Land of the Sun Goddess

Michael Hoffman traces some fascinating risings and settings in the story of Japan

by Michael Hoffman

The sun was mortally offended — with good reason.

Civilized progress deadens the impulse to see gods in the workings of nature. It’s a price we pay, willingly or unconsciously.

To the ancient Japanese, the sun was the goddess Amaterasu Omikami. She was gentle by nature but her brother Susano’o, the Storm God, could be provoking beyond endurance. Subject to tantrums, he “broke down the ridges between the rice paddies . . . and covered up the ditches. Also,” reports the eighth-century “Kojiki” (“Record of Ancient Matters”), “he defecated and strewed the feces about in the hall where the first fruits were tasted.”

Further depredations followed; finally the outraged Amaterasu took refuge in the “Rock-Cave of Heaven.” Japan was plunged in darkness; “constant night reigned.”

A re-enactment of that heavenly drama will occur on July 22 — a total eclipse of the sun visible through a narrow swath of Asia that includes parts of Okinawa. Lasting up to 6 minutes 39 seconds, it will be the longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century, not to be surpassed until June 13, 2132. Japan and the sun, the myths tell us, are siblings — elder and younger respectively, both children of the progenitor gods Izanagi and Izanami. Amaterasu in turn became the ancestress of Japan’s Imperial house, a family tie celebrated to this day in enthronement ceremonies whose modern paradox has struck many commentators. While pledging to uphold the postwar Constitution, which locates sovereignty in the will of the people, the new emperor simultaneously affirms the ancient myths that identify him as a descendent of the Sun Goddess — and therefore a living god.

“Extreme interpretations of the accession ceremonies,” notes historian John Brownlee (in “Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945″; 1997), “held that, at one point in the proceedings, the new emperor spent a night alone with the Sun Goddess and had sexual intercourse with her.” The incestuous implications, he says, were blithely ignored.

The words “god” and “goddess” are somewhat misleading here. Early Shinto (“Way of the Gods”) was most prolific of divinities for which the Japanese word is kami, meaning “upper” or “superior.” This falls well short of the exaltation that English generally brings to a religious context.

A kami, explains historian George Sansom (in “Japan: A Short Cultural History”; 1931), is “any animate or even inanimate object thought to have superior qualities. So at one end of the scale the Sun Goddess, that Heaven-Shining-Great- August-Deity, is a kami, and at the other mud and sand and even vermin are kami.”

“A nature worship of which the mainspring is appreciation rather than fear,” remarks Sansom, “is not to be dismissed as base and fetishistic animism.”

There is something characteristically Japanese in the fact that the story of the sun’s disappearance and return is funny and playful rather than awesome and terrible. As the “Kojiki” tells it, the 800 myriad kami “assembled in a divine assembly,” and Miyabi, the Dread Female of Heaven, “became divinely possessed, exposed her breasts, and pushed her shirt-band down to her genitals.” The laughter of the gods shook heaven.

Puzzled by the uproar, Amaterasu approached the mouth of her cave. A divine mirror, held up to reveal part of the scene, tempted her further, until at last she was seized and hauled out. The eclipse was over.

Susano’o, for his part, was fined and “expelled with a divine expulsion.” Sun worship in Japan, scholars tell us, long predates the rise of the Imperial Family.

“It was probably fishermen and other seafaring people of Ise to the east of Yamato who originally worshiped the Sun Goddess,” writes Takeshi Matsumae in “The Cambridge History of Japan.” Yamato, corresponding roughly to eastern Kansai, is an ancient name for Japan.

Matsumae traces to the Ise fishermen the original myth of the sun hiding in a cave and having to be coaxed out. As in the later and more familiar version, she is hiding from her brother after a quarrel — but here the brother is the Moon God, not the Storm God.

Among the various fifth- and sixth- century noble clans, over which the Imperial clan had as yet failed to establish more than nominal supremacy, were several that worshiped an ancestral sun.

The Imperial clan, at this stage, did not. Its primary deity was the agricultural kami Takamimusubi. It was contact with Korea, Matsumae believes, that reoriented the royal family’s gaze from the earth sunward.

“Sun worship was common in the Korean kingdoms,” he explains, “and royal founding ancestors were frequently named as children of the sun. In order to deal with these kings on an equal basis, the Yamato rulers had to claim lineage of equal dignity.”

The sun’s majesty was self-evident; the earth’s apparently was not.

