In Japanese mythology, Ninigi (瓊瓊) is the grandson of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the Queen of the Heavens. Sent to Japan to grow the first rice crop, he brought civilization to both kami (a type of god or spirit in the Shinto religion) and humans, and is the great-grandfather of Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan. Ninigi is thus the honored ancestor and progenitor of the current Imperial Family of Japan.
Ninigi is short for Ninigi-no-Mikoto (瓊瓊杵尊), meaning “The Great God Ninigi.” Ninigi might be translated as “beloved jeweled mallet.” A variant of his name is Ame-nigishi-kuni-nigishi-amatsuhiko-hiko-ho-no-ninigi-no-Mikoto (天邇岐志国邇岐志天津日高日子番能邇邇芸命) or “The Great God Ninigi, of the Imperial State, The Child of the Sun of Many Talents.”
Chosen over his own father as Amaterasu’s emissary to Japan, Ninigi, through the planting of the first rice seed, brought civilization, justice and agriculture to the country. This story might be seen as representing the immigration of the Yayoi people from the Asian continent to Japan (1000 BCE-300 CE). Unlike the hunter-gatherers populating Japan during that period, the Yayoi were farmers, and their arrival coincided with the rise of cultivated rice.
Ninigi also links the Japanese Imperial Family to the gods, acting as a kind of bridge between the ruling class and the divine. While still very much a god, Ninigi became mortal and died. This does not, however, detract from his divinity in any way.
A burial mound associated with Ninigi is located at E no Goriyo in Hyuga.
Amaterasu gave Ninigi the Imperial Regalia of Japan, tasking him with bringing the regalia down from Heaven. The three items making up the regalia became symbols of Amaterasu’s connection to the Imperial Family, who still use these symbols today. It is said these mythical items still exist, but the Imperial Family closely guards their locations.
Yata-no-Kagami (八咫鏡), the Eight-Span Mirror, is the mirror Ame-no-Uzume (the goddess of dawn) used to lure Amaterasu from the cave she hid in, and represents purity.
Yasakani-no-Magatama, the Grand Jewel, is a magatama, a curved beaded or jeweled necklace common during the prehistoric Japanese period (prior to the fourth century), meant to represent the heavenly power behind the throne. It is thought the Grand Jewel was lost during the Genpei War (1180–1185).
Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (草薙の剣), the Grass-Cutting Sword (also known as the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi [天叢雲剣], the Heavenly Sword of Gathering Clouds) was once owned by Amaterasu’s brother Susanoo and represents virtue.
Ninigi is the son of Ame no Oshihomimi no Mikoto, son of Amaterasu, and his wife Takuhadachiji-hime no Mikoto. After marrying the Princess Konohanasakuya, Ninigi had several sons: Hoderi, Hosuseri, and Hoori. Ancient texts mention another son, Hikohohodemi, but it’s unclear whether he is a fourth son or simply a reference to Hoori, since the two names can be variants of each other. Through Hoderi, Ninigi is the ancestor of the Hayato people, while through Hoori he is the ancestor of the Yamato Clan, and by extension the Japanese Imperial Family through the First Emperor, Jimmu.
Ninigi’s tale is told in the Nihon Shoki, a mythical history of Japan compiled in 720 CE.
The Descent from Heaven
Then Amaterasu no Okami ordered them, saying, ‘If that’s the case, then I will send down my child.’ While she was about to send him down, an august grandchild was born, called Amatsuhikohikohononinigi. Then she said, ‘I wish to send this august grandchild down instead.’
-Nihon Shoki, Scroll 2: The Age of the Gods
Though she had originally planned to send her son to Japan, Amaterasu, Queen of Heaven, saw that her grandson, Ninigi, was more suited for the job. She told Ninigi that he was to descend to the Earth, to the islands of Japan, and there plant the first rice crop, thus bringing civilization and justice to the land. A dutiful grandson, he agreed, even knowing he would never return to Heaven.
Before he left, Amaterasu imparted to him the Imperial Regalia, to represent his divine mandate.
Ninigi landed at Takachiho-gawara, in Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu. Not long after his arrival, he visited the house of a local king, where he met Princess Konohanasakuya, whom he instantly liked. But after getting her pregnant, Ninigi became scared the children were not his, that some earth kami had instead gotten her pregnant and that he was merely a convenient husband. Enraged, Princess Konohanasakuya came up with a scheme to prove her innocence.
When the time came to give birth, she lit the hut on fire, vowing that if she survived, it would prove she’d been faithful to Ninigi. As the hut was engulfed, she gave birth to her sons. She and the children survived, and Ninigi asked the princess to forgive him for doubting her. They married and raised their sons together.
At some point, Ninigi gave his son Hoderi a magical fish hook, making him a master fisherman, and his son Hoori a magical bow, making him a master hunter. This would set the stage for the two brothers’ famous quarrel. In time, Hoori would act as his father’s heir, taking over as head of the Imperial family; his grandson would be the Emperor Jimmu (771–585 BCE).
Finally, after a time, he died and was buried at E no Goriyo. In doing so, he had established a line that would last the ages: the Japanese Imperial Family.
Ninigi’s tale of divine descent and resulting mortality is not dissimilar to the Abrahamic tale of Satan’s descent from Heaven or the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, both those stories involve the concept of sin, which doesn’t exist in the Japanese Shinto religion. And because Ninigi came down to Earth not as a punishment (like Satan) but rather on a mission to help people, he might be better compared to the Greek Prometheus, who is also credited with starting civilization, although through the gift of fire rather than rice.
The physical qualities and character attributes ascribed to Ninigi involve a mixture of immortal-style feats and mortal qualities such as eventual death (often after over a hundred years of reigning), which is similar to the early divine emperors of the pre-dynastic period in China.
Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
The Nihon Shoki Wiki. Accessed September 18, 2019. http://nihonshoki.wikidot.com/.
Ono, Sokyo. Shinto: The Kami Way. Translated by William Woodard. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1962.