Shintoist mythology
Japan, country of the Rising Sun
author Armand Sadovschi, November 2017
Shintoism and Buddhism, followed by Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity, affected the whole history of Japan’s unique civilization in both positive and negative ways. Actually, many different traditions intertwined together in the passing of time. Shinto-Buddhism is the result of that process, as it represents the closest thing to an official religion.
In Japan, not many people today declare themselves to be very spiritual. This is mainly due to the influence of modernization, education, technology and a stressful lifestyle. Even so, no one can deny the huge heritage left by different religions in Japan. Their marks on culture and mindsets can be easily observed at all levels of society. Shintoism and Buddhism, followed by Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity, affected the whole history of Japan’s unique civilization in both positive and negative ways. Actually, many different traditions intertwined together in the passing of time. Shinto-Buddhism is the result of that process, as it represents the closest thing to an official religion.

Japan has a declining population of 126 million people. According to the last official census made by the state between 2006 and 2008, 51% of Japanese citizens identify as atheists. Furthermore, 35% are Buddhists, 7% denied an answer, 4% are from a Shintoist sect and 2.3% are Christians. This statistic is not very relevant because it fails to analyze the widespread phenomenon of Shinto-Buddhism, the dominant religion of Japan. Shinto-Buddhism is more like a mix of beliefs and dogmas that gives a certain amount of freedom for the individual to interpret the meaning of existence.

Over 80% of Japanese citizens acknowledge that they often attend ceremonies at Shinto or Buddhist temples. An explanation for this apparent paradox is that Japanese people don't really believe in gods because of their highly scientific system of education. Even so, the cultural legacy of religion is so pronounced that they choose to take part in rituals as a cultural habit. Celebrations of births and weddings are mostly held in a Shinto manner, while funeral ceremonies are Buddhist. Amongst young people, Christian weddings began to be very popular.

Superstitions regarding things that bring you luck are widespread, especially amongst high school students who have to pass what are acknowledged by all academic standards to be very challenging exams. They go to Shinto shrines to make a wish, to be granted by a god. Other beliefs are a little bit scarier. For example, it is said that you shouldn't use sharp objects when it is dark because metal objects have mystical evil powers called reiryoku. Some think that you can curse someone if you go to a temple with a straw doll and a needle after midnight.

Historical cities like Kyoto organize tremendous religious festivals almost on a daily basis. Some are original Japanese traditions, and some are modified versions of ceremonies inspired from ancient China and Korea. The celebrations revolve around big crowds dressed in demons and other mythical creatures that march on the streets. Reconstruction of historical, heroic or legendary battles are the most widespread, followed by food festivals, cherry blossom contemplation, fireworks called hanami and firefly admiration.

Buddhism and Shinto have a different background, but are perfectly compatible with each other. The first offers a guide on how to walk between good and evil, while the latter works as an bond with the ancestors. Starting from 2012, the government decided to implement the teaching of Shinto myths beginning with elementary school. Ethics and basic civic education are taught from a very early age.

Unfortunately, Shinto also has a dark past. The imperial authorities from the interwar period and the Second World War used Shinto legends as political propaganda. At an official level, myths were held up as scientific truths, beyond any doubts and criticism. Turning a religion into an ideology had the purpose of justifying the act of conquering other neighbours which didn’t have a divine origin or special destiny ordained by the gods. After World War II, Tokyo apologised for all its crimes and started a pacifistic program of reeducation.

Incidents related to the imperialistic past are still present. For example, in 1999, prime minister Yoshiro Mori declared that Japan is the ‘country of the gods’, a statement that infuriated China and other states from the Pacific region. Moreover, the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visited the Shinto shrines dedicated to the Japanese soldiers who died in the Second World War. He refused to apologise, maintaining that honoring heroes is the natural right of every country and that enough time has passed since the last big war.

Shinto’s exact date of creation is unknown. The original tales that created the pantheon of gods and other supernatural beings come from the immemorial times of the paleolithic age. Because a written language didn't exist at that time, legends were transmitted orally. This is why so many different versions of particular stories emerged in a luxurious collection of old wisdom and fantasy, comparable with Ancient Greece. The first books recording Japanese folklore were Kojiki and Nihon shoki. They were ordered by the empress Genmei and interpreted by scholars in a way that benefited the state.

