“Moto no ri” Through the Lens of Comparative Mythology 1

The following is a translation of an excerpt of Taryo Obayashi’s “Moto no ri Through the Lens of Comparative Mythology.”

Bibliographic info:

Obayashi Taryo 大林太良. 1987. “Hikaku shinwagaku kara mita Moto no ri.” In Koza Moto no ri no sekai 1: Moto no ri no ningengaku (The World of “The Truth of Origin”—Lecture Series One: The Philosophical Anthropology of “The Truth of Origin”), 81–103.

One the author:

Born in 1929 in Tokyo. Graduated from the Economics Department of Tokyo University in 1952. Studied ethnology at Frankfurt and Harvard universities. Currently (1987), a professor at Tokyo University. Notable works include Nihon shinwa no kigen (The origin of Japanese myths), Shinwagaku nyumon (Introduction to mythological studies), Inasaku no shinwa (Rice cultivation myths).

Moto no ri” Through the Lens of Comparative Mythology

In the modern age, the study of myths has advanced to the point where we now understand many things that we did not know previously. For instance, research on Genesis, the creation myth of both Judaism and Christianity, has revealed that it was not only a myth ancient Hebrews adhered to, but was based on myths that were widely transmitted in the ancient Orient. Even the story of Noah’s flood was widely transmitted in the Orient or western Asia.

Thus I would like to take this opportunity and begin from such a position to contemplate the roots, if you could say, or examine which traditions Tenrikyo’s Moto no ri draws its foundation from.

On myths

When we think of the myths of Japan, the first myths that come to mind would be the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki that were first compiled and edited in the 8th century C.E. It need not be mentioned that these myths were transmitted within a handful of powerful families that centered on the imperial family.

However, it is clear that there were other myths that were transmitted among the general populace. For instance, there is the famous “pulling of Izumo” myth found in Izumo no kuni fudoki (Local Records of Izumo Province). In this myth, the Kami created the province of Izumo by pulling together parts left over from other provinces. This myth is clearly different from the account in the Kojiki or Nihon shoki in which the nation of Japan was created through the procreation of the two kami Izanagi and Izanami. Further, in Hitachi no kuni fudoki (Local Records of Hitachi Province), a Kami named So no Kami (ancestor deity), first descended on Mt. Fuji but met a cold reception. When he descended on Mt. Tsukuba, he was welcomed quite warmly. Such widely known myths reveal that there is no mistake that there were many popular and local myths other than those that comprise the imperial chronicles.

Indigenization of myths and traditions – the example of Tenchi hajime no koto

There must have been popular and local myths that disappeared thereafter or those that have been transmitted to the current age after undergoing various changes. For instance, there were several popular and local myths that are known to have been recorded during the late Edo (1600–1867) and Meiji periods (1868–1912). A well-known example is that of Tenchi hajime no koto (On the beginning of heaven and earth) that was written down circa Bunsei year 6 (1823) in the Sotome area of Nagasaki Prefecture.

Catholic priests were active propagating in north Kyushu during the Warring States (Sengoku) period (1568–1600) and gained many adherents. Yet as you may be aware, Christianity was thereafter suppressed, persecuted, and prohibited. Since Christianity was prohibited, these “hidden” Christians have no Bible. Yet the contents of the Bible were orally communicated uninterruptedly for 250 years. This was written down circa 1823 and later discovered. Yet when fishermen and farmers with little education transmit the contents of Genesis for a long period of 250 years, their contents change to some degree. Though content from Genesis is included in Tenchi hajime no koto, one also concludes that great portions of it has been mixed with myths from the fishermen and farmers of Nagasaki.1

As an example, when a brother and sister were calling out, looking for one another, Tentei Deusu threw a sword to the earth. When the sword hit a high mountain, the light from the sword gave off a light in which the brother and sister were able to see one another. In their elation at finally finding each other, they ran toward one another, the woman threw a needle and the man threw a comb. Yet the needle the woman threw struck the man’s head, which began to bleed. Since the bleeding did not stop, the woman turned towards heaven and promised to always follow her husband. It is said the bleeding stopped when she did so. At that moment thereafter the brother and sister were brother and sister no longer but became husband and wife. In other words, the man and woman no longer were brother and sister after throwing a comb. Once the man and woman became husband and wife, children were born between them. Yet because all their children—a total that approached ten—were born twins, it is written in Tenchi hajime no koto that incestuous marriages were not good. Then it goes on to describe that human beings increased, but because it became a world of evil and greed, this incurred the wrath of Tentei and everyone were killed by a great tsunami.

As folklorist Ken’ichi Tanigawa 谷川健一 once pointed out, the original version of the myth where the cause of the tsunami is attributed to evil and greed in Tenchi hajime no koto most likely did not have the narrative in which the great tsunami was the result of the marriage between a brother and sister, that is, an incestuous marriage.

Further, the fascinating aspect of Tenchi hajime no koto is that it is connected with stories widely transmitted from Southeast Asia, southern China, and on to Okinawa of how a brother and sister marries and become the ancestors of human beings. Myths from these areas take on the form of flood myths that describe how a great flood at the beginning of the world killed everyone except for a brother and sister who marry and become the ancestors of the human race. In Japan’s case, there is a theory that the “nation birthing” myths in the imperial chronicles can be traced to these flood myths and postulates that the portion describing the flood was dropped and omitted. Yet there is an entirely different theory. In the traditional myths of Philippines and Indonesia, there is no occurrence of a flood. Instead, in the beginning the world was nothing but ocean. A brother and sister came down from heaven upon the first appearance of land, married and became ancestors of the human race. These myths are very close to Japan’s “nation-birthing” myths.

Certainly, just as Tanigawa says, the myth described in Tenchi hajime no koto includes a marriage between a brother and sister that does not appear in Genesis. Further, that the brother and sister are connected to Noah’s flood can be thought to come from their relation to the flood and tsunami myths that spread from Southeastern Asia to southern China and Okinawa. Yet just as Tanigawa mentions, the pattern of this myth is slightly changed in Tenchi hajime no koto. It switches the order of the flood and the incestuous marriage between the brother and sister and takes the form of explaining that the great tsunami occurred because of the marriage between the brother and sister.


  1. Translator’s note: For an English translation of Tenchi hajime no koto, see Whelan Christal. 1996. The Beginnings of Heaven and Earth: The Sacred Book of Japan’s Hidden Christians. University of Hawai‘i Press: Honolulu.