The Japanese Shinto Legend of How Japan Was Made

A divine pair created Japan while standing on a bridge from heaven.
... Jupiterimages/ Images

The origins of Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, fade into the hoary past, when the demographics on the archipelago included an unknown mixture of ethnic Japanese, Ainu and Ryukyuan people. Shinto, which means "the Way of the Gods," has always been a system of nature worship lacking the written scriptures central to other world religions. An ancient document that dates to around A.D. 700, however, contains a creation story worthy of an anime adaptation.

1 Izanagi and Izanami

According to the Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Things," three invisible deities came into being at the beginning of the world. At that time, the land floated like oil on the oceans, and from it, two more deities sprouted like reed shoots. Five or six pairs of deities followed, the last of which were Izanagi -- the Male that Invites -- and Izanami -- the Female that Invites. The deities who pre-existed them ordered Izanagi and Izanami to form the island of Japan, and gave them a jeweled spear with which to do it.

2 Creation of the Islands

Standing on a rainbow bridge from heaven, Izanagi and Izanami dipped the jeweled spear into the ocean and stirred. When they withdrew the spear, the brine that dripped off became an island, and they descended onto it. Through sexual union, the two gave birth to the six main islands and the eight outlying islands of the Japanese archipelago. They also gave birth to a number of deities, including that of the sea, the rivers, the winds, the trees and the mountains. When she gave birth to the deity of fire, however, Izanami was burned so badly she died.

3 Amaterasu Omikami

Some stories say that Amaterasu Omikami was born from a tear Izanagi shed after he learned about Izanami's death, and others that she was the product of a sexual union. In any case, she is the sun goddess and the most important deity in Shinto mythology. Through union with her brother, Susanowo, the turbulent god of the sea, she parented eight deities. Among them was the ancestor of the Yamato clan, which was the earliest ruling family in Japan, and to which all subsequent emperors have been related. Until the end of World War II, Japanese emperors claimed divinity through this relationship to Amaterasu.

4 Ise Shrine

Ise Shrine, in Mie Prefecture and close to Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto, is dedicated to Amaterasu and is Shinto's holiest shrine. The high priest of the shrine, who is related to the Imperial Family, performs a rite there every year that was formerly performed by the emperor himself. Every 20 years, the buildings are razed and rebuilt, a tradition that mimics the destructive and recreative forces of Nature that keep everything new and alive. Ise houses the "sacred regalia" that commemorate the jewels and mirror used to lure Amaterasu out of hiding after being frightened by the violent and chaotic behavior of Susanowo.

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.