Bellybutton folklore from Japan and where they came from

Every child in Japan has at some point or other, when exposing his (or her) belly button, heard an adult tell (him or her) half-jokingly, that Kaminari-sama, the thunder god would get him (or her).

Schools today still sometimes send letters home with instructions to kids telling them to “Cover your tummy while sleeping.” Grandmothers will tell the little kids to cover up too. Mothers make sure their little ones are nice and toasty wrapped around by tummy girdle-warmers called haramaki that are readily stocked and sold in Japanese department stores especially in the winter.

Thus, it seems likely that the Thundergod-will-eat-the-bellybutton-of-kids folktale may well have been been the result of a merging of superstitious folklore and traditional Taoist-based medicinal (known as TCM today) views of physiological conditions of stomach colds and cramps that East Asians appear to uniquely susceptible to(Chinese – see “Guard against stomach problems in the cold” and Japanese – The Haramaki: It’s a scarf for your midriff).

In the search for the provenance of the navel-eating or omphalophagic stories, we turn to look at the details of the stories of Raijin and Raiju and to examine their characteristics.

The etymology of Raijin

Raijin’s name is derived from the Japanese words rai (rendered in Chinese character雷, “thunder”) and “god” or “kami“(神 shin).

According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto, “Ancient texts associate the raijin‘s appearance with serpents or a small child, but from around the Kamakura period, pictures and sculptures of raijin portrayed a demonic form holding a whip and surrounded by a ring of linked drum.”
As depicted below, thundergods evolved their identity over time, with Raijin later becoming typically depicted as a fiercesome-looking demon-spirit that beats on drums to create thunder. Popular iconography usually includes drums that have the tomoe symbol engraved or painted on them.
This appears to have been a combination of Central Asian steppeland and Silk Route influences as well as continental Chinese influence from the Tang dynasty onwards. According to Chinese sources, the Thundergod along with the wind deity are demons conquered by Buddha.
According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto‘s entry on “Raijin”, Raijin had for the Japanese, a calamitous character and death or underworld associations:
“… raijin also possessed characteristics as a violent kami of disaster with terrifying power. In some areas, the sound of thunder during rice transplanting season would prompt the performance of a kandachioi, a rite involving the striking of split bamboo or affixing scythe blades to the end of bamboos as a symbolic exorcism of the raijin. Many areas similarly perform special conjuries to protect against disasters from lightning. The nature of raijin as a kami of calamity can be ascertained from scattered passages of the Kojiki describing Izanagi’s trip to the underworld (Yomotsukuni), but the most important historical source leading to its emphasis was the Heian-period association of raijin with the cult of goryō, vengeful spirits of the dead. With the addition of beliefs regarding goryō, the simple cult of raijin found among the residents of Kyoto evolved into a belief that lightning strikes represented the manifestation of the goryō‘s curse. Further, when this belief was associated with the vengeful spirit of the wrongfully accused courtier Sugawara no Michizane, it resulted in the emergence of a cult to the kami Karai Tenjin (“fire-and-thunder-heavenly-kami“), and raijin came to be widely worshiped as one figure within the cult of “heavenly kami” (tenjin).”
“Thunder kami.” In ancient times, thunder and lightning were considered atmospheric expressions of the violent behavior of a thunder kami, and lightening striking earth was interpreted as the kami‘s temporal manifestation. The term for thunder, kaminari can be read to mean kami“sounding” (nari), while lightning strikes are sometimes called kandachi, a word meaning “kami standing.”…
At the same time, the raijin also possessed characteristics as a violent kami of disaster with terrifying power. In some areas, the sound of thunder during rice transplanting season would prompt the performance of a kandachioi, a rite involving the striking of split bamboo or affixing scythe blades to the end of bamboos as a symbolic exorcism of theraijin. Many areas similarly perform special conjuries to protect against disasters from lightning.
The nature of raijin as a kami of calamity can be ascertained from scattered passages of the Kojiki describing Izanagi’s trip to the underworld (Yomotsukuni), but the most important historical source leading to its emphasis was the Heian-period association of raijin with the cult of goryō, vengeful spirits of the dead. With the addition of beliefs regarding goryō, the simple cult of raijin found among the residents of Kyoto evolved into a belief that lightning strikes represented the manifestation of the goryō‘s curse. Further, when this belief was associated with the vengeful spirit of the wrongfully accused courtier Sugawara no Michizane, it resulted in the emergence of a cult to the kami Karai Tenjin (“fire-and-thunder-heavenly-kami“), and raijin came to be widely worshiped as one figure within the cult of “heavenly kami” (tenjin)

According to Kojiki, eight kinds of Raijin(Yakusa no ikazuchi no kami) were born from Izanami.

