Throughout the world there are a great many myths and traditions, drawn from the wide diversity of cultures that have existed (and continue to exist) throughout history. One of the mythologies that most often fascinate the Western world is the Japanese, which generates great interest and has become popular over time.
There are multiple Japanese myths and legends through which the ancient inhabitants of the island tried to give an explanation to the world around them, and which continue to inspire many writers and artists.
That is why throughout this article we will make a brief collection of ten Japanese legends, short or more complex, evidence of the cultural richness of this region of Asia . These allow us to see the traditional perspective of the Japanese people regarding subjects as diverse as love or the origin of elements of nature or the geography of their territory.
A selection of the most popular Japanese legends
Next we leave you with a brief collection of ten highly known and relevant Japanese legends, which explain from Japanese folklore why there are elements of nature or stories of love or terror based on gods, creatures and spirits of their own mythology.
1. The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Princess
One of Japan’s best-known mythological figures is the Kaguya-hime, about which there are numerous legends. Among them we can see how some of its legends refer to some of the most relevant geographical elements of the island, such as Mount Fuji. One of them is the following, which also incorporates references to the reason for the fog that covers this mountain (actually a volcano that still shows some activity).
According to legend, there was once a humble old couple who had never been able to have children despite their deep desire to do so. To live, the couple depended on the collection of bamboo and its use to make different articles . One night, the old man went into the forest to cut and collect bamboo, but suddenly he realized that one of the samples he had cut was shining in the moonlight. After examining the stem, he found a small girl inside, only a few centimeters in size.
Since he and his wife had never been able to have children, the man took her to his home, where the couple would name her Kaguya and decide to raise her as their daughter. On top of that, the branch from which the girl had come began in time to generate gold and precious stones, making the family rich.
The girl grew over time, becoming a beautiful woman. Her beauty would be such that she would begin to have numerous suitors, but she refused to marry any. News of her beauty reached the ears of the emperor , who intrigued requested that she come to him, which Kaguya-hime refused. The emperor refused, and would go in person to visit her, quickly falling in love with her and pretending to take her with him to his castle, which the young woman would also refuse to do. From then on the emperor would continue to communicate with Kaguya-hime through numerous letters.
One day, the young woman talked with her adoptive father about the reason for her refusals, as well as why she spent every night looking at the sky: she came from the moon, her home, of which she was a princess and to which she was destined to return in a short time. Distressed, the parents told the emperor, who sent guards to try to prevent the woman from being returned to the moon.
Despite the security measures, one night of the full moon a cloud descended from the moon with the intention of taking it away. Before leaving again for her home, however, Kaguya-hime said goodbye to her parents and left behind a love letter to the emperor , along with a bottle in which she left the second elixir of eternal life. The letter and the bottle were given to the emperor, who decided to take them to the highest mountain and create a bonfire. There, once the moon rose, the emperor threw the letter and the elixir into the fire, generating a smoke that would ascend to the place where his beloved had departed. That mountain is Mount Fuji-yama, and even today we can see the smoke from the emperor’s bonfire on its summit.
2. The red thread of destiny
One of the best known love legends of the Japanese people is the one that tells us about the red thread of destiny, which starts in our little finger (which is irrigated by the same artery as the middle finger, something that ended up being associated with the transmission of feelings) to tie itself to that of another person whom we are destined to meet, maintaining a deep bond with them. These are legends that often speak of loves that are predestined to happen . Although there is more than one legend based on this concept, the most famous one is the following.
Legend has it that many years ago, an emperor received the news that a powerful sorceress capable of seeing the red thread of destiny existed in his kingdom. The emperor sent for her, asking her to help him find the one who was to be his wife.
The sorceress accepted and began to follow the thread, leading both of them to a marketplace. There, the sorceress would stop in front of a commoner , a poor peasant girl who sold products in the market with her baby in her arms. Then the sorceress told the emperor that that was where her thread ended. However, seeing that he was facing a peasant girl of great poverty, the emperor thought that the sorceress was making fun of him and pushed the peasant girl, causing her baby to fall and get a big head wound. After ordering the execution of the sorceress, the emperor returned to the palace.