Shinto was the only truly original spiritual creation of the archipelago. It’s an animistic religion closely connected with nature. In fact, Shinto gods and mythical beings are mostly personifications of phenomena that can be found in nature. It also explains the divine origins of the Japanese people, and their heroic qualities. On the other hand, different forms of Buddhism were borrowed from China and Korea. The main stake is not explaining the supernatural world, but obtaining redemption into Nirvana either by praying or by living a good life, according to the dogma.

As a primitive system of beliefs, Shinto does not focus on an ethical code and it doesn't say much about how we should behave or what should we do with our lives. The main idea is to keep in balance all the divine forces that can become good or evil. Spirits start to be malevolent only when harmony is broken. In contrast to other systems of belief, there is no innate good or evil. Society and unfortunate events corrupt the human heart.

Having in mind that Kojiki and Nihon shoki represented the official approach of the state in religious matters, it’s logical to deduce that many different versions still endured in the countryside. Most of the political elite converted to Buddhism imported from China via Korea, while the common folk remained loyal to their Shinto gods.

Archeologists estimate that the first clear Shinto system of beliefs commenced somewhere between 300 BC and 300 AD. The most common form of ritual was a communication with the gods called kami, using shamanistic intermediaries. Respecting your ancestors was also of primordial significance since their purpose was to protect the living.

It’s not important whether the Japanese are atheists or believers. Shinto played the role of creating social values in the same way protestantism encouraged the development of capitalism in northern Europe. The main characteristics are: purification using rituals, loyalty to the family, respect for nature and all its beings, fertility ceremonies and the importance of the society as a whole instead of the individual.

While Kojiki was written by the scholar Yasumaro, Nihon Shoki was composed by several authors. The second holy book was a response by the other noble families who felt displaced. Nihon shoki corrected the perception that all the great heroes came only from the Yamato family. It also described the relations between deities and heroes in a far more detailed manner.

Many specialists in Asian studies speculate that the origins of Shinto beliefs can be found in the veneration of the sun. Another common feature that can be found in the Oriental Stone Age is the perpetual idea of cyclicity. Even objects are filled with life and everything that is born will be reborn again. The tragedy of the ephemeral passage of time has been one of the main topics of Japanese literature and art during the last 2,000 years. The sorrow from this revelation can only be surpassed by enjoying and praising the beauty of tiny passing things and the consolation that a new generation will arise.

As stated by the ancient holy texts, the beginning of the universe starts from chaos. But unlike any other known religion, chaos is not a vacuum space. Gods didn’t create everything from nothing. Instead, everything exists from the very beginning in a highly complex state of material and spiritual space. The conscience of humans is born from alterity, from understanding the otherness of things. Life begins with the separation of the sky from the earth.

The heavenly composition of the sky was pure, as it symbolized the spiritual part, personified by the male god Izanagi. All the impure belonged to earth, represented by the female god Izanami. Together, Izanagi and Izanami became depressed at the sight of an Earth without life. They threw a spear into the sea, and from it emerged the mythical island Onogoro in the centre of the planet. The other drops of water from the spear formed the Japanese archipelago. This is one of the main reasons for national pride even today.

Izanagi and Izanami were the parents of a new generation of countless gods. Many of them were invented at a local level, since any hero could became a deity after his death. The only thing that mattered was how the peasants and local elite understood what was happening in nature. For example, there is Watatsumi or Ryujin, who represented the god of the sea. Other notable ones were Yama, god of the mountains; Ebisu, protector of fishermen; Hachiman, god of war; Omoikane, god of wisdom; and Fujin, god of wind.

Bearing some resemblance to the myth of Rome, the first-born of Izanagi and Izanami was Ebisu. Because he was ugly and deformed, he was abandoned by his parents in a basket in the middle of the sea. The unlucky child survived and became one of the most worshiped gods in Japan.

