[Table of Contents]

Perspectives toward Understanding the Concept of Kami

INOUE Nobutaka


The Japanese word kami is usually translated as god, however, it is often claimed that the word kami and the English word god are quite different concepts. Needless to say, they differ remarkably on many points since they were originally used in cultures with completely different backgrounds. The basic structure of the monotheistic ideas in the Judeo-Christian tradition strongly contrasts with that of the polytheistic ideas in Shinto[Glossary: shinto]. In addition to the question of whether kami is to be understood as monotheistic or polytheistic, consideration must also be taken of whether it is to be viewed as a god of creation or one of transformation; whether an absolute gap or continuity exists between the god and human beings; and whether or not the god is viewed as the source of strict commandments.

Likewise, ideas of kami have changed in many ways historically. In ancient times, Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese and Korean culture. Influence was also felt from India via China. As a result, the ideas of Buddha, deities, and heaven that existed in Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism strongly influenced the Japanese idea of kami.

In the 16th and 17th centuries and again in the second half of the 19th century, Japan was also influenced by the Christian idea of God. Catholic orders such as the Jesuits came to Japan in 16th and 17th century, transmitting to the Japanese a bona fide monotheism. After a more than two hundred year government imposed ban on Christianity, many Protestant and Catholic missionaries, mostly from the USA, again came to Japan. Japanese began to deal with the newly introduced idea of God and to find a way of spiritually understanding it. Considering this historical process, it is quite natural that the ancient idea of kami has changed considerably and become complicated in modern society.

In present Japan, there exist various religions, such as Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and a variety of new religions. The number of Muslims has also increased slightly in recent years. New religious movements established in foreign countries are also conducting missionary activities on a wide scale. These religions have different ideas and teachings of god or gods. Therefore, the juxtaposition of various ideas of gods is characteristic of present-day Japan.

Considering these points, it should be clear that a point of view for a discussion concerning the idea of kami in Japanese belief or even within the Shinto tradition is never simple. In other words, the results of discussions on ideas of kami will differ depending on which age or upon whom the focus is put. For this reason, it might be helpful to summarize the basic perspectives in order to make clear the location of each paper included in this volume. The first perspective is a general introduction on how foreign religions or religious thoughts influenced the development of the idea of kami historically. The second one is what dimension should be considered when discussing the ideas of kami, namely, the official institutional dimension, personal thought, the teachings of religious organizations, or the folk belief dimension.

1. Historical Development

A. The Idea of Kami in Ancient Times

Although there are various theories on the original meanings of kami, these etymological explanations have all but been abandoned today.1 However, many scholars hold similar understandings on what kinds of beings were imagined as kami in ancient times. Kami are thought to have been worshiped through concrete objects. Celestial bodies, for example, the sun, the moon, and the stars, were often worshiped as the kami itself. Natural phenomena such as thunder or wind were mostly considered as the workings of kami. Seas, rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, and stones were sometimes considered as places where kami stayed and at other times as the kami itself. Many animals, especially snakes, crocodile, deer, wolves, bears, monkeys, foxes, and crows, were also worshiped as kami or as beings in which kami were manifest. On the other hand, rather abstract ideas of kami were also observed. Ancestral deities of clans or deities which guard local areas can be included in this type. As kami exists everywhere like this, people at various times worshiped them, were in awe of them, and prayed to them for favors.

It is possible to guess how ancient people imagined kami by reading ancient Japanese classics such as the Kojiki[Glossary: kojiki] (Records of Ancient Happenings), Nihon Shoki[Glossary: nihon_shoki] (Chronicles of Japan), and local gazetteers known as fudoki[Glossary: fudoki] (Records of Air and Soil). The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were compiled early in the 8th century for the purpose of legitimizing the royal orthodoxy of the Yamato dynasty[Glossary: yamato_chotei]. They are both collections of mythology and historical documents. It is interesting that the pantheon and hierarchy of deities differ considerably between the two books, especially in the beginning chapters, in spite of the fact that both of them bore characteristics of official documents. For example, the name of the first kami recorded in the Kojiki is Ame-no-mi-naka-nushi-no-kami, while in the Nihon Shoki it is Kuni-toko-tachi-no-mikoto. Thus, it might be concluded that Japanese mythologies were constructed from previous miscellaneous stories and that continuity of the story was not so important.