Etymology: Yakusa no ikazuchi no kamiYakusa (八, eight) and ikazuchi (雷, thunder) and kami (神, spirit or deity)

Izanagi and the Izanami are the primordial pair or cosmic couple involved in the myth of the creation of the Japanese islands. Suffering mortal injury from giving birth to the fire kami Kagutsuchi, Izanami died and went to the underworld, where she was followed by her consort Izanagi. Disobeying Izanami’s warning not to look upon her, Izanagi lit a torch and saw her rotting body swollen and covered with maggots, and inhabited by the “eight thunder kami.” The “eight kinds of thunder kami” that festered inside Izanami’s corpse witnessed by Izanagi while in the underworld of Yomi.

The strong associations of the Thunder deity with rice agriculture have also been noted by scholars. According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto,

” For farmers, the raijin was viewed as a tutelary of agriculture, one linked to the appearance of rain. The close relationship between farming and the raijin is also illustrated by the fact that terms for lightning, inazuma and inabikari, include the element ina, a word referring to rice stalks. Other evidences of raijin‘s character as a kami of farming and water include the belief that lightning was responsible for fertilizing the rice plant, the belief that a bountiful harvest would be assured if fresh-cut bamboo and taboo ropes (shimenawa ) were erected at the site of a lightning strike in a farm field, and the practice of holding rain invocations (amagoi) at shrines dedicated to the raijin.”

At a talk “Lightning as an Object of Adoration and Fear in Japan”, by Hans-Joachim Knaup (Keio University, Yokohama):

“The Japanese word for thunder, lightning, and thunderstorms is kaminari, which literally means “rumbling of the gods”. Thunder and lightning were regarded as a manifestation of divine power.
There have always been many ties between lightning and rice cultivation in Japan. Frequent lightning strikes during a particular year were thought to portend a good harvest, and in a ceremony seen throughout Japan, people used to place green bamboo stalks around fields that were struck by lightning, marking them as chosen targets of heavenly power. In rural areas, the last lightning-strike of the year was considered to indicate a particularly auspicious direction, a belief that has survived into modern times.
On the other hand, lightning posed threats of disaster and death, and people had to be careful to stay out of the way. Thus in Japan we find many kinds of kaminari-yoke, charms used to avoid confrontation with thunderbolt-wielding deities.
In Ibaraki, a prefecture north of Tokyo, people used specially made bamboo instruments that produced frightening sounds when waved to keep rice seedlings safe from lightning. This kind of magic, which was common throughout Japan, is called kandachioi, which means “escorting the heavenly power to another place”. In the mountainous prefecture of Wakayama, peasants used to grow a plant called benkeikusa or kaminarikusa (thunder-grass) which was believed to protect wide areas from lightning. …Protection was also sought from incantations such as kuwabara-kuwabara, which was believed powerful enough to keep whole areas free of thunderstorms and lightning strikes, and is still heard today…”

Why is Raijin  attracted to navels?

While it is said that Kaminari-sama would seek out little children’s bellybuttons or navels, in recorded folklore, it was actually Raiju, the thunder beast that accompanies Raijin, that actually seeks out human navels, and that likes to nestle there to sleep.

Raijū (雷獣,”thunder animal” or “thunder beast”) is a Japanese mythical creature, whose body commonly seen in the form of a white and blue wolf (or even a wolf wrapped in lightning). It is also thought to be a shapeshifter, that can take varied forms of a cat, fox, monkey, weasel, as well as the more common form of the wolf. It is said to have a nervous constituency and while generally harmless on normal days, during a thunderstorm it is apt to fly about as a ball of lightning becomes agitated and leaps about in trees, fields. Trees that have been struck by lightning are said to have been scratched by Raiju’s claws. Its cry is said to sound like thunder. (Source: Raijū)

A Central Asian -Silk Road origin of the Raijin thundergod is almost certain. The oldest Raijin iconography is found in the Dunhuang and Kizil caves, usually in a pairing with the wind deity Vasu. 

