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Japanese Gods

Japanese Gods

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.

Japanese Gods Etymology

Japanese Gods

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:

  • kami can, by its root, simply mean "spirit" or denote a spiritual aspect. The word is written with the kanji 神, which is pronounced in Sino-Japanese reading shin or jin. In Chinese, the character is used to qualify the various nature spirits present in the country's traditional religion, not Taoist deities or supreme beings ;
  • an apparently similar form, perhaps a lexical borrowing, is found in the Ainu language in which the term kamuy refers to an animistic concept very similar to that of the Japanese kamis;
  • as a result of the discovery of the Jōdai Tokushu Kanazukai, the archaic use of kanas, it is now known that the medieval term kami (上) meaning "above" or "on top" has no connection with modern kami. Translating it into notions such as "divine beings" is therefore incorrect;
  • Motoori Norinaga, in his study of the Kojiki, Kojiki-den, gives a definition of the term "kami": "Any being who possesses certain outstanding qualities out of the ordinary, or who is awesome in nature, is called Kami.

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.

Japanese Gods History

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:

  1. Kami have divergent personalities. When respected, they can nurture and love, but sometimes cause chaos and destruction if despised. Kamis must be appeased if one is to gain their favor and avoid their wrath. Traditionally, they have two spirits, one calm (Nigi-mitama) and the other confident (Ara-mitama). In addition, in Yamakage Shintoism, kami have two other hidden spirits, one happy (Saki-mitama) and the other mysterious (Kushi-mitama);
  2. The kami are not visible from the human realm. Instead, they inhabit sacred places, live through natural phenomena, or reside in people who ask for their blessing during rituals;
  3. they are able to move around, visit their places of worship, which may be numerous, but never stay there forever;
  4. there are many distinct varieties of kami. The Kojiki lists three hundred in all, and all have different functions. One can thus meet the kami of the winds, as well as the kami of the entrances or of the streets;
  5. finally, all the kami have a different authority or right depending on the people around them. Since the people have the obligation to keep the kami happy, in exchange they have to perform the specific function of the object, place or idea they haunt.

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.

Main kami

  • Izanami, goddess of creation and death
  • Izanagi, god of creation
  • Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun
  • Hachiman, the god of war
  • Kotoamatsukami, the first kami at the time of the creation of the universe
  • Omoikane, the goddess of wisdom
  • Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon
  • Susanoo, the god of the seas and the storm
  • Inari, the god of rice
  • Saruta-hiko, the god of the earth
  • Uzume, the goddess of gaiety
  • Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea and lightning
  • Shinigami, god of death
  • Raiden, god of thunder
  • Fujin, god of wind

Izanagi and Izanami

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.