Foundation and Creation Myths in Korea and Japan: Patterns and Connections

Joo-Young Yoo
Faculty Mentor: Professor Mack Horton

The present and future are constantly revealed through the past. A country's early chronicles provide an essential means for understanding its history, culture, genealogy, social structure, mythology, language and literature. With that in mind, this paper focuses on the relationship between Japanese and Korean mythologies as a means of understanding the links between these two societies and cultures.

Despite the fact that Korea and Japan both have many myths which share similar motifs and beliefs, little in-depth work has yet been done on the comparative mythology of Japan and Korea. Japanese scholars have done most of the work in this area and they have primarily focused on the relationship between these two mythologies in terms of ceremonial and religious theory. For example, Professors Obayashi Taryo and Yoshida Atsuhiko of Japan have applied the important theory of "the tripartite system" to Japanese myths, following DumŽzil's system of comparative mythology. There are, however, still more comparative studies that need to be done on the mythologies of these two countries. While there are other works of perhaps greater literary interest, I have chosen to study two early works of Japanese mythistory, Kojiki and Nihon shoki, and two from Korea, Samguk yusa and Samguk sagi. Given the reasons for which they were written and the time during which they were written, I think these national histories are the most important for understanding early Japan and Korea. Of the many possible connections to explore between these two nations' mythologies, I will focus on 1) the origins of kingship, 2) the use of animal imagery in the foundation legends of both countries, and 3) the role played by shamanistic ritual. By carefully studying and comparing these aspectsÑthe patterns in both countries' foundation myths and the presence of shamanistic elements in Korean culture and in Japanese mythÑthe deep historical connection between these two cultures becomes clear, even if it remains unknown how each influenced the other.

Before moving ahead to my analysis, I will first give a brief description of these four collections as background.

The Two Early Mythistories of Japan

There are two main collections of myths in Japan, Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters) and Nihon shoki(or Nihongi, Chronicles of Japan) which were compiled in 712 A.D. and 720 A.D. respectively. Kojiki was compiled by the imperial family, and consequently consists of myths, legends, songs, anecdotes, folk etymologies, and so forth centered around the imperial family and other leading families of Japan at that time. It has three books ordered in a chronological fashion: Book One deals with "The Age of the Gods"; Book Two, the reigns of the legendary first fifteen sovereigns (from Emperor Jimmu to Emperor Ojin); and Book Three, the imperial reigns from Emperor Nintoku to Emperor Suiko (628 A.D.), the sixteenth to the thirty-third emperors.

The second Japanese national history, Nihon shoki, was also compiled for the purpose of justifying the imperial line. It was ordered by Emperor Gensho and the chief compiler was Prince Toneri. Nihon shokiis very much like Kojiki until the later sections of the work. Although Kojiki is thought superior to Nihon shokiby many in terms of both literary and historical value, it appears to be less accurate in the later parts than Nihon shoki, and it ends about a half century earlier. Thus Nihon shokiholds special value for continuing its account to a later point in history and for the richness of this later portion. Furthermore, Kojiki has been less popular than Nihon shokiuntil recent times because it is written in less skilled Chinese and perhaps more difficult Man'yogana (for place names and god names), making it very hard to read. Nihon shoki, on the other hand, is written in much more skilled Chinese and has been therefore more historically accessible to scholars.

The Two Korean Mythistories

Compared to the collections in Japan, the ones in Korea are scanty and were compiled far later; most of the earlier works were destroyed during wars and invasions. Despite this unfortunate fact of history, Korea still has some very important materials which include the Samguk sagi (Annals of the Three Kingdoms) and Samguk yusa (Reminiscences of the Three Kingdoms), compiled in the 12th and 13th centuries respectively.

Samguk sagi was set down by a high official of the Koryo Dynasty, Pu-sik Kim, in Chinese. It was strongly influenced by Chinese Confucianism, omitting a great deal of embarrassing or indecorous matters, and is very politically biased. Samguk yusa, on the other hand, was also compiled under the Koryo Dynasty, but by the National Priest Ilyon a century later (the 13th century) in order to better understand his country's history. It preserves many important stories which are absent from Samguk sagi, making it an even more valuable source.

