Foundations of Japan

The Jomon Period
10,000-300 BCE

Early “Jomon” (Rope Pattern) Pottery


Middle Jomon Period Pottery

The Yayoi Period
300 BCE-250 CE

Rice Cultivation

Rice Storage “Kura”

Pit Dwelling

The Kofun Period
250-552 CE
Map of Various Kofun or “Tumuli”

Typical “Keyhole” Shape of the Tumuli

“Haniwa” Tomb Objects

Japanese Religion
Shinto & the State ~ Part I

The ruling clan (uji) of a particular region claimed descent from powerful deities (kami), which served as the tutelary (protective) deity of the clan/region. When the first unified Japanese state was established, the new “imperial” clan (Yamato) commissioned two “official” histories that wove together the myths of the various clans that they had conquered.  These two texts, the Kojiki  and the Nihongi (a.k.a. Nihonshoki)both written in the 8th centuryprovide the first written records of Shinto mythology.
The Birth of Japan
Izanagi and Izanami stood on the floating bridge of Heaven and held counsel together, saying, “Is there not a country beneath?”  Thereupon they thrust down the jewel-spear of Heaven and, groping about therewith, found the ocean.  The brine which dripped from the point of the spear coagulated and became an island which received the name of Ono-goro-jima.  The two deities thereupon descended and dwelt in this island. [Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al., Sources of Japanese Tradition (SJT), Volume 1, Second Edition (New York Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 14.]
Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto consulted together saying, “We have now produced the great-eight-island country, with the mountains, rivers, herbs, and trees.  Why should we not produce someone who shall be lord of the universe?  They then together produced the Sun Goddess, who was called O-hiru-me no muchi [a.k.a. Amaterasu]....The resplendent luster of this child shone throughout all the six quarters.  Therefore the two deities rejoiced saying, “We have had many children, but none of them have been equal to this wondrous infant.  She ought not to be kept long in this land, but we ought of our own accord to send her at once to Heaven and entrust to her the affairs of Heaven.” [SJT, 20-21]
[Izanagi and Izanami’s] next child was Susa no o no Mikoto….This god had a fierce temper and was given to cruel acts.  Moreover he made a practice of continually weeping and wailing.  So he brought many of the people of the land to an untimely end.  Again he caused green mountains to become withered.  Therefore the two gods, his parents, addressed Susa-no-o no Mikoto, saying, “Thou art exceedingly wicked, and it is not meet that thou shouldst reign over the world.  Certainly thou must depart far away to the Nether-land.”  So they at length expelled him.” [SJT, 20-1]

Susa-no o and the Great Sword
So, having been expelled, Susa-no-o descended to a place [called] Torikami at the head-waters of the River Hi in the land of Izumo. [Susa-no o meets an old male and an old female deity who are weeping because they’ve lost 7 daughters to a serpent and now it’s about to take the 8th.  Susa-no o leaves the serpent liquor so that it gets intoxicated.]  Then Susa-no o drew the ten-grasp saber that was augustly girded on him and cut the serpent in pieces, so that the River Hi flowed on changed into a river of blood.  So when he cut the middle tail, the edge of his august sword broke.  Then, thinking it strange, he thrust into and split [the flesh] with the point of his august sword and looked, and there was a sharp great sword [within].  So he took this great sword, and thinking it a strange thing, he respectfully informed Amaterasu. This is the Herb-quelling Great Sword. [SJT, 25-7]

The Sacred Mirror

After this Susa-no-o no Mikoto’s behavior was exceedingly rude....Indignant of this, she straightway entered the Rock-cave of Heaven and, having fastened the Rock-door, dwelt there in seclusion.  Therefore constant darkness prevailed on all sides, and the alternation of night and day was unknown.
     Then the eighty myriad gods met on the bank of the Tranquil River of Heaven and considered in what manner they should supplicate her....Ame no Uzume no Mikoto, ancestress of the Sarume chieftain, took in her hand a spear wreathed with Eulalia grass and, standing before the door of the Rock-cave of Heaven, skillfully performed a mimic dance.  She took, moreover, the true Sakaki tree of the Heavenly Mount of Kagu and made of it a head-dress; she took club-moss and made of it braces; she kindled fires; she placed a tub bottom upwards and gave forth a divinely inspired utterance.
     Now Amaterasu heard this and said, “Since I have shut myself up in the Rock-cave, there ought surely to be continual night in the Central Land of fertile reed-plains.  How then can Ame no Uzume no Mikoto be so jolly?
  So with her august hand, she opened for a narrow space the Rock-door and peeped out.  Then Ta-jikara-o no kami forthwith took Amaterasu by the hand and led her out.  Upon this the gods Nakatomi no Kami and Imibe no Kami at once drew a limit by means of a bottom-tied rope...and begged her not to return again [into the cave]. [SJT, 24-25]
Ninigi: The August Grandchild
After “all the Central Land of Reed-Plains” had been “tranquilized,” Amaterasu gave her grandson, Ninigi, the Three Treasures (a curved jewel, a mirror, and a sword) and sent him down to rule the earth, saying:  “This Reed-plain-1500-autumns-fair-rice-ear-Land is the region which my descendants shall be lords of.  Do thou, my August Grandchild, proceed thither and govern it.  Go! And may prosperity attend they dynasty, and may it, like Heaven and Earth, endure for ever.” [SJT, 28]

According to tradition, Ninigi’s Great Grandson, Jimmu, went on to become the first “emperor” of Japan in 660 B.C.E.  The present emperor of Japan is said to be a direct descendant of this lineage, which is ultimately traced back to the kami Amaterasu.

Additional Resources

Craig, Albert M. The Heritage of Japanese Civilization. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993.

Morton, W. Scott. Japan: Its History and Culture. Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Varley, H. Paul. Japanese Culture. Third Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Wm. Theodore de Bary, et al. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Second Edition, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

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