Encyclopedia of Shinto

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カテゴリー1 2. Kami (Deities)
カテゴリー2 Concepts of Kami
Text A. Definitions

Throughout history, numerous attempts have been made to define the term kami, since the early commentary Man'yōshū chūshaku (Sengakushō) by the Tendai priest Sengaku (1203-?) in the early Kamakura period and the Jindai no maki kuketsu by Inbe no Masamichi in the period of North-South courts (ca. 1333-1392). Inbe's work, in particular, relies on the fact that the character for kami 神 can be pronounced the same as the character meaning "above" 上 (ue, kami). As a result, Inbe claims that
Kami refers to one above. Since the kami always reside in the Plain of High Heaven (Takamanohara), they are said to be 'above' and thus those above are said to be kami.

The claim that "kami means above" gained currency in the early Edo period, and was virtually fixed in the popular imagination from the Meiji period on. Advances in the study of ancient Japanese linguistics and phonology, however, led to the understanding that the two Sino-Japanese characters read kami in fact had differing etymological origins. In sum, it appears that Motoori Norinaga was right when he suggested that "various previous claims regarding the meaning of kami are all incorrect," hinting that it is impossible to unlock the significance of kami based on etymology alone. In contrast, Motoori's tentative definition, arrived at inductively based upon observation of actual examples of the word in use, is now widely accepted as capturing the essence of the Japanese understanding of kami:

In general, kami refers first to the manifold kami of heaven and earth we see in the ancient classics, and to the spirits (mitama) in shrines consecrated to the same. And it further refers to all other aweinspiring things—people of course, but also birds, beasts, grass and trees, even the ocean and mountains—which possess superlative power not normally found in this world. "Superlative" here means not only superlative in nobility, goodness, or virility, since things which are evil and weird as well, if they inspire unusual awe, are also called kami.
Kojikiden, 3.

Motoori states here that virtually any thing may be kami, if it makes us feel the existence of supernatural or extraordinary power and impresses us with a sense of awe, regardless of whether it is "good" or "evil." This definition agrees with other characteristics of kami-nature, such as that while invisible, it may dwell within hierophanies or "manifestations" (yorishiro) such as trees, rocks, fire and other natural objects, and in ritual objects such as mirrors and gohei. Likewise, kami-nature is expressed through natural phenomena such as wind and thunder, and may possess human beings and cause them to utter oracles (takusen).
In other words, the power of kami remains unrevealed so long as it exists in a suspended state, without manifesting itself by taking up dwelling in a natural object or human being. In short, kami is experienced in the form of concrete objects, phenomena, and situations, and not abstract, conceptual or ideal entities.
Accordingly, in the same way that natural objects and phenomena may bring both blessings and disasters to human life, the kami likewise cannot be characterized in moral terms as either solely good or evil. In general, they are thought to possess both good and evil aspects, expressed as their "gentle spirit" or nigimitama, and "rough spirit" or aramitama.

At the same time, the concrete character of kami has not always been linked immediately to their depiction in human form. Wooden images and other artistic representations of kami with human features (shinzō) were produced only after the arrival of Buddhism, and under its influence. It was nonetheless believed that the kami possess human-like responses, and that they should be approached in ways similar to those employed when dealing with humans. For example, a kami worshiped inadequately or not at all might extend a curse or exhibit violent, destructive behavior. By offering it proper worship, on the other hand, the same kami can be placated and transformed into a protective tutelary that profits human beings.
Kami were believed to possess human-like predilections in other ways as well, enjoying music, dance, and poetry, and disdaining behavior disruptive of natural or social order, together with pollutions (kegare) such as filth, blood, and death. As a result, the worship of kami was observed in sanctified places, and after undergoing ritual purification (kessai). Worship included the offering of rice and sake, together with other foods from sea and land, accompanied by performances of dance, music, and poetry, the offering of land and treasure objects, the conferring of divine ranks (shinkai), and the presentation of entreaties. The kami, in turn, were believed to respond gladly to such offerings by granting the boons requested of them. Based on this perspective, the violent behavior of a rough kami was thought to be indication of its uncommon power; by assuaging the kami's rough spirit, its great power could be turned, and transformed to great blessing.

