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The Sun Goddess Amaterasu?

If you read English-language discussions of Shinto, you are almost certain to come across references to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Indeed, I am currently reading Helen Hardacre’s Shinto: A History, which is good so far, and she refers to the kami in the same way.

Is this legitimate?

As readers of this blog and my other writings about Shinto probably already know, I do not translate “kami” at all, and certainly not as “god”. The concepts are very different, and referring to “kami” as “gods” is likely to make Shinto harder to understand, not easier.

Talking specifically about Amaterasu Ōmikami, the Shinto establishment do not refer to her as the sun kami. They prefer, instead, to say that the sun is used as an image for her, a metaphor for her importance and influence. She is not the kami of the sun, and certainly not actually the sun.

So, that would suggest that I think that calling Amaterasu Ōmikami the Sun Goddess is misleading and a bad translation. And, indeed, I do not do it.


In the famous myth of the cave of heaven, the whole world goes dark when Amaterasu Ōmikami goes into the cave, and becomes light when she comes out again. In the myths of Jinmu Tennō, he decides that he has lost a battle because, as a descendant of the sun, he should not have attacked while facing the rising sun. And the early ninth century Kogoshūi, which has a whole section on how Amaterasu Ōmikami is much more important than all the other kami, consistently refers to her as “the sun kami”.

Later myths get more complex, but esoteric Buddhism associated Amaterasu Ōmikami with Dainichi Nyorai, or “the Great Sun Buddha”. (This is the Japanese name for Mahāvairocana.) There are also numerous images of Amaterasu Ōmikami with sunlight coming out of her head, and modern popular depictions often associate her with the sun, even in Japan.

From the other side, although “god” is a terrible translation of “kami” in general, it isn’t, to be honest, that much of a problem when applied specifically to Amaterasu Ōmikami. Obviously, if you think of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim God, you are going to go seriously wrong, but if you think of the Greek and Roman gods, your image will not be too far off. She is supposed to have that sort of power, there are coherent legends about her, and she is still an important figure in nationwide devotion.

So, although I wouldn’t say it, “the Sun Goddess Amaterasu” is not, in itself, a terrible misrepresentation of Shinto.

The problem is that it starts people talking about “Hachiman, the War God” or, worse, “Amë no Uzumë, the Goddess of Dawn”, and those are terrible misrepresentations.

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5 thoughts on “The Sun Goddess Amaterasu?”

  1. The actual Sun, like grasses, trees, oceans, and mountains, has superior and extraordinary power, provoking awe. So surely the Sun is a kami? Is it a different kami?

    1. That’s a good question. There is a practice of paying reverence to the sun, particularly at sunrise, so the sun is treated as a kami in some Shinto traditions. I get the impression that that practice does not identify the sun with Amaterasu Ōmikami, so that would make it a different kami. However, the Shinto establishment really does not emphasise this practice, and I would guess that this is because they want to push the idea that Amaterasu Ōmikami is not the sun kami, but also do not want to acknowledge the idea that another kami is.

  2. Marcelo Gutiérrez

    What about the case of Susano’o, the brother of Amaterasu Ōmikami, being the “God of Storms”? Some sections of Shinto mythology that come to mind are his birth by emerging from Izanagi’s nose, his wailing when he rejects his dominion over the sea, his ascent to Takamanohara to say goodbye to his sister, and his actions in Takamanohara that cause Amaterasu to seal herself inside the Heavenly Rock Cave (Ama no Iwato).

    Firstly, his emergence from Izanagi’s nose seemingly implies a connection between Susano’o and the wind (or breath), which one could identify as an element of a storm. In his translation of the Kojiki, Donald Philippi commented in an additional note that “if Susa-nö-wo is in some way a windstorm-deity, then it is not unnatural for him to come into existence from the nose.” Bearing this metaphor in mind, the idea that Susano’o is associated with the wind is plausible, at least from what I could find.

    As for the other sections, there seems to be a disturbance in nature of some sort. With the scene of his weeping, the Kojiki mentions that “it caused the verdant mountains to wither and the seas to dry up” (taken from Philippi’s book), perhaps bringing up the image of a destructive wind or something along those lines. Regarding his ascent to Takamanohara and his ravaging of Amaterasu’s home, one might interpret this as harsh storm clouds blocking the sun’s warm rays of light. To further reinforce this idea, I found a tsuba (sword guard) by Tōzan 東山 depicting both siblings together, with Susano’o standing atop a cloud emitting lightning while rays of light shine behind Amaterasu: (Off-topic, but here’s another intriguing tsuba depicting Susano’o with a cloud emitting lightning, crafted by Ōoka Masataka 大岡政孝:

    1. Thanks for the comment. I would agree that Susano’o is another good candidate for a “god”, in the ancient Greek sense, but I am not so happy with “God of Storms”. There are no examples in the myths of a direct association between Susano’o and storms, even if some of the stories could be taken to be metaphors for that. His battle with the Yamata-no-Orochi is normally taken to be a metaphor for preventing the destruction of rice paddies by floods, which is anti-storm. The stories of Susano’o in Ne no Kuni, where he tests Ōkuninushi, seem to have nothing to do with storms at all. The same applies to the jinja that enshrine him; most of them are associated with protection from disease, not with storms. (Although that is partly due to Meiji retconning of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism.) This is why I think Amaterasu Ōmikami’s case is a bit unusual.

      (It looks as though your second link is to the wrong object, by the way.)

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