In the mood for a bed-time story? Not just any story, mind you; one of the grandest ever told. And one that might tell you more about Japanese culture than if you were to catch a bout of sumo or affix yourself to a stool in a ramen shop in Shinjuku. If you are in the mood, then you’ve come to the right place.
In the West, where many of you are reading this, January means the beginning of a new year; a time of beginning. Or, for those who’ve been beaten at every turn around the block (and are looking for motivation to get you off to work the next day), new beginnings. In the East however, beginnings are various and not necessarily in accord with the western calendar.
For example, the Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the first lunar month, which is either in late January or early February, depending; Nowrūz, the traditional Iranian New Year, is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on the 21st of March. In Japan, the New Year is celebrated on the 1st of January, leading to various social customs and popular phenomena that I’ve talked about in this space in the past. Nonetheless, in Japan beginnings are also associated with spring. For instance, the school years begin in April, as do budgets in the annual business cycle. This may or may not have something to do with the coming of Spring, another topic visited on these pages.
But when discussing beginnings in Japan, there is one moment that stands out among all others. It doesn’t come on the 1st of January, with the first gobble of mochi rice cake; nor does it arrive in the guise of the first cherry blossom bud in April. In fact, it is a beginning that could come only once, as it is the original moment of conception. And here I don’t mean the story that many readers would be most familiar with: the one detailed in the Bible. Rather, the story told to Japanese about their country’s origin is also the tale told about humanity’s beginning. Definitive Japan. (Like: how could the two possibly be different?).
This, being a tale of creation, involves a man and a woman (which may not come as much of a surprise as this hues to what we know about biological science) and the love, lust, and copious amounts of sex that tends to ensue when men and women are thrown together alone with little else to do—which, depending on the age of the person being read to at bedtime, may come as a mild eye-opener. Also surprising would be the incest in the tale, which is complimented by the fecundity that results, and is somehow mitigated by the enduring companionship. And then, of course, there is the loss, corruption, anger, and retribution—all the staple motivations behind a good mythic yarn. Not to mention the staple ingredients of any fable worth its salt: separated lovers, a hero, a villain, creepy surrogates, immortal power, the wrath of the gods, a perilous journey to hell and back, a breakneck chase, daring escapes, fortune—both good and bad—and an ending that will make you cry yourself to sleep.
Ready? Be forewarned, though: this story will require a scorecard if you are playing at home.
* * *
According to Shinto Mythology everything began with a great cloud suspended in space. By appearance (and reputation) this state was described as “chaos”. Over time, the lighter parts rose to become heaven, the heavier descended to become a pool of muddy water (if you guessed this is what would become Earth, and hence the basis for modern society, we would dub you “prescient” . . . or at least well-versed in the daily rhythms of ReDot society). Within these mucky lower quarters a reed (some accounts refer to it as a “green sprout”) began to grow quickly and robustly. The flower that finally burst forth revealed the “First God”, also called “Kunitokotatchi”, the eternal land ruler.
Kunitokotatchi then created his first offspring: a man and a woman—the ReDot’s very own Adam and Eve, one might say. The two were called Izanagi, whose name means “the male who invites” and Izanami, whose name means “the female who invites”. What the two invited is open to innuendo, of course, but it turned out to be less trouble than it was for Adam and Eve (at least initially), leading to guilt-free fruition (and all those other “F” words).
The First God, being a delegator, gave Izanagi (his male progeny, one should not let notice escape) the task of finishing the creation of the world. Of course, this he could not do alone (although his Dad had), so he was joined by his female partner on a rainbow called “Ama-no-ukihashi” (the floating bridge of the heavens) overlooking a murky sea. Together the pair plunged a jewel-crested spear into the ocean (Freud would have had a field day with this one. And, in case you haven’t yet guessed, we’ve likely entered the realm of euphemism and metaphor); they then stirred vigorously (euphemism). When the two pulled the shaft free, the fluid that dripped from the spear (no one says that euphemism has to be artful) fell back toward the sea (metaphor). There it coagulated and formed the first island of the Japanese archipelago (fantasy). The name of this joint production was “Onokoro”.