Some kami were enshrined in jinja or Shinto shrines. However, the relationship between kami and jinja in ancient times was somewhat obscure. Except for a few examples such as the Grand Shrine of Ise[Glossary: ise_no_jingu], the Sumiyoshi Shrine, and the Munakata Shrine, it is quite rare to find jinja at which specifically named kami are enshrined, even in the cases of jinja mentioned in the Japanese classics. In most cases, the name of a jinja itself or the name of the place where a jinja was established is used as name of kami. This means that for the enshrined kami of ancient times being a god with a personality was a weak factor. In later times, however, kami with names that are proper nouns were enshrined in many places because the spirits of the kami in Kyoto or Nara were divided and enshrined in local districts. Dividing the spirit of a kami is an important concept for understanding the idea of kami.

Kami were depicted as the subjects of creation, as concrete objects, and as working processes. Like the gods of many myths in other countries kami behaved just like human beings. However, in most cases kami were not worshiped as concrete images, which is quite different from Buddhism. Kami were often believed to work through a yorishiro, a medium or symbol for the spirit of kami. Stones, rocks, trees, boughs, animals, mirrors, jade balls, and swords are famous as yorishiro. These yorishiro were often recognized as the body of kami.2 Among these yorishiro, it is very interesting that mountains were considered as not only sacred places upon which kami descended, but also as the body of kami itself. Such mountains are presently called shintaizan, and Mt. Miwa is the most famous one. Thus, worshiping kami at any time without a permanent building or structure for enshrining them is not a problem.

It cannot be said that the ideas of deities appearing in Japanese myths are by any means unique to Japan. Even in the descriptions of the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki influences from China and Korean cultures can be detected. As kanji or Chinese characters were introduced from China as the first means of reading and writing in Japan, it is inevitable that the ancient Japanese were influenced by Chinese concepts and patterns of thinking when they wanted express their ideas in written language. As a matter of fact, the functions and the character traits of deities appearing in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were more or less influenced by Confucianism, Taoism, the I Ching (Book of Changes), Yin-yang theory, and the Five Elements theory (Jp. gogyô; Ch. wu-hsing). It was impossible for the ancient Japanese to have accepted only the Chinese writing system while excluding every other factor of Chinese culture at that time.

B. The Harmonious Fusion of Buddhism and Shinto

After the initial introduction of Buddhist sutras to Japan in 538 via the Korean peninsula (Kudara), Buddhist sutras were brought one after another from China. Buddhist monks visited Japan, and some of them stayed. Various images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas were brought into Japan. Techniques for making these images as well as Buddhist temples were also introduced. The cultural influences of this "imported" religion were large enough to cause a great change in religious belief among Japanese.3 The most important point with respect to the development of ideas of kami is that a harmonious fusion of Buddhism and Shinto was observed in many dimensions of belief, causing changes in the ideas of kami. As a result of the introduction of ideas concerning Buddha and bodhisattva and their widespread use as objects of worship among ordinary people, the existence of kami came to be understood from within more complicated patterns of thinking.

In the first stage of the harmonious fusion of Buddhism and Shinto the interesting notion that stray or lost kami could be saved by Buddhism appeared. Also the notion that kami existed for the purpose of protecting the Buddhist dharma became prevalent.4 After the acceptance of Buddhism, a thoroughly systematic religion, work began on establishing the proper hierarchy for traditional kami. This endeavor resulted in the development of the theory called honji-suijaku in the 9th century. The thought underpinning this theory was that Buddhas appeared in the world as kami for the purpose of saving people.5

The concepts of honji and suijaku were said to have been used originally in the Tendai (Ch. T'ien tai') sect in order to distinguish between the eternal Buddha who transcends history and Gautama Siddhattha, the historical Buddha born in India. This principle was applied to the relationship of Buddhas and kami. It should be noted that in the 14th century when the idea of Japan as "the divine country" spread this theory was reversed mainly by Shinto scholars, stating that Buddhas were manifestations of Shinto reality, that is, kami. This idea was called han-honji suijaku (counter honji-suijaku) However, this theory was not accepted widely.

