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This article is part of a series on Shinto
Kami · Polytheism · Animism ·
Matsuri · Ritual purity · Mythology
Notable Kami
Amaterasu · Ame-no-Uzume · Inari ·
Izanagi · Izanami · Susanoo ·
Kotoamatsukami · Tsukuyomi
Kojiki · Fudoki · Rikkokushi ·
Shoku Nihongi · Jinnō Shōtōki
See also
Japan · Japanese Buddhism ·
List of Shinto shrines
Glossary of Shinto

Shinto Portal
 v • d • e 
Amaterasu, one of the central kami in the Shinto faith

Kami ( ?) is the Japanese word for the spirits within objects in the Shinto faith. The oldest surviving record of their creation (and that of Japan as well) is in the Kojiki of 712. Although the word is sometimes translated as "god" or "deity," some Shinto scholars argue that such a translation can cause a misunderstanding of the term (Ono, 1962). In some instances, such as Izanagi and Izanami, kami are personified deities, similar to the gods of ancient Greece or Rome. In other cases, such as those concerning the phenomenon of growth and natural objects, the spirits dwelling in trees, or forces of nature, translating "kami" exclusively as "god" or "deity" would be a gross mischaracterization. In this respect it is more similar to the Roman concept of the numen.

Kami may, at its root, simply mean "spirit", or an aspect of spirituality. It is written with the kanji "", Sino-Japanese reading shin or jin; in Chinese, the character is used to refer to various nature spirits of traditional Chinese religion, but not to the Taoist deities or the Supreme Being. An apparently cognate form, perhaps a loanword, occurs in the Ainu language as kamui and refers to an animistic concept very similar to Japanese kami. Following the discovery of the Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai it is now known that the medieval word kami (上) meaning "above" is a false cognate with the modern kami (神), and the etymology of "heavenly beings" is therefore incorrect. Shinto kami are located within the world and not above it.

Because Japanese does not normally distinguish singular and plural in nouns, it is sometimes unclear whether kami refers to a single or multiple entities. When a plural concept is absolutely necessary, the term "kamigami" (神々 ?) is used. It is often said that there are "eight million kami" (八百万の神 ya-o-yorozu no kami?)—in Japanese the number "eight million" is often used to imply infinity.

Similarly, gender is also not implied in the word kami, which can be used to refer to either male or female kami. The word "megami" (女神 ?), meaning female kami is a relatively recent addition to the language, and is rarely, if ever used in traditional sources.


[edit] Shinto belief and kami

"Kami" are the central objects of worship for the Shinto faith. Shinto began as the various ancient animistic folk religions of Japan, and only became a unified religion much later as a result of efforts to separate out influences of other religions brought into Japan from abroad. Thus, the concept of kami was developed first in various regional folk religions before being unified into the single religion of Shinto. As a result, the nature of what can be called "kami" is very broad and encompasses many different concepts and phenomena.

Some of the objects or phenomena designated as kami are qualities of growth, fertility, and production; natural phenomena like wind and thunder; natural objects like the sun, mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks; some animals; and ancestral spirits. Included within the designation of ancestral spirits are spirits of the ancestors of the Imperial House of Japan, but also ancestors of noble families as well as the spirits of the ancestors of common people.

There are other spirits designated as kami as well. For example, the guardian spirits of the land, occupations, and skills; spirits of Japanese heroes, men of outstanding deeds or virtues, and those who have contributed to civilization, culture and human welfare; those who have died for the state or the community (See: Yasukuni Shrine); and the pitiable dead. Not only spirits superior to man can be considered kami, but also spirits that are considered pitiable or weak have been considered kami in Shinto.

The concept of kami has been changed and refined since ancient times, although anything that was considered to be kami by ancient people will still be considered kami in "modern" Shinto. ("Modern" meaning since it was formalized into a unified religion under the influence of foreign religions like Buddhism.) Even within modern Shinto, there are no clearly defined criteria for what should or should not be worshipped as kami. The difference between modern Shinto and the ancient animistic religions is mainly a refinement of the kami-concept, rather than a difference in definitions.

In the ancient animistic religions, kami were understood as simply the divine forces of nature. Worshippers in ancient Japan revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power such as waterfalls, mountains, boulders, animals, trees, grasses and even rice paddies. They strongly believed the spirits or resident kami deserved respect.

Although the ancient designations are still adhered to, in modern Shinto many priests also consider kami to be anthropomorphic spirits, with nobility and authority. These include such mythological figures as Amaterasu, the sun goddess of the Shinto pantheon. Although these kami can be considered deities, they are not necessarily considered omnipotent or omniscient, and like the Greek Gods, they had flawed personalities and were quite capable of ignoble acts. In the myths of Amaterasu, for example, she could see the events of the human world. She also had to use divination rituals to see the future.

The kami traditionally possessed two souls, one gentle (nigi-mitama) and the other assertive (ara-mitama). This human but powerful form of kami was also divided into amatsu-kami ("the heavenly deities") and kunitsu-kami ("the gods of the earthly realm"). A deity would behave differently according to which soul was in control at a given time. In many ways, this was representative of nature's sudden changes and would explain why there were kami for every meteorological event: snowfall, rain, typhoons, floods, lightning and volcanoes.

The ancestors of a particular family can also be worshipped as kami. In this sense, these kami were worshipped not because of their godly powers, but because of a distinct quality or value. These kami were regional and many shrines (hokora) were built in honour of these kami. In many cases, people who once lived can thus be deified as gods; an example of this is Tenjin, who was Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) in life.

In his 1946 Ningen-sengen radio broadcast, the emperor Hirohito declared that he is not an akitsumikami (manifest kami). However, after this declaration, Hirohito asked for permission from the occupying forces to worship his ancestors, and, upon receiving permission, he worshipped Amaterasu, thus implying that he was of divine descent.

[edit] Ceremonies and festivals

To properly encourage the spirit of the kami to dwell in the holy sanctuary, long and complex ceremonies are needed. In some temples, it takes ten years for the priests to learn them. The priesthood was traditionally hereditary. One temple has drawn its priests from the same four families for over a hundred generations. Not uncommonly, the clergy may be priestesses. The priests may be assisted by miko, young unmarried women dressed in white kimonos. Neither priests nor priestesses live as ascetics; it is common for them to be married, and they are not traditionally expected to meditate. Rather, they are considered specialists in the arts of maintaining the connection between the kami and the people.

[edit] In popular culture

References to specific kami or the general Shinto idea of kami appear in various areas of popular culture, including anime and manga, role-playing games, and literature.

  • The 2006 Capcom game Ōkami, written as 大神 (lit. "great god") on the Japanese game cover, makes a play on words between the word for wolf (狼) and the word Kami, as 大神 and 狼 are pronounced the same way; the pivotal protagonist is a statue of a wolf possessed by Amaterasu. One plays the game as a Kami.
  • In 2005, the anime Kamichu! made its debut, with the main character Yurie Hitotsubashi becoming a god overnight and having to learn not only what kind of god she is, but how to live as one and to grow up as one.
  • In the Supernatural episode "Phantom Traveler", the demon causing plane crashes is likened to a modern disaster kami that has evolved with the times.[citation needed]

[edit] Some notable kami

[edit] See also

[edit] References

[edit] External links

Look up kami, megami in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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