One day in my Japanese class while studying abroad, we got into a discussion regarding Japanese history. The conversation eventually turned in my direction, where I asked sensei and the class if they’d ever heard of a man named Yasuke.
They had not.
That prompted me to inform the class about his existence and legacy. This is the story of the one and only African Samurai, Yasuke.
Yasuke was the only African and first non-Japanese samurai. His story began around 1579 in Edo Japan. Not much is known about his life before arriving in Japan. Some say he was from the country of Mozambique and came to Japan on a ship with an Italian missionary named Alessandro Valignano on an inspection tour. Other accounts say he was an escaped slave.
Yasuke arrived in Kyoto where he found himself at the feet of the Feudal Lord Oda Nobunaga, who praised his height and build. It had been the first time he had seen an African.
Nobunaga quickly enlisted him into his ranks. They soon became close, treating him almost like family. Nobunaga described Yasuke as a man who had the might of 10 men, and was among the few people permitted to dine with the lord — a high honor. He fought in a number of important battles and is said to even be present the night Nobunaga took his own life.
The fall of Nobunaga’s empire in 1582 also marks the end of Yasuke’s known history, when he was exiled.
The tale of Yasuke has perplexed and fascinated me from the moment I’d heard it. It is a story I and many other people would like to preserve in history.
Last time, I explained the Japanese creation myth including the story of Izanagi and Izanami. In this post, I’m going to explain what happened next with their Three Precious Children. Their stories gives way for the Imperial Regalia of Japan (三種の神器, sanshu no jingi, “Three Sacred Treasures”) and are among the most well known Japanese myths!
Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, and her brother Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon, were married. Because… you know, that’s just what ancient gods did. Together, they lived in the heavens. One day, Uke Mochi (保食神, “The Goddess Who Protects Food”), the goddess of food and cooking, invited Amaterasu over for a feast. Amaterasu couldn’t go, so she sent Tsukuyomi to represent her. Once Tsukuyomi arrived, Uke Mochi began to prepare the food; she turned into the ocean and spat out fish, faced the forest and spat out game, then turned into a rice paddy and coughed up rice. The food looked delicious, but Tsukuyomi was so disgusted by the way Uke Mochi produced the food that he killed her. Her body then produced more food: millet, beans, more rice and meat, and even silkworms.
When Tsukuyomi came home, he told Amaterasu what had happened. Amaterasu was so upset with Tsukuyomi for killing Uke Mochi that she labeled him as an evil god and broke up with him. She then moved to a different part of the sky, which is why day and night are now separate.
Amaterasu had a long standing rivalry with her other brother, Susano’o. Their father Izanagi ordered Susano’o to leave the heavens. Susano’o went to Amaterasu to say goodbye, but she was suspicious of him. He proposed a challenge in order to prove his sincerity: they were to take an item from each other and produce gods from it (because that shows you’re sincere, right?). Susano’o created five male deities from Amaterasu’s necklace, and she created three female deities from his sword. Amaterasu claimed that she had won, because the five male deities were birthed from her necklace, and this upset Susano’o. Overcome with anger, he destroyed Amaterasu’s rice fields and threw a giant horse at her loom, which killed her favorite attendant. Amaterasu was incredibly upset and banished Susano’o from heaven; She then hid behind ama-no-iwato (天岩戸, “heavenly rock cave”). With the sun goddess gone, the world was plunged into darkness.
With no light in the world and evil spirits everywhere, all the other gods worked together to figure out a way to get Amaterasu to leave the cave. They eventually came up with a plan. Roosters were let out near the entrance to trick her into thinking that dawn had come. A tree was also placed near the cave and was covered in magatama (勾玉), traditional Japanese curved beads, and a big beautiful mirror. Then the gods threw a party right outside of the cave! Eventually, a goddess started dancing. The dance was so entertaining that the other gods filled the place with laughter. Hearing the excitement outside, Amaterasu peeked out from behind the boulder, and was amazed by her own reflection on the mirror. With the cave opened up enough, some strong gods pulled the boulder away and yanked her out of the cave. They told her not to hide any more, and the world was filled with light again.
After he was exiled from Heaven, Susano’o ended up near a river in Izumo Province. He heard crying, and found a family of earthly gods: a mother, a father, and a daughter. Susano’o asked them why they were upset, and they explained to him that they used to have eight daughters, but every year for the past seven years, an eight-headed and eight-tailed serpent named Yamata no Orochi (八岐大蛇, “8-branched giant snake”) came and ate one of their daughters. They only had one daughter left, and Orochi was coming soon.
Susano’o offered to help the family by killing Orochi if he could marry their last daughter, Kushinada-hime, to which they agreed. Susano’o turned Kushinada-hime into a comb and put her in his hair. He then instructed the parents to build a fence with eight holes and to put eight large vats of sake behind those holes. When Orochi showed up, it put each of its heads through the holes in the fence to drink the sake, which made it drunk and start to fall asleep. Susano’o used this opportunity to cut off all eight heads, then cut off all eight tails. While cutting the fourth tail, Susano’o’s blade hit something: the Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (天叢雲剣, “Heavenly Cloud Gathering Sword”), now called Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (草薙剣, “Grass Mowing Sword”). With his new comb wife, he gave the sword to Amaterasu as an apology.
