Izanagi and Izanami, the Birth of Japan

October 25, 2021 6 min read

Izanagi and Izanami

In Japan, kami are highly venerated deities resulting from Shinto beliefs. From the origin of the Land of the Rising Sun to the religious rites, passing by local folklore, the archipelago abounds in fascinating myths where kami and spirits of the universe are the main characters.

Izanagi and Izanami are Japanese gods who are at the origin of the creation of the world, the islands of Japan and all the kami. Wow! 😁

Discover, without further delay, the extraordinary legend of this key couple of the Shinto religion and their influence on popular culture.

✔️ The legend of Izanagi and Izanami

The legend of Izanagi and Izanami is one of the most famous stories in the Kojiki, an ancient and sacred book that gathers myths about the creation of Japan and the kami. It is said that this celestial couple is at the origin of the genesis of the world, of the forming of the Japanese islands and that they generated the Shinto deities. Moreover, Shintoism is an ancestral religion which remains the most practiced one today in Japan.

founding couple of Japan

Representations of the founding couple by (1) Kobayashi Eitaku (1885), (2) unknown and (3) unknown.

💥 In the beginning, it was chaos

When order did not yet exist, the formless Earth floated like a jellyfish, blending with the sky. However, the beginnings of existence were taking shape and the sky gradually detached from the Earth. In the high heavenly plains appeared the first gods of creation of the universe (kotoamatsukami) and after several generations of kami, the god Izanagi and his sister Izanami were born.

Their mission: 👉 To bring order out of chaos and create the world. In that regard, the primitive gods had given them a celestial spear decorated with precious stones (the famous Ame No Nuhoko).

🌈 The creation of the islands of the archipelago

Between Heaven and Earth was a floating celestial bridge that connected the two substances. This was the very place where Izanagi hit the sea with the divine spear to check on the existence of a world below the clouds. The splash that was thrown up solidified and formed the first Japanese island called Onokoro. The two kami chose this land to build a beautiful palace and eventually become a couple. Thus, the two gods were united through the ritual of marriage.
Wait, weren't they brother and sister at the base? 🤔

Izanagi and Izanami on the heavenly bridge

Izanagi and Izanami on the heavenly bridge. Print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1849-50). Museum of Fine Arts of Boston. Source : ukiyo-e.org

The ceremony consisted of each of them turning in one direction around a celestial pillar, Izanagi from the left and Izanami from the right before meeting face to face and declaring their love. After their union, the couple gave birth to their first child named Hiruko or leech child. Sadly, their offspring, lacking bones, was malformed and thus abandoned in the ocean. No mercy back then, that's for sure 😬 !

Faced with this failure, the couple asked the primitive gods for advice on why their newborn child was deformed. The latter immediately blamed Izanami. In their opinion, the goddess had not performed the unification ritual correctly since she had spoken the first 🙅‍♂️. Therefore, the nuptial ritual had to be started over again with Izanagi having the honor of speaking before his bride. So here is where sexism in Japan originated 😏. After correcting this mistake, the divine couple of the Land of the Rising Sun gave birth to the islands of Japan and a whole generation of kami. It might seem that everything ended well, but the sequel would turn out to be more tragic...

Representations of the creator kami of Japan

Other depictions of the creator kami of Japan (right, by Ogata Gekko, 1891).

🐣 The birth of the kami

The numerous kami resulting from the celestial couple established the elements of nature as we know it today. Thus, we can quote the famous god of the wind, the kami of the mountains, the god of the plains, of the sand, etc

Everything was going well, until Izanami gave birth to the fire deity Kagutsuchi. And that's when the drama started 🤭 ! It is said that when she was born, the goddess was burned alive and sent to the Yomi which is none other than the realm of the dead. Izanagi, devastated by grief and rage, killed his own child whom he held responsible for the disappearance of his beloved. From his flesh and blood appeared eight volcanoes and several kami.

☠️ Detour to the land of the dead

After having eliminated the fire god, Izanagi went to the realm of the dead hoping to find his wife and bring her back to life. When he managed to reach his beloved and implored her to come back with him, the goddess confessed that she had eaten food from hell which made her a prisoner of Yomi. However, she would still try to get permission to leave the place by praying to the kami who ruled the kingdom. In exchange, she asked Izanagi to promise not to try to return to her until she returned home by herself.

Descent of Izanami to the realm of the dead

Descent of Izanagi to the land of the dead.  Image: Path leading to the entrance of the land of the dead, Yomotsu Hirasaka in Matsue.

However, the god was not a patient person by nature and after a day, he started to look for her. It was then that he saw Izanami with a half-decomposed body. Horrified, he ran away while the demons chased after him. Luckily, Izanagi managed to escape from the Yomi. He sealed the door to the realm of the dead with a gigantic rock, then went to wash himself in the river to purify himself. In revenge, the goddess shouted at him that she would kill a thousand of his creations each day and Izanagi replied that he would produce 500 more of them return. It was this quarrel that gave rise to the cycle of life and death according to Japanese mythology.

🌞 Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi and Susanoo

When the god Izanagi washed away the impurities of the world of the dead, he produced three kami. First, he cleaned his left eye, which gave birth to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Then, by washing his right eye, Tsukuyomi the kami of the moon appeared. As for the storm god Susanoo, he came directly out of Izanagi's nose. Note that this purification ritual initiated by this famous kami has become a common practice of the Shinto religion.

Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukuyomi

Representations of the goddess Amaterasu and the gods Susanoo and Tsukuyomi.

Nowadays, these three Shinto deities are probably the most revered in Japan and many large shrines are dedicated to them.

🌞 The goddess Amaterasu rules over the high plain of heaven (Takamagahara). She is also known for having hidden herself in a cave and for passing on the yasakani no magatama necklace, an imperial treasure of Japan.

🌚 Tsukuyomi rules the night world. After angering her sister Amaterasu and goddess of the sun, night and day were separated forever.

🌊 Susanoo, the powerful kami of storms and thunder rules the sea, but jealous of Amaterasu, he violently attacked her kingdom, which led to his exile on Earth. However, he became famous after defeating the dragon Yamata no Orochi who was terrifying the mortals of Izumo province.

🎬 Influence on popular culture

The imprint of the famous couple of kami has now become part of the popular culture where the legend continues to inspire manga and video game scriptwriters.

Izanami in the shonen Noragami

Character of Izanami in the shonen Noragami.

In Naruto, Izanagi represents a technique used by ninjas to change the destiny whereas Izanami is a practice which allows to become yourself again. In the video game Okami, it is Izanagi who eliminates the demon Orochi in order to free Izanami. We also find the creator gods in the role-playing game Persona 4 as well as in the shonen Noragami in which Izanami symbolizes the goddess of the underworld. Whether in manga, literature, anime or video games, mythological references to the demigod couple are rather frequent.

The legend of Izanagi and Izanami illustrates the conception of the world and the birth of the archipelago in Japanese mythology. Through this story, as well as the many ancient myths, we better understand the foundations of the Japanese culture as well as the Shinto beliefs.


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