Tales from the Kojiki

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Tales from the Kojiki

"Japanese Creation Myth," from Tales from the Kojiki, in Reading about the World, available online at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/∼wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/kojiki.html

Kojiki compiled by O No Yasumaro in the eighth century

Book by Genji Shibukawa

Translated by Yaichiro Isobe

Published in 1999 by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing

The Kojiki, an eighth-century Shinto text, is the earliest surviving document written by the Japanese. Shinto is a native Japanese religion that focuses on the worship of natural spirits called kami. Until the end of World War II in 1945, Shinto was the state religion of Japan. Part holy text, part history, and part folktale (a story passed on through oral traditions, usually containing a timeless truth, custom, or belief) and myth, it represents an effort to document much of the history of early Japan. It also contains an account of the creation of the world, one that in many respects is similar to creation accounts contained in the scriptures, or holy texts, of other world religions.

"Before the heavens and the earth came into existence, all was a chaos, unimaginably limitless and without definite shape or form."

Kojiki means "Record of Ancient Matters." The book consists of 180 sections. The first third gives an account of the creation of the world (and of the Japanese islands, in particular), the birth of the gods and goddesses, and the descent of the gods and goddesses to Japan. The remaining sections list the line of succession of the Japanese emperors, linking these emperors to the gods and goddesses. These sections also record taboos (social or religious bans or restrictions), rituals, and ceremonies that were important to Shinto. Over the centuries, the Kojiki has become an important part of Japanese/Shinto mythology and helps define the Japanese worldview.

The Shinto 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. Shinto recognizes both a male and a female principle, or element, in creation. This is in contrast to religions such as Christianity and Judaism, which see creation as the work of a male god alone. The story notes, however, 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. This male prominence is an important feature of historic Japanese culture and can still be found in the twenty-first century. The islands of Japan were seen as the god and goddess's children. So, too, were the kami, especially the spirits that ruled the islands. Later, the two gods 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 creation account of the Kojiki contains a number of elements that are important to Japanese culture. The chief one is the concept of the "world." While people who practice Shinto can be found worldwide, Shinto is truly a Japanese religion. In this way it differs from religions such as Christianity, which is not identified with any particular culture or country. In order to understand why Shinto is so uniquely Japanese, it is necessary to understand the history of the Kojiki's composition.

The Kojiki is as much a political document as it is a holy work. During the seventh century Japan was greatly influenced by its much larger neighbor, China, and many elements of Japanese culture reflect this influence. The Chinese had been thorough and careful about recording their history. Under their influence Japanese writers began to do the same, although none of their works from the seventh century survive.

Then, in 673, the emperor Tenmu seized the throne of Japan. Tenmu ordered a history compiled, similar to the kinds of histories produced in China. He believed that the records of many of his courtiers (attendants), imperial officials, and the chief families in the realm had been either misrepresented or changed. His goal was to produce a history that would justify his rule by showing that he was a descendant of the gods. He commissioned a court reciter, Hieda no Are, to begin memorizing a family tree and a collection of stories. Hieda no Are was the perfect person for the job, for he had a flawless memory. He could recite with complete accuracy any written text that he had looked at once.

Tenmu died in 686. For years the family histories and stories that Hieda no Are had compiled existed solely in the court reciter's memory. Finally in 712, during the reign of the empress Genmei, the material that Hieda no Are had memorized was compiled and written down by O No Yasumaro. Those stories formed the basis of the Kojiki. In 720 a second text, called the Nihonshoki, containing more stories that Hieda no Are had memorized, was also written down. These two books are the earliest surviving texts of any kind written by the Japanese.

The Kojiki was written partly to prove that the Japanese emperor was divine and partly to assert the superiority of Japanese culture. For this reason the Kojiki's concept of "the world" was limited to the Japanese islands. When Izanagi and Izanami create "the world," their creation was only the islands of Japan, not the rest of the world. In this respect, though, the creation account of the Kojiki is like those of other cultures in the world. The seventh-century Japanese people only knew their own home regions well. They had little contact with people from other islands or other regions. It was natural that, in their view, "the world" was their homeland and that "the people" were their neighbors.