Izanagi and Izanami are the gods that created Japan and they are the parents of the main deities. They are also related to the first emperor, a mythical figure that probably didn’t exist in real history. In contrast to other polytheistic religion, Shinto gods are weaker. They can be killed and many of them die in order to be reborn again. They don’t know everything and can’t foretell the future, having a more human-like personality, with good and bad traits. Seen from this perspective, Shinto divine creatures are closer to the Celtic and Norse ones.

The death of Izanami signals the end of a paradisal condition of the world, the disappearance of innocence and the beginning of sin and mortality. She dies giving birth to Kagutsuchi, the god of fire. On her deathbed, Izanagi promised his wife that he will save her from the underworld. Affected by the pain of mourning, he breaks his promise. In the name of revenge, Izanagi decapitates Kagutsuchi. His body turned into the main volcanoes of Japan.

Haunted by his sins and heavy conscience, Izanagi washed himself in a holy lake. From his tears, the gods Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi were born. From his nose, Susanoo emerged. The moment represents the cleansing of past mistakes and the start of a new beginning. The mortal human condition and evil were surpassed by feelings of sadness and regret. The time had come for a new season or even a new era.

Izanagi visited Izanami in the underworld called Yomi but it was too late. She forbade him to look at her but Izanagi ignored the request. Observing the state of degradation that his beloved wife was in, he ran in terror. Furious about his repeated betrayal, Izanami summoned the demons from hell to chase Izanagi, but he escaped.

Izanami cursed the world with evil spirits, so 1,000 people will die each day for eternity. In response, Izanagi used his magical power so 1,500 humans will be born daily.

Although siblings, the three deities didn’t get along. Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi had risen to the sky, but they were jealous of each other’s beauty. This is the reason why Amaterasu appears when it is day, while Tsukuyomi when it is night. Susanoo, the god of the storm, wind and chaos, had violent behaviour and so was despised by his father, Izanagi. Their conflicts almost brought the world to its end. Only the reconciliation of the main deities had the power to save humanity.

What is interesting is that Amaterasu is a sun goddess, while Tsukuyomi is a moon god. The situation is reversed compared to any other major religion, shedding light on the state of Japanese society in ancient times. Historians concluded that matriarchy was the rule until at least the 6th century AD, when Chinese influence slowly changed matters and brought about the dominance of patriarchy. Nihon Shoki tells us that there were several empresses who ruled Japan, even on the battlefield. Women had access to education and the right to ask for a divorce and to hold property.

Susanoo was hot tempered but also pretty clever. On one of his journeys he encountered a peasant and his daughter who were terrified of a monster. In exchange for the daughter’s hand in marriage, the storm god promised that he would kill the dangerous creature. Instead of facing the beast head on, he chose to disguise himself as a monster. He drank with his target, and when the demon with eight heads was asleep, he killed it with a swing of his sword. After that he found the magical sword called Kusanagi.

The origin of the quarrel between Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi is more complicated. Tsukuyomi was sent by his sister to visit the goddess of food, Uke Mochi. The deity of food was creating provisions by drinking from the ocean and spitting fish or eating from the earth and spitting rice. Tsukuyomi became angry because of her manners so he killed Uke Mochi. Learning of this, Amaterasu refused to see the moon god again.

Amaterasu was the god of beauty and agriculture and she was the favourite child of Izanagi and Izanami. In contrast, Susanoo was the hated one, always killing innocent people or burning forests. Having some similarities with Plato's concept of how humanity started, the fight between Susanoo and Amaterasu tells us about the main Shinto principle: a united society is essential for survival.

Because of his repeated crimes, Susanoo was banished from the sky and sent by his father to live in the underworld called Yomi. Susanoo asked permission to say goodbye to his older sister. As a sign of good faith, he apologised and made five magical warrior creatures from her necklace. Amaterasu replied by making three beautiful goddesses from his sword. Susanoo was then happy, claiming that he was his sister’s equal. With arrogance, Amaterasu stated that was untrue, a gesture that infuriated the storm god.

Susanoo unleashed hell on earth, killing the servants of Amaterasu. The plants wilted, war was everywhere and humanity was on the brink of extinction. Amaterasu fell into a prolonged depression, abandoning this world. She hid herself in a cave, blocking the entrance with a sacred stone.

