The Japan Society
Publications Books & Journals The Japan Society Review

The Japanese Myths: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, and Spirits

The Japanese Myths: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, and Spirits
By Joshua Frydman

Thames and Hudson (2022)
ISBN-13: 978-0500252314
Review by Renae Lucas-Hall

This illustrated book by Joshua Frydman is well-written, thought-provoking, and visually engaging. Flicking through the pages, the text may seem dense and difficult to understand but it’s actually gripping and captivating to read.

The first page begins with a tribute to the writer, teacher and translator Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who travelled to Japan in 1890. He wrote several books, including a short story collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, introducing Japanese mythology to the West.

The order in which Frydman chooses to introduce each subject is clever. It starts all the way back during the Age of the Gods and works its way through time, making it easier for one to understand each religion, myth, deity and spirit. He opens with a definition of Japan and the predominant Japanese faiths, Shinto and Buddhism. But he also explains there are elements of Confucianism, based on morality and philosophy, and Daoism which is another school of thought centred on harmony with the universe and Chinese astrology.

Frydman’s exoteric explanations provide a clear understanding of Japanese myths which can be traced back as far as the 7th century CE. He elaborates on the two oldest historical chronicles which are the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihonshoki (The Chronicles of Japan). These accounts are the best interpretations of early beliefs. Frydman explains the Kojiki is the story of how the imperial family came to be, why they came to be, and it stresses their rule over the court is natural (p. 28). The Nihonshoki is made up of 30 books covering the reign of the first 46 emperors, but these days scholars think both chronicles were political propaganda used to prove everything is related back to the emperor.

Frydman goes on to introduce the last generation of the gods of creation, Izanagi and Izanami. Followed by Amaterasu, the sun goddess who ruled heaven, Tsukuyomi, the moon god who ruled night and Susanowo who was associated with the sea. The author points out they’re all mythical ancestors of the imperial line and important representations of natural forces in early Japan. We then come to Jinmu, the first of fifteen legendary emperors, who dominated the land and the sea. Jinmu is a mortal man, but his existence is often questioned as he has no tomb.

Anyone with an interest in manga will appreciate the chapter on ‘Living Kami and Divine Humans’ which looks at humans who have transitioned into kami to become gods who are worshipped. They’re historical people who actually existed. For example, Prince Shotoku was the first Japanese defender of the Buddhist faith. He still makes a significant contribution to modern culture and appears in several popular manga such as Hi izuru tokoro no tenshi (Prince of the Land of the Rising Sun, 1980-1984). Sugawara no Michizane, or Tenjin, also gets a mention. Michizane is popular with young students who pray for help with their exams. Minamoto no Yoshiie, or Hachiman, the patron god of warriors, is also touched upon. Even today, there are a lot of shrines dedicated to Hachiman in Japan. 

Fans of Japanese horror films will be captivated by the chapters on evil onryo or goryo. These are spirits of humans who have been betrayed or have a grudge with the living. They were prolific during the Heian period (794-1185), and they’re mentioned in the classic work of Japanese literature The Tale of Genji. They can cause natural disasters like floods and earthquakes or possess a human being. They’re also called shiryo or dead spirits if they have been unfairly condemned to death. The 1998 film Ring and the 2002 movies Dark Water and Ju-On: The Grudge are well-known flicks involving vengeful spirits and yurei or ghosts.

Japanese literature buffs and romanticists will enjoy the chapter on ‘Angelic Beings and Astral Romances’. Frydman tells the story of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl which is associated with the Tanabata holiday celebrated in Japan on the 7th of July. He also recounts The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. They both have moral implications which are still relevant today.

The Seven Gods of Luck are mentioned in the chapter on ‘Household, Epidemic and Directional Deities’. They are common subjects for netsuke which are small decorative toggles, usually made of wood or ivory, worn by Japanese men during the Edo period to hang swords, tobacco, or other items on their kimonos. There are over 2,300 netsuke at the British Museum in London and a collection of 75 netsuke are currently on display until September at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

A lot of tourists or foreigners who live in Japan have attended the world-famous Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto. Frydman says this may have originally started as a festival to appease Gozu Tenno in order to protect their city. Gozu Tenno or Ox-Headed Emperor is a deity who threatens urban citizens. He can bring epidemics in the form of diseases like smallpox and measles. 

Fans of Japanese novels, live-action films, television shows, anime and manga will be captivated by the section on Onmyoji or imperial diviners who were officially government workers assigned to the Bureau of Onmyodo or Yin-Yang Magic. Frydman tells us they’re the Japanese equivalent of wizards from Western Fantasy and the cause of legends. One of the most famous being Onmyoji by Yumemakura Baku, a novel series which began in 1986 that continues to this day.  

Yokai or spirits found in the Japanese countryside also feature heavily in Japanese film and novels. These spirits often take the form of oni or ogres, tengu or goblins, kappa or water imps, ningyo or Japanese mermaids, and yamanba or mountain witches.

Modern and historical Japanese stories and films are also full of animals and objects that can transform into supernatural creatures. Frydman goes into detail on this subject explaining how foxes are famous for being evil shapeshifters, sometimes turning into beautiful women who swindle men. The tanuki or raccoon dog can also shapeshift, but they usually mean well. Dragons and snakes feature in both the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki. Dragons can be destructive and represent floods or volcanoes. Cats have featured as far back as Sei Shonagon’s famous tale The Pillow Book. These creatures can be a form of good luck in Japan. The maneki-neko or inviting cat figurine is often seen in Japanese restaurants as a talisman of good fortune. There are also sections in this book dedicated to turtles, cranes, rabbits and catfish. Frydman explains how some people believed catfish were the cause of earthquakes in the Heian and early Kamakura (1185–1333) period!

The final section on ‘The New Mythologies of Modern Japan’ propels the reader into the 20th century. It emphasizes the way State Shinto was used as propaganda until it was demolished during the American Occupation from 1945 to 1952. Frydman also explains how the 1950s was considered the Golden Age of Japanese cinema after censorship was stopped and there’s a section on the rise of the manga industry at this time. Frydman also dedicates a small section to Kaiju or strange beasts such as the 1954 film Godzilla, Tezuka Osamu’s Atom the Mighty, and Gigantor. PlayStation gamers will recognize the video game Okami or Great God. It engages with the Kojiki and Nihonshoki myth cycles and Amaterasu, the sun goddess.

Overall, this book is a wonderful guide to an enduring fascination with stories and the supernatural in Japan. Frydman’s explanations prove mythology acts as a compass to guide past, present and future generations.

Japanese myths offer an allegorical narrative that gives so much hope to humans. It shows a ‘transformative power of storytelling. Legends, when set free, can transform a prince into a saint, and an exiled criminal into a prophet of the wilderness’. (p. 118) 

Having read Frydman’s book it’s wonderful to know we’re preserving these spellbinding mythologies and allowing them to evolve within our modern realm of creativity and understanding. This gives the Japanese culture even more layers to unwrap and appreciate.