The Depiction of Japanese Deities in Modern Japan

Mar 3, 2021, 4:30 pm4:30 pm



Event Description

Registration required. Register here.

Japanese mythology was compiled in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki in the 8th century.
How were deities depicted at that time? Throughout their long history, the Japanese have depicted deities in various ways. But from the Yayoi period (about 4th or 5th century BCE–3rd century C.E.) to the 8th century, Japanese people do not seem to have depicted or created images of deities. Japanese people found and worshiped deities in symbolical figures such as mirrors, jewels, and sacred mountains.

Of course, in the Jomon era, female deities were represented with clay figures or earthenware. Unfortunately, we cannot recognize those female deities to have any connection with the deities in the Kojiki or Nihon shoki. While Jomon-era myths remain largely unknown, it is apparent that people in the Jomon period represented the general notion of the “Great Goddess of Fertility” by means of technology peculiar to that era.

Japanese began to depict their deities when Kami-Buddha syncretism started in the late 8th century. Later on, at the time of Shinto and Buddhism syncretism, Japanese portrayed deities as Buddhist priests wearing vestments. After that Japanese deities have been depicted in various ways.

In this presentation I will first focus on how Japanese deities are represented visually in modern Japan, and then explore how the interactions between deities and human beings are conceived in those representations. Finally, I will attempt to clarify, in a general way, the nature of Japanese people’s relationship with their deities.

During the Meiji period, as Japanese painters were influenced by, among others, different European styles of historical painting, they portrayed deities from Japanese mythology in a similar style. 

In other words, Japanese deities took on a historical existence. There are some background factors. One is that the Japanese emperor has been considered a descendant of deities, and the emperor himself was also considered a deity in the context of the Empire of Japan. Therefore, Japanese deities were also imagined as having a historical and humanlike existence.   Modern painters referred to Haniwa terracotta clay figures from the Kofun period in their representation of Japanese deities. They imagined Japanese deities as ancestors of the emperor, referring to Haniwa or archaeological remains. In 1946, the Emperor issued the humanity declaration, which states that the Emperor is human and is not a god. The story that the Emperor is the descendant of deities as described in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki has not changed. But the story of deities came to be treated as mythology not history.

I suppose that this change must influence the depiction of Japanese deities in pop culture and modern art. I will explore how the representation of deities in the post-modern age became separated from history.

Kikuko Hirafuji is professor at Kokugakuin University, and Director of Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics at the University. She specializes history of study of Japanese mythology, and translation issuues about Kojiki and Nihonshoki.

Bryan Lowe (Religion) will moderate the Q & A.

East Asian Studies Program
Event Category