“Moto no ri” Through the Lens of Comparative Mythology 2

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

Myths as “unconscious assertions” and their universalization

I raised Tenchi hajime no koto as an example to point it out that it was a myth that was not created by a single philosopher-type figure but was instead created, disseminated, and nurtured by its commoner adherents among the hidden Christians. Further, this myth that had religious implications also drew from myths that were transmitted in the area. Nevertheless, these elements were not only adopted as they were but given new meanings after being rewritten or reinterpreted to some degree. For instance, even in the case of Tenchi hajime no koto, it emphasizes the concept of sin by switching the sequence of the flood and the marriage between brother and sister. In other words, is shows that humanity was illegitimate at that point.

If we were to borrow Tanigawa’s expression, we see the placement of religious meaning in the form of “unconscious assertions,” and we would assume that this is a manner of thinking that is fairly different from what has been seen from Japanese commoners until that point. However, it is greatly fascinating to see myths being rewritten with local traditions.

To give another example, there are myths on Mt. Tsukuba from the Kanto region that were collected in the Meiji period. To summarize what these myths described, after the creation of the heaven and earth, Tensho Daijin (Amaterasu) descended upon Mt. Tsukuba in Hitachi Province and played the koto. When she did so, the waves from the eastern sea were moved by the sounds and surged to the foot of the mountain. The sunken area that was left behind by the waves became Kasumigaura. The people of area then explain that the etymology of name Mt. Tsukuba comes from the matter that it was the mountain where the waves (ba) reached (tsuku).

This is a simple and unsophisticated myth. The significant matter is that it was a myth recorded in the Meiji period. I feel that we must draw attention to the act of taking and using the name of a Kami—Tensho Daijin—that appears in the ancient myths of Japan, was an attempt to tie the regional and local to something more universal or give it more authority.

I sense that similar tendencies of utilizing autochthonous (local) mythical traditions, changing them to give them new meanings, and appropriating the names of Kami that appear in the ancient myths to universalize them as seen in both Tenchi hajime no koto and the myth concerning Mt. Tsukuba is also being done in Moto no ri or Koki to some degree. I shall introduce and summarize a number of thematic threads concerning Moto hajimari no hanashi and contemplate their implications.

There are “nation birthing” myths involving Izanagi and Izanami or the “Kami birthing” myths of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. Here it is described how two Kami, one male and one female, descended from heaven on the (original, primordial, initial) first island, named Onogoroshima (“self-forming island”). There, the two Kami married, and as a result, procreated and gave birth to the eight islands of the Japanese nation and various other Kami. While it is written in this myth that Kami were born, there is no mention of human beings being born. For instance, Ame-no-koyane-no-Mikoto is a Kami of the heavenly plain, and his descendants are human beings, the Fujiwaras. Yet there might be a fundamental thinking that since the descendants of the Kami became human beings after the passing of time, there is no need to speak on the origins of human beings since the origins of the ancestor Kami is already described. Yet the word “hitogusa” (human-grass)—that is, referring to the common people—appears even in the stories on the age of the Kami. Thus, while the nobility traces their ancestry to Kami, there remains the issue to explain the origins of the common people. This is an issue that is not fully explained in the creation myths of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, or rather it is assumed to be an issue that was not even put into consideration.

In this sense, I feel that it much attention ought to be given to the fact that the stories told in the “Koki” (Divine Record) take on the issue of the origins of human beings straight on. It has the fascinating feature of possessing the characteristics of a popular creation myth.

The symbolism of “muddy ocean”

The next issue I wish to go into is that of a “muddy ocean” being the primordial state of the world. Moto hajimari no hanashi or Koki, was usually known as Doroumi koki, and I remember these stories by this name. If one were to contemplate the description of the primordial earth as a muddy ocean, this was a tradition that was transmitted until relatively recently in the Yamato area.

For instance, a man named Juro Takada 高田十郎 who came out with an exceptional work by the title of Yamato no densetsu (The legends of Yamato) describes that according to legend, Mishima (literally, “three islands) in Tenri City is named so because in the past Yamato was a muddy ocean and there were three islands in area were Mishima is currently located. Thus, one can theorize that traditions that maintained that the area was a muddy ocean were widely disseminated in the area.

There is also the following story of a turtle rock in Kawahara, Takaichi-gun, which I assume to be the Kameishi (“Turtle Rock”) in Asakusa. Long ago, when the province of Yamato was a lake, a fight broke out among the two banks of Toma and Kawahara. The chief of Toma was a snake and the chief of Kawahara was a catfish. The fight eventually ended with Kawahara losing, and the lake’s water was taken by Toma. This resulted in the bottom of the lake becoming flat land, and six baby turtles that lived in the lake all died. Many years later, the villagers built the Kameishi, a rock in a shape of a turtle, as a monument to appease the spirits of the poor deceased turtles at Amano, Kawahara, at the site of original lakeshore. While the Kameishi faces the southwest at present, it is said that when it faces west to glance at Toma, the flatlands of Yamato will revert back into a muddy ocean.

Thus we come to assume that the symbolism of the area of Yamato being a muddy ocean was widely transmitted in the Yamato Basin. There are a number of interesting points to mention.

First is that we must consider other areas of Japan that are currently flatlands or a valley basin surrounded by mountains also have traditions that maintain that they were originally lakes. For instance, the Kofu Basin and the plain of Azumi Plains in Nakano Prefecture are said to have originally been lakes. Yet there are a number of so-called “kick and burst” legends that describe how a Kami, Buddhist deity or hero figure either carves a hole in the surrounding mountain or a Kami kicks to make a drainage hole that draws out the water to make it into farmland that were widely transmitted in these areas. However, in the case of Yamato myths, they do not come in the form of these “kick and burst” legends. Thus it is a very fascinating point that Yamato mythical traditions did not agree with these types of myths that identified a Kami who carved a piece of mountain to create a hole to drain the water out to reclaim the land.

Another point is that I feel the symbolism of a muddy ocean reflects the wet-rice agriculture of growing rice in flooded rice paddies. Thus many animals such as loaches swam in the primordial muddy ocean [in Tenrikyo’ story of creation]. That Tsuki-Hi (the Moon and the Sun) needed a “seed” and “seedbed” to create human beings can be thought of exuding the thinking of the farmers who grew rice in the wet paddies.