Only Amaterasu could have defeated Susanoo. All the deities and spirits tried to convince Amaterasu to return but with no use. The world was covered in darkness, violence and ignorance. In that desperate situation, when all seemed lost, the gods decided to organize themselves and make a ridiculous dance. The laughter made Amaterasu curious as she left the cave. As in Aristotle's metaphor, ignorance can be surpassed only by curiosity. On the other hand, the day was saved not by a solitary genius, but by the work of the whole community.

Finally, Susanoo offered Amaterasu the Kusanagi sword and they were reconciled. He went to the underworld to live with his mother Izanami. Amaterasu tried to convince Okuninushi to let her heirs descend to earth and rule it. In the end he accepted, receiving the throne of the underworld instead. Historians think that the victory over Okuninushi was actually inspired by real events: the settling of the Yamato clan in Inazo.

The oldest son of Amaterasu refused to take the imperial throne, as others failed to claim it. Only at the suggestion of her oldest son, Amaterasu named Ninigi no Mikoto as the ruler of Yamato’s land, and peace was restored. Ninigi came to earth bearing gifts for humanity: the Kusanagi sword, the Yasakani jewel and the Yata no kagami mirror. These three objects became the symbols of the imperial court of Japan.

The great-grandson of Ninigi was Jimmu, the first emperor mentioned in Nihon shoki. He ruled somewhere between 660 - 585 BC. Considering that we have no actual evidence of his existence, and that the holy texts claim that he lived to be 126, Jimmu was probably a fictional character. Ignoring this detail, all the Japanese emperors consider themselves to be descendants of Jimmu, and thus also related to the sun goddess Amaterasu.

At the beginning, the idea of Hell and Heaven didn’t exist in Shinto. All dead people went to the underworld called Yomi. After repeated contacts with Buddhism, a new vision about the afterlife appeared. Meido is a middle world between Hell and Heaven, a place where humans are judged for their deeds before the gods decide to send them to Jigoku or Tengoku. The judgment meant not only a trial, but also a series of horrific tests, comparable with Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio.

The vast majority of people have to go to Meido after they die. The only exceptions are the ones who were extremely evil or extremely good, who go directly to Hell or Heaven. To get to Meido, one has to cross the sacred river Sanzu. The dead are buried with 6 coins in order to pay to cross the river.

After a person dies, three demons come to get him. He is escorted by them to Meido and on the road crows start eating his organs. To get to Meido, the soul has to cross a mountain. The mountain is as big as the person’s greed when he was alive. Demons begin to push and hit the condemned if he is starting to slow down. The journey lasts seven days and in the last day the relatives have to pray so that the soul of the deceased can begin to pass the trials.

The first judge is named Shinkou. He judges all the instances in which the person killed something in his lifetime, human and animal alike, and in what circumstances. If he is found guilty, he goes to hell. If not, he can pass to the second trial. If Shinkou thinks that the person was a great one, he allows the soul to cross the river Sanzu on a bridge. If he did both good and bad things, he has to cross the river through a heavy swamp, and if he was a evil person, but not so evil as to be sent directly to hell, he has to cross water full of venomous snakes.

When he leaves to cross Sanzu, the spirit Shinkou gives him branches that he has to carry. Their weight represents the weight of his sins. After the crossing, two demons take his clothes. If the clothes are destroyed by the weight of his sins, they skin him alive.

The ceremony is repeated at the second trial, fourteen days after his death. This time Shokou judges what he has stolen in his life. If he passes, he arrives at the third trial. The entrance is guarded by demons who will cut off his legs or arms if he used them to do a grave sin. Then he has to cross a boiling lake in order to arrive at the fourth trial, which takes place 21 days after death.

Soutei tests the sins of lust and sexuality. Men are bitten on their penises by a cat, while women have a snake inserted into them. If the soul is innocent, the animals will refuse to attack. Otherwise, the condemned goes to hell. Next, Gokan examines how many lies he has spoken. If they are too many, a stone equal to the weight of his sins will crush him. The road to the fifth trial consists of a rain of burning stones. At the end of it awaits Enma, who shows each soul a mirror representing all his sins.

