi followed Izanami to Yomi no Kuni (the Land of Dead) to urge her to return. She agreed to consult with the gods of Yomi, but warned him not to look at her. Impatient for Izanami's return, he entered the palace of the gods of Yomi, only to find her corpse horribly transformed. He fled, pursued by the shamed Izanami, and escaped by blocking the exit of Yomi with a large boulder. He then went to the river to purify himself by bathing (misogi). From his left eye when he cleansed it was born Amaterasu Omikami (Goddess of the Sun); Tsukushi no Mikoto (God of the Moon) was born from his right eye, and Susanoo no Mikoto (God of Storms) was born from his nose. Izanagi charged Amaterasu with the rule of the High Plain of Heaven, Tsukushi no Mikoto with the Realm of Night, and Susanoo no Mikoto with the Plain of the Seas. Thus was born Japan and its surrounding world.”
The Kojiki Creation Story relates the activities of Izanagi and Izanami, a god and goddess who created the Japanese islands out of chaos, a state of disorder or formlessness. Shintoism recognizes both a male and a female principle, or element, in creation. In contrast this is to religions such as Christianity and Judaism, which see creation as the work of a male god alone. However, the story notes that because Izanami spoke ahead of her husband at their wedding ceremony, the ceremony had to be repeated so that the male god was given priority over the female goddess. Obviously, male prominence is an important feature of historic Japanese culture and can still be found in the twenty-first century. Japan islands were seen as the god and goddess's children. So, too, were the kami, specially the spirits that ruled the islands. The two gods later produced additional gods, including Kagutsuchi, the fire god. The creation story goes on to recount Izanami's death and Izanagi's pursuit of her to the underworld, or the Nether Regions.
The Kojiki Creation Story encompasses a number of elements that are significant to Japanese culture. The main is the concept of the "world." While people who practice Shinto can be found worldwide, Shintoism is truly a Japanese religion. It differs in this way from religions such as Christianity, which is not identified with any particular culture or country. To understand why Shintoism is so exceptionally Japanese, it is necessary to understand the history of the Kojiki's composition.
The Kojiki Creation Story, though strange to modern readers, speaks of several truths. Firstly, the story speaks with affection about the Japanese homeland. Much of Japanese history is marked by a special affinity toward the land. Many times throughout Japanese history there were movements to restore the forests and other habitats. If all has a spirit or god behind it, people tend to hold a respectful, reverent view of the environment and how it supports their lives. This myth suggests how we should retain our respect for the world around us and its resources. Doing otherwise disrespects the divine and jeopardizes our ability to live.
The myth about the gods’ births sets the stage for several reoccurring themes in Japanese literature and culture. Harmony is emphasized. Japanese culture puts the quest for harmony between people and between people and nature in the center. The people’s honorific system grew out of this. The myth shows how the decay of harmony and the reality of sorrow can lead to unintended consequences. Izanagi, in his grief, kills his son, creating more sons and daughters in the process–much to his surprise.
The Kojiki Creation Story lays out a thread found throughout Japanese literature. The harmonious blissful life Izanagi and Izanami shared could not last. The tragic death of Izanami presents sorrow to what was a happy story. Japanese literature enjoys balancing happiness with sorrow. The story is completed by tragedy. Happiness cannot be understood without sorrow. Only few stories end “happily ever after” but this reveals a clear-eyed view of reality.
Buddhism has a somewhat similar thread. Buddhism stories center on how suffering permeates People’s experiences. This overlap helped Shinto (which is what these creation stories originate from) and Buddhism intermingle. Whenever one reads Japanese literature, he will see this interweaving of religions.