Shinto Kami

Shinto believes in kami, a word usually translated as "divinities" or "gods." Trying to define kami is difficult, however. They include not only the original creator-gods but also a host of lesser gods that, in turn, can include the spirits of ancestors and natural forces.

The origins of kami can be found in early Japanese history. Japanese society was divided into separate clans. Each of these clans was headed by a chieftain, and each clan worshipped a kami. Part of the chieftain's job was to oversee the ceremonies devoted to the kami. When one clan overran another, the kami of the defeated clan became subject to that of the conquering clan. In this way the hierarchy (classification of a group according to rank) of the kami was shifted about. Later, when the Japanese began to form a centralized government with a supreme emperor at its head, this belief helped support the emperor's authority. Because the emperor descended directly from Amaterasu, the sun goddess, the emperor's clan was more powerful than any other clan and thus possessed the right to rule Japan.

According to Shinto belief, because the world is the creation of Amaterasu, all things are part of her divinity. A better translation of the word kami would be "the sacredness in things" or even "life forces." The kami include ancestral spirits, social organization, and the natural forces that control disease and health, death and life, the stars and planets, and the physical world. Kami represent the Shinto view that the world is basically sacred and anything can be the object of worship.

Japan's geography helps explain some of the creation elements found in the Kojiki. Japan is an island nation, and much of its land is dominated by mountains. The sea cuts the many islands of Japan off from the rest of the world. So the story of creation told in the Kojiki takes place on a high plain, lifted above the surrounding oceans.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Tales from the Kojiki:

  • Despite the fact that Shinto defines the Japanese character, it has been heavily influenced by cultures from the Asian mainland. Shinto originated among the peoples of Korea and Mongolia and was exported to Japan by immigrants. In the eighth century early Shinto absorbed many influences from China, including other religions, such as Buddhism and Daoism.
  • Izanagi and Izanami are regarded in the Kojiki as having introduced death to the world. In giving birth to the fire god, Izanami is severely burned and dies. She leaves her husband, Izanagi, lonely in the world, so he searches for her in Hades, or the land of the dead, where she is horribly deformed. The Shinto concept of death, however, is that one's spirit goes to a realm that is little different from this life. The afterlife is seen as neither a heaven nor a hell. In contrast to such religions as Islam and Christianity, Shinto places most of its emphasis on happiness in this life. There is little emphasis on preparing for a life after death.

Excerpt from Tales from the Kojiki

The Beginning of the World

Before the heavens and the earth came into existence, all was a chaos, unimaginably limitless and without definite shape or form. Eon followed eon: then, lo! out of this boundless, shapeless mass something light and transparent rose up and formed the heaven. This was the Plain of High Heaven, in which materialized a deity called Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Mikoto (the Deity-of-the-August-Center-of-Heaven)….

In the meantime what was heavy and opaque in the void gradually precipitated and became the earth, but it had taken an immeasurably long time before it condensed sufficiently to form solid ground. In its earliest stages, for millions and millions of years, the earth may be said to have resembled oil floating, medusa-like, upon the face of the waters….

