In The Kojiki, the first anthropomorphic gods are Izanami (She Who Beckoned) and Izanagi (He Who Beckoned). They quickly notice that their bodies have some key differences:
Now the mighty one [Izanagi] turned to the mighty one [Izanami] and questioned his sister, saying: “How is your body formed?”
She replied, saying: “My body is empty in one place.”
And so the mighty one [Izanagi] proclaimed: “My body sticks out in one place. I would like to thrust the part of my body that sticks out into the part of your body that is empty and fill it up to birth lands. How does birthing them in this way sound to you?”
The mighty one [Izanami] replied, saying: “That sounds good.” (The Kojiki)
As the first anthropomorphized gods, Izanami and Izanagi are also Japan’s first sexed and gendered gods. Before they couple, they perform a simple ritual, passing around a pillar and greeting each other in turn. This ritual is presumably why these kami (gods, for lack of a succinct alternative) are He Who Beckoned and She Who Beckoned. When Izanami beckons first, all their offspring are malformed. When Izanagi beckons first, they begin to give birth to the Japanese archipelago and many of the kami behind its more significant natural phenomena.
Eventually, Izanami dies giving birth to the fire god. Izanagi kills his newborn son in rage and grief, then goes to Yomi, the land of the dead, to search for his wife. Sadly, it is too late for Izanami—she has already eaten food from the underworld. Izanagi breaks his promise not to look at her, only to discover that she has become a rotting corpse. He runs away and seals the entrance to Yomi: “as they stood there with the boulder between them, they declared themselves divorced” (The Kojiki).
Enraged, Izanami vows that she will now kill 1,000 people a day; Izanagi counters he will build 1,500 birthing huts every day to thwart her.
Izanagi then rushes to a river to purify himself. (Purification is an important facet of Japanese religion.) Washing the filth from his body begets new kami, including the sun goddess Ametarasu.
Let me note here that Ametarasu is a part of an elite group—the sun anthropomorphized as a female, rather than as a male. Most other mythologies with women as sun deities are what you might call “out of the mainstream” today: early Egyptian, Canaanite, Celtic, pre-Islamic Arabian… In the mythologies familiar to most Westerners, the sun deity is male, often paired with a female moon goddess. The sun as a goddess is just one of the moments in Japanese mythology where a female figure takes on a position of importance, or even supremacy.
Like many creation narratives, The Kojiki takes place long before its people had any means of writing The earliest events of The Kojiki ostensibly take place before or during the Jomon Period. Material evidence of Japan’s prehistorical Jomon culture dates as early as 40k BCE.
Over centuries, a belief system centered on the sun goddess Ametarasu spread from the centers of power. (A ruling family used its purported divine descent from Ametarasu to help consolidate power.) But around the same time, the movement of peoples and culture between Japan and the continent was introducing new ideas to the Japanese:
- The Kojiki relates that a Chinese emperor sent a Confucian teacher and The Analects to Japan around 400 CE, although this account is often disputed.
- Recent scholarship has placed the gradual importation of Daoist ideas into Japan between the fifth and eighth centuries (Richey).
- In the mid-to-late sixth century, a delegation from the Korean Peninsula brought Buddhist priests to Japan.
In early East Asian histories, there are many accounts of women with political and/or religious power in Japan. In fact, “the earliest Japan of which we have any real historical relic is a time in the third century when the islands were ruled by a priestess and her household” (Ellwood). Notably, we learn about Himiko (also Pimiko or Shingi Wao) in the classical Chinese history Records of the Three Kingdoms. The writer describes her this way:
[Himiko] occupied herself with magic and sorcery and bewitched the populace. Thereupon they placed her on the throne.Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories, as qtd. in De Bary, et al.
This (presumably male) chronicler falls back on that favorite accusation of men threatened by a woman’s power—“she’s a witch.” But this kind of religiopolitical power seems to have been the norm in early Japan, where women held important shamanistic positions and were said to be actually possessed by kami. “Before the importation of Chinese culture,” Sallie B. King claims, “shamanistic miko were sometimes powerful women who served at the highest level of the state.”
Though there is always a difference between theology and institutional practice, King describes Shinto as a set of beliefs in which it is “not possible” to “divide the world into absolute categories of sacred and profane, soul and body, heaven and earth” (note the contradiction with the dualism of Daoism) or to “identify females with the inferior member of each pair.”
Robert Ellwood makes a case that Japan experienced a “patriarchal revolution” that coincided with the introduction of Daoist ideas (especially yin and yang, which I’ll come back to in a minute), Confucianism, and Buddhism. Confucianism, in particular, is a patriarchal tradition: a shared generative force passes down through the male line, giving pride of place to a family’s oldest male offspring. Many schools of Buddhist practice and teaching, moreover, give special emphasis to the role of male monks; even the historical Buddha long resisted creating an order of nuns.
