Raijin and Fujin: the Japanese gods of thunder and wind

Raijin and Fujin: the Japanese gods of thunder and wind

Raijin and Fujin: the Japanese gods of thunder and wind 1024 768 Michaël da Silva Paternoster

Raijin and Fujin are among the most feared and respected Japanese deities. These two gods are the masters of lightning and storms, two devastating meteorological phenomena in a country regularly hit by typhoons.

In this article, I’ll introduce you to Raijin, the god of lightning, and then focus on his brother, Fujin, the Windmaster. Finally, I’ll end by explaining how these two deities have, even today, a major role in Japanese culture.

Raijin: the Japanese god of lightning

Raijin, also known as Kaminari-sama and Raiden-sama, is the Japanese god of thunder, light and storms. This is one of the most feared deities of Japanese culture. In Japan, adults often tell children to cover their belly button when a storm approaches, because Raijin could eat it!

He’s often represented with an expression of the face which allows to release all his truculence. Like the Norse god Thor, he’s armed with hammers with which he knocks on drums to create the sound of lightning.

Statue en bois de Raijin se trouvant dans la mission Shingon de Hawaii.
Wooden statue of Raijin found in the Shingon mission of Hawaii. Photo by D100763 under Creative Commons license.

Most of the time, he’s depicted with only three fingers on each hand. Each of the fingers representing the past, the present and the future. He often has red skin, which highlights his demonic character.

In dry seasons, the most faithful farmers pray to Raijin for rain and thunder. In addition to rains, thunder has a reputation for helping fertilize rice in Japan. The custom says that a field that has been struck by a lightning will offer a good harvest.

Raijin’s origins

Like many other gods of Japanese mythology, Raijin is the son of the gods Izanagi and Izanami. He’s the brother of other important Japanese deities, including Amaterasu and Susanoo. It’s also the birth of his older brother, Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, which will cause the death of his mother.

Raijin was born from Izanami’s burnt corpse, when she was in the underworld, just after the creation of Japan. Later, his mother would have asked him to bring back Izanagi, his father, to the underworld after he abandoned her when he saw her dead body.

Another legend says that a man named Sugaru captured Raijin at the Emperor’s request to stop the storms. This heroic achievement would have been accomplished with the help of the deity Kannon.

Fujin: the Japanese god of the wind

Fujin, also named Futen, is the Japanese god of the wind. He’s often depicted with a bag containing the squalls he distributes. His bestial character is transcribed by his outfit, which is made of a leopard skin, and his ruffled look, caused by the gusts he lets out of his big pouch.

Statue de Fujin dans le temple Taiyu-in Reibyo, à Nikko.
Fujin statue in Taiyu-in Reibyo temple, Nikko. Photo by Fg2 in the public domain.

Unlike Raijin, Fujin has four fingers on each hand. Each of them represents a cardinal point.

The divine guard of Japan

This god is very important for the Japanese who fear him especially for the typhoons he produces. But, Fujin isn’t only a threatening god, since he’s also seen as a savior by the Japanese people.

In 1274 and 1281, he allegedly protected Japan from Mongol invasions by directly taking part in the conflict. Indeed, the fleet of the largest empire in History was struck twice by storms at sea, while it tried to put a foot on the Japanese archipelago to subdue it.

This divine intervention is called “Kamikaze”, the divine wind, by the locals. You read correctly. It was this event that gave the name to the suicide attacks committed by the Japanese special forces during the Second World War. This term has remained in the current language to describe similar sacrifices.

A deity who has traveled!

Despite the fact that his image is regularly used by Japanese nationalist movements, the god Fujin would find his origins in regions very distant from Japan. This deity would have appeared in the cities of Central Asia which were important stages on the Silk Road.

Gravure d'une statue athénienne du dieu Boréas.

Engraving of an Athenian statue of Boreas made in the eighteenth century by the James Stuart and Nicholas Revett.

He’s, in fact, a reinterpretation of Boreas, the Greek god of the North wind. The belief in this god would have been imported by the Macedonian troops of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, along with many other Greek traditions. Indeed, this period of Macedonian hegemony allowed the Greek culture to spread in the East. These Western influences completely changed Buddhist art, to the point where many statues of the Buddha take on Apollo’s characteristics.

Boreas wouldn’t have stopped in the arid plains of Central Asia, and would have continued his way to the East, under the name Wardo, thanks to his integration into the Greco-Buddhist art. After passing through China and then Korea, Wardo arrived in Japan at the same time as Buddhism, around the sixth century.

Raijin and Fujin in Japanese culture

Despite their rivalry for control of the sky, Raijin and Fujin are often represented together in Japanese traditional arts. This has given many masterpieces that you can still observe during a trip to Japan.

The guardians of Sensoji Temple in Tokyo

La porte Hozomon, à Senso-ji, Tokyo
Hozomon Gate, Sensoji, Tokyo. Photo by Michael da Silva Paternoster for Nipponrama.

Although they’re feared for their temper, both gods are often seen as protectors. That’s why they are the guardians of many places of worship in Japan. The best-known example is Sensoji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood. Indeed, their two gigantic statues guard the oldest temple of the Japanese capital city from its gateway, the famous Kaminarimon.

Fujin-Raijin-zu by Tawaraya Sotatsu

Fujin-Raijin-zu par Tawaraya Sotatsu. Oeuvre exposée au Musée National de Kyoto.
Copy of Fujin-Raijin-zu made by Kogata Ogata. Work exhibited at the National Museum of Tokyo.

One of the best known representations of the two gods of the sky are golden panels made by the artist Tawaraya Sotatsu. This fabulous 17th century work is now on display at the Kyoto National Museum with other items from the same period.

These gilded panels are known for the arrangement of the scene they depict. Indeed, Fujin and Raijin are at both ends of the work, which retranscribe the tension between these two brothers. The empty space between emphasizes their rivalry.

A copy made by Kosuke Ogata is on display at the Tokyo National Museum. So you know where to go if you don’t have the chance to visit Kyoto during your stay in Japan.

In the pop culture

Popular works of the 20th and 21st centuries inspired by Raijin and Fujin number in the hundreds. It’s impossible to mention them all in this article. So I’ll focus on two very popular examples in the West, to show you how important these two gods are Japanese pop culture.

Among the hundreds of Pokémon, there are two monsters that are inspired by Fujin and Raijin: Tornadus and Thundurus are flying and electric-types Pokémons. They form a trio of legendary monsters with Landorus.

Naruto manga is another good example. In a way, it takes up again this myth of fraternal confrontation between the gods of wind and lightning. Even though the two main protagonists of this shonen are not brothers, they are interrelated and spend most of their time fighting each other. This inspiration becomes obvious when the reader realizes that Naruto controls the winds and Sasuke manipulates the lightning.

In short, Fujin and Raijin are deities apart. These two brothers represent more than the climatic tumults in the eyes of the Japanese. Although they don’t have a role as important as Amaterasu, goddess of the Sun in Shintoism, they’re respected figures to the point where they inspire many fictions.

Michaël da Silva Paternoster

I’m a French guy living in Tokyo, where I work as a digital marketing manager and consultant for several years now. I’ve decided to share my travel recommendations and various tips to help people settle in Japan.

All stories by : Michaël da Silva Paternoster