Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Japanese Myths by Joshua Frydman: An Overview

The Japanese Myths: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, and Spirits by Joshua Frydman, an expert in Japanese literature and culture, is a book that examines the evolution of mythology in the Japanese archipelago. It is a nimble volume, considering the enormous breadth and depth of the subject matter. But the writer packs the book with a lot of relevant information, presented sequentially and in a concise and comprehensive manner, even finding space to include a lot of text boxes for easy reference.

The book is not simply a retelling of mythological tales but a study about the inception of several myths in Japanese culture at different periods of its history. But it contains several enjoyable sample stories that also help the reader comprehend the cultural context of mythical figures. The book, which starts with a chapter about the Japanese identity from historical, geographical, and cultural perspectives during its most significant periods, goes on to explore the tales about gods and heroes that are imbibed through various religions, records by court historians, phenomena of popular culture, and even certain political strategies.

It introduces readers to two books written around the 8th and 9th centuries, Kojiki and Nihon Shuki, that were written as genealogical records of the empire and were, in fact, propaganda to establish that the emperors were descendants of divinity. These are the oldest written mythological records available and form the basis of outsiders' knowledge on the subject. These books introduce the concept of kami, the divine beings of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, which includes gods, local deities, forces of nature, deified historical persons, geographic formations like mountains, and even antique or valuable objects. Then the books also mention many tales of brave warriors and emperors who, with the support of different kami, performed superheroic endeavours.

The book then describes the myths that were assimilated from Buddhism, which originated in India and was imported from China. Buddhist legends got many makeovers when they reached Japan and interacted with Shintoism. But we can find the influence of Chinese legends and Indian dieties in the worship systems and mythological tales of Japanese Buddhism. Several Indian gods, like Lakshmi and Saraswati, are worshipped in Japan in their altered Buddhist versions.

We don't have any records of the belief system of common Japanese folks until the 15th century. All the available literature was written by the aristocracy and was centred on the Japanese empire and their faith system. With the advent of printing and the penetration of literacy among the common class of Japan by the 15th century, they also started writing about their beliefs, and very soon mythological fantasies and horror stories became popular all over. It is from these that we get acquainted with the belief in yokai, or spirits. Every locality in Japan has its own story of spirits that interact with and affect human life. Different kinds of yokai, like oni and tempu, roamed around the Japanese countryside, wreaking havoc.

Consumers of Japanese popular culture all over the world may be familiar with several aspects of its rich mythology, as these have permeated into movies, literature, and most importantly, manga. But it is interesting to know that the tale doesn't end here, as every generation of Japanese alters, adds to,  or removes from the myths and generates a different version that mirrors the culture and existential problems of the era. New myths like kaiju (monsters like Godzilla) and mecha (robotic beings) were generated and perpetrated in the last century, and even they are being reinterpreted as per the times.

Many of us discard mythology as silly grandmother stories. But myths are essentially coded messages from the past, and decoding them will reveal countless new pieces of knowledge about history, culture, and geography. The Japanese Myths by Joshua Frydman is a perfect key for a beginner to unlock the dynamic mythical world of Japan.

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