“So,” continues Matsumae, “the Yamato court looked around the regions under its control for a sun kami suitable as an Imperial ancestor. Kami venerated by already powerful clans were ruled out. Then the court’s attention was drawn to Ise Shrine, dedicated to a sun kami worshiped since ancient times by fishermen.

“The shrine’s location — to the east of Yamato, in the direction of the rising sun — was a suitable place for the enshrinement of a sun kami.”

A century later the predominant foreign influence was no longer Korea’s but China’s. Both China and Japan were then in ascendant phases — China reunified and renascent under the Sui Dynasty (589-618), Japan in the full flower of its Asuka Enlightenment (552-645).

A leading light of that age was Prince Regent Shotoku Taishi, who in 607 dispatched to the Chinese court a letter famous above all for its salutation. It seems a brashly confident assertion of equality, if not superiority: “From the sovereign of the land of the rising sun to the sovereign of the land of the setting sun.”

Thus did Yamato become “Nihon” or “Nippon,” the Japanese readings of the Chinese characters meaning “sun source.” We rarely think “sun source” when we say “Japan,” but that name derives from the Chinese pronunciation, “Jihpen,” of those same characters. The sun was eclipsed by the moon.

A moon kami is conspicuously absent from the Japanese pantheon, and yet it is the moon rather than the sun that presides over traditional Japanese culture. Japan was a cultivator of the pale arts, prizing restraint over brilliance, elegant poverty (wabi) over proud display, suggestive obscurity (yugen) over clear-cut definition. The symbol of the enlightenment (satori) at the heart of Zen Buddhism, Japan’s most culturally fruitful religion, is the moon, not the sun.

“The moonlight singularly attracts the Japanese imagination,” observes the modern Zen master Daisetsu Suzuki (in “Zen and Japanese Culture”; 1959), “and any Japanese who ever aspired to compose a waka or a haiku would hardly dare leave the moon out.”

The passage occurs in a meditation on Saigyo (1118-90), the most moon-struck of all classical poets: “Not a soul ever visits my hut Except the friendly light of the moon . . . ‘

What of the sun? Where was the Sun Goddess Amaterasu in the meantime? Not hiding again?

Not hiding but overshadowed — and ironically it is Shotoku Taishi’s letter, pregnant with sun imagery, that is the key to the mystery.

The bold opening aside, the letter amounts to a declaration of apprenticeship, not of independence. A devout Buddhist and an earnest Confucianist, Shotoku enrolled his own relatively backward country in China’s school of civilization. The pupil-teacher relationship, rare if not unprecedented in the history of nations, would last centuries, during which Japan in effect Sinicized itself. Buddhism, Confucianism, Chinese writing, Chinese art — all were swallowed whole and, for a time, uncritically.

A century after Shotoku’s death in 622, the resplendent Nara Period (710-784) was bathed in its first luster. It was overwhelmingly Chinese, overwhelmingly Buddhist. The native Shinto kami, with Amaterasu at their head, slipped into oblivion.

When smallpox struck Nara, the capital, in 735, the Emperor Shomu’s thoughts turned not to them but to the Buddha. The course of action his piety suggested to him was to order the casting of a giant bronze image of Roshana Buddha.

But he hesitated. As Sansom explains, “To erect a great Buddha in the middle of the capital . . . was, on the face of it, a serious blow to the native divinities, unless some means could be found of reconciling (Shinto and Buddhism).”

The reconciliation was entrusted to a monk named Gyogi, who journeyed to Ise and for seven days and seven nights prayed at the threshold of the Sun Goddess’ shrine — to good effect, evidently, for in a dream “the Sun Goddess appeared to the emperor as a radiant disc,” writes Sansom, “and proclaimed that the Sun and the Buddha were the same.”

The bronze statue required years of work but was finally completed in 752. This is the enormous Great Buddha — 48.7 meters high — whose serene presence graces Nara’s Todaiji Temple to this day.

Only as Japan approached modern times did the Sun Goddess peek through and finally burst the clouds of indifference that had enveloped her. How thick those clouds were may be gauged from a passage in the 11th-century “Sarashina Diary,” written by an anonymous noblewoman. Troubled by a strange dream, she is advised “to pray to the heavenly goddess Amaterasu. I wondered where this deity might be and whether she was in fact a goddess (kami) or a Buddha,” she wrote. “It was some time before I was interested enough to ask who she actually was.”