In addition to the influence at the ideological level, the harmonious fusion of Buddhism with Shinto had a large influence on worship and rituals for kami in daily life. Such influence is expressed in common phrases like "to adore shin-butsu," "to pray for shin-butsu," or "profits by shin-butsu." Here, shin-butsu, namely kami and Buddha, have been paired together. The idea that kami and Buddha, either as a merged entity or through mutual effort, save people became accepted widely and is accepted even now.

In the modern age, the Meiji government adopted a policy mandating the separation of Shinto and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri). As a result, Shinto shrines were distinguished clearly from Buddhist temples, and Buddhist monks could no longer double as Shinto priests. In spite of this policy, kami and Buddha continued to be worshiped as a set in folk belief. Nevertheless, the distinction between kami and Buddha, namely Shinto and Buddhism, has been maintained in spite of a long history of harmonization. It should be noted on the other hand that they were never completely unified. Japanese have recognized two categories in religious belief as seen in the expressions shinji or matters concerned with kami and butsuji or matters concerned with Buddhism. Rituals concerned with security of communities, for example, are typical of shinji, while funeral and memorial services are typical of butsuji. Thus, although kami and Buddha are often identified, a separation based on their role or religious function continues.

C. Development in the Early Modern Era

After Buddhism came to be accepted as a rather traditional Japanese religion during the Middle ages, Neo-Confucianism, of the Chu-Hsi school (Jp. Shushigaku), and Catholicism arrived in Japan, bringing with them further influence on religious thought. The extent and form of their influence differs greatly, however. In the case of Neo-Confucianism, it was accepted in ordinary life for its practical ideas or core of ethics, rather than for its religious rituals. On the other hand, the Catholic influence was temporary and definitely limited due to the fact that it was banned by the Tokugawa government less than a century after the start of missionary activities. Even so, Catholic influence on idea of kami should not be ignored.

The Influence of Neo-Confucianism

The Confucianism of ancient China exercised influence on ancient Japanese culture, including expressions and ideas in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. It was Neo-Confucianism, however, which deeply influenced Shinto theology of the Tokugawa period. In China a doctrinal reform of Confucianism was underway from around the 9th century and Chu Hsi (Jp. Shushi: 1130-1200) established a Neo-Confucianism based upon an elaborate theoretical system. His thought was introduced into Japan by Zen Buddhist monks and others. This new thought was gradually accepted by the intellectuals of the day.

In the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Wang Yang-ming (Jp. Ôyômei, 1472-1528) established his own interpretations of Confucian philosophy. He taught a concise, unmediated access to a spiritual state to be obtained through the "union of knowledge and practice." This also had a strong influence on intellectuals, especially on the samurai class. The ideas of ki and ri, very important concepts in the Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming schools, stimulated speculation over the ideal and moral aspect of kami. Thus, consideration as to how the work of kami in actual society and in personal life manifested itself was greatly developed. As a result, a group of schools called Confucian Shinto was established during the Tokugawa period.

Yamazaki Ansai (1618-82), one of the most famous scholars of Confucian Shinto, had a very large influence on ideas of kami held later by kokugakusha or scholars of National Learning (Nativism). The school established by Ansai was called Suika Shinto (Descent of Divine Blessing Shinto). Later, the students of Fukko Shinto[Glossary: fukko_shinto] (Restoration Shinto) also established under the influence of Confucian Shinto, showed a deep interest in the theological systematization of the idea of kami. Among them, the most important are Motoori Norinaga[Glossary: motoori_norinaga] (1730-1801) who analyzed Japanese myths by using philological methods and Hirata Atsutane[Glossary: hirata_atsutane] (1776-1843) who showed a strong interest in the theological analysis of Japanese myths. They both made powerful contributions to basic perspectives on the ideas of kami discussed in modern academic Shinto studies.

As popular culture became more developed in the Tokugawa era, discussions on kami were undertaken by people belonging to a wide range of social classes rather than being limited to a small number of intellectuals. This situation was related to the appearance of Kyôha Shinto[Glossary: kyoha_shinto] (Sectarian Shinto) and the new religions of Shinto origin.

