Budo World

Bu in Mythology

Sakai Toshinobu (University of Tsukuba)


Warriors ruled Japanese for over 700 years from the medieval period until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Such an extended period of warrior hegemony has seldom been seen in world history. The majority of Japanese civilisation and culture has, from ancient times, been imported from China through Korea, and a process of maturation allowed many areas to undergo further development. However, as scholars such as Yuasa Yasuo points out, the government officials of China and Korea abided mainly with Confucian ideals, and largely saw the martial ways as undesirable.[1] Such views are reflected in the phrases of “bunson-buhi” (value literary arts, reject martial arts) and “sūbun-keibu” (revere literature, spurn war).

One might say that, in times of revolution or chaos, bu (武= martial) stood at the forefront, but was reverted behind the scenes in times of peace where bun (文=literary) functioned as the driving forces behind leadership. Even within the tight cultural sphere formed by the East Asian countries of Japan, China, and Korea, it is the long rule of the bushi that makes Japan’s history so unique.    

The bushi were primarily combatants, however this was not all that they did. As administrators of the country, they were required to be cultivated and possess knowledge and an understanding of various cultural pursuits. This characteristic was particularly true of the bushi in the Edo period, and they were in many ways the cultural leaders of society. For this reason, in order to understand the historical culture of Japan, it is vital to understand the bushi. To state my conclusion from the outset, an understanding of the bushi is inextricably linked to Japan’s ancient mythology.  

For instance, in the book Bushi-kun authored by Izawa Banryō it states; “The origin of bushi extends way back into the age of the gods. Amatsu-Hikohiko-Hono-Ninigi-no-Mikoto who is the grandson of  Ame-no-Minakanishi-no-Mikoto Amaterasu Ōmikami”. Here, one can clearly see the author is stressing that the origins of the warrior class can be evoked in the ancient myths chronicled in the Kojiki or the Nihon Shoki (in this case, the myth of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami’s   grandson descending from the heavens). This type of description is quite common, and is certainly not limited to the Bushi-kun.[2]

In addition, as the bugei (martial arts) were central to the existence of the bushi, links are often made between myth and the concepts espoused in scrolls of martial art schools.[3] To provide an old example, the Gempei War (1185–1190) involved a fierce struggle between the Heike and Genji clans over the three Imperial Regalia. Symbolic of the emperor’s status and authority, the Regalia include a mirror (Yata-no-Kagami), a sword (Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi or Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi), and a string of jewels or beads (Yasakani-no-Magatama). The motivation for the Heike and Genji clans’ tenacious desire for the Imperial Regalia was through the belief that the army which possessed them was legitimately fighting for the emperor—and anyone else was thereby automatically relegated to the realm of treason. This set of circumstances features in the Tale of the Heike, in the section “Ken Kan” (sword scroll). The inclusion of myths in war chronicles such as this can be explained by the idea that the three Imperial Regalia (particularly the sword in this case) had already been established as sacred items symbolic of the imperial throne.

The image that is shaped by ancient mythology has long existed at the core of the Japanese mind, and as such, has been a source of strength in the Japanese people. The Japanese bushi were no exception. Although I have only briefly touched on the idea here, it could be said that the essence of the warrior identity in bu was acclaimed through mythical images.

There are three main thoughts regarding the explanation of the term bu. The first, and best known, concerns the composition of the kanji character. With the combination of the radicals 戈 (hoko—arms/spear/weapons) and 止 (yamu—to stop), bu is said to take on the meaning “not to fight”, except when it was necessary to prevent evil intent in others with one’s own military strength. This interpretation was commonly bandied about during times of peace. The second explanation also concerns the composition of the character; but in this case 止 is interpreted as足 (ashi—legs/feet). As such, bu here takes on the meaning “to march with arms or weapons”. It is suggested that this is the original meaning in ancient China. It implies that bu involved a direct or fierce approach to overpowering enemies.

The third interpretation is completely different to the previous ones, and portrays bu as dance (舞). A shamanistic interpretation of the term, it suggests that matters difficult for human beings to comprehend, could be solved through drawing on the power of the deities by dancing with a weapon. In this way, bu was understood as a type of magic.

These are the three main understandings of bu, and although I am not suggesting one is more appropriate than the others, I do believe that each interpretation corresponds to a different era in Japanese history. That is, according to the concepts of religious incantation in ancient Japanese society, bu was seen as a ritual of dance; bu in the turbulent Warring States period referred to “the marching forth with weapons”; and in the peaceful era of the early-modern Edo period, it represented warrior status in society and a means to keep the peace and avoiding conflict, or using it to subdue evil. The magical bu in the form of movement-dance constitutes the earliest notions of bu in Japan forming an essential base for many lines of thought. This understanding can be inferred in ancient Japanese mythology, and offers an explanation as to why later texts about bushidō and war tales so often allude to myths.

