Amaterasu (天照) is the Japanese sun goddess, daughter of creator deities Izanagi and Izanami, and central to the Shintō religion. She is the embodiment of the rising sun and Japan itself, she is the queen of the kami and ruler of the universe. The Japanese Imperial Family claims to have descended from her, and this is what gives them the divine right to rule Japan. She is the center of the Shintō religion, and Japanese spiritual life. Amaterasu can be translated as “Shines from Heaven,” with 天 meaning “heaven” and 照 meaning “shines.”
Amaterasu’s role is that of the sun goddess. She not only serves as the literal rising sun, but also provides nourishment to all living creatures and marks the orderly movement of day into night. In Japan the sun represents order and purity, two of Shintō‘s most important concepts. All things in creation are ordered, from Amaterasu down to the inhabitants of Jigoku and other hells. This order is reflected in Japanese society as well.
The Japanese Imperial family claims descent from Amaterasu, and thus sit at the head of Japanese society. In pre-modern Japan this was one of the many justifications for the society’s caste system. Amaterasu has always been an important, if not the most important kami in spiritual life. After Shintō was formally recognized as a state religion Amaterasu’s role was solidified and the Imperial family set as head of the Japan. Though Shintō as the state religion was abolished after World War II, Amaterasu and the Imperial family remain an important part of Japanese spiritual life.
The imperial regalia of Japan are three holy relics that come directly from Amaterasu. They include:
Yata-no-Kagami , the Eight-Span Mirror, was used to lure Amaterasu from the cave she hid in.
Yasakani-no-Magatama, the Grand Jewel, is a magatama, a curved beaded or jeweled necklace common during the prehistoric Japanese period (prior to the 4th century). It is thought the Grand Jewel was lost during the Genpei War (1180-1185);
Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi , the Grass-Cutting Sword, also known as the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi ), the Heavenly Sword of Gathering Clouds, was once owned by Amaterasu’s brother Susanoo and represented virtue.
The Ise Grand Shrine (known as Jingū) is Japan’s most historically important shrine, but also the official shrine of the Imperial Family. The Ise Grand Shrine houses the Imperial Regalia and was an important site of pilgrimage throughout the Edo Period (1600–1868). There are several sections of the shrine where only priestesses and members of the Imperial Family may pass. As such, the shrine’s chief priest and priestess must be of the Imperial Family line.