Kingship Origins

Despite the fact that there is no creation myth in the Korean collections, the collections of both Japan and Korea share many similarities in their accounts of the establishment of kingship. These resemblances are significant, since the collections in both countries were made with the purpose of justifying their respective rulers at that time. In Japan's mythistories, the grandson of the sun goddess Ama-terasu, Ninigi, becomes the first ruler of the country. Similarly in the Korean collections, Dan'gun, the grandson of the Heavenly Ruler, becomes the first ruler of Korea. In both cases, the first to descend from Heaven is not the one who eventually rules: the first ruler of each country is a son born to a heavenly deity's son. The ruler is, therefore, someone from the land. In the case of Korea, Dan'gun is born of a woman (originally a bear), who lives on the mountain from which the Heavenly Ruler's son first descended. More interestingly, both countries hold the jewel, sword, and mirror as the symbols of kingship. Although these objects are mentioned less frequently in the Korean collections than in those of Japan, it is certain that these objects hold meaning in the mythic accounts of how each countries' kingships were established. In both traditions, it is made clear that the ruler descended from heaven and was sent to the people of the earth who needed a ruler.

Animal Imagery

Obayashi Taryo (1977) argues for a distinction in animal images used to represent land, water, and sky in the legends of Emperor Jimmu's eastern conquest in Japan and of Chumong's founding of Koguryo in Korea. He also believes that there are positive and negative values accorded to each animal and claims that land animals have a negative value while the water and sky animals have positive values. An interesting link between both countries' legends is that these animals not only represent the same three dimensionsÑland, water, and skyÑbut also have similar reasons for appearing in the myths: they appear whenever the sons of heavenly deities (Emperor Jimmu and Chumong) run into difficulties and need help. Through these seemingly coincidental incidents of animals rendering their assistance, the Emperors develop a miraculous air and are thereby set apart from ordinary people.

I have also found these three dimensions of land, water, and sky to be represented in the animals appearing in the legend of Haemosu in Korea. In the case of this legend, Haemosu initiates a contest with the river god Hwabak to prove that he is truly the Heavenly Ruler's son. The legend of Haemosu is of course very different than that of Jimmu or Chumong. Rather than being helped by animals, the contestants are themselves magically transformed into animals representing the three dimensions. But these magical transformations again demonstrate the supernatural power of the Heavenly Ruler's son, Haemosu, as well as that of the river god Hwabak. At the same time, they share a similar division of animal images into land, water, and air, reflecting one way both the people of Korea and Japan divided their worlds. Both the legend of Haemosu and those of Jimmu and Chumong reflect the tight link between the magical or supernatural and the divine.


Based on Mishina Shoei's view that Japanese mythology evolved from a stage of primitive, to ceremonial, to political mythology, Kim Yeol-kyu (1977) has claimed that it might be the case that Korean shamanistic ceremonies were brought into Japan and blended with kingship origin myths to produce a mixture of both. The myth of the Sun Goddess Ama-terasu in Japan is a perfect example to support Kim's hypothesis: the myth of Ama-terasu has traces of shamanistic ritual and similarities to the legend of Yonorang and Syeonyo of Korea.

As for shaman rituals in Japanese myths, the gods in heaven use a bird to summon the Sun Goddess Ama-terasu after she hid herself in a rock-cave. They then dig up a "True Sakaki Tree of Heaven," hang jewels, a mirror, and blue and white fabric offerings and perform a mimic dance. Finally, as a result, Ama-terasu opens the rock-cave and light is returned to the world. This is exactly what a shaman does in summoning spirits.

At the same time, we find a connection between Ama-terasu in Japan and the Korean legend of Yonorang and Syeonyo. As the gods in the heavens lost the sunlight when Ama-terasu hid herself in the rock-cave, people in Silla once lost the sunlight when a huge rock took Yonorang and Syeonyo to Japan. Furthermore, Ama-terasu is associated with weaving: when attacked by Susa-no-wo in her sacred place, she was weaving "the garments of the Gods." Similarly, garments woven by Syeonyo restored the sunlight to Silla, although Yonorang represents the sun while Syeonyo is associated with the moon. Interestingly enough, Kojiki contains a legend which is almost identical to the legend of Yonorang and Syeonyo, though it doesn't record the absence of sunlight in Silla. Even when taking into consideration the differences between the various legends, it seems clear that these two countries' mythologies are closely related to each other.


I have introduced only a portion of the mythologies of Japan and Korea, comparing some of their legends and myths as found in Kojiki, Nihon shoki, Samguk yusa, and Samguk sagi. The three different points I have presented help to reveal the connections between the two mythologiesÑthe similarities in kingship origins, in the division of animal imagery in the foundation myths of both countries, and in the creation myths surrounding Ama-terasu. These examples clearly demonstrate a close connection between the myths of Japan and those of Korea, which is not surprising given the close proximity of the two countries. Naturally, such a connection in mythological beliefs reflects a strong cultural connection between the two nations beyond the texts. Doubtless, many more connections remain to be studied in the future.


1The application of Dumézil's theory to Korea presents certain difficulties which would require special attention beyond the scope of this article. I will not be applying Dumézil's tripartite system in this article.


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