This paper seeks to analyse efforts of warriors to identify with bu through the medium of mythology. Japanese myths are profound, and have an element of romanticism that can be interpreted in many different ways. While exploring the world of mythology, I will elucidate ideas concerning the concepts of bu. In turn, this will shed some light on the bushi who characterise notions of historical Japanese spirituality.

The myths I will examine are listed below. I will introduce applicable myths as they apply to each given topic, so there will be instances in which the information extracted from the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki do not appear in the same order as in the original text. The issue whether the axis of time in the myths should be assumed is always a problematic issue, but I have drafted the following list for easy reference:    

・The Creation of the Land
・The Fire God
・The Underworld
・Relinquishing of the Land
・Decent by the Grandson of the Amaterasu Ōmikami  ↑Age of the Gods
・Jimmu’s Subjugation of the East         ↓Age of Man
・Selection of Jimmu’s Wife
・YamatoTakeru’s Journey to the East

Creation of the Mythical World through the Ame-no-Nuboko

The world according to the Japanese myths is generally viewed as consisting of the celestial plain Takamagahara, the terrestrial world or Ashihara-no-Nakatsu-Kuni, and the underworld known as Yomi-no-Kuni and Ne-no-Kuni, all of which are believed to be vertically aligned. Takamagahara is where the deities dwell, and Ashihara-no-Nakatsu-Kuni is where humans exist, and is ruled by terrestrial deities as opposed to the celestial ones. Yomi-no-Kuni (the underworld) is for the dead. Although Ne-no-Kuni is not a place for the dead, it is also positioned below the terrestrial world.

In the myths described in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the “Myth of the Creation of the Land” begins with this explanation of how Japan was formed. In a disordered and chaotic state, and without a clear division between the heavens and the earth, the male and female kami (deities) known as Izanagi and Izanami magically create the earth. The duo stood on Ten-no-Ukihashi, a heavenly pillar in the skies and the Ame-no-Nuboko, a spear decorated in beads, is dipped into the ocean below. With a rumble the water began to churn. Pulling the spear out of the water, salt water drips from the tip, and an island is formed. This island was named Onogoro. Both Izanagi and Izanami descended to Onogoro, and cooperated to created more islands. 

This is only a summary of the myth, however, the important point to consider here is the use of the Amanuma-no-Hoko. The myths recorded in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are said to be composed around a new perception of the world. That is, the celestial realm of the kami came to be perceived as situated vertically above the other realms. This is contrary to earlier Japanese mythology in which each of the realms were horizontally aligned.[4] I agree with this theory. It is generally understood that these two chronicles were compiled under imperial command. However, as they were relayed by kataribe (storytellers of the imperial court), until the myths were written down many were reconstructed to fit the new world perception. Here, the Chinese concept of tenmei (heavenly will) in which transcendent beings resided in the heavens above became the fixed interpretation.

This new perception of the mythical world was shaped on the metal hoko (spear) that originated from new knowledge imported from Chinese civilization, and is represented by the myth of the “Creation of the Land” in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki. The weapon referred to most often in mythology is the sword. A close look reveals that the sword is actually depicted as a sacred tool with magical properties. Generally, swords are collectively referred to as tō-ken (刀剣); but tō (刀—also read as katana) and ken (剣—also read as tsurugi) are different. The katana has a single cutting edge, whereas the tsurugi has a double-edged (moroha) blade. An idealistic distinction was already made in China, where the double-edged sword was considered a sacred implement. In contrast to the view of the katana as a weapon, the idea that the tsurugi was a tool for use in rituals had already been established in ancient China. A detailed description of this is given in another article.[5] In any case, it is the hoko (spear) which plays an important role here, as it represents the first appearance of a weapon in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.

However, the hoko is not described as having any further importance in the other myths. Although the weapon itself is essentially a double-edged tsurugi sword with a long handle attached, it was the hoko rather than the sacred tsurugi itselfthat features in the creation myth. The reason is because in the myths in which the heavens and the earth were perceived as being vertically aligned, the long shaft of the spear was used to express the spatial distance between each world. It was believed that the tsurugi alone would not reach the lower realm, and as such, it could not sufficiently represent the mythical world. I consider this reasoning to be a plausible explanation.

