Japanese Literature and Mythology Post

I am not a literature specialist. The head of my department has, repeatedly, frowned in a very kind manner and murmured about my lack of a literary method.

But with that disclaimer, I don't mind sitting down and talking about Japan. And talking about books. And stories. So just consider me an informed amateur for early Japanese literature. 



Mythology vs. Literature

I'm not even sure what mythology is. But when I think Mythology, I think of the Greek and Roman stories of gods, demigods, and men. I think epics. It's origin stories and has big scope. It's Metaphorical. 

I'm not sure when a religious story becomes mythology, but it seems it happens when the religion falls out of practice. In some way, I think the concept of Western mythology—Greek, Norse, etc.—developed and became more defined when Christianity rose in prominence. Once again, just a theory, and this is way beyond me. Just a musing. 

But this kind of 'religion falling out of practice' never exactly happened in Japan, worship of the kami (gods or natural spirits) and Buddhism occurred in tandem. So Japan never exactly ended up with a canon of stories produced within a set time period addressing a certain pantheon. This might be a long way of saying that there is no such thing as wholly secular literature or wholly religious literature. 

That's a very recent way of thinking. Premodern Japan—let's say before 1868—was full of kami, ghosts, spirits, and buddhas. The religious exists in stories. But to what extent we can consider all premodern stories "mythological," I'm not sure. 

But if Retan Shitunpe was Going to Kill You Unless You Suggested Something

I'd frown and suggest the Kojiki, a text written as a court history in the eighth century. It opens with stories of gods and the creation of the world. I could suggest the English translation by Donald Philippi, which is big and red and would look very impressive on your bookshelf. See if your library has a copy. Crack it open and get a feel for what some people in eighth century Japan thought defined them and their land. 

If you glance at Amazon, you'll balk at the price—it's a $200 book—and you'll see a couple other translations. They're abridged or short, cheap, and poorly translated, ridden with typos like lice in a low-end motel. Welcome to the world of books out of print. If you can't get your hands on the Philippi Kojiki, which would be understandable really, a compromise is Basil Hall Chamberlain's Kojiki translation. But this translation dates from the 1800s—think Sherlock Holmes era—and while you're little book-buying heart loves the $8 price tag, you're going to be slogging through the Victorian language of a translation of an ancient Japanese text that's no walk in the park even when the English makes sense.  

These options stink. The Kojiki is a notoriously difficult text to translate. The other early "mythological" text option might be the Nihongi, but you run into many of the same problems. Read the Aston translation of the Nihongi. It's literally your only option worth reading. It can be had at a decent price, but don't let the snazzy cover fool you; the translation is over a hundred years old, and like the Chamberlain Kojiki, you'll be having language adventures in nineteenth English. 

It would be wonderful to have newer whole translations, but the current academic environment doesn't support translations as the basis for a PHD dissertation. I think that's crazy talk.  

Translating something like the Kojiki ought to get you two doctorates, but what do I know? 

And, if you translate something into English, you're allowing millions of people to explore stories who couldn't! 

But, at the end of the day, these are hard texts to read, even with the best translations. It's not going to be a neatly packaged mythology like you're find with a "Greek Mythology" search on Amazon. These are hard books.  

But I Just Want Something Easy and Fun

The truth is, you want Japanese literature; you just don't know it yet. 

Let go of this mythology thing. Let's just say you want to read about gods, adventures, and the strange. This makes the question much easier, as I can point you in a more user-friendly direction for Japanese literature. 


Buy this book. The Anthology of Japanese Literature edited by Donald Keene is the sort of book you would be assigned in an introductory Japanese literature class, and you would keep it. There's a good assortment of tales and poetry—plenty of the bizarre and mildly mythological. There are nice introductions and notes. Read this from cover to cover, or which ever stories catch your interest. (I love "The Girl Who Loved Insects" from the Kamakura chapter). 

While you're online, get Royall Tyler's Japanese Tales to sit next to your Keene anthology. Royall Tyler is the biggest name in translation right now, and he grouped early short stories by theme in this nice volume. Feeling like reading about monks? There's a chapter. You want some healing in your life? There's healing sections. Also Gods, Demons, and Strange. 


Once you've read some of both of these books, I think you will begin to understand what I mean. The mythology as you imagine it in the Western context is rather short. There are only a few famous stories—the creation myth, Izanami and Izanami's separation, Amaterasu hiding in a cave, and some of Susanoo's monster-slaying adventures. There's really no Hades and Persephone, no Cupid and Psyche. But instead of tales of gods, I think you might enjoy the myriad of mysterious small stories that don't necessarily put a bow on at the end. 

One of my favorite stories to appear in the Konjaku, which also appears in Japanese Tales, ends with the narrator admitting:

"Out of all of the people, why would the god tell his story to a lowly cook? Well, he must have had his reasons..." 


One day, someone will sit down and glean the best stories from the early chronicles and tale collections, and make something resembling a big introductory book on Japanese "mythology," but I don't think that book exists yet. I know there are books claiming to be so, but I think I would rather have readers know that a tidy canon doesn't exist in the Japanese stories, and to be well versed in early literature is a much more worthwhile endeavor. 

Get the Keene anthology and Tyler's book. 

Then we can talk about the introductory religion books that should sit beside them.