Many gods were thus born in succession, and so they increased in number, but as long as the world remained in a chaotic state, there was nothing for them to do. Whereupon, all the Heavenly deities summoned the two divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, and bade them descend to the nebulous place, and by helping each other, to consolidate it into terra firma. "We bestow on you," they said, "this precious treasure, with which to rule the land, the creation of which we command you to perform." So saying they handed them a spear called Ama-no-Nuboko, embellished with costly gems. The divine couple received respectfully and ceremoniously the sacred weapon and then withdrew from the presence of the Deities, ready to perform their august commission. Proceeding forthwith to the Floating Bridge of Heaven, which lay between the heaven and the earth, they stood awhile to gaze on that which lay below. What they beheld was a world not yet condensed, but looking like a sea of filmy fog floating to and fro in the air, exhaling the while an inexpressibly fragrant odor. They were, at first, perplexed just how and where to start, but at length Izanagi suggested to his companion that they should try the effect of stirring up the brine with their spear. So saying he pushed down the jeweled shaft and found that it touched something. Then drawing it up, he examined it and observed that the great drops which fell from it almost immediately coagulated into an island, which is, to this day, the Island of Onokoro. Delighted at the result, the two deities descended forthwith from the Floating Bridge to reach the miraculously created island. In this island they thenceforth dwelt and made it the basis of their subsequent task of creating a country. Then wishing to become espoused, they erected in the center of the island a pillar, the Heavenly August Pillar, and built around it a great palace called the Hall of Eight Fathoms. Thereupon the male Deity turning to the left and the female Deity to the right, each went round the pillar in opposite directions. When they again met each other on the further side of the pillar, Izanami, the female Deity, speaking first, exclaimed: "How delightful it is to meet so handsome a youth!" To which Izanagi, the male Deity, replied: "How delightful I am to have fallen in with such a lovely maiden!" After having spoken thus, the male Deity said that it was not in order that woman should anticipate man in a greeting. Nevertheless, they fell into connubial relationship, having been instructed by two wagtails which flew to the spot. Presently the Goddess bore her divine consort a son, but the baby was weak and boneless as a leech. Disgusted with it, they abandoned it on the waters, putting it in a boat made of reeds. Their second offspring was as disappointing as the first. The two Deities, now sorely disappointed at their failure and full of misgivings, ascended to Heaven to inquire of the Heavenly Deities the causes of their misfortunes. The latter performed the ceremony of divining and said to them: "It is the woman's fault. In turning round the Pillar, it was not right and proper that the female Deity should in speaking have taken precedence of the male. That is the reason." The two Deities saw the truth of this divine suggestion, and made up their minds to rectify the error. So, returning to the earth again, they went once more around the Heavenly Pillar. This time Izanagi spoke first saying: "How delightful to meet so beautiful a maiden!" "How happy I am," responded Izanami, "that I should meet such a handsome youth!" This process was more appropriate and in accordance with the law of nature. After this, all the children born to them left nothing to be desired. First, the island of Awaji was born, next, Shikoku, then, the island of Oki, followed by Kyushu; after that, the island Tsushima came into being, and lastly, Honshu, the main island of Japan. The name of Oyashi-ma-kuni … was given to these … islands. After this, the two Deities became the parents of numerous smaller islands destined to surround the larger ones.

The Birth of the Deities

Having, thus, made a country from what had formerly been no more than a mere floating mass, the two Deities, Izanagi and Izanami, [set] about begetting those deities destined to preside over the land, sea, mountains, rivers, trees, and herbs….

The process of procreation had, so far, gone on happily, but at the birth of Kagutsuchi-no-Kami, the deity of fire, an unseen misfortune befell the divine mother, Izanami. During the course of her confinement, the goddess was so severely burned by the flaming child that she swooned away. Her divine consort, deeply alarmed, did all in his power to resuscitate her, but although he succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, her appetite had completely gone…. Her demise marks the intrusion of death into the world. Similarly the corruption of her body and the grief occasioned by her death were each the first of their kind.

By the death of his faithful spouse Izanagi was now quite alone in the world. In conjunction with her, and in accordance with the instructions of the Heavenly Gods, he had created and consolidated the Island Empire of Japan. In the fulfillment of their divine mission, he and his heavenly spouse had lived an ideal life of mutual love and cooperation. It is only natural, therefore, that her death should have dealt him a truly mortal blow.

… In a fit of uncontrollable grief, he stood sobbing at the head of the bier …. Meanwhile Izanami, for whom her divine husband pined so bitterly, had quitted this world for good and all and gone to the Land of Hades.

Izanagi's Visit to the Land of Hades

… Unable any longer to bear his grief, he resolved to go down to the Nether Regions in order to seek for Izanami and bring her back, at all costs, to the world. He started on his long and dubious journey…. Far ahead of him, he espied a large castle. "That, no doubt," he mused in delight, "may be where she resides."

