The afterlife in the Japanese myth of creation

The ancient myth of creation of the Japanese islands is narrated in the first book of the Kojiki (or 'Record of Ancient Things'), which was completed in 712 AD.3 It tells the story of the God Izanagi and the Goddess Izanami who created the numerous islands of Japan alongside many other deities. The myth starts with the description of the gods standing on the 'Floating Bridge of Heaven' (Ame no uke-hashi). Izanagi dipped a heavenly jewelled spear into the cosmological brine below and stirred it. Then, when he lifted up the spear, the dripping salt from the tip of the spear coagulated and became the island of Onokoro, the first island of Japan to be created. Izanami and Izanagi decided to go and make their home there. They stuck the spear into the ground to erect the Heavenly Pillar and after dancing around this pillar, they gave birth to more deities, numerous islands and various features of nature such as waterfalls, mountains, trees, herbs and the wind.

So, how does this myth relate to the Japanese conception of death and life? Interestingly, there is a part of the myth which is particularly illuminating in this regard. This is when the Goddess Izanami dies from a terrible fever while giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi, bereft, wanted his spouse back and thus decided to travel to the afterlife, or Realm of Yomi, in order to get her back. He calls out to her: 'O, my beloved spouse, the lands which you and I were making have not yet been completed; you must come back!'4 But it was too late. She had already eaten the fruit in the hearth of Yomi, which meant that she was unable to return to earth without the permission of the kami Yomi. She asked her husband to wait for her patiently and not to enter the hall while she was discussing the issue with the kami. But being impatient, Izanagi entered the hall. What he saw was dreadful:

Maggots were squirming and roaring in Izanami's corpse. In her heart was Great-Thunder; in her breast was Fire-Thunder; in her belly was Black-Thunder; in her genitals was Crack-Thunder; in her right hand was Earth-Thunder; in her right foot was Reclining-Thunder. Altogether there were eight Thunder-deities.5

Izanagi was frightened by this horrible sight and decided to turn and flee. Izanami felt ashamed of his action. Yomi sent his hags to pursue him but he managed to escape them using magic. When Izanagi arrived at the border between the land of the living and underworld, he attacked his pursuers with three peaches he had found nearby.

Finally, Izanami herself came in pursuit of Izanagi. He pulled a huge boulder across the pass to separate Yomi from the land of the living. As Izanagi and Izanami stood facing each other on either side of the boulder, she said: 'O my beloved husband, if you do thus, I will each day strangle to death 1,000 of the populace of your country.' He replied: 'O my beloved spouse, if you do this, I will each day build 1,500 parturition huts, meaning that 1,500 people will be born.'6 Finally, she told him that he must accept her death. Izanagi promised not to visit her again. Then, they formally declared their marriage over.

Back in the land of the living, Izanagi said: 'I have been to a most unpleasant land, a horrible, unclean land. Therefore I shall purify myself.'7 Just as the marriage between Izanami and Izanagi brought life to the natural world, their separation signified the beginning of mortality on earth. It is also interesting to notice that once he returned to the world of the living, Izanagi went to purify himself in the water of a river.

The myth is relevant to near-death studies for at least four reasons. The first is the description of the floating bridge of heaven. This is, in fact, a common vision during Japanese NDE. The second reason is that during his visit in the land of Yomi, Izanagi is asked to stop in front of the door of the burial hall. This meant that he was prohibited from going any further. This ban bears some similarities to what is called the border or the point of no return during a near-death experience. Here, the person stops in front of a specific point of no return, for example, a river, a door, a wall, and so on. Only if a person passes over this point will he or she be dead. In a sense the decision whether to die or not is always taken by the living. Ebersole has pointed out that: 'The finality of death is a result of the actions of the living' (1989: 88).

The third interesting aspect of the narration is the description of the dreadful land of Yomi. This can be partially connected to the frightening images of the afterlife in Genshin's Ojoyoshu, written in the tenth century.8 As mentioned previously, Yoshia Hata's research suggests that NDE experiences in Japan generally tend to be negative.

The fourth element is the purification of Izanagi, symbolically using water from a river on his return from the world of the dead. This myth could be associated with the recurrent vision of rivers and water in Japanese NDEs.

The practice of purification is still very popular in Japanese everyday life. For instance, before entering a Shinto Shrine or the house of certain distinguished persons, visitors are asked to purify themselves with water, by washing their hands and their mouths. Moreover, there is another Shinto ritual of purification with water, which takes place during the 'misogi'. As Kasulis described, although there are no fixed rules, when walking on a mountain path, participants, dressed in white, enter a mountain pool at the base of a sacred waterfall:

with the water pounding down on his or her head, the devotee stands beneath the waterfall and chants a formulaic incantation. Through the tama of the sacred water and the kotodama (the tama of words) in the chant, the person's impurities are washed away.

(Kasulis 2004: 52)

Another example, which might be familiar to many, is that of a visit to a Japanese restaurant. When you enter such a place, a warm wet cloth is given to you before starting your meal. I have been told that this is not only for hygienic reasons but also for purification.

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