Amaterasu then had all three pieces of what would be considered the Imperial Regalia. Kusanagi, the sword, represented valor. Yata-no-Kagami (八咫鏡, “Eight Span Mirror”), the mirror used to lure Amaterasu out of the cave, represented wisdom and truth. Yasakani-no-Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉, “Eight Saka Agate Magatama“), a bead from the tree that mirror hung from, represented benevolence.
Amaterasu eventually gave the Imperial Regalia to her grandson, Ninigi-no-Mikoto, and sent him to earth to pacify Japan and plant rice. It is said that Ninigi-no-Mikoto later passed the Imperial Regalia to his great-grandson, Jimmu, who became Japan’s first emperor in 660 BC. This is why the Japanese believed that the Imperial Family is directly related to the gods and why the Imperial Regalia are still presented during the enthronement ceremony today.
What the regalia look like is a mystery, and their locations aren’t confirmed. It has been stated that the sword is at Atsusa Shrine in Nagoya, the mirror at Ise Grand Shrine in Mie, and the bead in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Throughout their 2000+ years of existence there have been stories of them being lost at sea or stolen, so we may never really know where they are. Wherever they may be, whatever they may look like, the Imperial Regalia and the myths surrounding them certainly have impacted Japanese culture even today.
One of the most liberating elements of Japan and its culture resides in music. Outside of the popular idol culture, the music industry in Japan showcases too many niches to count. You may stumble upon a Jazz cafe right next to a Hip-Hop bar, for example. Or you may walk down the street and catch a taiko (Japanese drums) group preparing for their next performance.
To put it starkly, Japan has a music culture that is rapidly growing, giving a chance to any and all styles.
I experienced this firsthand. During my stay in Japan I had the opportunity to personally see and even participate in the music.
The first of which is the Hikone Community Taiko Club. Though taiko itself just means “drums” in Japanese, it typically refers to what is called kumi-daiko: a traditional style of drumming that has been integrated into the Japanese culture for centuries.
The Hikone Community Taiko Club offers classes for all ages, from younger generations looking to get a start on their music career to older generations aiming to preserve the spirit of kumi-daiko and stay fit. The culmination of musicians from different backgrounds come together to form an elegant cacophony of sound.
Another unique opportunity I was able to participate in regarding music in Japan lies within styles far removed from Taiko. Those of which are Rock and Hip-Hop music.
I got the chance to meet members of a fast growing rock band, WOMCADOLE. Their lead singer, Higuchi, and myself performed a concert in Otsu City, Japan. There, I was able to not only join him in a few hard rock pieces, but I also got to perform a few of my own Hip-Hop/Rap songs. This experience was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I cannot thank him enough for giving me the opportunity.
The last set of music I’d like to tell you about is one many people can relate to and enjoy from around the world: street music/performance. No matter where you go, a big city is not complete without the sounds of singing, unique instruments, and the like. Osaka, Japan is no exception.
During the Halloween season, Osaka is filled to the brim with people. The atmosphere is completed by crowds of people surrounding street performers, some with large speakers and bucket drums with a kit made from pots and pans. The uniqueness each performer brings tells their own story of life in Japan.
The culture of music is just as inviting as the other aspects of the country and will continue to grow as time goes on. Even though the produced sounds can be polar opposites, having performed and seen up close music in both America and Japan I can say with certainty that it brings people together all the same.
Japan’s oldest historical record, the Kojiki (古事記; Records of Ancient Matters, 712 CE), and the second oldest book of Japanese history, the Nihon Shoki (日本書紀; The Chronicles of Japan, 720 CE) are both full of Shinto (the polytheistic religion native to Japan) myths and legends. This includes cosmogony, or the creation story of the world and the universe. Some of the figures in the creation myth are rarely mentioned since the books were written, but some play important roles in other Japanese legends and Shintoism.
While Japanese people don’t believe this anymore, the creation story is a good place to start if you’re interested in Japanese mythology and how it impacts Japanese culture. I’m going to tell that story in (hopefully) plain language. The creation myth is a little different in the Kojiki compared to the Nihon Shoki, but most people go by the Kojiki version, so that’s what I’ll be using.
Like many creation myths around the world, the universe started as silent chaos. Within this chaos, particles and light started to move. Light floated up faster than the particles, so the light is above the universe. The lighter particles floated up to form the clouds of takamagahara (高天原, The Plain of High Heaven). The heavier particles couldn’t float up, so they formed a mass called Earth below heaven.