Christian Influences

The Christianity propagated by Catholic missionaries in the 16th century influenced to some extent the development of the ideas of kami. The concept of "God as the creator of the universe" was first introduced by Christian priests and brothers who belonged to the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and other orders. Christianity spread rapidly during half a century under the favor of certain powerful warlords such as Oda Nobunaga (1534-82). It is said that the membership of Christians in the beginning of the 17th century was a maximum of 300,000-400,000.6 Therefore, it is believed that at the time the percentage of Christians in the total population was higher than it is today.

The word "God" was translated as tenshu or the Lord of Heaven. It is a fact that some Japanese accepted the idea of a god controlling everything in the universe. After the Tokugawa government banned Christianity in 1639, its influence became more and more limited to a relatively closed circle of people. However, their influence on religious thought should not be ignored. Some scholars insist that the influence of the Christian idea of God can be recognized in Hirata's idea of kami.7 It is sure that Hirata was conscious of the idea of a monotheistic god when he discussed the character of kami in his writings. This would in part be the result of his having read books on the Bible that had been originally published in China.

D. Development in the Modern Age

Christian churches started their missionary work in Japan again around the middle of the 19th century. Protestant denominations were particularly active after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Despite the activities of the many Protestant denominations and Catholic orders, the number of Japanese Christians did not increase a great deal. Presently, only about one percent of the total Japanese population is Christian. In contrast to their numbers, the social influences of Christians have been rather strong. This is because the Christian churches were eager to educate the young generation in their mission schools and as a result their new members were mostly intellectuals. Presently about two-thirds of the schools which were established by religious bodies are Christian schools.8 Protestant denominations were especially active in higher education. In this context, it is reasonable to say that Christian ideas have exerted a huge influence on society in spite of the small number of Christians.

For many Japanese modernization meant mostly Westernization so many ideas concerned with Christianity became common knowledge, although the number of people who actually became Christian was quite small. As a result, when people talked about god they tended to understand it chiefly from a monotheistic perspective. Japanese traditional ideas of kami based on polytheism tended to be regarded as a primitive concept of gods, especially in academic discussions, literature, and essays in journals.

Although this attitude is not so remarkable these days, we must not fail to note the change in the Japanese consciousness on ideas of kami that has occurred in modern times. As Japanese people began to understand monotheistic notions, they were able to grasp the idea of kami from slightly different angles. This can be understood as a relativization of the idea of kami arising partly from the advancement of the intellectual level of the people and partly from the process of Westernization. Moreover, it should be supposed that the ideas of kami in the new religions of Shinto origin were influenced indirectly by the Christian idea of God. The reason for this is that there are many instances of new religions constructing their teachings while being fully aware of the Christian idea of god.

2. Dimensions of Discussion about Kami

As briefly demonstrated above, the ideas of kami among Japanese have shown complex historical development. On the other hand, the variety of ideas of kami in present-day Japan should be discussed from another point of view, namely dimensions of perspectives. While there are deep connections in the nationwide ritual system of Jinja Shintô (Shrine Shinto), in the thought of Shinto scholars, in the teachings of Shinto sects, and in folk belief, they also exhibit a difference in their development of ideas of kami. In the following sections the characteristics of four dimensions of the concept of kami will be considered briefly: (a) kami in the national system of veneration of deities (jingi seido) and Jinja Shintô; (b) kami in the thought of kokugakusha, scholars of various Shinto schools in the Middle and early modern periods; (c) kami in the teachings of Sectarian Shinto and new religions of Shinto origin; and (d) kami in Folk Shinto.

A. Kami in the System of Veneration of Deities

The Ancient Jingi system

The jingi system was established in ancient times. The Chinese ritsuryô system, a system of penal code and laws, was introduced into Japan in the 7th century. The jingi system was established as a part of this system in order to venerate deities nationwide. Japanese had established this unique jingi system with reference to Chinese ideas of deities and rituals for them.9 In the Japanese jingi system, a hierarchy of deities was established and orders and classes of deities were set. For example, the classes of deities were divided into fifteen categories. One of the first records of assigning kami to a certain class is from the 7th century. A kami's class was determined first by applying to the officials of the Ministry of Religion or the local governments, then a discussion was held by members of the noble families and the Emperor's will ascertained. It is quite interesting that this is exactly the same process used for the affairs of human beings.

