Report on the talk ‘Reflections of The Sun Goddess: The Evolution of a Japanese Myth Over Time’

Image: Woodblock print. History, myth and legend. The Gods luring Divine Light, Amaterasu, with music.1 of 2. Nishiki-e on paper. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Dr. Tetsuei Tsuda, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, is a professor in the Department of Comparative-art and currently a visiting researcher at The Sainsbury Institute. Speciailising in the history of Japanese and Oriental religious culture and art in the ancient and medieval periods, Dr Tsuda provides this month’s report on our Third Thursday Lecture.

The first Third Thursday Lecture of 2023 was held on 19 January and welcomed speaker Joshua Frydman (Assistant Professor of Japanese, University of Oklahoma), who spoke on ‘Reflections of The Sun Goddess: The Evolution of a Japanese Myth Over Time’. The speaker is well known as the author of the recently published book ‘The Japanese Myths: A Guide to Gods, Heroes and Spirits. His talk focused on the myth of Amaterasu, the most familiar deity to the Japanese among the many Japanese myths contained in Japan’s oldest historical book, “The Kojiki“. This female deity is at the top of the Japanese pantheon of deities. The most famous anecdote concerning her is that she became so angry at her brother’s excessive mischiefs that she locked herself in a stone cave and closed its entrance, causing the whole world to go dark. As symbolised by this anecdote, she has the character of a sun goddess. The world became dark because of her seclusion in the grotto. The gods, fearing this, devised a trick to pry open the door of the grotto she had locked herself in, and the world became bright again.

Image: Amaterasu, Kasuga Myōjin and Hachiman. Painting on silk, late 19th – early 20th century. British Museum.

The lecturer introduced this anecdote, showing that Amaterasu was not just a mythological deity from the past, but that her story and character were favoured as a subject for ukiyo-e prints during the Edo period (1603-1868). He also spoke about how even after the modern era, Amaterasu is still a very familiar deity to Japanese people on many levels. For example, respect is paid to her on various occasions by Japanese politicians and her appearance is a subject in today’s manga and anime.

After the end of the lecture, several questions were raised by the audience, particularly about the use and mythological revival in manga and anime. It was clear that there was a high level of interest in this topic.

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