Heaven, Hell and Reeds: Japanese Myths

When it comes to myths and legends, you cannot count out Japanese myths. They have the most unique and interesting (but sexist) perspective. In this rather lengthy article, we’d like to explore the Japanese concepts of heaven, hell and earth.

While the Japanese follow two different ‘religions’, the Japanese creation myths largely come from Shintoism. 

Takamagahara (高天原, Takamanohara, Plain of High Heaven)

Takamagahara is the divine plain of origin, where the heavenly gods were born and where they reside. Heavenly gods are known as amatsukami, and the first five heavenly gods are known as the kotoamatsukami. Kotoamatsukami are distinguished from the other gods by their nature as solitary gods; that is, they came into being alone and without gender. However, some interpret Takamimusubi and Kamimusubi as male and female, respectively, and in some interpretations they are a married couple. 

Nevertheless, the kotoamatsukami emerged, and hid their presence away. What does it mean for a god to hide themselves away? We can assume that they died, but the kotoamatsukami (save for the pair mentioned above) do not appear in the chapters dealing with the underworld. As for Takamimusubi and Kamimusubi, they certainly have not died, as they do show up in later tales. Takamimusubi leads the heavenly council in the matter of taking over Japan, while Kamimusubi created seeds from Ogetsu Hime (the goddess of food) corpse to plant. 

The Seven Divine Generations were born after the kotoamatsukami, culminating in the birth of Izanagi and Izanami, the pair generally credited with creating the land. The story of Izanagi and Izanami is a messy one, which basically means that it doesn’t fit our format of sticking to the three major locations. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Takamagahara is ruled by Amaterasu, perhaps the most famous god in Japanese mythology. Amaterasu is one of Izanagi’s “noble” children, born from his left eye. In another version, however, she, along with her brothers Tsukuyomi and Susanoo, were born to Izanagi and Izanami. No matter the version, the three of them share the same roles: Amaterasu the sun goddess, Tsukuyomi the moon god, and Susanoo the storm god.

The siblings’ relationship is not exactly the best. In the Nihon Shoki, Tsukuyomi murders the goddess of food, Uke Mochi (thought to be the same being as Ogetsuhime), causing Amaterasu to declare him an evil god and refuse to share the same sky with him. This is the explanation behind the sun and the moon appearing at different times of the day. In the Kojiki, however, the role of the murderer is given to Susanoo instead, with poor Tsukuyomi reduced to just another name in the books.

Susanoo does plenty of other things to terrorise his elder sister: ruining her rice fields, vomiting and… leaving other such excrement in her palace, and the worst of all: throwing a dead horse at her, killing one of her servants. Naturally, Amaterasu is horrified, and hides herself in the Amano-Iwato cave.

This is a bad thing, because Amaterasu is the sun goddess, and without the sun plants do not grow, and I’m sure we’re all familiar with the food chain here. The heavenly gods hatched a plan to lure her out. They hung a mirror and jewels on a nearby tree, and the dawn goddess Ame-no-Uzume danced naked on an upturned bathtub, eliciting laughter from the other gods. A curious Amaterasu peeked outside to see what all the fuss was about, and got distracted by her reflection in the mirror (as is customary for goddesses, she was very beautiful). Light returned to the world, and all was well.

Perhaps not for Susanoo, though, considering they kicked him out of Takamagahara after that.

Ashihara no Nakatsukuni (葦原中国, Central Land of Reed Plains)

It’s Japan, in case the name is confusing. The ‘ashi’ in ashihara means reeds, which refers to the damp lands of Japan, suitable for growing rice. It was called the central land due to its position between Takamagahara (the upper realm) and Yomi (the lower realm). Ashihara no Nakatsukuni is connected to Takamagahara through the heavenly bridge Ame-no-ukihashi, while Yomotsu Hirasaka connects Yomi to the central land.

