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Izanagi: The Japanese Creator God

In Japanese folklore, the kami Izanagi helped to create both the land and the spirits who inhabited it. Keep reading to learn all about Izanagi, the father of the gods!

Izanagi is often described as a creator god, but this description is not entirely accurate.

He was a Shinto kami, or spirit. Part of the seventh generation of such beings, he and his sister were the first to leave Heaven and focus their work on the physical world.

Together, they gave birth to the islands that would make up Japan. They then created the first kami that inhabited the new land.

Izanagi and Izanami’s period of creation would not remain happy and peaceful, however. When Izanami died in childbirth, her husband made a dangerous trip to the land of the dead to bring her back.

While Izanagi’s journey to the Underworld was not successful, it resulted in the births of three more kami who would become the most famous and influential in Japanese lore.

Izanagi and the Creation of the Land

According to Japanese folklore, the first generations of gods were born in the heavens. They were created by purely magical means and had no need for procreation.

The seventh and last generation of kami, or spirits, to be born in this way were twins. Izanagi and his sister Izanami were given the command to give shape to the world.

At that time, the earth had just been created. It was a watery, undifferentiated realm with an oily surface and jellyfish-like movement.

The two went down from the heavens with a jeweled spear called Ame-no-nuboko. They used the wonderous weapon to churn the waters. Slowly, brine congealed at the tip of the spear and created the first land.

They called this island Onogoro and made it their home. They built a “heavenly pillar” in the center of the island.

Izanagi and Izanami realized that they had to be married and have children to create more land and give it life.

They walked around the pillar, meeting in the middle, as they recited an invocation. Izanami spoke first, however, so the marriage was not properly sealed because Izanagi, as the man, should have been the first to speak.

The first child born to them was deformed and misshapen because it had been born outside of a proper union. This was Ebisu, who was set adrift on a reed boat because he was imperfectly formed.

The pair redid the marriage ceremony, this time taking care to ensure that Izanagi spoke first. This marriage was legitimate so they soon gave birth to many kami.

Their first eight children were the islands of Japan. Once these were formed, they began creating the creatures that lived there.

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Izanami gave birth to many children who became the kami of the Japanese islands. The last one, however, would prove to be her undoing.

Kagutsuchi was the kami of fire. When he was born, Izanami was so badly burned that she died of her injuries.

Izanagi was so pained over the loss of his twin and wife that he killed their child. He beheaded Kagutsuchi with a ten-span sword and began to plan to bring his wife back from the Underworld.

The Descent into Yoni

After her death, Izanami had been sent to the Underworld, Yomi. Izanagi was determined to get her back.

Yomi was a bleak and dangerous world that was filled with oni, malevolent spirits. Izanagi made the perilous journey in search of his lost wife.

When he finally found Izanami, she appeared to be unchanged by her death and time in the Underworld. She told him that she had already eaten food from Yomi, however, so she was bound to that place.

Izanami said that she would go to find out if there was a way she could still return to the land of the living with her husband. She told Izanagi to wait for her and went into a large palace.

Izanagi became impatient, however. After waiting for a while he gave up and followed his wife.

When he found Izanami she was sleeping, but she no longer looked untouched by death. Her flesh was putrefying and covered in maggots.

Izanami awoke and was furious that Izanagi had seen her in her decaying state. She sent a host of oni to pursue him as he ran toward the surface in horror.

As he ran, Izanagi pulled out a length of vine that he had used to tie back his hair and threw it behind him. It turned into bunches of grapes that many of the oni stopped to devour.

Then he pulled out the comb that held his right hair knot. It became bamboo shoots that more of the oni were distracted by.

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As he reached the surface, he grabbed three pieces of fruit from a nearby peach tree and threw them at the remaining pursuers. Thereafter, Izanagi declared peaches sacred for being available in his time of need.

While Izanagi repelled most of his pursuers, a few managed to slip out of the doorway to Yomi before it closed. The spirits of thunder and a handful of the first oni to wander on the surface of the earth came after him before he rolled a boulder across the entrance to Yomi to block it.

Izanami did not leave Yomi, but she placed a curse on the world of the living to punish her husband. She vowed that a thousand people would die every day and be brought to Yomi with her.

Izanagi responded by vowing that one thousand five hundred people would be born every day. In this way, he was able to constantly keep pace with destruction and promote creation in its place.

The Purification of Izanagi

When Izanagi returned from Yomi, he felt unclean from his experience in the Underworld.

Therefore the Great Deity the Male-Who-Invites [Izanagi] said: “Nay! hideous! I have come to a hideous and polluted land,—I have! So I will perform the purification of my august person.” So he went out to a plain [covered with] ahagi at a small river-mouth near Tachibana in Himuka in [the island of] Tsukushi, and purified and cleansed himself.

-The Kojiki (trans. Chamberlain)

Standing in a hot spring, Izanagi carefully washed himself.

When he wiped his left eye, the goddess Amaterasu was born. Tsukuyomi was born from his left eye. Susanoo came into being when he cleaned his nose.

These three were named his most precious children.

According to some accounts of the story, a total of fourteen children were born when Izanagi purified himself in the spring. While these were honored kami, none were as powerful and important as the Three Precious Children.

The First Children

Izanagi was the father of many of the most important kami in Japan.

The eight primary islands of the archipelago were the first children born n the marriage of Izanagi and Izanami. They provided a place for the later kami to live, procreate, and create new living things.