Earlier Japanese parallels and Rain, Serpent and thunderbolt associations of the Indo-European deities

“The most familiar example of the thundergod is the Greek Zeus, whose resemblance to Hadad was commonly acknowledged by the ancients themselves.  Although the cult of Zeus was subject to profound evolution, often to the extent that his original nature was largely obscured, the portrait of the god offered by our earliest sources is consistent and it conforms to that of an agent of thunder, lightning, wind and rain.  It would also appear likely that the archaic Zeus was a god of war.  Burkert describes the Homeric Zeus as follows:

“Zeus, according to his Homeric epithets, is the cloud gatherer, the dark-clouded, the thunderer on high, and the hurler of thunderbolts; in colloquial speech one can say ‘Zeus is raining’ instead of ‘it is raining’; in Imperial times children were still singing, ‘Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, on the fields of the Athenians�A direct epiphany of Zeus is lightning; wherever it strikes, a sanctuary is set up to Zeus Descending, Kataibates.  It was as a thunderbolt that Zeus laid his fatal embrace on Semele.  The thunderbolt�is the weapon of Zeus which he alone commands; it is irresistible, even gods tremble before it, and enemies of the gods are utterly destroyed when it strikes; in the face of such a manifestation of divine energy, man stands powerless, terrified and yet marveling.”

In ancient Europe the thundergod occupies a prominent place in early pantheons.  The Norse Thor was both thunderer and warrior.  The god’s name, cognate with the OHG Donar and Anglo-Saxon Thunor, derives from proto-Germanic *Thunaraz and signifies “thunder.”  Words formed with the god’s name signified the weapons hurled from heaven.  In Swedish lore, for example, thunderbolts were known as thorvigg or thorkil.

The Finnish god Ukko shares numerous features in common with Thor.  He, too, produces the thunder and lightning while controlling the weather.  The word ukko, like its diminutive ukkonen, came to signify “thunder.”

It has long been recognized that Thor finds a close parallel in the Lithuanian Perkunas/Latvian Perkons, the latter god described as riding across the sky in a fiery chariot.  The parallels between the two thundergods extend to the finest details and confirm their fundamental affinity and likely common ancestry.  Witness the expression “Perkons met savu milnu ‘Perkons throws his mace.”  As Nagy points out, milna ‘mace’ is cognate with Old Norse mjöllnir, the word for Thor’s hammer.  The name of Thor’s mother�Fjörgynn�is also cognate with Perkunas.  And as Thor waged deadly combat with the Midgard serpent so, too, did Perkunas battle the Veles serpent.

The Slavic Perun offers an obvious cognate of Perkunas.  Of the former god, it is known that his name came to signify a thunderbolt: “In Slavic, perunu designates both ‘thunderbolt’ and ‘thunder-god’.”  Russian folklore describes Perun as a great dragon-slayer.

Parjanya, a thundergod of ancient India, offers yet another cognate to the Baltic Perkunas.  The Rig Veda paints a terrifying picture of the god:

“He smites the trees apart, he slays the demons: all life fears him who wields the mighty weapon.”

Parjanya is described as wheeling about in heaven in his chariot, dispensing the fertilizing rains:

“Forth burst the winds, down come the lightning-flashes: the plants shoot up, the realm of light is streaming�Come hither with this thunder while thou pourest the waters down, our heavenly Lord and Father.  Thunder and roar: the germ of life deposit.  Fly round us on thy chariot waterladen.”

Parjanya is elsewhere identified with Indra (8:6:1), the prototypical example of the Indo-European thundergod.  Indeed, the Vedic hymns describing Indra offer the most comprehensive portrait we have of the archaic thundergod.  It is Indra who is said to have created the lightnings of heaven.  The Divine Warrior’s devastating thunderbolt is the subject of countless hymns in the Rig Veda.  The following hymn is typical in this regard:

“I will declare the manly deeds of Indra, the first that he achieved, the Thunder-wielder.  He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft the channels of the mountain torrents.  He slew the Dragon lying on the mountain; his heavenly bolt of thunder Tvastr fashioned.”

This association of the thundergod with the slaying of a giant serpent threatening to destroy the world forms a recurring and apparently universal motif.  The Norse Thor was known as orms einbani, “sole slayer of the serpent.”  The Iroquois thundergod is described as “having slain the great Serpent of the waters, which was devouring mankind.”  The same idea is attested in South America: “Among the Arawak, Uitoto, and some other tribes in various parts of South America, it is said that a host of birds successfully killed the great water snake.”

The dragon combat plays a prominent element in many ancient cosmogonies, as we have elsewhere documented, generally serving as a prelude to Creation.  Indra’s battle with Vritra is a case in point, being central to ancient Indian ideas of cosmogony…” — On Thundergods and Thunderbolts

In the much earlier Yayoi period, the mace and swastika-like emblems were common. While the triple thunderbolt emblems came later.

