I enjoy the Japanese creation myth. There’s an innocence to it that makes it endearing. Whereas many creation myths are visceral, even violent (especially when it comes to sex) the Japanese myths adopts a childlike purity. Izanagi (the male god) and Izanami the (female goddess) approach sex in its simplest (almost mechanical) form with innocent curiosity. The observe the differences between their two bodies, and wonder what would happen if they joined together.
The result, of course, is giving birth to the kami (spirits), gods, and goddesses that make up the Japanese pantheon. And shortly after these acts of creation, death move into the myth. Fire burns Izanami to the point she dies, then passes into the underworld. It’s interesting how the use of fire in this myth contrasts that of the Prometheus myth, focusing specifically on the dangers of fire, yet fire itself is not malicious. It was not fire’s intention to kill its mother, simply a natural consequence.
Like fire, the underworld—The Land of Night—to which Izanami passes is not evil in itself, it is simply another realm where the dead go. It’s fascinating that the Japanese pair the introduction of death and the underworld into their creation myth, showing the dichotomy that is a carryover from the Chinese creation myth: balance. The Yin and Yang are very much present in this myth, showing the duality of all things: male and female, life and death, elemental opposition, etc.
The duality is emphasized at the end of the myth, as well when Izanami will kill 1000 people a day, and Izanami will cause 1000 to be born.
But I got a little ahead of things. See, Izanami is dead, in the underworld, but that’s not an insurmountable barrier. Like many mythologies, there’s a passage that allows for the living to go and visit the dead in the underworld. And Izanagi, feeling heartbroken over Izanami’s death, decides to go and rescue her from the underworld.
Unfortunately, she ate some food while down there, and so has become part of the underworld. This is not a new concept in mythology, either. The myth of Persephone and Hades has the exact same concept, while the Bible has the reverse, expelling people for eating. The concept of appetite being tied to death is long in mythology, nearly a universal concept.
But, back to Izanagi as he makes his way to his wife. When he arrives, he sees her, and the attraction is gone. She ate the food of the underworld, becoming part of it, and her body decayed. She repulsed him. Now, I know people are supposed to look at inner beauty instead of the outward, but I’m with Izanagi on this one. No dead people. Necrophilia is a hard and fast rule.
Too bad he had to deal with a woman scorned, now. It turns out that the underworld does have the fury of a woman scorned, and she sent the Night Spirit to get him and drag him back. Fortunately, dead people have to follow some rules, so Izanagi caused some grapes and bamboo shoots to grow, which the Night Spirit had to eat.
There are other instances in mythology where mythological figures—most notably faeries—demonstrate OCD behaviors such as what the Night Spirit does. It’s a compulsion imposed upon them, and a reflection of the idea of fate, yet humanity does not have these same compulsions (more on this later).
So, Izanagi escapes, and the two former lovers have their little argument. She’ll kill 1000 people a day, he’ll cause 1000 to be born. This rounds out the balance idea, which is really central to Japanese culture. As I’ve talked about before, the creation method and the creation myth as a whole is a microcosm for the entire culture. And it’s no different for the Japanese, who are placing ideas of balance and family life at the heart of their culture, as well as an implicit modesty as seen by how they treat the issue of sex, even though it’s vital to the creation process.