Japanese Mythology in Translation

This article is part of the Uni Series which consists of some essays that I have been writing for my bachelor degree in Japan in East Asia studies at the University of Tokyo. This one is about Japanese literature and how translators and foreign editors can efficiently convey cultural information to the readers.

Books can be read and understood individually, for their uniqueness and the emotions they made one feel. They can also be connected to other books from the same author, to understand his/her style and key themes, reflect on how his/her life impacted his/her books and vice versa. Books can also be put in vaster clusters such as national literature. They are then read for how they borrow from and contribute to the culture of a country, understood through the history of this country. There is no answer as to which level to focus on when reading a book: each writer and each reader have different desires to write/read books for their uniqueness or for how they echo other texts, for their local/national context or their universality. It is thus relevant, but not sufficient to look at a book through the geographical context it has been written in.

Books constituting Japanese literature, among other common features, generally borrow ideas from the Japanese cultural cauldron. Mythology is one example of cultural element authors can use as they wish. The myths of the creation of the world and the partially accurate, partially imagined history of the beginning of Japan were put into writing in 712 in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and in 720 in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). These two books constitute the main source of Japan early mythology. However, mythology kept evolving locally and nationally to the present day thanks notably to oral and written tales. Many modern and contemporary Japanese authors use mythology in their writings. This essay analyzing a few selected works aims to demonstrate that a non-Japanese reader, accessing their stories in translation and without the same cultural baggage can still appreciate this use of mythology for many reasons, and thus that national/local specificities do not hamper universal understandability.

Japanese mythology is a vast world of deities, Buddhist figures, monsters, ghosts, spirits… There exist in fact no simple corpus of one unified Japanese mythology. The latter is rather a set of myths from local communities including from minority peoples living in Japan such as the Ainu and the different communities of Ryukyuans. Besides many legends came from China, from Korea, from India, and even from Europe (Ashkenazi, 2003, 3). We can think for example of the myth of Izanagi and Izanami in hell which is highly similar to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, only with a different ending. Some myths in Japan were recorded in writing, made national and used politically, some others only transmitted orally in remote villages. Finally some are connected with Shinto, some with Buddhism, some with both and some with none. The kami (which could translate as presence or spirit) Hachiman, one of the most venerated around Japan, is a good example of syncretism and beliefs put into the service of national goals. First venerated in the Usa shrine, in modern Oita prefecture, in the early 8th century, he was soon considered as the spirit of Emperor Ojin or Homuda (Chamberlain, 1981, 301) who died in 310 allegedly at the age of 110 (Aston, 1972, 271). By the mid-8th century however he also became the god of war, the protector of the country and of Buddhism and was “transferred” to Nara and given a Buddhist title, Daibosatsu (Bowring, 2008, 92). This example gives an idea of the various origins and stakes of Japanese mythology.

In Kappa, a novel written by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke in 1927, the myths surrounding the eponymous creature serve to create a parallel universe symbolically representing and twisting at the same time pre-war Japanese society in order to criticize it. The author depicts a world where unnecessary workers are killed and eaten, where the kappa are full of desires and express them violently, where suicide is welcomed. And he states from earlier on that “there is no very great difference between the elements of a civilized life in Kappaland and (…) in Japan” (Akutagawa, 1972, 54). The previous features of “Kappaland” reflect the cruel capitalist system where man can be replaced easily and treated as less important than profit, where machism rule over a patriarchal society in which women are almost always subdued to a male figure. Other novels by Akutagawa such as Rashômon also translate his pessimism about mankind. In 1927 also World War 2 was looming on the Japanese society. But there are also features different from Japan and humanity, such as the possibility for babies to decide if they want to be born. All those features are not traditional kappa elements but rather how Akutagawa perceived society, just before he committed suicide on the same year. Therefore, more than a knowledge of Japanese mythology, a reader would require some explanations on the historical and personal context of the Taishô period and Akutagawa’s difficult life to understand this book, also it can also be enjoyed as a universal critics of societies. The version used for this essay offers an exhaustive biography of the author as an introduction, as well as a few (but not enough) historical key points to apprehend the novel in context. A person ignorant of the context can thus enjoy Akutagawa’s book for its style and for how it relates to his thoughts about his society.