Many years later and guided by his advisors, the emperor decided to marry the daughter of one of the most important generals in the country, although he would not see her until the day of the wedding. That day, when he saw her face for the first time, he discovered that his future wife had a scar on her head, the result of a fall when she was a baby. Evidently: just as the sorceress had predicted, the woman who was to share his life was the peasant’s baby.
This is one of the Japanese legends that talk about the concept of predestination, specifically applied to the subject of love. The myth of the better half finds in this story a reflection in its oriental version.
3. Sakura and Yohiro
Another of the best known legends explains to us, based on a love story, the origin and flowering of one of the most beautiful and emblematic trees in Japan: the cherry tree . The story is as follows.
Legend has it that long ago, in a time of great warfare, there was a forest full of beautiful trees. All of them had abundant and flowery tops, and such was their beauty and the comfort they offered that no combat took place in the forest. All but one: there was a young specimen that never blossomed, and which no one approached because of its dry and decrepit appearance.
One day a fairy, seeing the situation of the tree, was moved and decided to help him: she proposed to the tree to cast a spell thanks to which it could feel the same as a human heart for twenty years, in the hope that the experience of the emotion would make it blossom . Moreover, during this period he could transform himself into a human being at will. However, if after these years he did not manage to recover and flourish, he would die.
After accepting the spell and receiving the ability to feel and transform, the tree began to enter the world of men. What it found was war and death, something that made it avoid them for long periods. As the years passed, the tree began to lose hope. However, one day when it became human, the tree found a beautiful young woman in a stream, who treated it with great kindness. It was about Sakura, with whom after helping her to bring water up to her home she held a long conversation about the state of the war and the world.
When the young woman asked its name, the tree managed to babble Yohiro (hope). They saw each other every day, and a deep friendship developed. That friendship would soon end up becoming deeper and deeper, until it became love. Yohiro decided to tell Sakura what he felt for her, together with the fact that it was a tree about to die. The young woman fell silent.
With the twenty years of the spell nearly over, Yohiro became a tree again. But although she did not expect it, Sakura arrived and she embraced him, telling him that she also loved him . In it the fairy appeared again, offering to the young Sakura two options: to continue being human, or to be fused with the tree. Sakura chose to be fused forever with Yohiro, something that gave place to the flowers of the tree: the cherry tree. From that moment her love can be seen during the flowering of the cherry tree.
4. The Legend of Yuki Onna
Yuki-Onna is a yokai or spirit, in a feminine form, that appears during snowy nights to feed on the vital energy of those who are lost in their territory and transform them into frozen statues . This being is part of several legends, representing death by freezing. Among them, one of the most outstanding is the following.
Legend has it that one day two young woodcutters and carpenters, Mosaku and Minokichi, were returning home from the forest when they were caught in a snowstorm. Both, teacher and student respectively, took refuge in a hut and soon fell asleep.
However, at that moment a gust of wind opened the door with violence, and a woman dressed in white entered with her. She approached Master Mosaku, absorbed his life energy and froze him, killing him instantly. The young Minokichi was paralyzed, but seeing his Yuki-Onna youth decided to forgive him in exchange for never revealing what happened , in which case he would kill him. The young man agreed.
A year later, Minokichi met and later married a young woman named O-Yuki, with whom he had children and a happy relationship. One day, the young man decided to tell his wife what he had experienced. At that moment, O-Yuki was transformed, discovering herself as Yuki-Onna and willing to kill Minokichi after this pact was broken. However at the last moment she decided to forgive him by considering him a good father , and after leaving her children in Minokichi’s care she left home never to return.
5. Shita-kiri Suzume: the sparrow with the cut tongue
Some ancient Japanese legends are in the form of a fable that shows us the price of greed and the virtue of goodness and moderation. One of them is the legend of the sparrow with its tongue cut out.