Henjou, based on what the other judges tell him, finally decides if a person should be reborn and go to Heaven, the Human World, Asuras, Beasts, Gaki or Hell. Asuras is a middle ground place, based on your karma. Beasts, Gaki and Hell are the bad options. Gaki means that you will be reborn as an evil ghost, forever hungry for something. In the end, 49 days after death, Taizan appoints the exact conditions of your rebirth. For example, if Henjou said a soul should go to the Human World, Taizan states if he will be a man or a woman and in what family he will be born, etc.

Jigoku is the Japanese word for Hell, a place designated for the ones who were found guilty in the trials of Meido. Some say that Jigoku is even more horrifying, as depicted in mythical descriptions, than the Christian Hell. The main concepts are more similar to the Indian Buddhist Hell and the Chinese Hell Diyu. It is interesting that no matter how grave the sins of the convict are, the sentence to go to Hell is not eternal. We can easily observe here the Shinto’s tenet of no innate good or evil and the philosophy of cyclicity found in all forms of Buddhism.

Before we try understand Jigoku, we have to know the main evil creatures in Shintoism. Demons are called Oni and they take a human-like form. They are usually hairy, tall, with fangs, claws and horns, and armed with a club or a spear. Originally, Oni were invisible creatures, but the assimilation of Buddhism changed them into ogre shaped creatures. Demons had the role of destroying villages, bringing diseases and misfortune. Their main pleasure was to trick people into doing sins or just possess them. Some humans even sold their souls to gain an incredibile but temporary power.

The monsters in Japanese tradition are called Yokai. They are different from demons in many ways. On one hand, they can bring harm, but also luck. On the other hand, they have the ability to change their form, turning into a humanoid creature, an animal, a plant, an object, a building or even a spirit. Furthermore, Yokai, more so than Oni, were at the center of the literature of the Heian period related to mythology. Being neither good nor bad, they adapted their character to the general environment. It was humans who disturbed the Yokai and made them evil.

Obake is a form of Yokai that means the ghost of a dead person that descends on the earth and takes different forms. Kijo or onibaba is another interesting devil, being derived from an Oni who was once a woman who wanted revenge before she died. Yuki-onna, literally meaning the woman of snow, kills any traveller, freezing them and taking their souls. Tengu are goblins who like to play pranks on humans and to kidnap children.

Even in Hell, the soul gets five more chances to be reborn into other realms. This happens as a form of trials organized in Hell, 100 days, 1 year, 6 years, 12 years and 32 years after death. The prayers of the relatives can really save the soul from damnation. If he loses all of those chances, the poor soul will stay in hell for hundreds of years.

Jigoku is actually composed of eight hot hells and eight cold hells. Furthermore, there are thousands of different places in Hell, each specialised in a different punishment fitting the sinner. It should be noted that times passes differently in Hell than on earth. For example, if fifty years pass in the human realm, in Hell the souls have to endure a punishment of thousands of years.

Toukatsu is the Hell for killers. There, the damned ones have to fight and kill each other only to be instantly revived and to fight again. The pain of a violent death is repeated countless times. Kokujou is destined for bandit robbers. Here, the souls are trapped on the ground by hot strings as they are cut in pieces by demons with fire weapons. Those who committed the sin of lust are sent to Shugou, where they are slowly crushed by mountains of iron. Then they have to climb trees made of blades that have beautiful women and men on the top of them. The damned are cut down and the process starts all over again.

Alcoholic murderers are forced to drink boiled iron, liars have their tongues pierced with hot iron nails, blasphemers are beaten to death by demons with clubs. The worst forms of Jigoku are Dai-jounetsu and Mugen. They are reserved for those who attacked monasteries, killed priests or killed their parents or children. This hell is so hot that the thirst makes you rip your skin in order to drink your own blood.