St. Francis Xavier’s arrival in Kyushu in 1549 inaugurated Japan’s “Christian Century.” The Jesuit missionary’s first impressions were highly favorable. “The Japanese,” he wrote, “have the characteristic of being better versed in reason than other peoples. However, even if one prizes their learning, there is as yet no one who knows of the shape of the earth and its movement.”

This was true, though written by one who “knew” that the sun orbited a stationary earth.

Neo-Confucian dogma, unchallengeably authoritative in Japan in such matters, held that “heaven is round, earth square.” The universe, moreover, was no fit subject for mere physical probing. It reflected a moral and a social order, discernible only to sages, whose learning and righteousness qualified them to regulate human conduct accordingly.

Historian Grant Goodman (in “Japan: The Dutch Experience”; 1986) quotes an unnamed “orthodox Japanese Neo-Confucianist” of the early Edo Period (1603-1867) who is clearly dismayed by Western scientific indifference to the universe’s moral dimension: “Northern lights, comets and shooting stars are (to Westerners) ordinary things, and not the reproofs of heaven . . . (Westerners) will not stand in awe of them. They think heaven a dead thing not connected with these portents, and thus the Way of the Sages and man’s obedient heart are both destroyed . . . Most pitiful! Most detestable!”

The Chinese, indeed, had a very long history of precise astronomical observation. “The Chinese record of an eclipse in 1361 B.C. is probably the earliest verifiable eclipse reported by any people,” notes historian Daniel Boorstin (in “The Discoverers”; 1985).

Precise it may have been, but it was not scientific.

“Astronomy,” continues the Neo-Confucianist, “observes the movements of the heavenly bodies and makes calendars . . . The Sages made calendars to strengthen the state, for the farmer works according to the time of heaven and if he miss the seasons his labor is in vain. Beyond this need the Sages felt no interest in the mere movements of the heavenly bodies.”

He would have frozen Japan in time if he could, but the ice was cracking even as he wrote. The missionaries who followed Xavier brought globes, and some of the highest powers in the land, feudal lords and imperial princes among them, were more intrigued than repelled to learn that the earth was round. “Globalism” was quite the rage. The Confucianists sputtered in vain — or so it seemed.

By 1638 there was a telescope at Nagasaki.

The telescope is believed to have been invented quite by accident in Holland around 1600. Its first application was military — spying from a distance on enemy movements. It took great vision and courage to do the unprecedented thing Galileo Galilei did in 1610. He turned his telescope toward the heavens, which Christianity no less than Confucianism had veiled in mysticism and frightened awe. What he saw convinced him, among other things, that a hypothesis tentatively propounded by the Polish cleric Copernicus in 1530 was correct — the earth orbited the sun, not vice versa.

How the telescope arrived in Japan is not known. By the time it did, the “Christian Century” was all but over. Japan was exterminating its Christians, burning their books, shutting its gates on the outside world. Neo-Confucianism, like the Roman Catholic Church that in 1633 had forced Galileo to recant, was resurgent, triumphant, repressive. Nagasaki was the only port of entry for the very few foreigners — Dutch and Chinese exclusively — who were permitted under tight restrictions to trade in Japan. The telescope was used to survey the horizon for illegally approaching foreign ships.

The Dutch at Nagasaki were served by a hereditary corps of Japanese interpreters. Their Dutch, for the most part, was imperfect and their learning negligible, but they attracted first a trickle and then a steady stream of Japanese scholars hungry for knowledge of the outside world. The academic pursuits of these scholars came to be known as “Rangaku,” meaning “Dutch studies.” With tortuous slowness they built up a body of knowledge, via the Dutch language, in Western medicine and astronomy.

You heard astonishing things in the streets of Nagasaki in those days. “I met an interpreter,” wrote the Confucianist physician Miura Baien (1723-89), “who told me that for 100 years the theory is proclaimed in Europe that the earth turns round the sun . . . I have deeply reflected but cannot understand it.” Naturally. His Confucian background (“heaven round, earth square”) hardly equipped him to. Yet his willingness to even consider the notion is a mark of significant progress. History is said to repeat itself. Sometimes it repeats myth. Japan’s Copernican revolution sprang more from myth than from science. Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, emerged once more from her cave, drawn this time not by laughing gods and flashing mirrors but by “nativist” scholars horrified at how far Japan, the “land of the kami,” had strayed from its native path into the “wicked” foreign ways of Confucius and the Buddha. “What is the spirit of Yamato’s ancient land? It is like the wild cherry blossoms Radiant in the morning sun!’

