Women figure large in Japanese mythology. Unlike the Middle Eastern creation myth, in which God starts with man and derives woman from one of his ribs, the Japanese creation story starts with a goddess, Amaterasu. Actually, Amaterasu had parents, of sorts, the primeval creator gods Izanagi and Izanami, but she was born, so the story goes, from a tear in her father's eye.
Amaterasu had a brother, Susanowo, the storm god, and Susanowo seems to have been a real pain in the ass. Amaterasu had a job, you see, teaching people to plant rice and weave cloth. But Susanowo used to make life hell by pulling out the dividers between the rice fields, filling up the irrigation ditches, and wreaking havoc with her house.
One day he went too far, throwing a horse over his head into the room where she was weaving and killing one of her maids. In a tiff, Amaterasu retired to a cave and wouldn't come out. Being the sun goddess, this left the world in darkness, causing tremendous concern.
They try everything, from songbirds to jewels to fancy cloth. Nothing works, until they finally they go and get another goddess, Ame no Uzume, to perform a "lascivious and provocative" dance, in which she shows her breasts, and drops her skirt. This causes people to laugh, for some reason, but it works. Amaterasu comes out and light returns to alternate with night once more.
There's much more to the story, but this is enough to set the stage for a discussion of female genitalia, the theme of a presentation by doctoral candidate Hiromi Yamagata.
Yamagata starts with the observation that words for female genitalia have become taboo in modern times, and that in fact, the only words readily available are either medical terms, childish euphemisms, a couple insulting expressions, and words imported from English.
Earliest known words to refer to genitals are ootonoji ("big gate" man) for the male organ and ootonobe ("big gate" woman) for the female. No apparent difference is noted between the two in terms of class or worth, and neither is shown to dominate. Izanami and Izanagi (the creator gods, remember), although capable of giving birth to Amaterasu from a tear (i.e., without apparent sexual union) clearly did engage in sex, and reference is made to mito no maguwai, the putting together of two "mito," or male and female genitals. Izanami and Izanagi, by the way, are not only progenitors of the universe, but brother and sister, as well (although what this means is not known, since they, being the start of it all, have no parents). In any case, "First Mother" Izanami eventually gave birth to most of the deities and the islands of Japan, as well, this time by more traditional means; her godly children and her island children were born from her womb.
This was not a good idea. Last out was the fire god, and his birth burned her so badly in the genitals that she died from the experience. The motif of injury to the genitals continues in Shinto mythology, as a means of explaining the loss of fertility and the chaos that results.
Izanami was buried in a tomb which is said to exist today in Kumano City, in Wakayama Prefecture. The particular location, Hana no Iwaya, is a sacred place to this day, a rock tomb in the shape of female genitals.
Another story involving genitals is that of Omo no Nusi and Seya Datara Hime. Omo no Nusi, taken with Seya Datara Hime's beauty, turns himself into an arrow and shoots himself into her genitals. This surprises her, so she takes the arrow back to her bedroom, where it turns into the young male god once again and the two marry and have a child. For some reason, they decide to name this child Hoto (female genitals). Hoto (full name Hoto Tatara Isusuki Hime) grows up, not surprisingly to modern folk, hating her name, and decides to change it. This is the first apparent indication in (Japanese) history that there is something wrong with female genitals.
But there's more to the story. Omo no Nusi, it turns out, only shows up at night, so Seya is never able to see him clearly. She finds this frustrating and asks him if he won't please reveal himself to her. He agrees, and tells her to look in her comb box the next morning, and not to be surprised by what she finds. When she opens the box, however, the surprise is too much for her. All she sees is a little snake, and for some reason this causes her to stab herself in the genitals accidentally, and die.
The motif of stabbing yourself in the genitals goes on. Repeatedly, in Japanese mythology, there is reference to the injury of female genitals in marriage, and out of this injury comes a new generation of gods. You remember the maid weaving in Amaterasu's room, killed when Susanowo threw the horse at her? You guessed it. Stabbed herself in the genitals and died. Not with a chopstick, this time, but with a "sticky weaving tool."
Now what about this "lascivious breast-baring, skirt-dropping" dance performed by Ame no Uzume. Why did it make people laugh? And how did it work to tease Amaterasu out of the cave? Yamagata proposes that what Ame no Uzume was actually doing was imitating the birth ritual and the word "laugh" (warau) has been misinterpreted as laugh in the modern sense. What it actually referred to was the "bringing out of the voices of the deities." Yamagata, unfortunately, gives no justification for that claim other than to say "laugh" had a magical meaning in ancient times.
Yamagata's relating of the "facts" of Shinto mythological events suggests a wealth of information that might lead to an understanding of the connection between the (real or mythological) sex organ of women, and destruction and renewal in nature, but she leaves these speculations aside to make a pitch for the rejection of the modern interpretation of genitalia as something shameful or dirty. The notion that menstruation, giving birth, and the genitals themselves are dirty, Yamagata claims, entered the Japanese culture with Buddhism. Impurity, as a concept, was lacking in traditional Shinto.
Unfortunately, Yamagata appears to contradict herself with the example of Ame no Iwaya, "confined" during pregnancy. Confinement, she says, had the purpose of keeping women "pure and clean like [a] goddess or a maiden [at a] shrine." Or does she? Is it possible that purity and the power of women increase in the case of pregnancy and menstruation? And that to enhance this power, it is best to keep it safe and secure in a separate place?
Other examples are given to make the case that the genitals, pregnancy and menstruation were not always associated with impurity. In one instance, for example, an older sister and guardian dyes an obi in her menstrual blood and gives it as a gift to her brother. The notion of impurity, Yamagata suggests, may have come from male assumptions. In the past, most scholars have been male, and their interpretations (from the shabbiness of the confinement hut, or ubuya, for example) of impurity may have been assumed, in turn, by later scholars, both male and female. This speculation, unfortunately, also remains ungrounded.
Mythology provides bizarre events to modern sensibilities, but a wealth of material for speculation into earlier notions of our origins. Yamagata's study focusing on female genitalia remains highly speculative. Difficult though it may be to ground interpretations of pre-literate history, she leaves us to wonder whether what she has to say may not reflect more about our thinking in modern times than the thinking of an earlier age. Yet, at the same time, they are a step toward the taking back of women's history by women. It suggests that there is a lot left to do.