Association with a weapon for hurling thunderbolts, lightning bolts — such as a mace, hammer or catapult.

“Virtually every culture has preserved memory of a “thundergod,” a towering and tumultuous figure whose modus operandi is the generation of lightning and the hurling of death-dealing thunderbolts from the sky.

Association with serpents

Susanoo is also commonly thought to be a thunder or stormgod due to the multi-headed serpent-slaying stories.

Why navel associations?

The Raiju is known for its peculiar predilection and fondness for sleeping in cleft of a human navel. This prompts Raiden to shoot lightning arrows at Raiju to wake the creature up, which has the unfortunate consequence of harming the person on whose belly the demon is resting. it is said that superstitious people therefore often sleep on their stomachs during bad weather, however, other legends say that Raiju will only hide in the navels of people who sleep outdoors.

The Japanese language word for stomach “hara” possibly has some early Indo-Saka-Iranic connections. Hara-maki means belly-wrap, and there is in the Urals, according to Avesta tradition, a sacred mountain called High Hara or Hara-Berezaiti known to the Indo-Iranians (Scythians), their Navel of the World.

Source readings:

Raijin (Deities Daily)

Raijin (Wikipedia)

Keeping warm in the winter, Japan-style

Zharnikova, S. On the possible location of Holy Hara and Meru mountains in Indo-Iranian (Aryan) mythology

Guard against stomach problems in the cold” ( www.chinaview.cn, Dec  1, 2010

“The doctor told me that I should protect my stomach by keeping it warm,” says Chen.

Generally, the digestive system enters an active stage in winter and that’s why dietary reinforcements are usually more effective than in other seasons, according to Dr Wang Xiaosu, chief physician of the Gastroenterology Department of Yueyang Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

But stomach problems also often occur due to cold air, eating unsafe foods like hot pots, and stimulating spicy foods, she says.

“Though cold air arouses people’s desire to eat more food, it also largely increases gastric acid, which may pose a threat to the gastric mucosa,” says Dr Wang,

“There is a high recurrence of chronic stomach problems like ulcers in the winter and some patients even suffer stomach bleeding.”

In addition, the cold environment may also arouse uncomfortable stomach contractions.

Wearing enough clothes and avoiding cold environments shortly after eating are good strategies for protecting the stomach, especially for people with chronic problems, she says.

“As the stomach is close to the abdominal wall, with little protection from surrounding muscle or fat, pathogenic cold may easily result without proper insulation..”

The Haramaki: It’s a scarf for the midriff (Health-e-helen)

“Japanese medicine has it that if the temperature of the stomach is too cool your system will be out of sync and you’re more likely to get sick – there’s a similar belief in Chinese medicine too. They believe that if your midriff is cold kidney energy will drain from the system – and this not only puts you at risk of urinary health issues, it also lowers energy and vitality. In fact, one of my favourite ever quotes came from an acupuncturist I interviewed on this very subject. She told me  ‘I spend most of January walking round wanting to tell people to cover up or pulling their tops down to cover their kidneys.’”

The Wind deity Vasu that is paired with Raijin (Varu) may have had Middle Eastern or Near Eastern origins – “Both the Assyrians and Babylonians knew the king of the wind demons was Pazuzu.” Vasu – may have been a possible cognate of Pazuzu (source: Top ten demons (Paranormal haze website).

On thundergods and thunderbolts

Taming the Electrical Fire: A Conference on the History and Cultural Meaning of the Lightning Rod (2002) The Bakken Library and Museum, Minneapolis – November 4-6, 2002

2 thoughts on “Bellybutton folklore from Japan and where they came from

  1. Kameko says:

    Amongst some of the funeral memorabilia from my great-great grandfathers death (he was a Buddhist Monk) were packages. The packages had Japanese writing on it and inside is what appears to be the dried-up umbilicus from a newborn…have you ever heard of this practice? What is the symbolism or myth surrounding this?

    • Yes, I have heard of the practice, and Japanese are not the only ones. According to anthropologists, many ancient cultures believed the child when born into this world, was still transitioning from the “other world” and was therefore magical or otherworldly and could still for a time either communicate with the other world or be whisked away, so everything that connected the baby, especially the umbilical cord was also magical or supernatural, as well as symbolic of the World’s umbilical cord connecting one to the Womb of the Underworld, and therefore was given sacred treatment, usually buried in a special place like at the foot of sacred or village totem tree

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