Tengoku is the Japanese word for Heaven, and is the realm where only good people go after their deaths. It was also imported from Buddhism, but we don’t really have a detailed depiction of it. In some versions Tengoku is in the sky, in others it is on a infinite ocean. Shintoism wasn’t preoccupied very much with the afterlife, and the description of Hell is far more generous because Jigoku was a temporary state before being reborn after you pay for your sins, while Heaven was the end of the journey, the final destination of reaching Nirvana. But then folklore gave us a lot of good creatures and spirits that are worth mentioning.

Foxes are one of the most respected animals in Shintoism. They are considered highly intelligent and powerful, being creatures that play the role of messengers of the gods. It is forbidden to kill them, as they bring good luck and a plentiful harvest. In other versions, foxes are believed to be servants of the rice god Inari. With age, these magical foxes are able to possess humans or even turn into beautiful women in order to corrupt the hearts of men. This is why, in Shinto festivals, masks representing foxes are so popular.

Snakes are often believed to be evil demons, but they are also the messenger creatures of water deities. Without them, irrigation won’t work and the whole community will suffer. Together with protective water deities called Sujin, they are especially venerated in the shrines of small islands or in areas specialised in agriculture.

The Japanese cosmology is completed by the existence of the spirits that protect the rice named Ta no Kami. Sometimes they are the same as the spirits that protect the mountains. All of them are represented in the Shinto temples using a phallic symbol. Even today the festival of fertility Kanamara Matsuri is still celebrated on the first Sunday in April. People march alongside a giant phallus. In Medieval times, the holy day was also popular amongst prostitutes that prayed for protection against venereal diseases.

Yamato Takeru is the main hero in Japanese tradition, with Herculean power and the wit of Ulysses. The legend was also inspired from a real prince. As happens with these kinds of stories, many versions appeared in the course of centuries. He appears in all the major manuscripts from the VIII & IX century.

The real Yamato Takeru was Osu, the son of emperor Keiko. He lived somewhere around the first century AD. The stories tell us that, when he was only a teenager, Osu killed his older brother in cold blood. Terrified by his power, Keiko gave Osu many impossible missions, just as Hercules had his twelve labours. Keiko hoped that Osu will not return alive, but he always did. We are told by the legends that Osu was sent to fight some rebels in southern Kyushu. Historians think that there is a grain of truth in that, especially because the imperial court of Yamato held only a part of Japan under its control. At that time there were hundreds of warrior clans and little kingdoms, and the north of the country was owned by the Ainu tribes, a people originating from Siberia that were different from an ethnic point of view.

With his heart broken, Osu prayed to the gods, asking them if his father really wanted his death. Amaterasu was impressed, giving him a magic cloak as a gift. Not only was he a warrior without equal and a wise strategist, but Osu also had the protection and sympathy of the gods. Transcending cultures and borders, the relation between Amaterasu and Osu has the same flavor as the friendship of Ulysses and Athena.

Osu was sent to defeat an huge rebel army, led by two brothers. Again bearing some resemblance with Achilles, he dressed himself as a servant woman, and was very beautiful. Osu gained their trust, serving wine at the rebels’ party. Using a magical dagger, he assassinated the leaders of the rebel party. Kumaso, before he died, called Osu by the name ‘Yamato Takeru’, which literally means the bravest of the Yamato clan.

On another journey, he had to crush another rebellion led by Izumo Takeru, the bravest warrior from the Izumo province. From a historic point of view, the era was characterised by primitive alliances between smaller tribes that were vassals to other bigger ones. Yamato Takeru pretended to be a minor noble from afar and became friends with Izumo. They went for a bath together in a lake. When he wasn’t paying attention, Yamato exchanged Izumo’s sword with a wooden one. Then he challenged him to an amicable duel and killed him.

For his deeds, Yamato Takeru received the Kusanagi sword from Amaterasu. Jealous of his victories, his father’s generals tried to lead Osu into a trap. Invited to a celebration by a local warlord, he was surrounded by enemies on flat land. The grass was set on fire and he had no escape. Kusanagi originally belonged to Susanoo, god of the storm. Realizing that he could control the wind with the blade, he turned the fire on the traitors and returned home in glory.