Titles for kami were also bestowed. The most famous one is mikoto. After the harmonization of Buddhism with Shinto, myôjin, daibosatsu, and gongen were used as titles. In the early Modern age, reisha came to be used for deceased persons, as it was widely accepted then that deceased persons were to be venerated as divine spirits. The special title, tenjin[Glossary: tenjin], is used for the divine spirit of Sugawara Michizane (845-903). These examples make it clear that classes of kami and titles for kami were modeled on hierarchies in human society.

It is also possible to group kami according to whether they were worshiped by the central government, by a local government, by individuals, by a clan, or by the Imperial family. However, this distinction is not a fixed one. Many cases can be found where local deities became popular, or that kami venerated by a clan came to be venerated by many clans or families.

At Shinto shrines kami were worshiped as saijin (enshrined deities). In most cases, the saijin chosen for enshrinement was related to the origin of the shrine. When a certain kami was enshrined at a shrine, a "division of a divine spirit" was sometimes observed. This division is called bunrei[Glossary: bunrei] and it means that an enshrined divine spirit is divided and transferred to another shrine. Requests were often made for a division of the divine spirit of popular kami. The kami that is enshrined in the most shrines is Inari[Glossary: inari]. It was very popular during the Tokugawa era to ask the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto or the Toyokawa Inari Shrine in Aichi Prefecture for a bunrei of Inari. The next most popular bunrei was of Hachiman[Glossary: hachiman]. This deity was originally enshrined in the Usa Hachiman Shrine in Kyushu and worshiped as the god of war. It was enshrined in the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine by bunrei from Usa Hachiman Shrine. In the Middle Ages, Hachiman was widely worshiped among the samurai class. A division of the Hachiman divine spirit was requested because the Genji clan, which in the 12th century established the first samurai led government in Kamakura, venerated Hachiman as its ancestral god.

It is generally not the case that only one deity is enshrined at a shrine. Most shrines enshrine multiple deities. Sometimes divine spirits enshrined in other shrines are gathered together at one shrine, a practice called goushi or joint enshrinement. If a shrine has multiple deities, the most important deity is understood as the "main deity," the other deities are designated "combined deities." In Shinto, this kind of "importing" and "exporting" of kami is quite free.

The ancient ritsuryô system decayed rapidly in the 10th century. Accordingly, the jingi system and nationally supported rituals for kami declined and became nominal. However, the body of ideas of kami did not change very much. Veneration at each jinja was maintained and the number of jinja increased gradually.10 The kami of the jingi system functioned in the myth of the state, the structure of state control, and the symbolic meanings of the Emperor system. This means that the idea of kami was deeply connected with the Japanese sense of social order and the structure of religious symbols. This observation also applies to the modern jingi system established in the Meiji era.

The Modern Jingi System

After a long history of samurai-controlled government, the Meiji government established a new social order and rearranged the jinja system. As a result, people were again instructed on the relationships between kami and the state and kami and the social order. Using a system called kanpeisha[Glossary: kampei_taisha] and kokuheisha, it was decided which shrines would be managed by the central government and which by the local governments. The numbers of kanpeisha and kokuheisha were relatively limited through careful evaluation of each of the famous shrines. The Grand Shrines of Ise were put on the top of the hierarchy since Amaterasu, who is believed to be the ancestral spirit of the Imperial family, is enshrined there. This new system was also taught in schools, for example, in classes about myth. As one of its basic policies, the Meiji government also decided to separate Shinto and Buddhism. It intended to reconstruct the ancient jingi system and make it the spiritual pillar of the modern state. However, this policy brought about many social troubles because the harmonized fusion of Buddhism and Shinto had become deeply rooted in local districts.

The modern jingi system changed greatly after World War II. It is no longer possible for the state to be concerned with Shinto as the new Constitution mandates a separation between Church and State. Religious freedom became the principle of the Constitution. Most jinja cooperated in establishing the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchô) in 1945 with the intent of maintaining the jinja system. Thus, each jinja became privately managed in the postwar period. While these reforms resulted in changes in the form of veneration at Shinto shrines, it cannot be said that any conclusive changes occurred in the ideas of kami. It can be said, rather, that indifference toward or ignorance of the deities in Shinto shrines became distinctive.