The two connections feature heavily in the story of Izanagi and Izanami. The couple stood on Ame-no-ukihashi and stirred the seas with a jeweled spear, which begs the question: can something be called a bridge if it doesn’t actually connect things yet? Given that the land hadn’t been formed, it’d be more reasonable to call it a pier… An island formed from the churning of the seas or in other versions, broken pieces of the spear or the mud that dripped from the spear, which they made their home upon, and got to doing the thing married couples typically do. Make babies. Lots and lots of babies. Except some of the babies were literal islands, and that was how Japan was created.

Their first child together was born ugly, weak and without bones, Hiruko (who later became Ebisu, the gods of fishermen), and their second child was the island of Awa. When Izanagi and Izanami asked their parents as to why their children were not “proper gods”, and it was revealed to them that because Izanami, a woman, spoke before the man during the ceremony, it had ruined the ritual and cursed their offspring (now you know why Japanese society is so sexist). 

The couple then decided to repeat the ceremony, this time, Izanagi speaking first. Their new offspring came out prosperous, and Izanagi and Izanami were quite busy parents, creating the 8 main islands of Japan (Awaji, Shikoku, Oki, Tsukushi or Kyuchu, Iki, Tsu, Sado and Oyamato) as well as 800 other kami, from gods of the seas to god of fire, Kagutsuchi. Kagutsuchi, being the god of fire, had burned his mother on his way out, killing her in the process. Izanagi was furious and cut his own son into pieces, spawning other gods from Kagutsuchi’s body. 

After his adventure in Yomi, (the story which will be told later on when we talk about Yomi), Izanagi had to cleanse himself in the Woto river in order to get rid of the impurities of the underworld. From this ritual, Amaterasu, goddess of the Sun was born from his left eye, Tsuki-yomi, god of the moon from this right eye, Susanoo, the god of storm when he washed his nose and Shina-tsu-hiko, god of the winds was born from his breath. 12 other gods were born from his discarded clothes. This ritual has stuck until today, the harai, where before someone enters a jinja, they need to clean themselves of the impurities they carry with them first. 

Though Izanagi and Izanami are attributed with the creation of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni, another god holds that title as well. Okuninushi, a descendant of Susanoo, is also credited as the creator of the land along with Sukuna-bikona, the son of Kamimusubi (Takamimusubi in some versions, or even both if you believe that they were married).

Okuninushi also happens to be a major deity associated with Izumo, which may go some way towards explaining the discrepancy. In Izumo mythology, he is known as Onamuchi, the greatest of gods, the creator of Japan and ruler of Izumo. Interestingly, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki incorporate Izumo myths into their timeline, and keep Okuninushi’s major role as the ruler of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni.

It doesn’t last, however. The gods in Takamagahara, apparently unsatisfied with ruling one realm, decided to conquer Ashihara no Nakatsukuni and install one of Amaterasu’s sons as its ruler. Amaterasu sent her sons as messengers, but they failed to live up to the task, with one son even settling down with one of Okuninushi’s daughters. In the end, the gods sent down Takemikazuchi, a god of thunder and swords, to subdue the land. His partner in crime varies, but is ultimately unimportant. Takemikazuchi succeeds in convincing Okuninushi to relinquish control of the land, and in getting rid of (read: killing) all the gods who resisted the change in rulership.

The conquest of Ashihara no Nakatsukuni ends with Amaterasu’s grandson Ninigi descending from the heavens to rule over the earth. Accompanying him were many other heavenly gods, as well as three treasures bestowed upon him by Amaterasu. The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi sword, the Yata-no-Kagami mirror, and the Yasakani-no-Magatama jewel. These three are also known as the three sacred treasures of Japan. 

Ninigi is known for one thing, being the ancestor of the first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu. Ninigi also happens to be the grandson of both Amaterasu and Takamimusubi, meaning that the imperial lineage can be traced all the way back to the kotoamatsukami. Is this important? Perhaps. It must have been important to the emperors, at the very least, given that they commissioned the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki to establish the divine-imperial lineage.

