The early myths of Japan were first compiled beginning in the fifth and eighth centuries C.E., in books known as the Kojiki and the Nihongi. This is rather late compared to the myths of nearby China, not to mention Greek and Rome.
But perhaps because of their relatively recent vintage, these myths seem to resonate strongly with modern Japanese, who have recycled them in contemporary manga and animated films.
More importantly, the stories of the ancient gods, or kami, are a crucial part of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, which despite the subsequent adoption of Buddhism and its various sects, is still the basis of uniquely Japanese culture. One important aspect of the myths was political, and supported the divine rights claimed by the Japanese Imperial Family, which was held to be divine until forced to renounce its claims to divinity after World War II.
The primary Japanese myths concern a celestial family and its creation, and ultimately center on one key kami, Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun. That this sun deity is female, when most sun gods are traditionally male (and the moon, female) is a distinguishing feature of Japanese cosmology.
When these stories first began being told is unknown, and various myths in the Kojiki, Nihongi and other sources tell different stories, or different versions of stories, about the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and the other gods. But among the most popular, and fundamental to the Shinto view of the world, are these:
Amaterasu, the supreme Japanese deity, was said to have been created by the divine couple Izanagi (“He-who-invites”) and Izanami (“She-who-is-invited”), who were themselves created by, or grew from, the originator of the Universe, Amenominakanushi (“All-Father of the Originating Hub” or “Heavenly Ancestral God of the Originating Heart of the Universe”). This divine couple created the Japanese archipelago, the islands of which are considered to be their first children.
Next came the creation of their divine offspring, which began badly: As Izanami gave birth to Kagu-Tsuchi, the God of Fire, she was horribly burned, died, and was sent to the underworld, known as Yomi-no-kuni. Izanagi tried to rescue her, but when he found her, she was disfigured and consumed by maggots, and he retreated in horror to the archipelago they had created.
As Izanagi returned to the world, he spontaneously gave birth to three deities: Amaterasu, born from his left eye; her younger brother Tsukiyomi, the moon deity, from his right eye; and the troublesome baby boy of the family, Susano-O, the storm deity, the ignominious product of his nostrils.
The first of these offspring, Amaterasu, was primary, all-powerful and beloved, for she brings nothing but goodness to the land her parents created. But her younger brothers would give her – and the Japanese – problems for the rest of eternity.
The main illustrative story about Amaterasu is one familiar to world mythology, for it describes the importance of the sun, and the fear of its loss, that is experienced in cultures around the planet. The story involves Amaterasu and her boisterous youngest brother, Susano-O, who just can’t help creating trouble and is jealous of his older sister’s beauty and power. At one point, he upsets his sister so much – his crimes are legion, and colorful – that she runs away and shuts herself in a cave, plunging the land into darkness.
Many attempts to draw her out of the cave fail, until Uzume, the goddess of joy and revelry, conceives a plan: Placing the large mirror (the Yata no Kagami) facing the cave’s opening, Uzume does a comical, sensual dance that entertains the other kami and the people so much that Amaterasu peeks out to see what all the fuss is about. When she catches sight of herself, shining in the mirror, she is drawn out of the cave by her own beauty, and is caught by the god Ama no Tajikara-wo no Kami, who uses the Yasakani-no-Magatama (Curved Jewel) to hook her. He then strings a Shimenawa (the familiar Shinto braided rope) across the cave entrance to keep her from reentering it.
Thus, Amaterasu is returned to the world for good, and the sun shines on the Japanese archipelago. The three items used in this story – the mirror, the curved jewel, and a third, the Kusanagi no Tsurugi sword, which her brother Susano-O, later gave to her to apologize for his bad behavior – are the Three Sacred Regalia that are emblematic of the Imperial Family and play ongoing roles in Shinto ritual to this day.
Amaterasu herself is today honored most prominently at the Grand Shrine of Ise, in Mie, Western Honshu, south of Kyoto, where the temple in her honor has been rebuilt every 20 years since 690 C.E. to keep her memory pure.