The Birth of Takemikazuchi – The Kami of War

Next, I will focus on the “Myth of the Fire Deity”—the story where the kami of war, Takemikazuchi, is conceived. When Izanagi and Izanami finished creating the land, they began creating various other kami. As ancient beliefs in Japan were animistic, and anything could be referred to as a kami, it is said that together the two deities created the ocean kami, the wind kami, the forest kami, the mountain kami, and the kami of the land. Finally however, as the kami of fire(Kagutsuchi) was created, Izanami was burnt to death. Full of anguish and anger, Izanagi used his sword to kill the new-born kami of fire, and various other kami were spawned from the blood splatters. These kami were linked with fire, thunder and lightning (as fire from the heavens), rock and stone, and also water. 

In the backdrop of this myth is a certain attitude with regards to fire. Due to its great destructive power, it was a held in awe by ancient Japanese. This myth depicts the mother’s death through fire, but it is also fire that aids the progress of civilisation. In this myth, the feared kami of fire is defeated with a tsurugi sword that symbolised advancement of a new civilisation. The important theme here is the kami who were spawned as a result of the slaying the fire kami. These kami, which are related to fire (such as the lightning kami as the source of fire), stone and water, are associated with the process of sword forging; the fire that heats the iron, the stone on which the iron is forged, and the water in which the metal is doused to harden it. In other words, this myth articulates the triumph over fire, and the ability to harness its latent power to create tōken swords, and is symbolic of the advancement of civilisation.   

Important to note here is the birth of the kami of war, Takemikazuchi, who will become central to the ideals of bu in Japan. Takemikazuchi has many identities including the kami of thunder, but he was principally kami of tsurugi. Later, in the myth of “Relinquishing of the Land”, the “ten-span sword” used to slay the fire kami Kagutsuchi is deified as Ohabari, the child of a kami. This is also why Takemikazuchi is worshiped as the kami of bu. This is important when considering the role of bu in mythology.

The Descent of Takemikazuchi – The Kami of War

The first active part Takemikazuchi plays in Japanese mythology is in the myth of the “Relinquishing of the Land”. The background to this myth suggests that the ruler of Takamagahara (celestial world), Amaterasu Ōmikami, decided to send her own offspring to subjugate the terrestrial realm. At the time, this realm was controlled by the Ōkuni-nushi, and many other rowdy and unruly kami. For this reason, Amaterasu decides to dispatch a messenger to take control of the situation. Eventually it was the kami of war, Takemikazuchi, who was dispatched.

Takemikazuchi descended from Takamagahara to the terrestrial world, and arrived on a shoreline known as Inasa. He then thrust his sword upside-down into the surf so that the handle dug into the sand and the tip of the sword extended upwards. Takemikazuchi then sat cross-legged on the tip of the sword, and insisted that Ōkuni-nushi relinquished his reign. Ōkuni-nushi opted for his son, Kotoshiro-nushi, to resolve this matter—a challenge that Kotoshiro-nushi enthusiastically accepted. However, in response to this decision, Takeminakata, another of Ōkuni-nushi’s sons, appears and confronts Takemikazuchi. Takemikazuchi’s hand transforms into a sword, and with great ease, he throws Takeminakata down. Ōkuni-nushi has no choice but to abdicate. Having achieved his task, Takemikazuchi returned to Takamagahara and reported to Amaterasu. 

This myth of the struggle between Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata is also used to describe the origins of sumo wrestling, and this mythological representation is important to its ideals. The main point here is that Takemikazuchi sat cross-legged upon the tip of a sword, an act that is nothing less than magical. Furthermore, the ability of this kami to be one with the sword with the power to turn his hand into a blade clearly demonstrates the identity of Takemikazuchi as the kami of swords.

The Sacred Sword – the Descent of the Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi

The next tale in which Takemikazuchi features is that of emperor Jimmu’s subjugation of the east.[6] Also known as Kamu-Yamato-Ihare-Biko, Jimmu is said to be the first emperor of Japan. Having left Hyūga in the southern island of Kyūshū to battle his rivals in the east, Jimmu brought peace to the land, and was made the emperor at the Kashihara-no-Miya Shrine in Yamato. This course of events is described in the tale surrounding Jimmu’s conquest of the east. 