B. kami and Tamashii

  A concept closely allied with that of kami is tamashii, frequently rendered as "spirit." Tamashii refers to freefloating spiritual force, a spiritual entity from outside which may alternately possess and leave an object. For example, an abundant harvest is produced when the "rice spirit" (inadama) joins itself to the rice grain. In general, tamashii is understood to be an impersonal entity, but when it attaches itself to a physical object or human being, it takes on concrete qualities and becomes apprehended as kami. The two concepts are not always clearly discriminated in practice, however. Ōkuninushi no kami (The kami Great Land Master) is a noted kami of the early myths, depicted with human attributes, but at times he is also referred to as Ōkunitama (Great Land Spirit).

The belief in "word-spirit" or kotodama also arose from this initial concept of an unat                                                                                                                                                    tached spirit that joins itself to physical objects. Namely, according to kotodama belief, when one expresses his wishes in the proper words, the "spirit power of the word" causes those wishes to be fulfilled. In turn, this spiritual power of kotodama was invoked by the action of kotoage, or "word raising" (Man'yōshū poems nos. 894, 2506, 3253, 3254, and 4124). The norito and classic myths also include legends which take place against the background of kotodama and kotoage beliefs, for example, the stories of how Yamasachihiko placed a curse on the fishing hook of Umisachihiko, and how Yamatotakeru lost his life as upshot of referring to the kami of Mt. Ibuki as a mere messenger.

Likewise, most kami worshiped at shrines are not directly addressed by their names, but merely as "the kami enshrined in this place," or "the kami of the upper shrine," "inner shrine," the "first shrine," and so forth. This practice likely reflects the use of taboo words, which arose from fear that knowledge of the name of the kami would give others free control over the kami's power.

Other related practices include the rite of chinkon or "placating a spirit" (kon is the same Sino-Japanese character as tamashii), a rite meant to pacify or appease a rough kami; tamamusubi ("spirit-binding"), a rite to prevent one's spirit from leaving the body, and tamafuri ("spirit-shaking"), a ritual meant to revitalize a weakened kami's power. All such concepts and practices illustrate the inseparable relationship between kami and tamashii.

Although kami may temporarily borrow the form of natural objects as a means of manifesting their existence, they are basically invisible. In contrast, the existence of the buddhas and bodhisattvas of Buddhism is demonstrated through religious iconography. The contact between these contrasting religions led to the practice of erecting Shinto shrines beside Buddhist halls, and to the display of iconographic representations of the kami (shinzō) alongside images of the buddhas. Commonly used honorifics for kami, including myōjin ("shining deity") and gongen ("avatar") are likewise the products of this interaction with Buddhism.

Myōjin were also called akitsumikami or aramikami, and expressed with the characters 顕神 meaning "manifest kami." This practice reflected the clear understanding that such kami were visible, thus leading to the use of the terms as referents for the emperor as well.
In contrast, the term gongen 権現 was a Buddhist term meaning "avatar," the manifestation of a buddha in temporal form. This term was used to refer to the Japanese kami since, within the theory of honji suijaku ("original essence, manifest traces"), the indigenous Japanese kami were interpreted as temporal manifestations of the eternal Buddha. Buddhist concepts were likewise influenced by Shinto, however, as illustrated by the fact that much Buddhist statuary came to be subject to taboos as "hidden buddhas" (hibutsu). The adaptation of the concept of kami following the arrival of Buddhism should thus be understood as a process of mutual influence.

C. Typology of Kami

Kami can be broadly classified into two categories, (1) "nature kami," and (2) "culture kami" having a close relationship to human life. Nature kami represent the recognition of supranormal features or powers in natural objects or phenomena; this class can be further divided into "celestial" kami and "terrestrial" kami. Celestial kami include deified heavenly bodies and meteorological phenomena, while terrestrial kami may include the deification of geological forms, physical processes, and plants and animals. Heavenly bodies further include the sun, moon, and planets, while deified meteorological phenomena would include things like the kami of wind (kaze no kami), and kami of thunder (raijin). Kami related to geological formations include kami of earth (jigami or jinushigami); kami of mountains; kami of mountain passes; kami of thickets, forests, and groves; kami of rocks and boulders; kami of the sea (umi no kami); kami of rivers, lakes, ponds, and marshes; kami of islands; and so forth.
Classifications are also sometimes made in accordance with the kind of natural phenomenon involved, for example, kami of water (suijin) and kami of fire (hi no  kami). Animals viewed as kami may include snakes, "crocodiles" (wani, today believed to refer to sharks), deer, wild boar, wolves, bears, monkeys, foxes, rabbits, crows, doves, and others. Fabulous animals such as the dragon are also considered kami.

