Every culture has their version of hell, and Japan is no different. The Japanese equivalent of the underworld, Yomi, forms an important part of Shinto religion. But unlike the traditional image of hell being a place where the dead are punished for their misdeeds, Yomi is considered a place where all souls exist in a state of purgatory.
One of the most interesting stories from Yomi depicts the lives of the creator gods of Japan, Izanami and Izanagi. Their tale features themes of sorrow, hope, and sacrifice.
A journey into the underworld
Izanami and Izanagi were responsible for creating many Japanese gods, with one of the most recognisable being the fire deity, Kagutsuchi. Izanami died giving birth to Kagutsuchi, sending Izanagi into a rage that caused him to kill his son.
Unable to live without his wife, Izanagi ventured into Yomi to rescue her. When he found her, Izanami informed him that she was unable to leave the underworld because she’d already eaten the food and was bound to the land of the dead. Izanami pleaded with the other gods to set her free and asked her husband to be patient.
However, Izanagi refused to wait. When Izanami was sleeping, he took the comb that kept her hair together and set it alight so he could see her face. But Izanami’s beauty had been replaced by a rotting corpse with maggots crawling through her decomposing flesh.
In some versions of the story, Izanami had her husband chased out of the underworld by an ugly hag called the Yomotsu-shikome for breaking his promise. In other versions, Izanagi fled in fear of his wife’s appearance and sealed the entrance to Yomi with a giant boulder.
After escaping Yomi, Izanagi bathed in the river Woto to remove the impurities of the underworld. This process, referred to as harai, formed the basis of the Shinto ritual that involves cleansing the body with water before entering a Shinto shrine.
During the ritual, Izanagi gave birth to various gods. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, came into being when he washed his left eye, while the moon god, Tsukiyomi, was born when he washed his right eye. Susanno, the storm god, came from Izanagi’s nose and the god of wind, Shina-tsu-hiko, came from his breath. In addition, Izanagi gave birth to twelve other gods when he cast off his tainted clothes in the river.
Izanagi and Izanami’s story is an integral part of the Shinto faith, reflecting the transience of life.