Proud of their achievement, the couple descended to inspect their work. Finding it good, they decided to settle there, and built a house whose central pillar became the backbone of the world. Here, then, we have our first encounter with the ReDot-centrism that will get transposed from cultural myth into societal reality over the ensuing millennia. According to myth, Japan was the first place to come into being; it is the center of all worldly activity to follow.
Meanwhile . . . back at the site of creation, Izanami and Izanagi pushed off the pillar and walked in opposite directions. Setting the behavioral precedent for all people who get that “too confined” feeling in their relationships. Call it “the grass is always greener” phenomenon. Much like in the modern world, the two were actively scoping out the field, trying to determine whether there might be a better catch out in the larger world. Maybe it was the godly equivalent of the seven-year itch or else a mid-life crisis. Presumably, if their world was anything like the bar scene or web dating is today, both returned disheartened, but worldy-wiser, and ready to settle for the first, best option (actually, there probably were few options since Kunitokotatchi had only created the two of them, but maybe they didn’t know that at the time).
When they once again met up, they united in marriage. And embarked on a sustained bout of sex. Lots of it. For, Izanami began to beget—big time. The next thing we hear, at least 14(!) children emerged from her womb. Before she was done, all eight of Japan’s islands, along with a handful of essential Gods, were hatched.
The first, a boy named Hiruko, was not as strong as had been hoped so, at age three, he was placed in a reed boat and set adrift. While this may be a metaphor for Japan’s earliest growing pains—its abortive efforts at unity and social cohesion—it also seems to have established the cultural pattern that the first born ReDot males always have it tough. Many a woeful tale is told in the annals of Japanese history, of the unfortunate first-born lad who dreams of the life of a painter or a dandy or even a salaried worker in the big city, but who, due to the misfortune of being the eldest male, is compelled to remain home on the farm, attending to the family business. Assuming there is a sacrificial elder, the younger of the brood are always the ones able to head off and pursue horizons of their own choosing.
As for Hiruko, now out in the world fending for himself, he adopted the sobriquet Ebisu, God of fishermen. This may have established the precedent—on display today throughout ReDotPop—that geinojin (or those engaged in the arts) select “geimei” (or show biz monikers) in place of their own true names.
And the mother? Izanami’s fecundity resulted in the Gods of sea, land, wind and rain. But when she played with fire, she was badly burned and died. Establishing more precedent: that the fairer of the sex always bears the burden and receives nothing but grief for the effort. A sad tale played out for centuries on the ReDot shores.
For his part, the father, brother, husband, and now abandoned lover, Izanagi, was furious with the fire God, his son, for depriving him of his sibling and mate. He smote the upstart God by cutting him into three pieces. Sort of Oedipus in reverse. Then he set out to search for his beloved Izanami, now dwelling in the aptly-named “Land of Gloom”.
This is where the tale takes its next unexpected turn (didn’t think it possibly could? Well, wait: there’s more!) For, when he approached his former bride, the lonely widower cried out: “Come back, my love. The lands we are making are not yet finished!” (Proving, perhaps, that men are simple-minded creatures, at heart). Izanami replied that it was too late, as she had already eaten the food of Gloom. Placed in the story as it is, one sees the central position edibles are accorded n Japanese society. As you may recall from columns past, food is a theme that continually crops up, so to speak, in various productions of ReDotPop.
Meanwhile . . . back in the Land of Gloom, Izanami perked up at the sound of her lover’s voice, and asked for Izanagi to wait while she asked the spirits of the underworld for permission to return home. The only thing, she beseeched, was one small favor: “while you wait, do not try to look at me, dearest.” Now how do you think a story like that is going to come out? No different than Lot and his wife, only perhaps with a lot less salt, right?