Animal kami are frequently associated closely with kami of natural physical or meteorological phenomena, or identified as the manifestations or familiars of such kami. For example, snakes are frequently associated with the kami of lakes, ponds and marshes; bears, boars, and deer are associated with the kami of the mountain (yama no kami); birds are associated with the sun, rabbits with the moon, and the dragon with the kami of the sea. In some cases, a particular animal may be viewed as the familiar or divine messenger of a specific shrine or its kami. Some examples include doves at Hachiman shrines, deer at Kasuga shrines, monkeys at Hiyoshi shrines, crows at Kumano shrines, and foxes at Inari shrines.

Among plants, pine, cedar, cypress, and the evergreen sakaki are frequently worshiped as "divine trees" (shinboku), particularly those uniquely impressive specimens trees unusually rare in terms of age or size, or those which have been struck by lightning since such features give the impression of being strongly linked to supranormal power. And based on the same rationale, unusual or deformed plants (such as bifurcated Chinese radishes, which are sometimes considered to resemble the human form) are also viewed on occasion as having sacred qualities.

So called "culture kami" can be broadly divided into the three categories (1) "community kami," namely those worshiped by particularistic social groups; (2) "functional kami," which are related to specific aspects or occupations in human life; and (3) "human kami," namely historical human beings treated as kami.

Community kami may include yashikigami (kami of dwellings) buraku kami (kami of geographical communities); familial kami (tutelaries of consanguineous families); dōzokushin (kinship group tutelaries); and dōsojin and sai no kami (kami which stand at the entryways or borders of villages and protect residents from the intrusion of baneful outside forces).

While ujigami can be thought of conceptually as tutelary kami of consanguineous "clans" (uji), such groups in many cases coincide with communities based on common territorial residence, with the result that the ujigami came to be considered synonymous with the chinju no kami and ubusunagami, namely, tutelary kami of territorial villages and towns.

The second category, "functional kami" includes kami related to the various processes of human life and growth, for example ubugami (kami of birth), ekigami (kami of plague), enmusubi no kami (matchmaking kami), and the kami of death; kami related to production and economic activities, for example, agricultural kami (kami of the grain and ta no kami or kami of the field), kami of wild beasts (yama no kami), kami of fishing (gyogyōshin), kami of commercial activities (ichi no kami), kami of the sea and sailing, gunshin or kami of war, and kami of scholarship and study.

Many minor kami found within the home, for example, the kamado no kami (kami of the fire), kami of the well, kami of the storehouse, kami of the outhouse, and kami of the stable, all are associated with specific spheres of human activity, with the result that they can likewise be classified as "functional" kami.

The category of "human kami" includes both persons revered as kami while still living (ikigami), and persons worshiped as kami only after death. Examples of the former include religious practitioners and miko who engage in faith healing and pronouncing oracles; distinguished or famous persons; and the emperor. In some festivals, a kami may temporarily take up residence in a living individual for the period of the rites, in which case the individual is viewed as kami for that period.
Examples of persons worshiped as kami following death include the spirits of ancestors, and goryōshin, the vengeful spirits of individuals who have died accidental deaths, or while bearing discontents, regrets or unfulfilled longings.

In any event, all such categories are mere expedients since, depending on the circumstances, a single kami may fall into multiple categories. For example, the folklorist Yanagita Kunio theorized that when an individual dies, the spirit becomes an ancestral kami and ascends into the mountains, where it becomes a kami of nature known as the "mountain kami" (yama no kami). In the spring, the same kami descends to the village, becoming the "kami of the rice paddy" (ta no kami) which watches over the productive efforts of its descendants. Finally, following the autumn harvest the ta no kami returns to the mountain, once more assuming the role of yama no kami. Yanagita also believed that while the ancestral kami was subsumed into the ujigami to become the tutelary of a geographical territory, aspects of the ancestral kami could likewise be recognized in such familistic deities as the dōzokushin and yashikigami mentioned earlier. Likewise, the divinized noble spirits (goryōshin) of such famous historical personages as Sugawara no Michizane and Taira no Masakado were said to have taken the form of lightning and cursed their tormenters as a means of satisfying their desire for vengeance. Here, too, the attribute of human kami has merged with that of a nature kami.

-Matsumura Kazuo