A kami (神) is a deity or spirit worshiped in the Shinto religion. Their Chinese equivalent is shen. Kamis are mostly elements of nature, animals, or creative forces of the universe, but can also be spirits of deceased people.
Many kami are considered to be the ancient ancestors of clans, and some of their members who embodied the values and virtues of a kami during their lifetime sometimes became kami themselves after their death.
Traditionally, only great and powerful leaders could become kami, emperors being an example. In Shintoism, kami are not considered to be separate from nature but are instead part of it; thus, they possess both positive and negative aspects, and good and bad characteristics.
In the belief, they are supposed to be a part of nature, but they are not. In the belief, they are supposed to be hidden from our world and live in a parallel space that is a reflection of ours, called shinkai. To be attuned to the awe that aspects of nature can inspire is to be aware of kannagara (随神, the "way of the kami").
Although the world of kami is translated in many ways, no definition really explains what it is. Thus, the ambiguity of the meaning of kami justifies the ambiguous nature of kami itself. Over time, the term kami has expanded to include other deities such as Buddha or God.
In Japanese, the word "kami" first meant "spirit", not "god ". The notion was then broadened to refer more generally to the spirit of a person, God, a supreme being, an effigy, a principle or, more globally, anything that can be worshipped.
Although "god" or "deity" is the most common interpretation of the word kami, some Shinto scholars argue that such a translation can cause misunderstandings. Moreover, the wide variety of uses of the word can be compared to that of the Sanskrit deva or the Hebrew Elohim. Both refer to God, gods in general, angels or spirits.
In some cases, as with Izanagi and Izanami, the kami are personified deities similar to the gods of ancient Greek and Roman mythologies. In others, such as those concerning the phenomenon of natural auras, the kami are tree spirits or forces of nature.
There are several suggestions as to the etymology of the term "kami" itself:
In Japanese, there is no grammatical distinction of number for common nouns, and so it is sometimes difficult to know whether the word kami refers to a single entity or to several entities. When singular usage is required, -kami (神) or -kamisama (神様) are used as suffixes. On the other hand, when one seeks to designate multiple kamis, the term kamigami is used.
Finally, gender is not implied in the word kami either and thus it can be used as a reference for both male and female. The term megami (女神) which refers to female kami is fairly recent.
As the Shinto religion has no founder, no common doctrine and no religious text, the Kojiki (Ancient Chronicles of Japan) written in 712 and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan) dated 720 form together the very first account of Japanese creation myths. The Kojiki also includes descriptions of various kami.
In ancient Shinto traditions, there were five defining characteristics of kami:
The concept of kami is constantly changing, but their presence in Japanese life has remained constant. The very first roles of the kami as spirits connected to the earth were to assist the early hunter-gatherer groups in their daily life. They were then worshipped as gods of the land, mountains and sea.
As rice cultivation became more and more important and predominant in Japan, the vision of the kami gradually changed and they were assigned support roles directly linked to the growth of the crops.
The kami of rain, soil and also rice appeared. This relationship between the early Japanese and the kami was manifested through rituals and ceremonies during which men prayed to the kami to make the land arable and to protect the crops. These rituals also became a symbol of power and strength for the early emperors.
In the Shinto faith, myths are the subject of a strong tradition. In the Kojiki, one of them relates the appearance of Prince Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the solar goddess Amaterasu. In this myth, it is said that when Amaterasu sent her grandson to Earth to rule (an event called tenson kōrin), she gave him five rice seeds from the fields of Paradise: the Takama-ga-hara.
This rice then enabled him to transform the desert that was the Earth. Jinmu, Ninigi's great-grandson, is considered the first (legendary) emperor of Japan.
Social and political conflicts also played a key role in the development of new kinds of kami, especially those called goryo-shin. These are the avenging spirits of the dead who have had their lives brutally taken away.
However, when Shinto followers managed to calm them by using their faith, they became revered beings and were given the role of punishing those who did not honor the kami. This belief continues today. This belief continues to this day.
Like the kami themselves, the pantheon of kami also constantly changes in definition and scope. As the needs of the people have changed throughout history, so too have the fields of action and roles of the various kami.
Many examples are related to the field of health, such as the kami of smallpox, whose role has expanded to include all contagious diseases in general, or the kami of tumors and boils, which today also represents cancer and its various treatments.
Finally, in ancient animistic religions, the kami were simply considered as the divine forces of nature. The faithful of ancient Japan worshipped the elements of nature that exuded a particular beauty and power such as waterfalls, mountains, rocks, animals, trees, herbs or even rice fields. They believed that these kami spirits deserved respect.
Kojiki and Nihon shoki distinguish between two kinds of kami: those who are immortal and those who are buried after their death. The former are the celestial kami (天津神, amatsukami), residing in the Takamagahara; the latter are the home kami (国津神, kunitsukami), present on Earth either before Ninigi's descent or as descendants of kami who descended to Earth.
It all started with the Kotoamatsukami, and then with the founding divine couple, Izanagi and Izanami. Coming from a long line of deities, they came down from the Milky Way to create the islands of Japan. The first island built was Onogoro-Shima where they built their home and got married.
It is also the island where the god Hiruko was born, later called Ebisu, the god of sailors and sinners. Born without bones, he was abandoned by his parents in a basket left to the sea currents. They had many children, all kami: of water, wind, trees, rivers, mountains, etc.
Izanami died giving birth to the god of fire. Izanagi killed this god and joined his wife in the underworld. Izanami, furious, had him chased away: Izanagi only managed to survive by throwing various objects (combs, peaches, large stone) behind him, intended to hinder his pursuers.
The couple, now separated, divided the roles: to her, the power to kill 1,000 human beings every day; to him, the power to give birth to 1,500. It is by purifying herself from her stay in the underworld that Izanagi gave life to other deities, three of them being the main ones: from her left eye appeared Amaterasu, goddess of the sun; from her right eye, Tsukuyomi, god of the moon; from her nose, Susanoo, god of the storm.