BBC - Religions - Shinto: Core stories of Shinto (2023)

The founding of Japan

Core stories of Shinto

These texts set out the traditional story of the foundation of Japan and its people, and demonstrate the very close relationship between the gods and the people of Japan. The stories also demonstrate many parallels between human beings and the kami.

The foundation of Japan

This part of the story makes the following points:

  • Japan was the first land to be created
  • Sexual union is a holy creative process
  • If certain rituals are not properly followed bad things may happen
  • If the natural order of things is disturbed bad things may happen
  • The female should be subordinate to the male
  • Kami are created by the same process as human beings
  • Imperfect children can be abandoned

BBC - Religions - Shinto: Core stories of Shinto (1)Izanami and Izanagi, by Kobayashi Eitaku c.1885 ©

In the beginning, when the universe was created from the pre-existing chaos a number of kami ('gods' in this context) appeared spontaneously. Their relationships gave rise to a brother and sister; Izanagi and Izanami. Izanagi means 'he who invites' and Izanami means 'she who invites'.

Izanagi and Izanami thrust a jewelled spear into the ocean, and the first land formed where the spear touched the water. This was the central island of Japan.

Izanagi and Izanami married and discovered sexual intercourse.

Their first child, Hiruko, was born deformed and later abandoned by his parents; legend says the deformity was caused because Izanami had spoken first in the sexual ritual.

The couple had sexual intercourse on several other occasions and their other offspring included the other islands of Japan and some of the kami.


The land of the dead

The land of the dead

The next part of the story makes the following points:

  • Kami are not immortal - they are vulnerable to injury and can die
  • When kami die, they rot just like human beings
  • Kami have feelings; they suffer from bereavement like human beings
  • Death is a bad thing that disrupts the harmony of the community
  • Death and decay are the most potent forms of impurity
  • The spirits living in the land of the dead are malicious and lonely, and like to try to drag people from the land of the living
  • Human beings should keep away from anything to do with death
  • The kami have a duty, based on Izanagi's promise, to support birth and life in the world of the living (which, as far as this legend is concerned, means only Japan)
  • The male can subordinate the female
  • Life is more powerful than death

Izanami was badly burned during the birth of the kami of fire, and died. This is the first death in the world. Izanagi was furious with sorrow and beheaded the child he blamed for his wife's death. Other kami were born from the blood of the execution.

Izanagi was grief-stricken and went in search of her to the underworld - Yomi, the land of the dead.

When he found her, Izanami had eaten the fruit of the dead and might be doomed to stay in Yomi for ever. Izanami made Izanagi promise not to look at her, but to give her time to consult with the rulers of the underworld to see if they would let her return to the land of the living.

After a while Izanagi broke his promise, and went to look for her. When he found her he saw that her body had rotted and was full of maggots.

Izanagi was horrified and tried to return to the land of the living, but his wife/sister, angry and ashamed at being seen in a state of decay, pursued him so that she could force him to live with her in the underworld for ever.

Izanagi escaped, and blocked the entrance to Yomi with a boulder so that Izanami could not follow him, forming a permanent barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Izanami was furious and said that every day from that moment on she would kill 1000 people every day.

Izanagi replied by saying that he would create 1500 new born babies each day.


The power of purification

The power of purification

In this part of the story we learn:

  • Kami are not all-powerful - pollution can affect them too
  • Pollution causes bad fortune to the person who has become impure
  • Pollution can be removed by purification
  • Water and salt are powerful agents of purification
  • Purification is also a highly creative process

After escaping from Yomi, Izanagi was contaminated by his contact with death, and as a result was plagued with misfortune.

He bathed himself thoroughly in the ocean to wash away the pollution of death. This was the first example of the harae purification ritual.

During the purification ritual a number of new kami, including Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess) and her brother Susanoo (the kami of the wind and storms) were created.


Amaterasu and Susanoo

Amaterasu and Susanoo

BBC - Religions - Shinto: Core stories of Shinto (2)Amaterasu is coaxed out of the cave ©

Some of the things we learn in this part of the story explain ingredients of Shinto rituals and festivals:

  • kami are not all-powerful - Amaterasu can't be forced out of the cave by the others, but she can't prevent them seizing her when she eventually emerges
  • kami have the human characteristics of behaving badly, sulking, curiosity, and laughing
  • kami enjoy bawdy entertainment
  • one of way of pleasing kami is to entertain them
  • crudity has a place in entertaining kami
  • dancing has a place in entertaining kami

Izanagi gave Amaterasu authority to rule the land. Susanoo was disappointed and angry. His tantrums led him to behave so badly that he was banished from heaven.