Osu became very curious and wanted to explore the unknown world, so he set sail. Susanoo became furious about his insolence and the ship was saved only by the sacrifice of Osu’s wife, who threw herself into the sea. The gods punished Yamato Takeru for not being content with his place. Yamato Takeru cursed the gods, composed a poem, threw his weapons into the sea and become arrogant and embittered.

The American anthropologist C. Scott Littleton thinks that Yamato Takeru is incredibly similar to the myth of king Arthur from Great Britain. He tries to prove that folklore travelled between Asia and Western Europe, with nomadic tribes like Sarmatians and Alans playing a key role. This complex process happened between the second and the fifth century AD.

Osu’s end is somehow similar to Achilles, who was killed by an arrow of the god Apollo, because he destroyed one of his temples and stated that no mortal could kill him. Takeru learned of a magical snake that was killing innocent people and went to kill it. On the road he encountered a huge boar, who offered to help Osu. The hero refused and killed the snake with his bare hands. He died shortly afterwards from illness, because the boar that he encountered was actually the messenger god, who cursed him for his arrogance. C. Scott Littleton claims that the comparison with Arthur is better.

North Iranian nomadic tribes also had a mythical national hero named Batraz. In Littleton’s opinion, Batraz is the prototype for both Arthur and Yamato Takeru, being a middle ground for both of them. Lancelot also originates from the same common story.

Arthur and Yamato Takeru had magical swords given by the gods using a priestess as an intermediary. The intermediary was in all cases related to the hero. All of them led armies and had to fight with traitors from their own kind. The heroes explored new lands by boat, crossing unknown waters, and died in battle or illness right after they abandoned the magical sword. Their bodies ascended into the sky.

Littleton’s idea is very important because it suggests that the ancient world was far more connected that many historians believed before. Folk tales travelled thousands of miles, changing their appearance but keeping their essence about human nature. The very idea of this possibility changes how we perceive the old world.

Japanese folktales are extremely rich, depicting stories full of imagination and creativity. A big part of this richness of creatures and spirits is owed to the Shinto mythology. In a sense, Shinto looks like the pantheist vision of the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. Everything has life and the highest morality is hidden in the most common things. Many of the traditional tales are violent or shocking, having the purpose of educating the general population.

Sidney L. Gulick was an American missionary and a promoter of friendly relations between Japan and the United States. In his book Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, he wrote about the impact of folktales on the general mentality. ‘If a clew to the character of a nation is gained by a study of the nature of the gods it worships, no less valuable an insight is gained by a study of its heroes. Such a study confirms the impression that the emotional life is fundamental in the Japanese temperament. Japan is a nation of hero-worshipers.’

There are similarities between Japanese fairy tales and western ones, but there are also many differences. Stimulated by Shintoist tradition, the main heroes pay for their selfishness, arrogance and greed but they can also repent and be saved at the last moment. Characters can evolve from being good to being evil and the major antagonist can surprise everyone by his sacrifice and remorse. Sometimes monsters and demons can be better than humans.

Richard Gordon Smith was a British naturalist who lived in Japan for many years. In his free time he travelled all over the country, collecting folk stories. This is how he wrote the work Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan, a collection that was awarded with the Order of the Rising Sun. The main stories are: The Golden Hairpin, The Spirit of the Willow Tree, The Procession of the Ghosts, The White Serpent God, The Blind Beauty.

Professor at Hawaii University and expert in Asian Studies, George Tanabe makes the clear connection between Shinto religion and the oldest Japanese fairy tales. ‘Shinto has only been in use for some thirteen centuries, while the creed it designates claims to trace its origin from the remotest antiquity. Indeed, the investigation of Shintoism takes us back not merely to the earliest annals of Japanese history, but to the fabulous legends of a mythological period.’

Yei Theodora Ozaki was one of the first great translators of Japanese fairy tales into English. In her book Japanese Fairy Tales she put together a collection of 22 stories that were most commonly found in the countryside. They talk about heroes, gods and mythical creatures. The best titles are: The Goblin of Adachigahara, The Ogre of Rashomon, Momotaro, The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child, The Mirror of Matsuyama.