Looking at the novel in depth, there are however mythological features that one must know to understand why the author used kappa. Kappa are creatures with a monkey body and tortoise like shell, good at martial arts, infamous for killing by drowning young women and children, and last but not least for loving cucumber (Ashkenazi, 2003, 195). Akutagawa does not replicate literally these attributes in his novel. However, kappa have also been interpreted as symbolical explanation of tragedies which occurred during preindustrial Japan: because of population control, many babies were aborted or killed, and some mothers killed themselves in grief (ibid, 196). This interpretation of the myth of kappa directly relates to the themes of Akutagawa’s novel, which suggests that the author had this knowledge in mind when writing his novel. The themes (birth, suicide) are similar through times, but the discussion evolved: Akutagawa did not condemn forced killings at birth, he called for the right, although impossible, to decide to be born, and to die. These themes once again are universal and everyone can read the book and reflect on them without the mythological context. However, knowing this interpretation of the kappa legend allows one to understand better the approach and the overall evolution of the discussion at the time Akutagawa wrote his novel.

Milky Way Railroad written by Kenji Miyazawa in 1927 can be read in various ways depending on the reader’s sensibility and his/her knowledge of Japanese mythology. The story recounts the fantastic journey by train of Giovanni and Campanella, two best friends, through the Milky Way up to Heaven. Campanella stays there, as we come to understand that he just died in real life, while Giovanni eventually goes home. This metaphorical tale can be appreciated by children, much like The Little Prince, for its fantastic adventure without really understanding the thematics of death and separation. It can also be read as the author narrating the loss of a friend or of his sister as suggested by a translator of the version under study (Miyazawa, 1996, 8).

With the mythological context in mind, well explained in the book’s introduction, the story can be seen as an interpretation of the myth of Tanabata. This myth which originated in China relates that the Milky Way is a river which separates two lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi. Those two can only meet once a year, on July 7th, and Japanese people celebrate their reunification for one night through the Tanabata festival on this same day, which is also the day in which Miyazawa’s story occurs. The separation of the lovers is similar to the separation of the best friends in Milky Way Railroad. By the end of the book as Campanella just disappeared, Giovanni meets a professor who tells him:

“But you [the two friends] can’t get together. And everyone is [Campanella]. Everyone you meet, [Giovanni] — every time you ride on a train — everyone you ride with and eat apple with. So it’s just as you were thinking before. Take every opportunity to look for the greatest happiness of all people, and join them on their way. That’s the only way you can go on forever with [Campanella]” (Miyazawa, 1996, 125).

The Professor teaches Giovanni to value the moment spent building a relationship with someone rather than to feel depressed about the separation. In the Tanabata myth the lovers can meet again every year, so the loss is cyclical; in the story however, the loss is until being reunited in heaven. New ephemeral encounters, just like the yearly encounters of the Tanabata myth lovers, are meant to create and share happiness, until one leaves, so goes life. Miyazawa, through the professor gives us (through Giovanni) a deep lesson on life, loss and happiness. The myth of Tanabata is used as a symbolic pillar, but is transcended in meaning as the cyclical encounters of the lovers become the cyclical encounters of a human with other humans to be happy with. The knowledge of the Tanabata legend is required to understand the analogy, but not to understand the universal lesson of the professor.

In the case of M/T and the Narrative about the Marvels of the Forest written by Kenzaburo Ôe in 1986, the author does not borrow from Japanese Mythology but contributes to it with the myths of his village. Indeed, he narrates and comments, as if he was writing a diary, the legends and history of Ose, his little village in Shikoku. Interestingly, the structure of the book resembles a collection of tales. Indeed, even though there is a linear unfolding of the tales, each chapter does not start where the one before ended, but generally slightly beforehand. They each represent a part of the big story and a short story in itself. Besides, a new chapter sometimes contradicts the information of a previous one. Ôe’s book being an account of myths transmitted for several hundred years, he took the appreciable initiative to convey this diversity of myths rather than to chose one narrative, which is precisely what constitutes all sorts of mythology as they are made through time, transmitted orally by different people. What Ôe put into writing is what the scholar Ashkenazi (2003, 5) calls “Little Traditions” as opposed to the “Great Tradition”. The little one consist of all the local, mostly unrelated myths, while the great one is the national official narrative on mythology. To read Ôe’s book, the reader thus does not need any prior knowledge about Japanese mythology. He/she is simply invited to listen to the author’s story of his grandmother’s stories, and this meta-narration really effectively connect the reader to the legendary history of Ôe’s isolated village.