B. Developments of the Concept of Kami

The Japanese concept of kami has been most influenced by foreign thought and religions. Japanese scholars and theologians were confronted with new influences in each age, namely with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Through these confrontations, regardless of whether they ended with acceptance or rejection, the traditional ideas of kami were reflected upon and become more sophisticated over time.

Although medieval scholars had little influence on the thought of ordinary people, their speculations contributed greatly to the elaboration and sophistication of ideas of kami. In this context, the following Shinto schools filled important roles: the Ise Shinto school and Sannô Shinto school, established in the 13th century; the Ryôbu Shinto school in the 14th century; the Yoshida Shinto school in the 15th century; the Suika Shinto school, Tsuchimikado Shinto school, and Yoshikawa Shinto school in the 17th century; the Unden Shinto school in the 18th century; and the Fukko Shinto school in the 19th century. The schools established during the 13th and 14th centuries were faced with the crucial problem of how to incorporate traditional kami into the worldview of Buddhism. This problem was also a problem of locating the meaning of Japan within the context of the world. The reason why so much thought concerning the harmonization of Buddhism with Shinto appeared in those days can be explained partly as a result of this endeavor. Thus, it was intended to unify the meaning of the existence of the myriad of various kami with the worldview of Buddhism, which itself was based on a complex set of doctrines.

Following the acceptance of Buddhism, the endeavor to apply Neo-Confucian ideas to the Japanese situation in the Tokugawa period produced the Confucian Shinto schools. Many Confucian Shinto scholars engaged in theological arguments about kami. Among the Confucian Shinto schools, Suika Shinto greatly influenced later discussions of kami. In Suika Shinto it was claimed that the true way was the teachings of Sarutahiko no kami, handed down through Amaterasu ômikami. Here, in such an orientation can be observed a theological arrangement of kami with reference to philosophical development in China. It probed into the theological meaning of Japanese kami.

Fukko Shinto (Restoration Shinto) was formed under the influence of Confucian Shinto schools. Many of the scholars of Fukko Shinto are also called Nativists or kokugakusha. Fukko Shinto and the later Nativism widened the perspectives of former Shinto studies and their social influence became much larger. They promoted a systematic understanding of kami, theological sophistication about the workings of kami, etymological and other studies of kami. Their efforts were directed toward making it perfectly clear that kami, as the origin of the Japanese belief, were the central symbols of Shinto.

Some kokugakusha, as previously mentioned, were influenced by the Christian idea of God. Under such influence they felt the necessity to re-evaluate the function of kami that appeared in Japanese myth as "creator." The discussion of the notion of the "trinity of creation" is a fine example of this. The first three gods, Amenominakanushi no kami[Glossary: amenominakanushi_no_kami], Takamimusubi no kami[Glossary: takamimusubi_no_kami], and Kamimusubi no kami, who appear in the opening sentences of the Kojiki, were understood as creators. These three gods were claimed to have had a role in the creation of the universe. Kokugakusha attached importance to this idea in response to the Judeo-Christian theory of creation. Such theological arguments on ideas of kami established the basis of Shinto studies in modern Japan.

C. Kami in Practice and Teachings

In the modern era Shinto underwent new development with the appearance of Sect Shinto and the new religions of Shinto origin. Among the actively proselytizing Shinto sects unique ideas of kami began to appear, that is to say, names of kami not found in the Japanese classics --- but nonetheless conceived of as representing well the ideals of their sect --- began to appear. In the cases of Tenrikyô and Konkôkyô[Glossary: konko-kyo], which in the prewar period were part of Kyôha Shinto but which today are regarded as early examples of new religions of Shinto origin, kami was understood more in terms of a monotheistic perspective.

