All about Kawa-no-Kami: Japanese Mythology River God

God of rivers. Larger rivers have their own gods, but all waterways are under Kawa-no-kami’s authority. When rivers flooded in archaic times, the gods were sometimes appeased with human sacrifices. The introduction of Buddhism meant the end of this practice. Instead, dolls made of straw or flowers were substituted and offered to the Kawa-no-kami. This custom is still extant today in some areas of Japan.

Kawa-no-Kami: Japanese Mythology River God
Kawa-no-Kami overseeing two merchants travelling a river

A generic name for kami of rivers and streams. The lineage of this kami is not described in the classics. Nihongi‘s record of Emperor Nintoku’s reign contains an anecdote regarding the offering of human sacrifices (hitobashira) to the river deity called “Lord of the River” (Jp. kahaku; Ch. Hebo) at the occasion of constructing a riverbank, and Nihongi’s record of Empress Kōgyoku likewise notes that during a great drought, prayers were offered without effect to the “Lord of the River.” The Man’yōshū includes poems indicating that the river kami serves the emperor, and numerous records from the Nara period reflect the offering of prayers to the kami of famous mountains and great rivers.

Stories of Kawa-no-Kami

Nihonji, Book XII, 281

In order to prevent the overflowing of the Northern river the Mamuta embankment was constructed. At this time there were two parts of the construction which gave way and could not be stopped up. Then the Emperor had a dream in which he was admonished by a God, saying:

“There is a man of Musashi named Koha-kubi and a man of Kahachi named Koromo no ko, the Muraji of Mamuta. Let these two men be sacrificed to the River-God, and thou wilt surely be enabled to close the gaps.”

So he sought for these two men, and having found them, sacrificed them to the River-God. Hereupon Koha-kubi wept and lamented, and plunging into the water, died. So that embankment was completed. Koromo no ko, however, took two whole calabashes, and standing over the water which could not be dammed, plunged the two calabashes into the mid-stream and prayed, saying:

“O thou River-God, who hast sent the curse (to remove which) I have now come hither as a sacrifice. If thou dost persist in thy desire to have me, sink these calabashes and let them not rise to the surface. Then shall I know that thou art a true God, and will enter the water of my own accord. But if thou canst not sink the calabashes, I shall, of course, know that thou art a false God, for whom, why should I spend my life in vain?”

Hereupon a whirlwind arose suddenly which drew with it the calabashes and tried to submerge them in the water. But the calabashes, dancing on the waves, would not sink, and floated far away over the wide waters. In this way that embankment was completed, although Koromo no ko did not die.

Man’yōshū, 79-80

Endless as the smooth rocks lie In the rapids of Yoshinu,
That never tire my eyes,
Will I come and gaze upon the palace.
Our great Sovereign, a goddess,
Of her sacred will 
Has reared a towering palace 
On Yoshinu’s shore,
Encircled by its rapids ;
And, climbing, she surveys the land.
The overlapping mountains,
Rising like green walls,
Offer the blossoms in spring,
And with autumn, show their tinted leaves,
As godly tributes to the Throne.
The god of the Yu River, to provide the royal table, 
Holds the cormorant-fishing 
In its upper shallows,
And sinks the fishing-nets
In the lower stream.
Thus the mountains and the river Serve our Sovereign, one in will ;
It is truly the reign of a divinity
Atlas Mythica
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