Summoning up all his courage, he approached the main entrance of the castle. Here he saw a number of gigantic demons, some red, some black, guarding the gates with watchful eyes. He retraced his steps in alarm, and stole round to a gate at the rear of the castle. He found, to his great joy, that it was apparently left unwatched. He crept warily through the gate and peered into the interior of the castle, when he immediately caught sight of his wife standing at the gate at an inner court. The delighted Deity loudly called her name. "Why! There is some one calling me," sighed Izanami-no-Mikoto, and raising her beautiful head, she looked around her. What was her amazement but to see her beloved husband standing by the gate and gazing at her intently! He had, in fact, been in her thoughts no less constantly than she in his. With a heart leaping with joy, she approached him. He grasped her hands tenderly and murmured in deep and earnest tones: "My darling, I have come to take thee back to the world. Come back, I pray thee, and let us complete our work of creation in accordance with the will of the Heavenly Gods—our work which was left only half accomplished by thy departure. How can I do this work without thee? Thy loss means to me the loss of all." This appeal came from the depth of his heart. The goddess sympathized with him most deeply, but answered with tender grief: "Alas! Thou hast come too late. I have already eaten of the furnace of Hades. Having once eaten the things of this land, it is impossible for me to come back to the world." So saying, she lowered her head in deep despair.

"Nay, I must entreat thee to come back. Canst not thou find some means by which this can be accomplished?" exclaimed her husband, drawing nearer to her. After some reflection, she replied: "Thou hast come a very, very long way for my sake. How much I appreciate thy devotion! I wish, with all my heart, to go back with thee, but before I can do so, I must first obtain the permission of the deities of Hades. Wait here till my return, but remember that thou must not on any account look inside the castle in the meantime." "I swear I will do as thou biddest," quoth Izanagi, "but tarry not in thy quest." With implicit confidence in her husband's pledge, the goddess disappeared into the castle.

Izanagi observed strictly her injunction. He remained where he stood, and waited impatiently for his wife's return. Probably to his impatient mind, a single heart-beat may have seemed an age. He waited and waited, but no shadow of his wife appeared. The day gradually wore on and waned away, darkness was about to fall, and a strange unearthly wind began to strike his face. Brave as he was, he was seized with an uncanny feeling of apprehension. Forgetting the vow he had made to the goddess, he broke off one of the teeth of the comb which he was wearing in the left bunch of his hair, and having lighted it, he crept in softly and glanced around him. To his horror he found Izanagi lying dead in a room: and lo! a ghastly change had come over her. She, who had been so dazzlingly beautiful, was now become naught but a rotting corpse, in an advanced stage of decomposition…. The sound he made awakened Izanami from her death-like slumber. "For sooth!" she cried: "he must have seen me in this revolting state. He has put me to shame and has broken his solemn vow. Unfaithful wretch! I'll make him suffer, for his perfidy. "

Then turning to the Hags of Hades, who attended her, she commanded them to give chase to him. At her word, an army of female demons ran after the Deity.

What happened next …

Izanagi, pursued by the demons and by Izanami herself, fled. The two stood face to face at the entrance to the underworld, where they agreed to divorce. They decided that Izanagi would rule the realm of the living and that Izanami would rule that of the dead. After Izanagi returned to Earth, he bathed in a stream, where he purified himself. Out of his eyes and nose, three major deities emerged: Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ruler of heaven; Tsuki-Yumi, the moon god and ruler of night; and Sus-ano-o, the god of violence and ruler of the ocean. Afterward, Izanagi returned to heaven and remained there. Izanami continued to rule over the underworld.