This story tells how a noble and benevolent old man went into the forest to cut wood, only to find a wounded sparrow. The old man took pity on the bird, taking the animal into his home to care for it and feed it. The old man’s wife, a greedy and greedy lady, did not support him, but that did not stop him. One day when the old man had to return to the forest, the woman left the wounded bird alone, which found cornmeal that it ended up eating. When he returned, seeing that he had finished it, he got angry and cut out the sparrow’s tongue before expelling it from the house.
Later, when the old woodcutter returned and found out what had happened, he went out to look for him. In the forest and with the help of some sparrows, the old man found the sparrows’ inn , where he was welcomed and was able to greet the one he had saved. As he said goodbye, the sparrows gave him a choice of two baskets, one large and one small, as a gift of thanks.
The old man chose the small one, to discover once at home that it hid a treasure of great value. His wife, after knowing the story and that there was another basket, went to the inn and demanded the other basket for herself. They gave it to her with the warning not to open it until she reached her house . Despite this, the old man ignored them, opening the basket in the middle of the mountain. This caused what she saw inside it to be various monsters, something that frightened her so much that she tripped and fell down the mountain.
This is one of the Japanese legends that deals with the subject of greed, something that is much discussed in the popular culture of many societies. Its moral background is evident, showing a case of a prize obtained not through effort and work but through arrogance.
6. Amemasu and the tsunamis
Japan is located in a territory that, due to its geological situation and since ancient times, is frequently hit by numerous natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. In this sense we can also find myths and legends that try to give an explanation to the why of the mentioned phenomena. An example is found in the legend of Amemasu, which tries to explain the reason for the tsunamis.
The legend says that in ancient times there was a gigantic yokai (a term that refers to a group of supernatural spirits of great power that make up much of Japanese mythology) in the form of a whale called Amemasu, which inhabited Lake Mashu in such a way that its enormous body blocked the passage of the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
One day, a small deer approached the lake in order to quench its thirst. At that moment the giant yokai jumped up to eat the deer, gobbling it up on the spot. The little deer, inside Amemasu, cried. It wept in such a way that its tears, of exceptional purity, pierced the stomach of the beast with such force that a hole was opened in the guts of Amemasu , killing it while letting the deer out.
The death of the yokai was seen by a bird passing through the area, which would run to the various villages to warn of the danger that the death of the being meant, the being of his body that slowed down the waters of the ocean. However, with the exception of the Ainu, who fled to high territories, most of the inhabitants of the island became curious and went to the lake in order to see what had happened.
Once there and seeing the huge body of the yokai they decided to eat it without any respect. But this had serious consequences: after Amemasu’s body had been devoured, the blockage of the Pacific waters had disappeared, so that at that very moment the contained waters flooded the area and killed everyone present .
This would cause the first tsunami, which would only leave the Ainu alive, who heeded the bird’s warnings. After that, the rest of the tsunamis that hit Japan are said to be caused by the anger of the spirit at the crimes directed at the animals of the sea.
An urban legend of terror based on modern times, the story of Teke-teke tells us how a shy young woman was transformed into a spirit that still haunts the country’s train stations .
The legend tells how a shy and fragile young girl was a victim of bullying. The young woman was constantly harassed and humiliated, unable to defend herself. One day, the young woman was absorbed in her thoughts and waiting for a train to return home when some of her torturers spotted her.
They took a cicada from the road, throwing it at his back. When the animal began to sing on her back, the girl was frightened and fell on the tracks , so that a train just passed over her: the girl died, being split in two by the train.
Since then it is said that during the nights it is possible to see the upper part of his body crawling with his nails, looking for his other half in a desperate and angry way. If she finds someone, she asks them where their legs are, and sometimes attacks them with her claws (even pushing other people onto the tracks and even killing them and transforming them into creatures like her).
8. Yamaya no Orochi
Japanese legends often also include the presence of various Shinto gods, as well as great deeds and the obtaining of treasures. An example of these is the legend of the dragon Yamaya no Orochi .
The legend tells us how in the beginning of time humanity lived together on the same earth with deities and beasts, being in balance and helping each other. However, there came a time when the god Izanagi came into conflict with his wife Izanami , something that destroyed the balance forever.