With contemporary literature many authors with global mindsets tend to borrow from different cultures, which render the possible interpretations of their books more diverse. As Ellis (2009, 199) writes: “[r]eading Japanese literature means reading individual writers’ experiences and their multifaceted interpretations of society and culture” and “writers’ experiences are woven within a social and cultural fabric (…).” In our globalizing age where cultures are interacting with even more intensity, the “individual writers’ experiences” becomes international. Haruki Murakami is perhaps the most striking example of contemporary mix of cultural influences. Ellis (Ibid, 212) writes that for Murakami and other contemporary writers, “the author-nation relationship no longer marks the essential starting point of writing activity.” In his book Kafka on the Shore, the author sets a complex and fantastic narration in which one of the two main characters, Kafka, is a modern Oedipus on a quest to find his family. From the beginning Kafka speaks to “The boy named Crow” (Murakami, 2006, 7), which can be interpreted as a voice in his head, a part of Kafka. “Crow” is more mature, detached, stronger than Kafka. He helps him think and intervenes also in the symbolical killing of the father towards the end of the book. Why did the author select a crow? In Japanese mythology, the giant crow Yatagarasu was sent by deities to guide the soon-to-become emperor Jimmu from heaven to Japan (Yamato) (Ashkenazi, 2003, 117). An Ainu myth recounts that a crow called Pashkuru Kamui liberated the sun which was being eaten by a monster and brought back light and warmth; in another Ainu myth the same crow guided starving humans to food (Ibid). In Denmark, a crow is thought to be an exorcised spirit; in Sweden a ghost of a murdered man; in Greek mythology a crow revealed to Apollo that one of his lover was meeting in secret another man and the same bird turned on the spot from white to black because of the god’s rage (Wikipedia, 2016). The crow of Murakami’s story could be possibly interpreted as borrowed from any of those myths. It is written in the book that Kafka sounds like Kavka, which in Czech means crow, which explains why Kafka’s alter ego is called this way. Whether the author had a myth in mind when deciding on this crow character or not, and if so from which culture, is thus unsure.

Besides, whether or not the mythology an author borrows from and the mythology a reader uses to interpret a book must be the same or not is yet another matter of debate. If we take for granted that the reader’s experience is more important than the author’s initial messages, so that the reader’s emotions and thoughts matter more than the author’s ones, then the codes through which one decypher a novel are all relevant. In that sense and to come back to Kafka on the Shore, which is a book which has been translated in many languages soon after its Japanese original version (in four years for French for example), each reader can feel free to interpret Crow with his/her own codes. Murakami lets in all his novels a lot of freedom for interpretation by depicting often fantastic, grotesque events of blurred, if any, meaning. Despite that, or maybe thanks to that, cultural background matters less to read and enjoy the author’s works. For the non-Japanese readers, knowing about the Japanese mythology and other cultural aspects thus often matter less when reading Murakami than approaching his novels or novellas with curiosity and readiness for being confused.

Mythology is the legends of the past, but as the present become the past, new myths are created. In other words: mythology is alive. In his essay “In Praise of Shadows” written in 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki describes with nostalgia what has been lost through the Westernization of Japan since its opening to the world. He notably writes:

“The elegant aristocrat of old was immersed in this suspension of ashen particles, soaked in it, but the man of today, long used to the electric light, has forgotten that such a darkness existed. It must have been simple for specters to appear in a “visible darkness,” where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering, a darkness that on occasion held greater terrors than darkness out-of-doors. This was the darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active, and indeed was not the woman who lived in it, behind thick curtains, behind layer after layer of screens and doors — was she not of a kind with them? The darkness wrapped her round tenfold, twentyfold, it filled the collar, the sleeves of her kimono, the folds of her skirt, wherever a hollow invited. Further yet: might it not have been the reverse, might not the darkness have emerged from her mouth and those black teeth, from the black of her hair, like the thread from the great earth spider?” (Tanizaki, 1977, 16.)

The darkness, the specters, the ghosts, the monsters of Japanese past are gone, argues Tanizaki. It is true that the genuine beliefs in the existence of such creatures of the shadows might have vanished from modern mindsets because of the advances of sciences, rationalization or the use of electric street lamps. However, the irrational fear of those supernatural beings did not disappear. Their stories still echo within us, because they feed our imagination in a way rational matters cannot. And indeed, myths are not dead. Ôe pursues the legends of his village by inscribing his son, mother and himself within in his book M/T and the Narrative about the Marvels of the Forest. Murakami creates works which can connect mythologies. Contemporary authors are updating Japanese mythology, and their works in translation allow non-Japanese readers to discover this reinvention.

Besides from works of “pure” or “in-between” literature, some popular contemporary writings, famous all around the world, such as shônen manga (manga for boys) keep borrowing references from Japanese mythology. Masashi Kishimoto for example uses the myth of Jiraya, Tsunade and Oroshimaru in his manga Naruto, and Tsugumi Ôba and Takeshi Obata the myth of the gods of death, or shinigami, in Death Note. Myths are also present in animation movies of the Studio Ghibli, or series such as Pokémon, Yôkai Watch or Natsume Yûjinchô. Those works are largely exported abroad, and greatly enjoyed regardless of nationality. The foreign audience might even ignore that the creator borrowed this or that element from a myth, which does not hamper them from enjoying. More, these frequent references to Japanese mythology in popular Japanese culture attracts many foreigners, making them curious to learn more about Japanese culture.