How it all came down was that Izanagi, being a man, grew impatient with the interminable waiting and decided to follow his wife deeper into the depths of The Land of Gloom. Breaking off a tooth from the comb he wore in his hair, he lit a torch to light the way, to better cast a glimpse of his once and only love. The only problem was that, once he finally caught up with her, he actually saw her! And what he saw was Izanami in the act of giving birth to the eight Gods of thunder. Izanagi might rightfully have wondered whose babes were these, but he actually was too busy being revolted by the sight of his lover, as her flesh was rotting and maggots were swarming over her body.
Izanami shrieked in anger and distress. “Shame on you!” (not feeling any compunction about being caught birthing someone else’s babies!), then promptly commanded the spirits of the Land of Gloom to slay Izanagi. Our boy managed to escape by tossing his headdress to the ground. How did this lend such a grand assist? Well, the turban turned into grapes and his pursuers paused to eat them; after they had consumed the grapes, Izanagi tossed his comb to the ground, which transformed into bamboo. When the spirits again stopped to feast on these shoots, it proved once and for all that it was hard to find good help, even back in those days.
While the spirits were busy dining, Izanami was all business. Hard on Izanagi’s heels, in fast pursuit, she nearly she nearly snared the father of her first brood. The only thing that stopped her from doing so was the boulder Izanagi used to block the pass between the lands of the dead and living—a boulder that could only be moved with the strength of one thousand humans.
Humans, not yet having been born on the Earth proper, made such a task a metaphysical impossibility. Izanagi was safe (if not sage!). The passage thus sealed, Izanami trembled in rage: “Every day I will kill a thousand people, and bring them to this land!”
“Hell hath no fury like . . . ” right?
Not to be out-blustered, Izanagi retorted: “Every day I will cause one thousand five hundred babies to be born.” A typical married couple struggling to one-up the other. However, as one looks at Japan’s declining birth rate of late, one would have to reckon that Izanami is getting the better of her rival at this stage.
In the beginning, though, full of vigor and with a passion to show his former mate who was boss, Izanagi began creating with a vengeance. Initiating a cleaning rite, he washed his left eye, thus creating the sun goddess Amaterasu , from whom, it is reputed, the original Emperor descended. Izanagi then cleansed his right eye, begetting the moon goddess Tsuki-Yumi. From his nose arose Susanowo, the god of the seas and the storms. Thereafter he set about creating the first people and animals of the world, which, formed from various bodily fluids, established the Japanese penchant for body cleansing rituals.
The rest, as they say, is (human) history. Which means, we can leave that for the text books edited, though they are by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Tall tales from the land of bureaucracy, whose telling merits its own column, one of these days.
As for Japan’s creation myth, what are we to make of it? The tale of Izanagi, the god of all that is light and heavenly, and his sister, then wife, Izanami, provide all manner of insights into what is important in the ReDot world (which, perhaps to your surprise, bears striking similarity to what is important in worlds outside of and beyond the ReDot).
First, we might note the obvious: this creation myth is replete with sexuality. This is an important facet to bear in mind as one negotiates the world of ReDotPop, where sex is often compass, primary content, and subtext. Another point worth noting is that there is none of this talk of original sin. Despite the fact that these were sibs who were co-mingling, everyone seemed pleased with the production and untroubled by the result. We don’t encounter the dreary moral counterweight to all the bawdy licentiousness transpiring left and right in the culture.
Next, it would appear that men take priority over women (big surprise in a patriarchal society, right?), and that beauty and ugliness compete and often do battle (again, no major surprise when we discover that beauty gets the nod). Fourth, we find that a thin line separates infidelity from faithfulness—not a major shock in a society that, today, is home to increasing divorce rates and has, historically, tolerated mistresses and dalliances aplenty along wedlock’s sidelines.
Finally, we learn that in things ReDotPop Japan is (and most often views itself) at the center. Which is anything but unexpected. Because, if there is one thing that is most true about ReDotPop—if not life in the ReDot, itself—Japan is at the core; it is ever in the fore. One only need look at the story of how all life, all history, all human time began, to know that this much is true.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
// Marginal Utility
"The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.READ the article