Reaching Kumano, Jimmu encounters a ferocious kami. However, both Jimmu and his army were incapacitated by the poisonous gas emitted by this deity, and they were faced with the possibility of defeat. The emperor was the descendent of Amaterasu Ōmikami. Watching these events unfold from the heavens, Amaterasu commands Takemikazuchi to go and assist the struggling army based on his good performance in taking control of the land. However, rather descend to the earth himself, Takemikazuchi elected to send the sword he previously used at Inasa bay in his place. Takemikazuchi’s placed the sword in the storeroom of a man by the name of Takakuraji, and then revealed the sword’s existence to Takakuraji in a dream. Upon awaking from his dream and actually finding the sacred sword in his cellar, Takakuraji went and handed it to Jimmu. Harnessing its divine power, Jimmu regained consciousness, and the evil kami was said to have been defeated without even a swing of the sword. This sword is known as Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi.

The important point here is that Takemikazuchi, who was joined with the sword in the myth of the “Relinquishment of the Land” was in this case detached from the sword. In other words, the power of the kami of war in heaven manifests in the sacred Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi in the terrestrial realm.

Although caution should be exercised when earmarking a timeline in the mythology recorded in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, it isclear that the ‘stage’ of the spiritual worlds are different even in the same mythology concerning Takemikazuchi and the sword—such as the myth of the “Relinquishing of the Land”, and the tale of Jimmu’s “Subjugation of the East”.[7] For instance, the Kojiki consists of three volumes, and the first is mainly concerned with myths relating to the earliest mythical era, or age of the kami. However, the ensuing volumes focus on legends pertaining to the generations of successive emperors in the historical eras thereafter.

The “Relinquishment of the Land” is one such myth that is set in the mythical age, and the tale of “Jimmu’s Subjugation of the East”, which features at the very beginning of the second volume of the Kojiki, is set right on the cusp of both the mythical and historical ages. This difference is demonstrated in this behaviour of Takemikazuchi. In the myth of the “Relinquishment of the Land”, Takemikazuchi descended from the heavens to the earth; however, in the tale of “Jimmu’s Subjugation of the East”, he did not. This is not an issue of Takemikazuchi’s lack of commitment, but rather, it is a case of the difference in the positioning of the spiritual plains in the myth. In the mythical age, the boundaries between each realm are yet to be clearly defined, and kami moved freely between the heavens and the earth.

As time progressed, the stages changed, and the distinction between the realms became distinct to a point where even the gods did not move between each world. This was the ‘stage’ of the spiritual realm in the tale of “Jimmu’s Subjugation of the East”. In other words, even if Takemikazuchi wanted to descend to the earth as he had done before, the lines had been drawn. Nevertheless, the sacred sword could be sent in his place, something that further demonstrates the sacredness of the sword.

One more important point in this tale is that Jimmu did not actually swing the sword to defeat the evil kami. Rather, it was through the sword that the divine power of Takemikazuchi magically manifested to eliminate the evil.

[1] See Yuasa Yasuo, Ki, Shugyō, Shintai, Hirakawa Shuppan (1986) and Nihonjin no ShūkyōIshiki, Meicyo Kankokai (1988)

[2] Prominent examples include the Heihō Jikanshō scroll of the Shintō-ryū school of kenjutsu (Otsuki Sekihei, thirteenth year of Tempō, 1842) and the “Jigen-ryū Kikigaki Kikkin-roku” scroll of Jigen-ryū kenjutsu (Kubo Shichibee Kinoyukihide, first year of Temmei, 1781). Although not a scroll of bugei scroll, the text “Honchō Bugei Shōden” (Hinatsu Yosuke Shigetaka, fourth year of Shōtoku, 1714) chronicles the origins of various martial art schools. It states that as the origin of kenjutsu is to be found in the myth of the “Relinquishment of the Land” “Legends surrounding the sword date back to the divine act performed by the deities Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto and Futsunushi-no-Mikoto when they thrust the hilt of their ten-hand long swords into the ground and sat on their points.”

[3] See Tōdō Akiyasu, Bu no Kanji Bun no Kanji, Tokuma Shoten(1977)

[4] Ueda Masaaki, Nippon no Shinwa, Iwanami Shoten (1987)
Yoshii Iwao, Tennō no Keifu to Shinwa, Hanawa shobo (1976)

[5] Sakai Toshinobu, Nippon Seishin-shi toshite no Tōken-kan, Daiichi Shobo (2005) and Tōken no rekishi to shisō” 1– 24 Gekkan Budō, Nippon Budōkan, April 2009 – March 2011

[6] A deliberate distinction is made between the age of the gods (with the term “myth”) and the age of humans (with the term “tale”). Nevertheless, in the case of the “tales” of Emperor Jimmu there are still strong references made to the kami, and they maintain a clear mythological component.

[7] This line of thinking was largely influenced by the suggestions of Yuasa Yasuo’s Rekishi to Shinwa no Shinrigaku, Shisaku Sha (1984).