In the context of the war between the two gods, evil arose in many deities, and oni and dragons (the latter being born from the vegetation that had absorbed the blood of the gods) came into the world. Among these latter beings, one of the most powerful dragons arose, Yamata no Orochi, which had eight heads and tails . The creature demanded from the human inhabitants of Izumo the sacrifice of eight girls every night of the full moon, once a month.
The citizens made the sacrifice, gradually running out of maidens. The leader of Izumo had a daughter, Kushinada, who at the age of sixteen saw the last maidens being sacrificed. She would be the next. But one day the god Susanowo came to Izumo and fell in love with Kushinada. The god promised to destroy Yamata no Orochi if the hand of the young girl was granted in return, something the king quickly agreed to.
When the night came that Kushinada was to be sacrificed, Susanowo disguised herself as a servant and entertained the dragon with eight barrels of liquor before the banquet at which the young woman was to die began. The dragon drank, each head from a barrel, until he became drunk and fell asleep. After that, the god Susanowo proceeded to cut off the being’s heads and tails, as well as its entrails. From the remains he removed the Kusanagi no Tsurugi sword, the Yata no Kagami mirror, and the Yasakani no Magatama medallion, the three imperial treasures of Japan.
9. The fisherman and the turtle
Many Japanese legends are based on promoting goodness and virtue, as well as referring to the need to listen to warnings. This is the case with the legend of the fisherman and the turtle, which is also one of the oldest references to time travel .
Legend has it that once upon a time there was a fisherman named Urashima, who one day observed how some children were torturing a giant turtle on the beach. After facing them and paying them a few coins to leave it, he helped the animal return to the sea. The next day, fishing in the sea, the young man heard a voice calling him . When he turned around, he saw the turtle again, who told him that she was the servant of the queen of the seas and that she wanted to meet him (in other versions, the turtle herself was the daughter of the god of the sea).
The creature led him to the Dragon Palace, where the fisherman was welcomed and entertained. He stayed there for three days, but after that he wanted to return to his home since his parents were old and he wanted to visit them. Before leaving, the deity of the sea gave him a box, which he warned him never to open.
Urashima returned to the surface and headed for his home, but as he arrived he saw that the people were strange and the buildings were different. When he arrived at his case he found it totally abandoned, and after looking for his family he could not find it. Asking the neighbors, some elders told him that an old woman lived in that house long ago with her son, but he drowned. But the woman had died long before he was born, and in time the village had developed. Although only a few days had passed for Urashima, several centuries had passed in the world .
Longing for the time spent in the Dragon Palace, the young man looked at the small box the deity of the sea had given him, and decided to open it. From within, a small cloud emerged, which began to drift toward the horizon. Urashima followed it to the beach, but it took him longer and longer to advance and he began to notice more and more weakness. When he arrived at the beach he understood that what he had kept in the box was nothing more than the years that had passed for him, that after opening it they returned to his body. He died soon after.
10. The Legend of Tsukimi
Some Japanese legends tell us the origin of some celebrations and traditions, such as the legend of Tsukimi, which explains the tradition of observing the moon on the first day of autumn .
Legend has it that once upon a time an old pilgrim met several animals, such as the monkey, the fox or the rabbit. Exhausted and hungry, he asked them for help in getting food. While the fox hunted a bird and the monkey gathered fruit from the trees, the rabbit got nothing that humans could eat.
Seeing the old man so exhausted and weak, the animal decided to light a fire and throw himself into it, offering his own flesh as food . At this noble gesture, the old man revealed his true identity: he was a powerful deity, the incarnation of the moon itself, which decided to reward the gesture of the rabbit by taking it to the moon with him.
- Littleton, C. Scott, (May 1983). “Some Possible Arthurian Themes in Japanese Mythology and Folklore”, Journal of Folklore Research. Vol 20, No 1, p.67 – 81.
- Rubio, C. (2012). The myths of Japan. Between history and legend. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.
- Seco Serra, I. (2006). Legends and tales of Japan. Madrid: Ediciones Akal.