Did you know …

  • In the Nihonshoki, the other major Shinto text from this era, the creation story is told again. In this version, however, some of the elements that reflect poorly on Izanami are not included. She does not corrupt the original wedding ceremony, nor is she banished to the underworld. This version of the story never became as popular as the version in the Kojiki.
  • The story of the journey to the underworld is remarkably similar to a story told in Greek mythology. Like Izanagi, the Greek god Orpheus also made the mistake of looking at his mate against her wishes when he sought her in the underworld. Izanami made an error similar to that of the Greek goddess Persephone by eating the food of the underworld, forcing her to remain in the world of the dead.
  • Records from the tenth century show that several shrines were built to Izanagi and Izanami in the Kinki area of Japan, an area that encompasses the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. Later, the Taga shrine was built for the worship of Izanagi in Omi, which is now the Shiga prefecture, or district, and this shrine became the most popular place for worshipping the couple.

Consider the following …

  • Explain the view of divinities that emerges from the Kojiki. Note, for example, how they are similar to or different from people.
  • Discuss how and why it would have been important to Japanese rulers during this period to encourage a myth that equates the creation of the world with the creation of Japan.
  • The Kojiki has been described as being as much folklore as it is scripture. In other words, it is a collection of stories that were passed along orally and developed over time. Other scriptures, such as the Islamic Qurʾan, are seen not as cultural stories but as the direct revelation of God to one of his prophets. Explain how the excerpt can be seen as either a story or as a scripture.

For More Information


Chamberlain, Basil Hall. Kojiki: Records of Ancient Matters. Reissued ed. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Davis, F. Hadland. Myths and Legends of Japan. New York: Dover, 1992.

Philippi, Donald L., trans. Kojiki. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1982.

Shibukawa, Genji. Tales from the Kojiki. Translated by Yaichiro Isobe. In Reading about the World, vol. 1. Edited by Paul Brians et al. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing, 1999. This excerpt can also be found online at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/∼wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/kojiki.html.

Eon: A period of time equal to a thousand million years or, simply, an extremely long time.

Materialized: Took physical shape.

Opaque: Preventing the passage of light, not transparent.

Precipitated: Condensed into solid form.

Medusa-like: Similar to Medusa, a female monster in Greek mythology who had living snakes for hair.

Succession: A sequence in which one thing directly follows another.

Bade: Instructed, ordered.

Nebulous: Hazy or blurred, not clearly defined.

Consolidate: To combine into a whole, to unify.

Terra firma: Solid earth.

Bestow: Give.

Embellished: Decorated.

August: Very important.

Commission: A task, a duty to perform a specific piece of work.

Forthwith: Immediately.

Beheld: Saw.

While: A certain length of time.

Perplexed: Puzzled, confused.

Brine: Water with salt in it.

Coagulated Changed from a liquid into a thicker substance.

Thenceforth: From that time onward.

Espoused: Married.

Connubial: Relating to marriage.

Wagtails: A kind of songbird with a long tail.

Consort: A spouse, a husband or a wife.

Leech: A bloodsucking worm.

Misgivings: Doubts or uneasiness.

Divining: Predicting the future through mystical or supernatural knowledge.

Precedence: Priority or superiority in rank or position.

Rectify: To correct.

Begetting: Giving birth to.

Preside: Rule.

Procreation: Having children.

Befell: Happened to.

Confinement: The period before, during, and just after childbirth.

Swooned: Fainted.

Resuscitate: To revive or bring back from the brink of death.

Demise: Death.

Intrusion: An unwelcome entrance or presence.

Corruption: The state of being ruined or made rotten.

Occasioned: Caused.

Mortal: Powerful, severe.

Bier: A stand on which a coffin is placed.

Quitted: Left.

Dubious: Uncertain.

Espied: Caught sight of.

Mused: Thought.

Summoning up: Calling upon.

Warily: Cautiously.

Entreat: Plead with, beg.

Biddest: Ask, request.

Quoth: Said.

Tarry: Delay.

Implicit: Unspoken but understood.

Injunction: Command or ban.

Waned: Faded.

Uncanny: Mysterious, creepy.

Apprehension: Fear, dread.

Ghastly: Horrible, frightening.

Naught: Nothing.

For sooth: Indeed, truly.

Perfidy: Betrayal.

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Tales from the Kojiki

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