(Things don't end in disaster for Susanoo, who remains an important and powerful kami. Although he has fearful powers of destruction, he is worshipped at many shrines for having the power to prevent disaster.)

Amaterasu was upset by the behaviour of Susanoo, and in a sulk hid herself in a cave. The absence of the sun brought darkness to the world.

The other kami gathered outside the cave and asked Amaterasu to come out. She, still sulking, refused.

The kami had a party during which a female kami did a sexy dance outside the cave, which make them all laugh.

Amaterasu came out of the cave to see what the jollity was about. The other kami grabbed her and persuaded her to take her proper place in the cosmos.


The imperial family

The imperial family

This part of the story establishes the divine ancestry of the Emperors of Japan.

Interestingly, it also acknowledges the power of the female, something that is at odds with earlier parts of the myth, and which doesn't seem to have played much part in setting gender roles in Japanese life.

Amaterasu had children and grandchildren. In consultation with other senior kami she decided that Japan should be ruled for ever by an Imperial family.

BBC - Religions - Shinto: Core stories of Shinto (3)Jimmu, the first Emperor, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi c. 1876-1882 ©

She sent one grandchild, Ninigi, from heaven to rule Japan. He took with him a mirror (symbol of Amaterasu) and a sword. His grandson, Jimmu Tenno, is regarded as the first Emperor of Japan from whom all the Emperors right up to the present day have been descended.

The politics of myth

These stories have a clear political consequence. They establish the powerful Yamamoto clan as descended from the gods and having been given authority to rule Japan by the gods.

The rival Izumo clan is descended from Susanoo, and so it can be seen as part of the divine plan that they should have a subordinate role.

The legend that the Japanese are loosely descended from the Sun Goddess is shown by the symbol of the sun on the Japanese flag.


Find out more

  • Beliefs about kami
  • Holy books of Shinto
  • Divinity of the emperor



What are the sacred stories of Shintoism? ›

The holy books of Shinto are the Kojiki or 'Records of Ancient Matters' (712 CE) and the Nihon-gi or 'Chronicles of Japan' (720 CE).

What are the three 3 major types of Shinto? ›

Shintō can be roughly classified into the following three major types: Shrine Shintō, Sect Shintō, and Folk Shintō. Shrine Shintō (Jinja Shintō), which has been in existence from the beginning of Japanese history to the present day, constitutes a main current of Shintō tradition.

What are the 4 types of Shinto? ›

After having gone through a long history since then, this indigenous faith, Shinto, has been developed into four main forms: the Koshitsu Shinto (Shinto of the Imperial House), the Jinja Shinto (the Shrine Shinto), the Shuha Shinto (the Sect Shinto), and the Minzoku Shinto (the Folk Shinto).

What are the 4 aspects of Shinto? ›

There are four affirmations in Shinto: tradition and family, love of nature, physical cleanliness, and matsuri (festivals in which worship and honor is given to the kami).

What is the most important myth in Shinto? ›

Storm God Susanoo vanquishing the Orochi serpent is one of the most important Shinto myths. A snake, a comb, many tubs of sake, and a banished storm god.

What is the Shinto creation story called? ›

In Japanese mythology, the Japanese Creation Myth (天地開闢, Tenchi-kaibyaku, Literally "Creation Of Heaven & Earth") is the story that describes the legendary birth of the celestial and creative world, the birth of the first gods, and the birth of the Japanese archipelago.

What are two core Shinto beliefs? ›

The main beliefs of Shinto are the importance of purity, harmony, respect for nature, family respect, and subordination of the individual before the group.

Who is God in Shinto? ›

"Shinto gods" are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami.

What is the golden rule of Shinto religion? ›

The Golden Rule or law of reciprocity is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. It is a maxim of altruism seen in many human religions and human cultures. "The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form."

What are the 5 Shinto elements? ›

Godai (五大, lit. "five – great, large, physical, form") are the five elements in Japanese Buddhist thought of earth (chi), water (sui), fire (ka), wind (fu), and void (ku).

What is the Shinto symbol? ›

The Maneke Neko, otherwise known as the “Lucky Cat”, is a symbol of Shintoism that you have surely seen in the form of a decoration in certain Asian homes and stores.

