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Kami (神?) is the Japanese word for the spirits, natural forces, or essence in the Shinto faith. 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). Kami's wide variety of usage can be compared to the Sanskrit Deva and the Hebrew Elohim, which also refer to God, gods, angels and spirits. In some instances, such as Izanagi-no-Mikoto and Izanami-no-Mikoto, kami are personified deities, similar to the gods of ancient Greece or Rome. In other cases, such as those concerning the phenomenon of natural emanation, 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 or spirit.
Kami may, at its root, simply mean "spirit", or an aspect of spirituality. It is written with the kanji "神", 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 singular concept is needed, "-kami" (神?) or "-kamisama" (神様?) is used as a suffix. It is often said jokingly that there are "eight million kami" (八百万の神 happyakuman no kami?) in Japan. This is because "八百万" can be read in two different ways, often meaning "countless" (八百万 ya-o-yorozu?) instead.
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.
Kami are the central objects of worship for the Shinto faith. Shinto began as the various ancient animistic traditional spirituality of Japan, and only became an institutionalized spirituality much later as a result of efforts to separate out influences of other religions brought into Japan from abroad. 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 all 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 in that Shinto has been formalized as 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 Omikami, 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.
Traditionally, kami possess two souls, one gentle (nigi-mitama) and the other assertive (ara-mitama). This 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) have been built in their honour. 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.
Ceremonies are long and complex. 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 kimono. 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.
- Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess
- Hachiman, the god of war
- Sarutahiko Okami, kami of earth
- Tsukuyomi, the moon god
- Susanoo-no-mikoto, the sea and storms god
- Inari Okami, god of foxes
- Kotoamatsukami, the primary kami trinity
- Izanagi-no-Mikoto, the first man
- Izanami-no-Mikoto, the first woman
- Omoikane, the deity of wisdom
- Genius loci and Numen, similar concepts of ancient Rome.
- List of Shinto kami
- Religions of Japan
- Chamberlain, Basil H., tr. 1919. The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters. Asiatic Society of Japan.
- Clarke, Roger. 2000. "What are the little monsters up to?". The Independent 7 April 2000.
- Ono, Sokyo. 2003. Shinto: The Kami Way, Tuttle Publishing.
- Fisher, Mary P., 2008. Living Religions seventh Edition.