By the time of The Kojiki’s promulgation in the 710s, society was “largely denatured of real female magic, mystery, or personality” (Ellwood, emphasis his). The sun goddess and empresses had become “figureheads in heavenly and earthy patriarchal orders, at best only sanctifying them with matriarchal tokens.”
So, The Kojiki presumably draws on an older tradition that predates Ellwood’s “patriarchal revolution.” The written, eighth century account, though, takes a native, shamanistic, female-(centered?) tradition and superimposes the religious philosophies gradually adopted into Japanese culture. This tension—between older and contemporary attitudes about women—comes across in Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle.
The Goddess Chronicle
On the timeless island of Umihibe in ancient Japan, life revolves around two female shamans. Kamikuu (“Child of the Gods”) takes the role of yang for the island—she is creative, pure, life-giving, fertile.
Kamikuu’s sister—her paired yin—is Namima (“Woman Amid the Waves”). Namima is her sister’s opposite: she watches over the dark and the dead and must remain perpetually a virgin.
Namima is the novel’s central character and narrator. She isn’t aware of her role as “Woman Amid the Waves” until the day she takes on that role. She has already broken the role’s central taboo and secretly become pregnant. She and her lover flee Umihibe in the night. After giving birth to their daughter, Namima wakes up to her lover strangling her to death. Eventually her spirit makes its way to Yomi, where she meets an Izanami who continues to nurse the grudge against Izanagi she has held since the beginning of the world. Namima spends the rest of the novel as Izanagi’s faithful attendant.
Yang and Yin Debasing a Goddess
Recall the importation of Chinese ideas into Japan. One of the most enduring is the Daoist notion of unity and duality often cribbed in the West as yin and yang. Very briefly, this dualism describes how forces that seem opposite or contrary are actually connected and interdependent. Yin is the receptive principle, associated with a host of natural phenomena, including disorder, dark, and water. Yang is the active principle, associated with order, light, fire… Particularly under Confucianism, the yang became associated with the male, and became the greater of the two. Yin and yang have often loaned a philosophical explanation for men’s superior position to women.
On Umihebi, “the dualities found in nature are embodied by women instead of men” (Lianying). Women are mothers or virgins. They deal with life or death. They are objects of worship or pity.
Lianying claims “women are all excluded from the decision-making process of the societies they inhabit,” but this isn’t precisely true on Umihebi. Even though Kamikuu is a woman, she is also yang—masculine and active. She may not choose her fate—which of the villagers of either sex does?—but she takes on an important leadership role on the island for the rest of her life. It is the men on Umihebi who are disposable, who are excluded, not the women.
The ancient Japanese may have recognized this dual, contradictory facet of woman’s nature, even in a woman’s biological functions: “There is some evidence… that in very early times, menstruation and childbirth may have been seen as either polluting or sacred, or both” (King). To Kirino’s Izanami, “there is a deep connection between death and birth.”
Kirino’s Izanami’s provides her own explanation why yin and yang, though equally valuable parts of a whole, are no longer equally respected:
I [Namima] recalled Izanami’s words: “Heaven and earth, man and woman, birth and death, day and night, light and dark, yin and yan. You may wonder why everything was paired in this way, but a single entity would have been insufficient. In the beginning, two became one, and from that union new life came. Whenever a single entity was paired with its oppose, the value of both became clear from the contrast—and the mutual association enriched the meaning of both.”
But once Izanami had died, the value of the pairing was lost and she became associated only with the dark half: earth, woman, death, night, dark, yin and, yes, pollution.
The Japanese are generally more tolerant of ambiguity than English-speakers. But Izanami’s position is also uniquely contradictory. She is a goddess; she has died. She was life; she’s now death. She loathes her position; she also chooses it.
(Lianying claims that being goddess of the underworld is “a role not of [Izanami’s] choice,” but it is. After Kirino’s Izanagi dies a mortal death, Izanami has an opportunity to let go of her anger. Yet despite continually claiming it has been her fate to become the goddess of the underworld, she finally declares, “It is my lot, my choice to accept all of the world’s defilement.”)
In a world divided between yin ang yang, Izanami doesn’t fit neatly into either category—does she bring life or death? Izanami’s tragedy, Kirino proposes, “lies in her inability to define who she wants to be” (Lianying).
Who Tells Your Story?
At the novel’s end, Namima claims, “This, then, is Izanami’s story.” Why isn’t Izanami the narrator?
Namima is the narrator of Izanami’s story because her story is Izanami’s. On one level, “the identification with Okami [polite word for kami] is an experiential fulfillment of Shinto teachings on the identity of human nature (once sufficiently purified) with kami nature” (King). On another, the story Namima and Izanami share is the story of all women—their choices limited by the structures the patriarchy imposes because of their biology. After all, as Izanami notes, “It’s always the woman who dies.”
Anesaki Masaharu. History of Japanese Religion, 2012.
De Bary, WM, et al. ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600, 2nd ed., 2001.
Richey, Jefffrey L., ed. Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture, 2018.