Japanese Hells, Yomi and Jigoku

What we consider to be “Hell”, whatever context it may be in, has deep strong links to the religion it is being associated with. Animals do not have anything that resembles “hell” in their dictionary after all. So, I must give you a little explanation about religion in Japan before I even talk about Japanese hells.

The average Japanese person practice Shintoism and Buddhism, mixing both practices in their daily lives, turning to Shintoism when it comes to everyday rituals and ceremonies, and Buddhism when it comes to funerals. 99% of the population are cremated and their ashes are buried under a gravestone.

Shintoism stems from animism, the belief that all objects, even concepts have their own souls and powers, and these are called kami (神). The main goal of Shintoism practices is to get in tune with those kami and get their soul or themselves purified through rituals and paying respect to them. This is why living in harmony and respect for nature and all things is so present and important in Japanese daily life. There are no doctrines in Shintoism thus, the beliefs are rather abstract compared to other religions, whereas Buddhism came to Japan from China itself. In Buddhism, the object of worship is Buddha or ‘hotoke’ (仏) in Japanese. Buddhism follows the doctrine of Samsara, the cycle of birth, existence, and dying. We, human beings, are trapped in the Samsara cycle and need to achieve enlightenment and reach Nirvana, a state where we are liberated from all our desires and suffering. Ever since its introduction to Japan in the 6th century, the two religions were first pitted against each other, used to further certain governmental factions’ agendas. However, most likely because of how ‘compatible’ those two religions are, their practices and beliefs were, in a sense, combined and now supports the everyday Japanese life.

While religion does not play a big part in the modern Japanese person, the rituals and practices are still being carried during ‘special’ occasions. They would go to pray at a shrine to wish for good luck for exams, or safe labour for births, safe trips, or anything at all. Wishes as shrines are more personal and individualistic than the prayers done at Buddhist temples. Blessings, births, shichi-go-san rituals, anything that relates to the birth and beginnings, the Japanese turn to Shinto rituals. When it comes to death and endings, they turn towards Buddhist rituals.

Yomi-no-Kuni (黄泉の国)

Shinto’s idea of hell does not look like Christian Hell at all. Yomi-no-Kuni (黄泉の国, literally ‘yellow springs kingdom’), is usually described as a shadowy land where the souls go for their eternal rest. Not much is known about Yomi, other than its physical location in Japan itself, in Higashiizumo, in the Shimane Prefecture. The closest thing to Yomi-no-kuni to most people would be the Christian Purgatory.

In Shinto, unlike other religions, the notion of an afterlife is only vaguely insinuated. From the Kojiki, we have the most famous story about Yomi-no-Kuni; it tells us the story of how Izanami became the presumed ‘ruler’ of Yomi. Izanami gave birth to Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, but he burnt his mother, and this killed her, causing Izanagi to kill his son out of rage. He then went to the underworld to find his wife and bring her back to the realm of the living, however, she had already consumed food from the underworld, and just like Persephone in Greek Mythology, this bound her to the realm. Izanami told her husband, who was then waiting at the doors of the realm to wait and not to look at her until she negotiates with the gods of the realm to let her go or if she tells him otherwise. Izanagi, however, got impatient and looked, only to see his wife in her decomposing state with maggots running through her flesh. Some versions of the story say that he was chased out by a yomotsu-shikome, others say that he ran away from fear, but in the end, Izanagi sealed the entrance to the underworld with a giant boulder. Izanami then cursed the human race, promising to kill 1000 souls to bring them to the underworld every day. Izanagi, to counter that, vowed to make sure 1500 are born every day (this tale also explains why humans are born and die).

Not much else is known about Yomi-no-Kuni. If it is touched upon in other stories, it is only brief or just alluded to. For example, Susanoo, the storm god, did not want to rule over the seas, instead, wanting to be with his mother in the Land of Roots (Ne-no-Katasu Kuni), who cried and howled, causing mountains and rivers to dry up. Furious, Izanagi banished Susanoo and from then on, he disappeared from the Kojiki narrative. The previously mentioned Land of Roots may have been another title for Yomi, and it is presumed that Susanoo had joined his mother and ruled the underworld.

