Thursday, January 24, 2013


From Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion

The natural and probably the first question to a believer of any faith is, "What do you believe in?" While the answer is always more complex than the question, the obvious place to start is with the deity. "I believe in God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son..." As one who grew up Roman Catholic, these opening words of the Apostles Creed are etched in my memory, though I have long since moved away from the religion of my ancestors. As those familiar with the teachings know the full text defines a tripartite division of what is essentially one God, into Father, Son and Holy Spirit. While it still leaves much to the imagination and individual interpretation, it is nevertheless a rather succinct summing up of the main deity of the religion. No such summation exists in Shinto.

Instead, the closest thing we have is the concept of Yaoyorozu no kami (yasoyorotsu no kami), a term found in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki using the Japanese characters to mean either "eight million" or  "eighty" but actually meaning a "myriad" or "infinite" number. In other words (and meaning no disrespect), it might be said that in Shinto we have a religion that believes in just about everything. Of course when it comes to named kami, the number is somewhat less than infinite. However if one includes the un-named kami, which are very similar to the idea of souls or what is called tama in Japanese, most certainly infinite is an apt description. Nevertheless, it is somewhat unsatisfying as the basis for further understanding. I believe is a bit easier to understand examples of kami in some form of classification. Many have done this in the past and I now join their ranks. As for what others have done, I offer the following. For example, one of the most authoritative sources of information on Shinto in English, is Kokugakuin's "Encyclopedia of Shinto" at

This fine attempt to classify kami is first divided into "Concepts of Kami" which is a list of general types. Here we find some obscure divisions such as banshin meaning kami that originally came from other countries. First used to describe Korean and Chinese deities, it is now all but unused as a definition. We also find gunshin as a general group of kami venerated for their warlike characteristics. The next group is classified as "Kami in Classic Texts" and this would include primarily kami from the Kojiki and Nihon shoki but also texts such as the kogoshui. It does not, however, name the more than three thousand kami mentioned in the engishiki. The next group is "Combinatory Kami" such as Zao Gongen and Gozu Tenno which originated in Hinduism or Buddhism and were identified or combined with Japanese kami. It is a curiously short list and does not include the Shichifukujin, some of whose members are also combinatory. It also begs the question are these not also banshin? The final classification is "Kami in Folk Religion" where the Shichifukujin are included individually and as a group, along with dosojin (a group of "kami of the roads") and ujigami, which are clan, family or ancestral kami. Though this is certainly a detailed list, I must admit to feeling it only confuses the non-expert.

A simpler list, and one more akin to the one I offer, can be found in "Essentials of Shinto" by Stuart D.B. Picken. Dr. Picken has written extensively on Shinto and this excellent book gives a good overview of Shinto. He offers two very broad classifications of kami: those named in the mythology and those not. Under named kami he begins with kami of heaven (amatsu kami) and kami of earth (kunutsu kami) which are definitions found in the classics. Examples of amatsu kami are the first seven generations of kami, Izanagi and Izanami, and Ameterasu omikami. Earthly kami would be Saurahiko no mikoto and his wife Ame uzume no mikoto, Yatagarasu, and others. Again, this separation is only applied to a very small number of kami and the designation is often unclear. In addition, he includes the kami of the the so-called "twenty-two important shrines" (nijunisha) which includes the kami of Isonokami, Tatsuya and Sumiyoshi. Again, I find this lacking in distinction since the twenty-two shrines also include Hachiman, a kami that is not part of the original mythology and is clearly a combinatory kami, as well as being included in the next group. The next group, those not named in the mythology, is perhaps even more confusing because of the brevity of each classification and the "fuzziness" of some of the designations. Here is the list:

Kami Associated with Natural Phenomena
Kami Derived from Historical Personalities
Kami Traceable to Political Origins
Kami Associated with Economic Origins

Again, while extensive (he devotes more than thirty pages), I find too much generality and too much overlap to make the list easy to grasp.

Others make no attempt at classification and offer only a general concept while naming a few of the major (in terms of number of shrines) kami such as Hachiman and Tenman. My own logical and analytical side finds all these approaches unsatisfactory and so I have offered an alternative which will be serialized here and on John Dougill's blog Green Shinto I certainly do not try naming as many names as Kokugaguin and take an approach closer to Dr. Picken (a happy coincidence) but try to keep each group as simple, comprehensible and succinct as possible. I hope most people will find it easier to understand.

Here is Part 1 of What are kami? from Shinto Shrines: A Guide to the Sacred Sites of Japan's Ancient Religion

Kannushi at Fushimi Inari Jinja
(photo by Joseph Cali)
Broad definition of Shinto
If there is one single, broad definition of Shinto, it would probably be “Shinto is a belief in kami.” Shinto is considered a “natural” as opposed to a revealed religion. It has no founder and no prophets. It has morality tales and myths that have been preserved in writings and influence its practices, but there is no doctrine such as the “Ten Commandments” that dictates the correct way to live as mandated by God. It is a belief system that developed over thousands of years at different locations within Japan, and is centered on local as opposed to universal beliefs. Nature is its primary source of inspiration and it has incorporated a number of elements from Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Chinese divination (called onmyodo in Japanese), and from different parts of Asia. Over the centuries many of the ancient, local beliefs were formalized and nationalized by the ruling and priestly classes. This included giving names to nameless kami and creating shrine buildings. Finally, a radical restructuring and standardization took place between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries that is reflected in the Shinto we now find in most shrines.

What are kami ?
As mentioned above, Shinto can be defined as a belief in kami, which is usually translated as “god,” “deity,” or “spirit” (Japanese makes no distinction between singular and plural). Kami are not like the God of monotheistic religions or even like the Buddha. Although Shinto in the eighteenth century saw new sects emerge based on the concept of a singular creator divinity, they never held sway. Shinto is not only a polytheistic, but also a pantheistic faith, meaning that kami manifest in everything. It is also considered animistic, because its gods are in the forces and manifestations of nature. The kami make themselves “present” in living beings, in the dead, in organic and inorganic matter, and in actions beyond the control of man such as earthquakes, storms, droughts, and plagues. The concept of kami also includes great people who are venerated as kami after they die and who are worshipped by subsequent generations as protectors or ancestor kami. This is somewhat akin to the Christian concept of sainthood—though people enshrined as kami were more often agents of power rather than of good works. There are times too, as in the case of the emperor, where a living person can be venerated as a kami.
    Like the gods of Mount Olympus, kami perform both good and bad deeds, causing both bountiful harvests and disasters (though preventing the latter is de-emphasized in modern-day Shinto it was once the prime motivation of kami ritual). To gain the blessings and avoid the destructive actions of kami, offerings and prayers are directed to them on a regular basis. Such offerings traditionally consisted of cloth, food, swords, horses, and other valuable objects. These days offerings by priests are primarily food and drink, or sprigs of the sacred sakaki tree, while those from worshippers are usually monetary. From the eighth century, kami were given official ranks that could be raised as a reward for good behavior. In this and other ways, kami came to be treated as if human, with similar emotions, needs, and desires. On the other hand, they were rarely portrayed in art in an anthropomorphic way, except under the influence of Buddhism. There is, however, one category of imported kami for whom visual representation is common: the shichifukujin discussed below (Part 2).

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