When heaven was formed, five deities, the kotoamatsukami (別天津神, The Separate Heavenly Gods) appeared. Three came into being before the last two and are known as the zouka-sanshin (造化三神, The Three Creation Gods). These five kami (神, god or deity) were hitorigami (独神, Lone God) because they appeared spontaneously (as opposed to a male-female pair, which most gods are said to come from), didn’t have a partner, and were essentially gender-less. After these kami emerged, they went into hiding.
From there emerged the kamiyo-nanayo (神世七代, The Seven Generations of the Age of the Gods). Two more hitorigami appeared, followed by five pairs of male-female kami. Also like many myths throughout the world, these pairs were husband and wife, but also brother and sister.
While there is an innumerable amout of kami now, the Japanese creation myth shows how the first 17, the 5 kotoamatsukami and the 12 kamiyo-nanayo, emerged. The last pair of the kamiyo-nanayo were Izanami (伊邪那美神, She-Who-Invites) and her brother Izanagi (伊邪那岐神, He-Who-Invites). Izanagi and Izanami are two of the most important kami and are said to be the parents of hundreds to millions of other kami.
Izanagi and Izanami were tasked by the elder kami with kuniumi (国産み, Birth of the Country). They went to ame-no-ukihashi (天浮橋, The Floating Bridge of Heaven) connected to Earth, which was still just a floating mass of water. They churned the Earth with a jeweled spear, and the water that dripped off the tip of the spear when it was lifted created the first island, Onogoro-Shima (it is not known where this island is today). Izanami and Izanagi then moved to the island and built a castle with a heavenly pillar on top of it; they circled the top of the pillar to get married, and created the ooyajima (大八洲, Eight Great Islands): Awaji Island, Shikoku, Oki Islands, Kyushu, Iki Island, Tsushima Island, Sado Island, and Honshu. Other islands, like Hokkaido, and the rest of the world, were not mentioned as they were not yet known by the ancient Japanese.
After kuniumi, the kamiumi (神産み, Birth of Gods) occurred. After creating the islands of Japan, Izanagi and Izanami birthed many kami, some male, some female, and some genderless. Giving birth to their last child, Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, Izanami was fatally injured. From her dying body some kami were born, and Izanagi’s tears while mourning her death birthed more kami. He then got so upset that he killed Kagutsuchi with a sword and cut him into 8 pieces, which created 8 volcanoes. Also from Kagutsuchi’s body 8 more kami were born, and his blood on the sword and surrounding rocks created another 8 kami.
According to Shinto mythology, there is a land of the dead called yomi (黄泉, literally “yellow spring”; the real meaning of yomi is unknown in Japanese, but the writing came from Daoism). Izanagi went to yomi to bring Izanami back, but found out that she had already eaten food in yomi, which makes it incredibly hard for one to leave. Izanami said that she will ask the gods of yomi if she could leave, but Izanagi would have to promise to not look at her, to which he agreed. She was taking a long time and Izanagi got worried, so he lit his comb from his hair to create some light in order to look for her. He eventually found her, but saw that her body was now a rotting corpse. He was scared, so he decided to abandon his wife and leave. Izanami was so embarrassed that her body bore eight thunder kami, and she commanded the yomotsu-shikome (黄泉丑女, female demons from yomi) to chase him.
While being chased, Izanagi threw his headress, which turned to grapes, and his comb, which turned into bamboo, making the shikome stop to eat. Izanami then sent yomi warriors and the 8 thunder kami after him, but Izanagi threw three peaches at them, so they ran away (peaches were thought to have evil-banishing magic at the time). At the slope that connects the land of the dead and the land of the living, Izanami and Izanagi met, and Izanagi lifted a huge rock and blocked the path (which is said to be in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture). Izanami yelled over the rock and said that if he leaves her she will kill 1,000 people every day, to which Izanagi replied by saying that he will ensure that 1,500 be born every day. That was the last time they saw each other, dissolving their marriage with Izanagi becoming the ruler of the living and Izanami becoming the ruler of the dead.
After leaving yomi, Izanagi decided to perform misogi (禊, a Shinto purification ritual) in a river to cleanse himself. Performing this ritual created 23 kami; the last step of the ritual created an additional 3 kami, known as the mihashira no uzu no mikoto (三貴子, Three Precious Children), the three most important kami in Shintoism. Amaterasu ( 天照大御神,roughly means ‘The Light of Heaven’), the female goddess of the sun, was born from the washing of Izanagi’s left eye. Tsukuyomi (月読命,roughly means ‘Reader of the Moon’), the gender-less deity of the night, was born from the washing of his right eye. Finally, Susano’o (須佐之男命, probably means ‘the man/male god from Susa’), the male god of the seas and storms, was born from the washing of his nose. This is why we wash our hands at the entrance of shrines and temples: to cleanse ourselves before entering a sacred place.
These myths explained how the universe and kami came to be, creating the basis for other Shinto stories and beliefs. The story of Izanagi and Izanami, along with stories about Amaterasu and Susano’o, are some of the most well known. I’m going to be writing about the Three Precious Children next, so stay tuned if you want to know more Japanese mythological stories!