AMATERASU ŌMIKAMI is the supreme deity in Japanese mythology and the ancestor goddess of the imperial family. Amaterasu was born when the creator god Izanagi washed his left eye. According to the Nihongi, Izanagi then said, "Do thou, Amaterasu Ōmikami, rule the High Celestial Plain." The Nihongi further states that her grandson, Amatsuhiko Hiko-hononinigi no Mikoto, descended to the earth and that one of his descendants, Jimmu (Kamu-yamato-iwarehiko), acceded to the throne as the first emperor of Japan in 660 bce. This explanation, however, has been challenged by modern historians because, among other things, no central government capable of controlling local leaders existed at that time.
The word amaterasu literally means "shining in heaven," and ōmikami means "great goddess." Therefore, Chamberlain's "heaven-shining-great-august-deity" is a more accurate translation of amaterasu ōmikami than the more common "sun goddess." The Nihongi states that her earlier name was Amaterasu Ōhirume no Muchi. Muchi is a suffix used for a respected person or a deity. According to Origuchi, ōhirume means "wife of the sun," not the sun itself. In Japanese, hi means "spirit" as well as "sun," and me means "woman" as well as "wife." Some confusion has resulted from this problem of multiple meanings. It seems that originally the name of this deity meant "great spirit woman," but later the hi was misinterpreted as "the sun," and eventually this deity came to be called the sun goddess. While hundreds of rituals have been retained at the Ise shrine where Amaterasu has been deified, none of them is related to the sun. This fact supports the above statement that amaterasu did not mean "sun goddess."
No doubt the most dramatic event in Japanese mythology was Amaterasu's retreat into the Rock Cave of Heaven, precipitated by the behavior of Susano-o, her younger brother. First, he broke down the division of the rice fields laid out by Amaterasu, filled up the ditches, and strewed excrement in the palace. While she was sitting in her weaving hall overseeing the weaving of the deities' garments, he broke a hole in the roof, and through it let fall a piebald horse that he had flayed. The woman weaving the heavenly garments was so alarmed by this sight that she struck her genitals against the shuttle and died. Terrified, Amaterasu hid herself in the Rock Cave of Heaven, and the heavenly world became dark. Eight hundred myriad deities gathered to lure Amaterasu out of the cave. Among them, Ame no Uzume, a female deity, played the most important role: "She became divinely possessed, exposed her breasts, and pushed her skirtband down to her genitals. Then the heavenly world shook as the eight hundred myriad deities laughed at once." Her curiosity aroused, Amaterasu opened the door of the Rock Cave of Heaven and came out.
While the Kojiki states that the woman who was weaving the garments was struck in the genitals, the Nihongi says that Amaterasu herself was injured, without specifying how. The Nihongi also does not mention the details of the activities of Ame no Uzume. Probably because of Confucian influences, the editors of the Nihongi moderated the sexual material in the original texts. Nevertheless, the basic motif of this myth is the termination of reproduction through destruction of the female genital organs and the reappearance of the female, which suggests the resumption of reproduction. This myth would have almost certainly been accompanied by a ritual celebrating the advent of spring, the season of rebirth in nature. After the rebirth in spring, Amaterasu carefully watches the development of the agricultural activities as the guardian of the crop until the autumn.
Amaterasu is closely linked in Japanese mythology with mirrors. She is said to have given a precious bronze mirror to Ame no Oshiho-mimi, saying: "My child, let it be as if thou wert looking on me." This mirror, according to the Nihongi, was then passed from emperor to emperor as one of the Three Imperial Regalia, symbols of imperial legitimacy. Hundreds of bronze mirrors have been found at early tombs in western Japan, and the Sanguo zhi (History of Three Kingdoms), a Chinese dynastic history, states that in 239 the Japanese queen was given one hundred mirrors because they were her favorite objects. These accounts suggest that mirrors were extremely important religious objects for the early Japanese. Early peoples, including the Japanese of ancient times, regarded mirrors with awe and often believed that the reflection in the mirror was the spirit of the person. In this way, the tradition of mirrors as objects of worship was established. It then became linked with the earlier "spirit woman" worship, and finally the mirror came to be regarded as Amaterasu herself.
Izanagi and Izanami; Japanese Religions, article on Mythic Themes; Susano-o no Mikoto.
Aston, W. G., trans. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697 (1896). Reprint, 2 vols. in 1, Tokyo, 1972.
Chamberlain, Basil Hall, trans. Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters (1882). 2d ed. With annotations by W. G. Aston. Tokyo, 1932; reprint, Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo, 1982.
Kakubayashi Fumio, "A Study of the Historical Developments of the Yayoi Period with Special Reference to Japanese-Korean Relations." Ph.D. diss., University of Queensland, 1980.
Matsumoto Nobuhiro. Essai sur la mythologie japonaise. Paris, 1928.
Origuchi Shinobu. Origuchi Shinobu zenshu, vols. 1–3. Tokyo, 1975.
Philippi, Donald L., trans. Kojiki. Princeton, 1969.
Kakubayashi Fumio (1987 and 2005)