This article is part of a series on Shinto
Practices and beliefs
Kami · Ritual purity · Polytheism · Animism · Japanese festivals · Mythology ·
Shinto shrines
List of Shinto shrines · Twenty-Two Shrines · Modern system of ranked Shinto Shrines · Association of Shinto Shrines
Notable Kami
Amaterasu · Sarutahiko · Ame no Uzume · Inari · Izanagi · Izanami · Susanoo · Tsukuyomi
Important literature
Kojiki · Nihon Shoki · Fudoki · Rikkokushi · Shoku Nihongi · Jinnō Shōtōki · Kujiki
See also
Religion in Japan · Glossary of Shinto · List of Shinto divinities · Sacred objects · Japanese Buddhism · Mythical creatures

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Amaterasu, one of the central kami in the Shinto faith

Kami (?) 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.[1] The wide variety of usage of the word can be compared to the Sanskrit Deva and the Hebrew Elohim, which also refer to God, gods, angels or 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, kami are the spirits dwelling in trees, or forces of nature.

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 kamuy 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. In fact, traditionally human beings like the Emperor could be kami.[2] No need was felt to locate them beyond this world. In his Kojiki-den, Motoori Norinaga gave a definition of kami:

"[A kami is] any thing or phenomenon that produces the emotions of fear and awe, with no distinction between good and evil."[2]

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" (?) or "-kamisama" (神様?) is used as a suffix. It is often said that there are ya-o-yorozu no kami (八百万の神?, countless kami) in Japan. ("八百万" literally means eight million, however that is a sign of "countless" instead of "eight million" because the number eight often signifies large quantities in Japanese culture.)

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.


Shinto belief

Kami are the central objects of worship for the Shinto faith. Modern Shinto began as the various ancient animistic traditional spirituality of Japan, which 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 general 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;[3] 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. 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, but 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 worshiped as kami. In this sense, these kami were worshiped not because of their godly powers, but because of a distinct quality or value. These kami are 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. Within Shinto, it is believed that the nature of life is sacred because the kami began human life. Yet, man cannot perceive this divine nature, which the kami created, on his own; therefore, magokoro, or purification, is necessary in order to see the divine nature.[4] This purification can only be granted by the kami. In order to please the kami and earn magokoro, Shinto followers are taught to uphold the four affirmations of Shinto.

The first affirmation is to hold onto tradition and the family. Family is seen as the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved. For instance, with marriages or births, traditions can be practiced repeatedly. The second affirmation is to have a love of nature. Nature objects are worshipped as sacred because the kami live within them. Therefore, to be in contact with nature means to be in contact with the gods. The third affirmation is to maintain physical cleanliness. Followers of Shinto take baths, wash their hands, and rinse out their mouths often. The last affirmation is to practice matsuri, which is the worship and honor given to the kami and the ancestral spirits.[5]

Additionally, Shinto followers believe that the kami are the ones who can either grant blessings or curses to a person. Shinto believers desire to appease the evil kami to 'stay on their good side,' and also to please the good kami. Therefore, as the four affirmations are values that Shinto believers strive to practice daily, they also wear mamori to aid them in remaining pure and protected. Mamori are charms that keep the evil kami from striking a human with sickness or causing disaster to befall him.[5]

The kami are both worshiped and respected within the religion of Shinto. The goal of life to Shinto believers is to obtain magokoro, a pure sincere heart, which can only be granted by the kami.[6] As a result, Shinto followers are taught that humankind should venerate both the living and the nonliving, because both possess a divine superior spirit within, the kami.[7]

Ceremonies and festivals

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.

Examples of festivals that occur within the Shinto shrines are the New Year, Autumn Festival, and the Annual Festival. The first one, the New Year, is when families purify and clean their houses in preparation for the upcoming year. Offerings are also made to the ancestors so that they will bless the family in the future year. Additionally, the Buddhist temples ring the gongs 108 times in order to divest oneself of the 108 kinds of passions. The second holiday, the Autumn Festival, is when the harvest is dedicated to the kami.[8] The Annual Festival, the third holiday, is a yearly festival in which the statues of the local kami are carried around the town in a mikoshi which is a chair. This celebration of the kami takes place at a shrine and usually includes music and dancers.[9]

