Two Types of Japanese Mythology: Buddhism and Shinto

There are two types of Japanese mythology, each stemming from a different religion. One is Buddhism, which comes from India, and the other is Shinto, which originated in Japan in the 8th century. There are many aspects of Japanese mythology that were influenced by the Chinese and Indian pantheons, but it’s possible that there might even be some Greek and Roman influence as well.

Japan is an East Asian island in the Pacific Ocean. The climate can range from hot humid summers in the east, and cold winters with heavy snow in the mountainous north. Japan is mostly urban, but many forests are preserved to help combat pollution and the extinction of wildlife. Because Japan is an island, it faces the threat of strong winds and tropical storms.

The Creation Myth

It starts with the first two humans: the woman, Izanami, and the man, Izanagi. Izanagi created the first bit of land, part of the Japanese islands, by stirring and curdling the ocean. Izanami gave birth to the gods of sea, land, wind, and rain, but she was badly burned when giving birth to the god of fire. She died, which infuriated Izanagi. He traveled to the Land of Gloom to find his wife. Once found, Izanami ordered Izanagi not to look at her as she had become a decaying corpse, but he disobeyed. Furious, Izanami swore to kill 1,000 people every day, and in response, Izanagi promised to cause many more to be born.

There are many common archetypes in this story. There are the first man and women, along with Earth being created from water, the birth of the elements, and mother and father. This story describes human origins as well, by explaining that Izanagi causes over 1,000 births each day.

The elements being the first things born in this story after Izanagi and Izanami are representative of the appreciation of nature/natural elements in Japanese culture. Japanese rock gardens, for example, are a way to live as one with nature.

The Pantheon

In the Japanese Shinto religion gods are referred to as kami. There are around eight million total kami, and each fits into one of three categories. The first category is powers associated with nature such as weather events, landscape formations, and bodies of water. The second is deceased ancestors, especially aristocrats, who live on and are honored within the family. The third category is the souls of those who died in the war. A majority of Shinto shrines are devoted to the war dead because of their bravery and service. The most prominent kami in the pantheon seems to be those associated with nature, which aligns with the Japanese appreciation of nature.

As in many cultures, the most important kami in the Japanese pantheon is the sun goddess. Amaterasu is considered to be the most identified with Japan, which is fitting as Japan is also called the Land of the Rising Sun. She is also the most prominent and most famous of the kami. The sun goddess is often described as the divine ancestor of the emperor of Japan’s lineage.

Inari is the protector of rice cultivation. This kami is depicted as either an older bearded man riding a white fox or as a woman with long hair carrying sheaves of rice. This kami is most often identified with the goddess of food, which makes sense because rice has been a very important Japanese crop and food source.

Raijin is the god of thunder, lightning, and storms. He is often depicted holding hammers and surrounded by drums, and with three fingers on each hand to represent past, present, and future. Raijin is the most feared deity in the Shinto pantheon, so much so that parents use him to scare children. Since Japan is an island that is subject to many tropical storms, it is easy to see why Raijin would be seen in this light. However, people often prayed to him for rain and lightning as a part of agricultural tradition. This was done because it was believed that lightning was responsible for fertilizing rice and bringing a bountiful harvest.

Fujin is the god of wind, making him highly feared as well. Strong winds can create typhoons which cause great amounts of damage and deaths. He is usually depicted holding a bag of wind and having a messy appearance because of said wind. He has four fingers on each and represents directions: north, south, east, and west. Like Raijin, Fujin is also seen as having a good side. The wind storms that prevented the Mongols from invading Japan are thought of as Fujin protecting the islands. This is where the term kamikaze originates from, as its direct meaning is “divine wind”. Raijin and Fujin are commonly depicted together, and they are often at the gates of shrines as a form of protection.

Luck is an important aspect of Japanese culture. Ebisu is one of the seven gods of luck or shichi-fuku-jin. He is depicted as a fat, bearded, smiling man with a fishing rod in one hand and a tai, a fish that symbolizes luck, in the other. Being fat can be seen as a good thing in Japan because it represents being prosperous and wealthy. Ebisu is associated with happiness because he helped stop a conflict between the deities of Earth and heaven. He is often seen in shops and markets.


Shinto monsters are called yokai. There are many types of yokai that can range from generally tame and benevolent to violent and evil.

