Gods and spirits : Ancient Japan and Korea

Modern Unlike other countries in the world, Japan and Korea have distinct cultures and ethnicities. Despite the fact that they share some religious traditions—Buddhism in particular—the Japanese and Korean approaches to religion and its everyday practise are diametrically opposed to one another. But there is evidence that these two countries were once linked by a land bridge, allowing people to freely travel between them. 

During the last ice age, it is believed that the archipelago of Japan, which today consists of four major islands and many hundreds of smaller islands, was connected to the continent of Asia. Hunter-gatherers arrived in Japan through two different routes. In the beginning, they came from the north, from what is now modern-day Russia through Sakhalin Island and onto what is now the island of Hokkaido. The second route was most likely through the Korean peninsula and on to the northern tip of modern-day Kyushu, according to historical evidence. 

Migration in Japan in Korea, c. 13000 - 300 BCE
Migration in Japan in Korea, c. 13000 - 300 BCE

Japan's islands began to become increasingly isolated from one another and from the mainland as the climate warmed and sea levels rose. From approximately 10,000 years ago until the arrival of the Yayoi people around 300 BCE, the indigenous Jomon culture flourished in this region. They were of Mongolian or northern Chinese origin, and they brought with them iron tools, rice farming techniques, and the Daoist religion from the mainland. 

It was through their union with the Jomon people that the distinct ethnicity, culture, and religion that is Japan came to be. People of Korean descent are believed to have originated in northeastern China and travelled to the Korean peninsula. It is possible that ethnic migrations in mainland China bypassed the Korean peninsula, allowing for the development of a distinct culture. Pottery from the Bronze Age (c. 3000 BCE), known as the Jeulmun period, is similar in appearance to Jomon pottery discovered in Japan, with similar shapes, manufacturing techniques, and comb-pattern markings. 

Such discoveries bolster the belief that ancient Korea and Japan share a common ancestor that dates back thousands of years.


The origins of Shinto, Japan's indigenous religion, can be traced back to the ancient Jomon culture. The term Shinto comes from the Chinese phrase shin dao, which translates as "the way of the gods." However, long before the religion had a name or any elements of Chinese Daoism, it had rituals, beliefs, legends, and, most importantly, an elaborate creation storey, all of which were preserved in writing. The kami, or sacred spirits of nature, are at the heart of traditional Japanese beliefs. 

According to legend, kami lived in the sun, the moon, the trees, the rocks, the ocean, the mountains, and the rivers. Kami were present in both the heavens and on earth, but they were born in the heavens and spread from there. There were seven generations of gods in Japanese mythology, culminating with Izanagi and Izanami, a male and female (possibly brother and sister) who used a jewelled spear to create the islands of Japan, according to the mythology. 

They had several children as well, but Izanami died while giving birth to Kagutsuchi, the fire-god of the samurai. Izanami was no longer a goddess of creation, but rather a goddess of death as a result of this event. The Japanese underworld, Yomi, claimed Izanami after she died, according to Japanese mythos. In his determination to track her down, her husband arrived too late; Izanami had devoured the food left over from the afterlife by then. 

After a narrow escape from Yomi, Izanagi performed a cleansing ritual and gave birth to a daughter, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, from his left eye and a son, Tsukuyomi, the moon god, from his right eye. Amaterasu was the sun goddess, and Tsukuyomi was the moon god. Susanoo, the god of storms, was born out of his nose as a result of his jealousy toward his brother. Amaterasu, whose name literally translates as "that which illuminates the heavens," is the most powerful and important Shinto deity in existence. 

Sacred worship rites were performed by shamans in ancient Japanese culture, which was a common practise at the time. They were intermediaries between the gods and the people, though this distinction is less relevant in a religion that considers humans to be imbued with kami, or divine spirit, as well as with the gods. Formal ritual is a significant component of contemporary Japanese religion, and its origins can be traced back to the country's most ancient spiritual beliefs.


South Korea's long history of human habitation is encapsulated in mythology by the existence of a legendary kingdom known as Gojoseon. It was the realm of a legendary god-king, Dangun Wanggeom (also known as Tan'gun), who reigned over this kingdom, which is translated as "old Joseon." On the border between Manchuria and modern-day North Korea, Dangun is said to have established his kingdom in 2333 BCE, when he is said to have founded his kingdom. 
A nineteenth-century depiction of Izanami and Izanagi stirring the primordial ocean with a spear in order to create land
A nineteenth-century depiction of Izanami and Izanagi stirring the primordial ocean with a spear in order to create land

Legend has it that Dangun was the grandson of heaven, descended from the lord of the heavens, Hwanin, who was himself the grandson of heaven. Hwanin had a son named Hwanung, who wished to live on the surface of the planet. Finally, the father was persuaded and agreed to allow his son to descend to Mount Baekdu, which is part of the Tacback mountain range, with the assistance of 3,000 additional people. In the storey of Dangun, the union of Hwanung and Ungnyeo, a bear who had been transformed into a woman, gave birth to Dangun. 

The progenitors of the Korean people, according to Korean mythology, are these beings. Because it expresses a distinctive quality of Korean culture and serves as a means of distinguishing its origins from those of its powerful neighbour, China, this mythology has retained its popularity. It is worth noting that the bear is also a significant symbol in the ancient Japanese culture of the Jomon. As it turns out, the bear is a central figure in the symbolism and mythology of the Ainu ethic group of Japan, which is believed to be descended directly from the Jomon people.