Although some of the stories have no profound meaning, the vast majority of Japanese fairy tales have a moralizing message to transmit. If you don’t respect your elders, you will be punished by the gods. You shouldn’t underestimate strangers and judge them based on your prejudices. Curiosity is a positive thing until it becomes an obsession of greed and lust, with this act being represented by the opening of locked magic chests.

The topics and styles of the fairy tales are very diverse. Some of them are innocent, talking about children who are helped by fairies to support their elders. Others depict the exact cruelty of ancient and medieval times. We have characters that are raped, stepmothers that kill their children, boys that kill their fathers for power, princes that are betrayed for a coin of gold, monkeys that fool peasants into burning innocents and so on. Both of the styles bring us a glimpse of how Japan was before written history, how most of the people lived and what their moral perspective was.

Shintoism borrowed a lot of rituals from the different forms of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, transforming them into a new form of spiritual expression. There are major Shinto festivals almost every month, with some of them celebrated twice a year, each celebration lasting several days. People carry little decorated caravans that represent gods or a sacred act. They march on the streets accompanied by flute and drum music in order to summon the gods and spirits. The ones dedicated to war gods, fertility or the new year are loud and energetic, while the ones that focus on purification are quiet and encourage meditation.

In the eighth century the Japanese wanted to organize Shintoism as a state religion, so they created the Ritsuryo system. Basically, it was a list of the greatest gods according to their abilities and a calendar with the greatest holy days and when they should be celebrated. The system is respected by many up to this day. In February they pray for the coming of the new year, in March they have the festival of Flower Appeasing, in April and September the celebration of God Clothing, etc.

Flower Appeasing consists in praying for the ones that are ill, while Wind God festival in April and July means praying for the land to be safe in the face of storms and cataclysms. During Fire Appeasing, followers ask the deities to protect people from arson. In thanking the sun goddess Amaterasu you have to offer her clothes and in November believers pray for the emperor's soul. In order to cleanse one’s sins, every six months, in December and June, the follower has to do the Purification Ceremony.

The basic steps in praying at a Shinto temple are really simple. Firstly, you have to bow at the gate entrance, as the gate has the role of protecting humans from evil spirits. Secondly, you have to wash your hands in a small water fountain that can be found in the temple as a purification ceremony. Thirdly, make a symbolic offering to the gods, or just make a wish. Because gods are not omnipotent, you have to ring a bell after you make the wish, so you can get their attention. The ritual ends after you bow and clap your hands twice, signalling your departure.

Shintoism intertwined with Buddhism in many ways. Starting from Classical Antiquity, many Shinto shrines were built near Buddhist ones and vice versa. Countless Shinto priests and shamans became Buddhist monks, but they still performed Shintoist rituals. Furthermore, the Shinto gods became protectors of Buddha. In exchange, the gods had the chance to enter Nirvana and obtain illumination. Because of this vague official dogma, the imperialistic Japanese Meiji government declared the separation of the two religions. In practice, even today the bond is not broken.

For their great contribution to the wellbeing of the country, some real historical characters became gods and are still worshiped. Prince Shotoku was an intellectual, a ruler who made formidable reforms and declared the independence of ancient Japan from China, so he is now the deity that protects the imperial family. Fujiwara no Michizane was a brilliant scholar, politician and poet who, because of his sacrifice, became the god of education. Tokugawa Ieyasu stopped a civil war that lasted more than one hundred years, so he was proclaimed ‘The Great Buddha, Light of The East’.

Shintoism is not a very ritualistic religion. George Tanabe explains the situation in his book Religions of Japan in Practice. ‘Shintoism would seem to recognize a future state of bliss or misery, for which the present life is a period of probation. Practically, however, this is the only world with which Shintoism concerns itself. Nor does it inculcate any laws of morality or conduct, conscience and the heart being accounted sufficient guides. It provides neither public worship, nor sermons. It is the least expecting of all religions.’

The lack of clear morality in Shintoism was compensated by the introduction of Buddhism and its rituals. George Tanabe thinks that, in practice, the two religions became one. ‘Despite the dissociation of the two religions, many of the Shinto temples still retain traces of the Buddhist influence. Of Shintoism proper the prevailing characteristic is a marked simplicity, which, however, is often found combined with great artistic beauty.’