Kitsune are one type of yokai. They are fox creatures that are very mischievous, just as foxes are in western culture as well, and like to shapeshift, especially into humans. Inari’s fox is a good kitsune known as a zenko, but there are also bad kitsune called yako. The worst of the yako are known to steal from people or lead them to into deadly traps. It was once possible for families to be killed if they were thought to be descendants of yako. It was also thought that it was possible to be possessed by kitsune, this was called kitsunetsuki. Kitsune starts off looking like normal foxes, but after every 100 years, they grow another tail. Each tail represents more power than the kitsune has. After 1,000 years and the ninth tail, the kitsune will become a golden heavenly fox.

Kitsune was inspired by the Chinese nine-tailed foxes called Huli jing. They began to show up in Japanese writing in the 18th century. People began to keep foxes as pets in hopes that they would bring wealth and success.

Another yokai is the kappa. Kappa means river-child, which is a somewhat accurate description. The kappa is a reptilian creature that is about the size and shape of a child. It has a bowl-like membrane on its head filled with water which acts as its life source. If the water spills, the kappa will become weak and possibly die. The kappa comes from ancient times with an origin that is mostly unknown. It was commonly used to scare children away from large bodies of water because they were its prey. Besides eating children, the kappa also enjoys cucumber. People would write their family members’ names on cucumbers and send them downstream to the kappa, possibly for safety or protection. In modern times, the kappa is not seen as such a scary monster. It is more often seen as a cute creature now, appearing in plushie form and having a sushi roll named after it.

Yurei is one of the more violent yokai. Yurei is Japanese ghosts depicted with long black hair and all-white clothes. They are usually bound to a specific place or object by a strong emotion, which is commonly anger. Yurei is most often female because women are seen as being more emotional than men. They are created from those who are killed out of jealousy or killed themselves due to family pressures. Their mission is vengeance, and they will kill literally anyone who gets in their way. Yurei have little to no desire for communication. They use their near unlimited power to hypnotize people into helping them find answers for their death. Yurei can shapeshift, defy gravity, move in unnatural ways, and phase from solid to immaterial at will. They also have a strong connection to their hair. It can be lengthened or shortened and used to manipulate whatever is around them. Some yurei can be banished by fulfilling their curse or properly burying their body, but others cannot be banished or exorcised.

The White Hare of Inaba

The White Hare of Inaba is a myth about justice that tells of a white hare that lived on the island of Oki. The sat on the shore every day trying to find a way to cross the ocean to Inaba. One day he met a lonely crocodile and had the idea to use him to cross the river. Unsure if the crocodile would let him, the hare decided to use trickery. He told the crocodile to make a line of his friends from Oki to Inaba in order to prove that there were more crocodiles than hares. As the hare counted them, he used their backs as a bridge to cross the ocean.

Once the hare reached Inaba, he told the crocodiles that they had been fooled. Furious, they pulled out all of the hare’s fur. A man approached the hare, who was lying in agony on the shore. The man told the hare to bathe in the sea and let the wind dry him off in order to regrow his fur. The hare soon learned that now he had been tricked; his skin hardened and his wounds worsened. Later, a second man found the hare. The hare explained that he knew he has made a mistake and vowed to give up his trickery. The man then gave him a real cure. The man turned out to be the fairy Okuninushi and the other man, was his brother. They were on their way to meet a princess who his brother wanted to marry, but the hare predicted that the princess would choose Okuninushi instead, and she did.

A large theme in this story is karma. The hare played a trick on the crocodiles which resulted in a consequence, though it was much worse than the hare deserved. The first man then tricked the hare into making his situation worse, but because of it, he wasn’t chosen to marry the princess. Okuninushi was kind to the hair, and that resulted in him being chosen by the princess. Every action, good or bad, has a reaction that reflects it. This shows that the culture values benevolence, and understands that negative actions will come with negative consequences.

Modern Connections

Japanese mythology is still relevant today. Shrines and images of the creatures and deities appear in everyday places as a way to bring luck or protection.

Many aspects also appear outside of the religion. One huge example of this is video games. It is possible to find creatures like kitsune or the kappa in Pokemon as Ninetales and Lombre, they also appear in Animal Crossing as the owner of a counterfeit store or a sailor. The Yurei is found in American movies such as The Grudge, The Ring, and Silent Hill, along with many Korean horror stories.  

07 July 2022
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now