Understanding Shinto Kami

A while back, I posted a brief introduction to Japanese Shinto religion, which turned out O.K., but I wasn’t content with the writing. I feel I relied too much on personal teachings from specific Shinto priests (or kannushi), and lacked enough over-arching information. Recently, while on a family weekend trip to London,1 I spent some time at the Japan Centre near Picadilly Circus where we enjoyed some Japanese food we missed a lot. I also picked up some good Japanese books including an overview of Shinto religion by Ian Reader.2

Normally I would be leery of any book promising a “simple” overview of something complex like religion, but I feel that Ian Reader’s overview is well-researched and well-expounded. I have already finished half of the book and greatly impressed. It also made me rethink some things stated in the previous post which I wanted to touch on again here, and in posts to come later. In particular, I wanted to touch on the nature of Shinto Kami, which is the basis for Shintoism.

Kami usually is translated as the “gods” of Shintoism, and in some cases they do resemble gods in the mythical sense, like the ancient Greek pantheon. The book lists the most well-known:

  • Amaterasu – Goddess of the sun and associated with the Imperial family, who traditionally claims descent from this Kami.
  • Hachiman – God of war, originally thought to have derived from the legendary Emperor Ōjin. Absorbed by Buddhism in medieval times as a bodhisattva (frequent references in the Tales of the Heike, for example).
  • Ebisu – A Kami associated with small business and commerce. Particularly popular in the Osaka area.
  • Inari – Kami of rice and harvest originally, but grew in popularity as a guardian of Buddhism and separately of business. The famous Shiseido cosmetic company has a shrine devoted to Inari on top of its headquarters called Seidō Shrine.
  • Benten or Benzaiten – Kami associated with music and the arts. Originally thought to be imported from India, as the goddess Saraswati. More on that later.
  • Tenjin – Kami of education. Originally a famous Heian Period nobleman named Sugawara no Michizane, who was wrongfully slandered and whose death was thought to have triggered natural disasters at the time. Worshiped as a Kami to placate his restless spirit, as well as for his excellent poetry and writings.
  • Konpira – Kami associated with seafaring, and with sea commerce. A popular patron for sailors, fishermen and other such groups.
  • Susanoo – Amaterasu’s brother, and Kami of wind. While legendary as a trouble-maker, he is also revered for protection against natural forces such as typhoons.
  • Izanami and Izanagi – The original female and male pair of Kami believed to have created Japan according to traditional myth.

However, as stated in the previous post mentioned above, many other kami derive from other forms such as spirits of people who made great accomplishments, forces of nature, or even just spiritual forces. In this sense, Shinto truly is an animistic religion, as the Mr. Reader states. He also quotes an excellent definition of kami from a famous scholar from the Edo Period named Motoori Norinaga:

…it is not only the divinities of Japanese sacred texts and myths that are considered as kami, for anything — humans, animals, trees, plants, rocks, mountains, seas — which appears impressive, inspires a sense of awe, or exhibits a life-force, may be a kami.

This helps to emphasize the fact that Kami are not so much a set pantheon of gods in a certain hierarchy, but rather that they exist in a near-infinite variety that embody many aspects of life. Many Kami are very local to a given region, and myths of their origin grow over time as worship around the Kami develops over generations after some miraculous event or discovery. Also, as in the case of Benzaiten above, there’s plenty of elements in Shinto that are borrowed from foreign sources, including Taoism, Confucianism and Indian sources, so the notion of Shinto as a strictly native religion is somewhat misleading.3 The book then explains that despite the great variety of Kami, there are certain overarching themes that give Shinto a sense of consistency.

First, Kami are believed to have very human-like qualities and must be appeased and placated, or they may cause trouble. This is reinforced by carefully followed rituals where a Kami is honored, and whose assistance is called for. Or, one expresses gratitude to the Kami for their protection, thereby showing humility and appreciation. In order to avoid offending a Kami, the ritual must be carried out correctly, and by someone who is considered ritually pure, otherwise the Kami may ignore them, or cause problems instead. This is explained in Shinto mythology, which is the subject of another post. The notion of ritual purity means that one has avoided certain taboos and pollutions such as death or other traumas, while living a balanced and spiritual life.

Second, because Kami embody so many things in nature, Shinto tends to be associated with a reverence with Nature, though Mr. Reader points out somewhat cynically that this hasn’t exactly translated into a respect for the Environment in modern life.

So, that’s a look at Shinto Kami. In a later post, I’ll talk more about the myths behind these Kami, and how they carry certain meanings that underscore what Shinto is all about.

P.S. Despite the date of the post, I didn’t feel like mentioning that one day about 8 years ago. There’s enough posts on the Internet discussing it, and one more isn’t going to help, nor do I feel I can add anything useful to the discussion. :)

1 More on that in another post. Traveler’s tip: forget taxis, get an Oyster card and ride the Underground. You’ll save tons of money and time, but don’t even try to bring a baby stroller.

2 I also highly recommend the Japan Centre for its excellent selection of JLPT related texts, which you can also order online. I couldn’t buy anything at the time, but got to read through some choices I’ll get when I start the JLPT2 next year. :)

3 Much to the chagrin of nationalists past and present who contend Shinto is the true heart of Japanese religion.

One thought on “Understanding Shinto Kami

  1. Interesting and informative post. i have heard much about the Kami of shinto faith, yet I am not certain why it is perceived as so complex. maybe it is for those who are in the West, since it is predominately Christion, the pantheon is somewhat simple in comparison to Eastern thought.

    The Kami are intricate energies with specific attributes that can affect the outcome of an event or experience. if one tries to define what the Kami are by using Western precepts, they not only offend the deities, but have devalued such a great heritage.

    Nice work!

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