What is the rule of Shinto? ›

Specifically Shinto ethics are not based on a set of commandments or laws that tell the faithful how to behave, but on following the will of the kami. So a follower of Shinto will try to live in accordance with the way of the kami, and in such a way as to keep the relationship with the kami on a proper footing.

What are the six Shinto symbols? ›

The six Shinto symbols we will be covering today are "torii," "shimenawa," "shide," "sakaki," "tomoe," and "shinkyo."

What are the three sacred Shinto symbols? ›

The Three Sacred Treasures (三種の神器, Sanshu no Jingi/Mikusa no Kamudakara) are the imperial regalia of Japan and consist of the sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍), the mirror Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡), and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉).

What are the three sacred objects of Shinto? ›

The Imperial Regalia of Japan, also called the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, are said to include a mirror called Yata no Kagami (representing the virtue of wisdom), a sword called Kusanagi (valour), and a jewel, Yasakani no Magatama (benevolence).

Who was the first god in Shinto? ›

The first gods Amenominakanushi and Kunitokotachi summoned two divine beings into existence, the male Izanagi and the female Izanami, and charged them with creating the first land. To help them do this, Izanagi and Izanami were given a spear decorated with jewels, named Amenonuhoko (heavenly spear).

How many gods do Shinto believe in? ›

The word "Shinto", 神道in Japanese, means the "way of the gods" and defines the existence of a myriad of gods. The quasi-infinite number of Shinto deities in Japan is sometimes estimated to 8 million.

Are the 7 Lucky gods Shinto? ›

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan, known as Shichifukujin in Japanese, are an eclectic group of deities from Japan, India, and China which originated from Shinto, Buddhism and Hinduism. Each deity existed independently before the group was created in Japan in the 16th century.

How does Shinto view death? ›

Shinto beliefs about death and the afterlife are often considered dark and negative. The old traditions describe death as a dark, underground realm with a river separating the living from the dead. The images are very similar to Greek mythology and the concept of hades.

What is the Shinto myth of human creation? ›

A Shinto interpretation of creation is that the world and its inhabitants are not “made” but “born,” and the divine couple Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto play a central role in this narrative.

What sacred book does Shinto have called? ›

Kojiki, (Japanese: “Records of Ancient Matters”), together with the Nihon shoki (q.v.), the first written record in Japan, part of which is considered a sacred text of the Shintō religion. The Kojiki text was compiled from oral tradition in 712.

Who do Shinto pray to? ›

A polytheistic and animistic religion, Shinto revolves around supernatural entities called the kami (神). The kami are believed to inhabit all things, including forces of nature and prominent landscape locations. The kami are worshipped at kamidana household shrines, family shrines, and jinja public shrines.

What are the evil spirits in Shintoism? ›

Goryō are the vengeful spirits of the dead whose lives were cut short, but they were calmed by the devotion of Shinto followers and are now believed to punish those who do not honor the kami. The pantheon of kami, like the kami themselves, is forever changing in definition and scope.

What is the evil kami in Shinto? ›

kami, plural kami, object of worship in Shintō and other indigenous religions of Japan. The term kami is often translated as “god,” “lord,” or “deity,” but it also includes other forces of nature, both good and evil, which, because of their superiority or divinity, become objects of reverence and respect.

Does Shinto have karma? ›

There is not even a belief in karma, like in Buddhism or Hinduism. Shinto assumes the inherent goodness of nature and humanity. The essence of all life is a gift from kami, so it is flawless, even if humans err. Errors are actions, and those mistaken actions do not follow us around forever.

What was Japan's religion before Shintoism? ›

The Japanese religious tradition is made up of several major components, including Shinto, Japan's earliest religion, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

What is the main sacred text of Shintoism? ›

Kojiki, (Japanese: “Records of Ancient Matters”), together with the Nihon shoki (q.v.), the first written record in Japan, part of which is considered a sacred text of the Shintō religion. The Kojiki text was compiled from oral tradition in 712.

What sort of rituals and myths are performed in Shinto? ›

This is done to cultivate harmony between humans and kami and to solicit the latter's blessing. Other common rituals include the kagura dances, rites of passage, and seasonal festivals. Public shrines facilitate forms of divination and supply religious objects, such as amulets, to the religion's adherents.

What is the most sacred Shinto shrine? ›

Shinmei-zukuri (神明造) is an ancient style typical of, and most common at, Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest of Shinto shrines. It is most common in Mie prefecture.


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