Meido (冥土)

Jigoku or Naraku is the Buddhist hell in Japan. This is the hell that shows up, more or less in the same form in the different Buddhist sects and teachings all around Asia. The Japanese believe that when someone dies, they either go to Heaven if they have been a good person all their lives, or Hell if they have been evil and committed sins. What about those who have done good and evil deeds in their lives? As this is the case with most people, there is a place called Meido where their souls will go through tests and 10 judges who will decide which realm the soul will be reincarnated into.

The 10 judges are King Shinko, King Shoko, King Sotai, King Gokan, King Enma, King Henjo, King Taizan, King Byodo, King Toshi, and finally King Godotenrin.

When someone dies, they are visited by three oni (Japanese demons) who escort the soul to their first step in the lengthy process of rebirth. The dead go through dark and stormy lands, bird attacks, mountains covered in sharp thorns, to get to the Sanzu-no-kawa. The journey takes 7 days and once they arrive, they have to face the first judge, King Shinko, who judges the soul based on how much killing they have done. Every living being counts, humans to ants, intentionally or not. Those judged to be evil will directly be sent to hell while the others will have to pay the 6 mon (an old form of currency in today’s currency its 195 yen) to pass through the Sanzu River. If the dead were not buried with the fee, they would not be able to go through.

The Sanzu River has three passages, a bridge where the souls with mostly good deeds get to walk through, a shallow part of the river for those who have a mix of both good and bad, and a deep part of the river where people with mostly bad deeds have to swim through, fighting snakes and the element to pass through. After crossing the river, the dead will meet Datsueba and Keneo who will take the wet clothes from the souls and hang them on a tree branch, and the weight that bends the branch is the number of sins that they have committed and this will be used in future trials. If the dead arrive with no clothes on, they will be skinned, and their skin will be weighted.

The dead have to face King Shoko and they are judged by how much they stole during their lives. The irredeemable ones are sent straight to hell and the rest will go through with the rest of the trials. King Sotai of the third trial will judge their lust and sexuality using a cat and a snake. The cat judges the soul of men and the snake, the souls of women. The cat will bite the man’s genitalia, the greater the injury, the greater the sin, the snake would be inserted in the woman, the deeper the snake can go, the greater the sin. Just like the previous and coming trials, the most sinful souls are judged to go straight to hell, and the rest move on to the next trials. The fourth trial judges the soul on how many lies they have told in their lives King Gokan weights the soul on a balance against a large boulder; the heavier the dead, the greater are the lies.

Next, the dead will face the Great King Enma next during the fifth trial. King Enma is the king of the underworld and he is the final chance the dead’s families can appeal to alleviate the soul’s sentence through prayers and offerings. Enma-sama has a large mirror in which the dead’s life is reflected, their sins and wrongdoings are being laid out for the judge to see. Enma decides based on the previous trials where in the six Buddhist realms the soul will be reincarnated into: Heaven, Humans, Ashuras, Beasts, Gaki (or hungry ghost), or Hell (Jigoku).

The next trial is overseen by King Henjo, who decides where exactly the soul will be reborn based on King Gokan and King Enma’s judgments. During the seventh trial, the dead will have to face king Taizan. At this stage, the living relatives can still help the dead avoid Jigoku through prayers and offerings. King Taizan decides the conditions of the dead’s rebirth using the previous judgments.

Upon the end of this trial, the souls are moved in front of six torii gates, where they have to choose without knowing which gate leads to where. Those set to be reborn in Heaven (Tengoku) or as humans, animals, or yokai will be reborn accordingly, and those who were deemed unworthy of rebirth will be sent to Jigoku.