A final point to learn from the analysis of Japanese mythology in literature, which connect to the one just made, is that the local/national can meet the universal. Ellis (2009, 213) writes that “we are (…) witnessing a growth in awareness of locality and regionality.” This “awareness” is afterwards connected with nationalism. However, we can also denote another trend thanks to globalization and this sentiment of the importance of locality: the curiosity for the foreign locality. From platforms such as AirBnb which allow one to visit a place by staying at a local’s place, to social media like Snapchat which diffuse in almost real time events and daily life snapshots from places all around the world for anyone to see, there is a current trend in the world for discovering the “real” side of a foreign country, and readers are also affected by this trend. M/T and the Narrative about the Marvels of the Forest is fascinating because readers are told through Ôe’s style the authentic local myths from a remote place in the middle of nowhere in Japan, myths they could never possibly access to otherwise. Discovering a foreign local culture instructs one about difference, but also teaches universality: what others have imagined, I can imagine. What others have felt, thought, I can feel and think. In this globalizing age, one can have the impression of connecting more with a foreign culture than his/her own, be more curious of foreign mythology than its own country’s one. We live in an age when culture somehow is becoming an individual matter, and somehow it is also becoming universal.

To conclude, Japanese mythology is present in the books of many modern Japanese authors. If no explanations are given by the translators or the editor in the introduction of a book, a non-Japanese reader, not well acquainted with Japanese culture, would probably fail to understand those references. However, this often does not impede the latter from grasping the universal thoughts and emotions connected with the book. Kappa, Tanabata, crows have stories associated with them, and knowing them allows a deeper appreciation of Akutagawa, Miyazawa or Murakami’s novels, but at the same time one can learn about those myths through these books, or simply enjoy the stories using one’s own references and interpretation. The joint power of curiosity for the unknown and imagination for interpreting it may matter more than cultural knowledge to enjoy a novel. Besides, contemporary Japan may have lost a lot in the process of modernization as Tanizaki deplored, yet nonetheless Japanese people’s capacity for preserving and creating its mythology is unharmed. Ôe and Murakami, among others, have been able to write about mythology and fascinate a global readership. Along with writers and scenarists of Japanese popular culture (anime, manga, videogame), contemporary Japanese authors and translators of Japanese literature now have the task not simply to use Japanese mythology in their work, but also to offer keys for the non-Japanese readers/audience to understand it. This way, they offer a deeper appreciation of their work to a broader readership.

More than ever, culture, here discussed with mythology, invites people in more than it secludes people outside. Japanese culture is shared among Japanese people, but is also exported, sold and consumed all around the world. Culture has this characteristic of being possibly assimilated by anyone, and indeed many foreigners develop an interest for Japan thanks to its culture. Readers learn about Japan by reading books depicting national or local Japanese myths, but those readers also come to see how they are themes pervading through Japanese mythology which echo their own culture: social problems, birth, death, suicide, separation, creation, identity… Mythology is often a metaphor for those concerns, and although the answers might differ in time and space, the themes themselves can be said to be universal. As mythology keeps being explored in the following years, what remains to be seen is how Ainu and Ryukyuan myths will be used by Japanese authors or forgotten as more and more those peoples’ culture and language are absorbed into Japan. Will they be recognized by Japan and by the world as part of Japanese mythology? Treated differently but remembered? Forgotten?


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Ashkenazi, M. (2003). Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.

Aston, W.G. translator. (1972). Nihongi, Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 9697. Rutland, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.

Bowring, R. (2008). The Religious Traditions of Japan, 500–1600. Cambridge University Press.

Chamberlain, B.H. translator. (1981). The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters. Rutland, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.

Ellis, T. (2009). “11. Literary culture.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press.

Miyazawa, K. translated by Sigrist, J., Stroud, D.M. (1996). Milky Way Railroad. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.

Murakami, H. translated by Atlan, C. (2006). Kafka sur le rivage. Paris: belfond.

Ôe, K. translated by De Ceccatty, R., Nakamura, R. (1989). M/T et l’histoire des merveilles de la forêt. Gallimard.

Tanizaki, J. (1977). In Praise of Shadows. Leete’s Island Books. (Online publishing). Available: dcrit.sva.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/In-Praise-of-Shadows-Junichiro-Tanizaki.pdf. Last accessed: 13 January 2017.

Wikipedia. (2016). “Corvus.” Available: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus. Last accessed: 13 January 2017.

Cover Picture: https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%81%8C%E3%81%97%E3%82%83%E3%81%A9%E3%81%8F%E3%82%8D#/media/File:Mitsukuni_defying_the_skeleton_spectre_invoked_by_princess_Takiyasha.jpg

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