These kami were numerous. They became the gods of agriculture, the household, trees, and other aspects of the mortal world.

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Many of the kami were minor gods, although they were notable for having been the first deities born on land. Some, however, were important in the daily life of Japan.

Some of Izanagi’s notable children included:

  • Shinatsuhiko: The god of wind was born to clear the morning mists from the new islands.
  • Kukunochi: The gods of trees, he is invoked during building ceremonies.
  • Oyamatsumi: A god of the mountains and war, little is written about him. He was, however, the father of the two kami offered as brides to Ninigi, the ancestor of the emperors.
  • Kaya-no-hime: She is the goddess of vegetation and fields and a protectress of the land.
  • Ukemochi: The goddess of food was killed by Tsukuyomi, who was repulsed by the way she disgorged food from her body.
  • Haniyasu no kami: The twin gods of pottery were born from the feces expelled during Izanami’s death.

Izanagi’s Rule of the Heavens

None of the children born to Izanami in their marriage, however, were as honored as the Three Precious Children born to Izanagi in the hot spring.

The creator god decreed that his three beloved children would become rulers of the heavens. Rather than take the lace of prominence himself, he opted to serve as an advisor to his offspring.

Izanagi established the bureaucracy that would set the social rules of Heaven. When human civilization began, they imitated this system in their own government.

The Three Precious Children were meant to rule together, but this was a short-lived division of power.

Tsukuyomi was the first god to be expelled from Heaven. A staunch believer in order and propriety, he killed his half-sister Ukemochi when he was that she made food by pulling it disgustingly from her own body.

He and his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, had been married but this offense against another kami, which was also done when he was acting as Amaterasu’s representative, upset her so much that she wished to never see him again.

Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon, was forever separated from his wife. This is how the day and night came to be and why the sun and moon appear separately.

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Susanoo was never well-liked by the other kami, including his father. Izanagi himself expelled the god from Heaven.

Susanoo was an ill-tempered god who constantly cried for his mother. Izanagi fulfilled his wish to be sent to Izanami’s land, Yomi.

This was Izanagi’s last written appearance in the myths. Although Amaterasu and Susanoo battled after his expulsion from Heaven, their father did not feature in the story again.

Amaterasu became the unopposed ruler of the kami in Heaven. Eventually, one of her descendants would be sent to Japan to rule on land as well.

Although Izanagi did not appear by name in the myths, most people believe that he continued to live alongside his favorite daughter. He is often described as being an advisor and assistant to her daughter in her role as the ruler of the kami.

Unusual Parallels

Many historians have noticed unusual parallels between the creation myth of Japan and stories from elsewhere in the world.

The story of Izanagi’s descent into the Underworld has been compared to two well-known Greek legends. This is unusual because the two cultures were far removed from each other and share no close ties.

Izanagi’s journey into Yomi in search of his wife is reminiscent of the Greek story of Orpheus and his wife, Eurydice. Like Izanagi, the Greek musician braved a trip into the Underworld to bring his wife back to the world of the living.

The story also reminds many readers of the legend of Persephone’s abduction by Hades.

When her mother, Demeter, tried to have Persephone returned to Olympus she was thwarted by the fact that Persephone had eaten food from the Underworld. Because she had eaten just a few pomegranate seeds, she was forever bound to the realm of Hades.

This was the same fate that befell Izanagi’s wife. She may have been able to return to life, but because she had eaten the food of Yomi she could never leave.

Early ethnographers seized on these similarities as evidence of Greco-Roman influence in East Asia. They believed that, even if the contact had not been recent, the myths were too similar to be a coincidence.

Modern historians are less sure of this interpretation.

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Some believe that the similarities are coincidental. The links between the stories are not strong enough to prove a common source.

A few, however, believe that earlier theories may have been partially correct. While the people of early Japan did not come into contact with the Greeks directly, there may have been an older shared influence.

May Greek myths originated not in Europe, but from cultures in the Near East. Although the terrain of Central Asia was difficult to travel through, there is evidence that trade routes existed into China.

Trade also existed between China and India, where the culture was closely related to that of most European cultures. Although the specifics of their stories diverged greatly, many legends of ancient Greece were derived from the same archaic source as those of India.

Either of these trade routes would have brought at least some elements of Indo-European religion into China, where trade and settlement may have introduced them to Japan as well. This route of influence can be seen in the spread of Buddhism throughout East Asia.

It is possible, therefore, that these details of Izanagi’s story originated with the same proto-Indo-European culture that eventually gave rise to the Greeks. While the similarities could be a coincidence, they could also be the result of ancient cultural exchange.

Izanagi as an Ancestor

In Japan’s Shinto religion, Izanagi is the father of many of the kami, or spirits that are most important.

He and his twin sister Izanami were the first kami to come to earth. They were also the first to procreate through marriage, with their first children being the islands of Japan themselves.

Izanami was killed, however, when she gave birth to a fire deity. Hoping to get her back, Izanagi went to Yomi as well.

His wife had already eaten the food there, however, so she was bound to the land of the dead. When Izanagi saw her decaying form, she was so furious that she sent thunder gods and malicious oni after him.

Izanagi barely escaped and kept all but a few of the evil spirits from getting loose into the world. When he purified himself, he gave life to the Three Precious Children who would rule the heavens.

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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