Jigoku (地獄)

Thanks to the merciful Buddhas, the dead are allowed three more trials during their time in Jigoku. 100 days after their death they will be tried by King Byoudou, 1 year after their death, they will be tried by King Toshi, and 3 years after they will face King Godotenrin. From here on there are differences between texts primarily based on Chinese beliefs and Japanese beliefs. In Chinese based texts, this is the last trial. In Japanese based text, there are 3 more chances, through King Renge after 6 years, King Gion after 12 years and finally King Houkai, 32 years after death. If the soul is not granted rebirth into other realms, they are damned to be in Jigoku for a very, very, very long time…

The bureaucratic parts of Meido and Jigoku in itself is fun, yes, however, this is where the real party starts.

Jigoku is well known for being divided into either 8 sections or 16 sections. There are 8 Cold Naraka and 8 Hot Naraka in Buddhist, so if you count 8 sections, it would be counting the hells by levels only, and 16 if you count all the different sections. In certain texts, it is written that each section is also divided into their own subsections as well, with very specific tortures practices for each different sin. However, this article is long enough as it is, so I will only talk about the Great Hells.

(Screenshot from the anime Hoozuki no Reitetsu, a work of fiction)

This is what happens in the Eight Great Hot Hells according to Buddhist texts:

–          Toukatsu Jigoku (Reviving Hell) is the section of hell reserved for people who killed in their living life. The killing of any kind can lead a soul to this hell, even killing a mosquito or ants can lead a soul to fall to this hell. Those who have been looking for fights, as well as those who died during mutinies and uprisings, will also fall into this hell. The ground is hot and burning, the dead must fight each other with iron claws, aiming to tear each other while oni roams the grounds, looking for souls to smash. Once a soul dies, they are instantly revived and will suffer through 1.6 trillion human years.

–          Kokujo Jigoku (Black Thread Hell) is the section where those who have killed and stole go to. They are knocked onto the hot ground by oni, and lines get drawn on their bodies with black thread. The oni will then use their axes and saws to cut the dead into pieces, following the lines drawn. Some dead would be forced to carry piles of hot iron while walking on a tightrope suspended over an enormous frying pan, and once they fall, they will be cut and cooked in the pan itself. In this hell, the dead will have to suffer through about 13.3 trillion human years.

–          Shugou Jigoku (Crushing Hell) is where the souls who have killed, stolen, and committed lewd sins go to. The dead here are crushed using mountains made of iron, made into jelly and revived over and over again. Trees with spiky leaves adorn the landscape, the souls will have to climb up the trees to the top to reach the beautiful men and women, who then disappear. As their organs and blood splurge out of their bodies, the oni will gather under the tree to feast and use their weapons to smash the dead. Paedophiles will have melted copper poured into their anuses until the liquid pours out of their mouths. Souls here have to suffer through 106 trillion human years.

–          Kyoukan Jigoku (Screaming Hell) is reserved for murderers, thieves, perverts, and drunks. The sinners are boiled in giant pots, thrown into iron chambers, and roasted by oni, drunks have their mouths forced open and melted iron is poured in. The screams of the dead are a provocation to the oni torturing the soul, and he will torment the dead further, crushing them or killing them, only for the soul to be revived. The suffering in this realm continues for 852 trillion years.

–          Daikyoukan Jigoku (Great Screaming Hell) is where murderers, thieves, perverts, rapists, alcoholics, and liars, their tongues are pierced with iron nails, stretched and then torn from their bodies, only for it to regenerate and pulled out again. This continues for approximately 6.8 quadrillion human years.

–          Jounetsu Jigoku (Burning Hell) is where murderers, thieves, perverts, drunks, liars, and those who hold beliefs contrary to Buddhist’s idealogies. They are beaten with red burning iron clubs, put on skewers that run from their mouth to their anuses, and roasted over a great sea of fire. The souls will suffer here for 54.5 quadrillion human years.

–          Daijounetsu Jigoku (Great Burning Hell) is for murderers, thieves, perverts, alcoholics, skeptics of Buddhist teachings, and additionally have physically hurt Buddhist clergy, for example beating up monks or raping a nun. The land burns hotter than the Jounetsu Jigoku and the dead will have to feel the pain of the torture for three days before they can die and be reborn again. The dead have to spend half of an antarakalpa, a unit in Indian cosmology that is so long, it cannot be mathematically described.