As there are many festivals that occur within the shrines, ceremonies like rites of passages are performed within the shrines. Two examples of these types of ceremonies are the birth of a child and the Shichi-Go-San. When a child is born he is brought to a shrine so that he can be initiated as a new believer and that the kami can bless him and his future life. The Shichi-Go-San, the Seven-Five-Three, is a rite of passage for five year old boys and three or seven year old girls. It is a time for these young children to personally offer thanks for the kami’s protection and to pray for the continuance of healthy growing.[8]

Many other rites of passages and festivals are practiced by Shinto believers. And the main reason of these ceremonies is for Shinto followers to appease the kami in order to reach magokoro, or a pure sincere heart.[6] To receive magokoro can only be done through the kami. This is why ceremonies and festivals are long and complex because they need to be perfect for the kami to be satisfied with. If the kami are not pleased with these ceremonies, they will not grant a Shinto believer magokoro.

Notable kami

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.
  • The Yu-Gi-Oh! anime and manga series contains numerous "gods" in the form of cards. They are usually extremely powerful, and often have some kind of immunity to other cards, but are never omnipotent. Interestingly, while Shinto Kami such as Tsukuyomi and Susano'o have appeared as cards, none of these cards have actually been "gods" in the context of the story.
  • The anime film Spirited Away is set in a bathhouse for kami, and a main character is the spirit of a destroyed river.
  • A western example, the 2004 expansion to the trading card game Magic: The Gathering entitled Champions of Kamigawa features kami and Shinto as the basis for the ongoing storyline of the series.
  • Pokémon, says Clarke (2000), "are pretty much the same thing as the traditional Kami."[citation needed]
    • The Pokémon Tornadus, Thundurus, and Landorus, are based on Fūjin, the kami of wind, Raijin, the kami of thunder and lightning, and Inari, the kami of fertility, respectively.
  • Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series shows the Conté royal family marrying into an Imperial line based on the Emperors of Japan; they preserve their claim to divine lineage by adding the "-kami" suffix to their names (e.g., Princess Shinkokami).
  • 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 Dragonball Z, Kami is the temporary God of the Earth.
  • 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]
  • On 23 April 2009 kami was discussed in an episode of the Fox Television series Bones.
  • In Naruto Shippuuden some of the gods names are used. Like: susanoo, amaterasu, tsukuyomi, izanagi and amatsukami. they are all attacks from mangekyou sharingan

See also


  1. ^ Ono, 1962
  2. ^ a b Tamura (2000:25)
  3. ^ See: Yasukuni Shrine.
  4. ^ Shinto.” Religionfacts. 18 January 2008. 14 November 2010 http://www.religionfacts.com/shinto/index.htm
  5. ^ a b “Shinto.” Religionfacts. 18 January 2008. 14 November 2010 http://www.religionfacts.com/shinto/index.htm
  6. ^ a b Dean C. Halverson, The Compact Guide to World Religions (House Publishers. Bloomington, Minnesota, 1996)pg 205
  7. ^ Lewis M. Hopfe, Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World (9th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2005)
  8. ^ a b B.A. Robinson, “Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion.” Religioustolerance.org. 25 October 2010. 14 November 2010. http://www.religioustolerance.org/shinto.htm
  9. ^ “Resai (Annual Festival).” Bbc.co.uk. 16 September 2009. 21 November 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/shinto/holydays/reisai.shtml


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • kami — kami …   Dictionnaire des rimes

  • Kami —    Kami. A term best left untranslated. In Japanese it usually qualifies a name or object rather than standing alone, indicating that the object or entity has kami quality. Kami may refer to the divine, sacred, spiritual and numinous quality or… …   A Popular Dictionary of Shinto

  • kami — [kä′mē] n. pl. kami 〚Jpn, deity, god〛 Shintoism a divine power or aura, often identified with one or more deities or ancestors * * * ka·mi (käʹmĭ) n. pl. kami Any of the sacred beings worshiped in Shintoism, conceived as spirits abiding in… …   Universalium

  • kami — [ kami ] n. m. • 1845 au plur.; mot jap. « seigneur » ♦ Didact. Divinité, dans la religion shintoïste. Les kamis. Par ext. Titre de noblesse au Japon. ● kami nom masculin (mot japonais signifiant Dieu, Créateur) Au Japon, nom générique donné à… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

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  • kami — [kä′mē] n. pl. kami [Jpn, deity, god] Shintoism a divine power or aura, often identified with one or more deities or ancestors …   English World dictionary

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  • Kami — Kami, in der Schintoreligion der Japaner die Verehrung berühmter Männer, s. Japan, S. 177 …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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