So sang the archetypal nativist thinker and poet Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) in 1790. In sober prose he elaborated: “The august imperial country (Japan) is the august country in which the awesome august divine ancestor Amaterasu Omikami came into being. The reason this country is superior to all other countries is, first and foremost, apparent from this fact.”

Nativism was an unexpected outgrowth of the Neo-Confucianism that the ruling Tokugawa Shoguns elevated throughout the Edo Period almost to the status of a state religion.

Its core tenet was submission to legitimate authority — but was Japan’s legitimate authority not the emperor? And if so, was the shogun, whose claim to be ruling in the emperor’s name struck some as highly dubious, not actually a usurper?

Motoori perhaps had a remote precursor in the proto-nationalist Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222-80), who, though no nativist, saw himself as a solitary island of truth and purity in a sea of falsehood and corruption. “Woe unto them!” he wrote of his many opponents. “They have missed the entrance into the gate that leads to the true Buddhism and have fallen into the prison-house of false teachings.”

Natural and political calamities rained down on a stunned populace. An earthquake in 1257 was followed by storms, floods, famine, an outbreak of plague. Panic spread; the Hojo Shogunate seemed stymied. Nichiren preached to anguished crowds of divine retribution. He was arrested and exiled to distant Sado Island (in present-day Niigata Prefecture), but there was no silencing the man. “Of all the misfortunes . . . ” he declared ominously, “only one remains that we have not experienced — the misfortune of a foreign invasion.”

It was coming, he warned — and it did.

When the first Mongol fleet reached Kyushu in 1274, Nichiren is said to have presented the shogun with a Hinomaru banner — a red sun against a pure white background. A second invasion followed in 1281. Both were harassed by typhoons — kamikaze, “divine winds” — and ultimately defeated.

Such is the semi-legendary origin of the flag we know today. It was subsequently adopted as a banner by numerous feudal lords during the civil wars of the 15th and 16th centuries. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ultimate feudal survivor who more than any other single warrior can be said to have unified the country, carried it with him on his abortive invasions of Korea in the 1590s.

Peace and stability endured for two and a half centuries under Hideyoshi’s Tokugawa successors. The famous American “Black Ships,” massing near Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the 1850s to force an end to Japan’s self-imposed isolation, proved more than the senescent regime could cope with. The display by Tokugawa ships of the rising sun flag was a brave show, but there was no divine wind this time.

In helplessly acceding to American demands the shogunate doomed itself once and for all in the eyes of the nativists. Their campaign gathered force. In 1868 they deposed the Tokugawa Shogunate and “restored” the Imperial house under the Emperor Meiji.

In 1870 the Meiji government made the Hinomaru Japan’s official flag. A variant design giving the sun 16 red rays was adopted by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1889 and was triumphantly planted across Asia until the tide of World War II turned.

Rayed and unrayed (the rayed version remains the flag of the Maritime Self-Defense Force), the Hinomaru survives, protected by a 1999 law buttressing its official status. To many imbued with postwar pacifism it seems a jarring reminder of alien and distasteful modes of thought. Motoori, the proto-nativist, had two charismatic successors in Yasushi Aizawa (1781-1863) and Atsutane Hirata (1776-1843). “The sun rises in our divine land,” wrote Aizawa in 1825, “and the primordial energy originates here. The heirs of the Great Sun have occupied the Imperial Throne from time immemorial.”

That being the case, why should the sun not be at the center of things — of the solar system if not the universe?

“Atsutane,” sums up the historian Goodman, “pointed to the remarkable coincidence of the centrality of the sun in the Copernican system and the central role of the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, in the Shinto tradition, going so far as to suggest that heliocentricity may in fact have originated in Japan and may have been transmitted to the West at a much earlier time.”

These thinkers played with fires they scarcely understood. Motoori’s “morning sun” poem, 150 years later, was on the lips of World War II kamikaze suicide pilots as they crashed their planes into enemy ships. One of the very few kamikaze survivors, in a memoir, ventured this interpretation of the poem: “The wild cherry blossoms spread their radiance and then scatter without regret; just so must we be prepared to die, without regret, for Yamato — such is the meaning of this verse.”

One almost wonders if Motoori was familiar with another poem, some verses of which his own seems eerily to echo — the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. It is hardly probable, given his disdain for the non-Japanese world. One who knew the Gita well was the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer, a key figure in the development of the atomic bomb. He said later that a test explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, three weeks before the irradiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, brought them to mind: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One . . . I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’