–          Finally, Mugen Jigoku (the Never-Ending Hell) is the hell where suffering is uninterrupted. The most heinous souls are banished here. Those who commit parricide, saint killers, and those who challenge the Buddhist teachings on every occasion are expected here. The souls here are hungry, so hungry, they would eat their own flesh and drink their own blood to just end their hunger and thirst only to never be satisfied. According to the texts on Jigoku, if Mugen Jigoku were to ever be described in words, the writers and reader would die from the horrors. This hell is so deep that it takes 2000 years to arrive at this place by falling nonstop at terminal velocity. Some say the souls never come back from this hell, some say the punishment here lasts a full antarakalpa, and even if a soul is released, the punishment will be continued to its next lives until it is served.

The Eight Great Hells sadly do not appear very often in the human realm’s literature thus, information on the Cold Hells is rather limited apart from short descriptions of the different lands the Cold Hells offers.

–          Abuda Jigoku is called “Blister Hell” in English because it is said that the land is a dark, frozen plain surrounded by icy mountains and a never-ending blizzard rules the lands, the souls here are naked and the extreme cold leaves their bodies blistered.

–          Nirabuda Jigoku is the “Bursting Blister Hell” because it is even colder than in Abuda, so much colder, that the blisters, like the name suggests, bursts open. The bodies are then covered with frozen pus and blood.

–          Atada Jigoku (Shivering Hell) is called ‘atada’ because it is said that it is so cold there that the dead cannot speak and can only make “atatatata” sounds, hence the name.

–          Kakaba Jigoku (Lamentation Hell) is called ‘kakaba’ because it is colder than Atada Jigoku and leaves the dead wailing in pain, making the “kakakakaka” sound, hence the name.

–          Kokoba Jigoku (Chattering Teeth Hell) is called ‘kokoba’ because the dead would make “kokokokoko” sounds as it is even colder than the two previous hells, hence the name.

–          Ubara Jigoku is called the ‘Blue Lotus Hell” because the cold would make the dead turn blue, just like an utpala waterlily.

–          Hadoma Jigoku is called the Lotus Hell because the blizzard that runs through the land is so cold that it cracks the dead’s skin open (like a lotus), leaving them open, raw, bloody, and frozen.

–          Makahadoma Jigoku is called the Great Lotus Hell because here it is so cold that the dead’s whole-body cracks open and breaks into pieces after being frozen. Their organs then, after being exposed to the elements of this hell, also freezes and cracks open.

As many before me, my love for anything Japanese started when I first laid eyes on a certain obscure anime called Naruto. From then, I noticed I gravitated towards anime about Japanese myths and legends. Yokais and kaidan banashi were my go-to searches online when the sun was shining high, because the stories were too scary and still are too scary for me to read them at night.

If reading this has got you curious about jigoku and all things supernatural Japanese, I’ve got a few different mediums I would like to share.

When it comes to anime, Hoozuki no Reitetsu is my go-to. From Japanese Hell bureaucracy to Momotaro, Issunboshi to Bunbuku Chagama, there is a little bit of everything there and it is a great introduction to Japanese myths.

In films, Jigoku by Nakagawa Nobuo is the most famous name, especially in more western countries, thanks to the Criterion Collection releasing it in DVD in 2006. Anything that Nakagawa Nobuo makes however, is related to Japanese myths and folktales, so don’t forget to check those out as well.

Finally for the readers, the website Yokai.com is the most extensive collection of information about Japanese ghosts, monsters and other folktales. It is written, illustrated, and maintained by Matthew Meyer, who has released three books from this project, the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (the Hyakki Yagyou or 百鬼夜行), The Hours of Meeting Evil Spirits and the Book of Hakutaku. I have the Night Parade book on Kindle, and I wish to be able to afford all of them in physical book form soon.

Sources: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]

And special thanks to Namika from Monash who helped clear up some confusion and romanised kanjis.

By Alcor and Julia S.

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