A Short Description of Ancient Japanese Culture and Cosmology

by Mitch Stoltz

Introduction - Geography

It is easy to underestimate length of Japan from its northern tip to its southernmost extreme. It is, in fact, about equal to the north-south length of the state of California. Japan is adjacent to Russia, China, Korea, and Taiwan. It is therefore in the perfect position to exchange knowledge and culture with any of its neighbors, or since it is an island nation, close its borders and thrive in isolation[1]. Much of Japanese philosophy and astronomy was inherited from China, but because the land, climate, and people of Japan are unique to their islands, the Japanese modified Chinese thought to fit their own surroundings. The resulting Japanese schools of thought have a lot in common with their mainland roots, but are in many ways uniquely Japanese as well.

The islands of Japan are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the chain of islands which encircles the Pacific from Asia to South America[2]. Geologically, it is a very active region, with frequent earthquakes and over 50 volcanoes which have been active in historic times. Most of Japan's land area is composed of steep slopes. In fact, over three fourths of its land area is far too steep to be used for agriculture[3]. What small areas of Japan are covered by flat soil are not naturally fertile, but were made so by the cultivation efforts of the Japanese people[4].

The climate of Japan is influenced especially by the huge, flat landmass of Mongolia and eastern Russia to the north and east. In the winter, the air over these areas cools down and creates a strong zone of high pressure. This causes intense winds to blow southwards and eastwards over the Pacific. As this winter monsoon, as it is known, approaches Japan, it crosses the relatively warm Sea of Japan and gathers moisture. It is then forced up over the mountains of Japan, cools once again, and releases its moisture as snow. The west coast of Japan, then, has heavy snows and generally more severe winters than the more sheltered eastern side[5].

Material and Social Culture

According to lecturer Takematsu Okada, the main purposes of houses in Japan are to provide ventilation and to keep out rain. Their housing is generally made of wood, with thin paper doors and thatched roofs which are wide and sloping[6]. Protection from cold, it seems, is not an important factor in the construction of a house.

The traditional Japanese diet also reflects the nature of their islands. As fertile land is so scarce, very little of it, if any, could be given over to grazing animals. Meat, then, is a rarity in the traditional Japanese diet. Their main staple is rice, with fish consumed as a tasty side dish[7].

The ancient Japanese government was a monarchic empire, but much different from the kingdoms of medieval Europe. One of the defining principles of ancient Japanese social structure was their concept of the Japanese Emperor as a god. The Emperor, or Mikado, is said to be descended from the first god of the islands, and because of this has absolute authority to rule. The Emperor, though, is responsible for the well-being of his subjects. Historian Percy Thorpe describes how the Emperor would pray every day for good fortune for his people, and his prayer carried more weight than the prayer of an average citizen[8]. This system of belief is a marked difference from the European kingdoms of the time, where the king owed nothing to the citizens, seeing them merely as his property. The Japanese emperor, like the Chinese, was given the title "Son of Heaven."

Several noted emperors were given additional titles as well, and a more permanent sort of deification. For example, Emperor Ojin (c. 270 AD.), a great warrior, was remembered as the "God of War.[9]"

Religion and Cosmology

Japan's first religion is known to us today as Shinto. The original name means simply, "the way of the gods[10]." Shinto emphasized that "all in all, life was good and beautiful; and human beings had reason to be thankful for their lot in the world.[11]" Shinto's other emphasis was on purification of the body and spirit, and it dictated such rituals as throwing paper effigies of oneself into the river every six months to symbolize the casting off of sins. The sins of Shinto, it should be added, were not moral transgressions but rather deeds considered unclean, such as vandalism or improper sexual behavior[12].

This is the Shinto creation story in a nutshell, as told by Thorpe. In the beginning were two primary gods. They created a horn-shaped arc of some filmy substance. From one end of this came the sun and from the other the Moon, along with their relevant deities. The primary gods then created the sea and the sky, and with a long pole pulled land up from the bottom of the sea. They left the pole to become the Earth's axis of rotation.

The sun-goddess Amaterasu, the most beloved deity of the Japanese, left her grandson Ninigi-no-mikoto as ruler of the islands, and the Japanese emperors are said to be his descendants. Following this, the heavens move higher, breaking off contact with Earth[13].

Several things are peculiar about this story. Thorpe is not clear on this point, but he seems to say the Japanese believed in "an axis, around which the new earth would revolve." If this is true, it would put the Japanese several centuries ahead of either China or Europe in concluding that the earth rotates. It is also interesting to note the concept of land pulled up out of the ocean, as this is similar to the format of Polynesian creation stories, and different from the Chinese.

Calendars and Astronomy

The Japanese held calendars in equal regard as did the Chinese and other agrarian civilizations. There is an ongoing debate over whether the ancient Japanese could have developed a calendar of their own, completely independently from China. Others argue that Japan borrowed the calendar from China in the early centuries AD, and that any differences between the two calendars were merely due to errors in translation[14].

Whether or not the Japanese took the Chinese calendar, they did exchange a great deal of knowledge with China during the Sui and early T'ang dynasties (550-800 AD.). During much of this period, Chinese scholars visited Japan and Japan kept an embassy in the Chinese capital[15].

Like the Chinese, the Japanese believed that celestial phenomena indicated the state of affairs on earth, and that an emperor could keep watch on his empire by hiring astronomers to watch the stars[16]. Part of the astronomers' duties was to predict eclipses so the emperor could prepare for them in advance. A predicted eclipse which failed to occur was considered a good omen, while an unexpected one was looked at with dismay. It is likely, then, that various astronomers threw in a few false predictions to please the emperor[17].

Like the Chinese, the Japanese divided the sky into 28 lunar mansions, similar to signs of the zodiac, but they went even farther, connecting each lunar mansion with a particular city or province. Events in each lunar mansion dictated the fortunes of particular regions[18].

Even more than the Chinese, the Japanese were afraid of strange events in the heavens. In their cosmology, celestial events were categorized into periodic and nonperiodic, and the nonperiodic events were the most frightening. The army of the Minamoto clan retreated from battle upon witnessing a solar eclipse, an event the Japanese considered nonperiodic.

The myths and cosmology of Japan reflect a people that was warlike yet in harmony with nature. Their unique physical surroundings shaped their science and religion into a form all their own, though similar to those of their Asian neighbors. The tradition of Japanese thought was consistent enough that much of it has survived until today.


Beardsley, Richard K., and Hall, John Whitney, Twelve Doors to Japan, McGraw-Hill (New York, 1965).

Kitagawa, Joseph, Religion in Japanese History, Columbia University Press (New York, 1966).

Nakayama, Shigeru, A History of Japanese Astronomy, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 1969).

Okada, Takematsu, The Climate of Japan and its Influences on the Japanese People, Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai (Tokyo, 1936)

Thorpe, Percy, History of Japan, F.V. White & Co (London, 1887).