Ideas of Kami in Sectarian Shinto

Sectarian Shinto refers to the thirteen officially authorized sects[Glossary: shinto_jusampa] in the period 1876 to 1901. Those sects are Kurozumikyô[Glossary: kurozumi-kyo], Shintô Shûseiha[Glossary: shinto_shusei-ha], Izumo Ôyashirokyô, Shinshûkyô[Glossary: shinshu-kyo], Shintô Taiseikyô[Glossary: shinto_taisei-kyo], Jikkôkyô[Glossary: jikko-kyo], Fusôkyô, Shintô Taikyô, Ontakekyô, Misogikyô[Glossary: misogi-kyo], Shinrikyô[Glossary: shinri-kyo], Konkôkyô, and Tenrikyô. Presently, however, Kurozumikyô, Misogikyô, Konkôkyô and Tenrikyô are generally considered new religions of Shinto origin.11 On the other hand, Izumo Ôyashirokyô, Shintô Shûseiha, Shinrikyô, Shintô Taiseikyô, and Shinshûkyô are considered to be typical of Sect Shinto. The characteristic of these sects in terms of ideas of kami is that in each a unique deity is venerated, and respect is still paid to traditional Japanese kami. At the level of the actual believer, however, there is negligible difference in most cases between their ideas of kami and those of ordinary people. They often indicate the unique deity of their sect as their nominal objects of worship.

Ideas of Kami in the New Religions of Shinto Origin

The uniqueness of kami is much more remarkable in new religions of Shinto origin. Most of the names of their kami are not recorded in the Japanese classics. The main kami of the various new religions is often a deity first revealed by the founder of the sect. For example, the kami of Konkôkyô is Tenchi-kane-no-kami, in Tenrikyô it is Tenri-ô no mikoto, in Seichô no Ie[Glossary: seicho_no_ie] it is Uchû Dai Seimei (Great Life of the Universe), and in Sukyô Mahikari it is Su no ômikami. In the case of the new religions, kami is often recognized as the root of life rather than as a creator god. It is often claimed that various deities are, in fact, multiple manifestations of the true god. This might be understood as a fusion of pantheism and monotheism. It should be added that in the new religions the actual object of worship is often the founder of the sect. The founder is sometimes venerated as a "living god." However, it is often the case that the kami of the new religions are more realistic than those of Sect Shinto. They are imagined as beings who want to save human beings, to save the world from catastrophic happenings, or to realize heaven in this world.

D. Kami in Folk Belief

Folk Shinto can be defined as folk belief deeply connected to the religion of jinja or traditional ideas of kami. Although the concept of Folk Shinto might be slightly ambiguous, it is quite useful when discussing the actual behavior of people. Because they hold various ideas of kami and pray to them in their daily lives, yet without holding particular relations to rituals at jinja nor the teachings of religious organizations.12

While Folk Shinto is related to Jinja Shintô (Shrine Shinto) in many ways, it sometimes has no relationship to the latter. That is to say, Folk Shinto shows its own principle of behavior pattern irrespective of the traditional manners of each jinja, even if it is connected to Shrine Shinto. For example, many Japanese don't care what deities are enshrined at the shrines they visit. Although the number of visitors during the first few days of the New Year is the largest at the Meiji Shrine[Glossary: meiji_jingu] in Tokyo, most of the young visitors haven't the slightest idea as to what deities are enshrined there. For some reason they also think that the shrine is a traditional one, even though it was actually only established in 1920. Many Japanese decide what shrine to visit during New Year's chiefly for the reason that the shrine is relatively famous, not because the kami they venerate as their clan deity or guarding deity is enshrined there. On the other hand, they tend to visit a shrine when the enshrined kami is one that will fulfill their specific desires or needs. Thus, they will visit an Inari Shrine when praying for business or commercial success, a Tenjin Shrine when hoping for success on an entrance examination, or a shrine where Ôkuninushi no mikoto is enshrined when asking for a happy marriage. Accordingly, in Tokyo candidates for an examination might visit Yushima Tenjin Shrine or in Kyushu they might go to Dazaifu Tenman Shrine, because the spirit of Sugawara Michizane, the patron kami of scholarship, is enshrined there. Here, there is a fusion of general veneration of kami based on worship at jinja and specific prayers or petitions to kami aimed at obtaining particular this-worldly benefits. Thus, the attitude toward kami is often quite free, even when it is concerned with kami at shrines.

In the Tokugawa era, there was a very interesting phenomenon called hayarigami[Glossary: hayarigami] in which it was fashionable for people to believe in a certain god. A particular deity or Buddha, stones, and sometimes even living persons suddenly became objects of special prayers (usually for healing). The news spread widely by word of mouth and in a short time many worshippers began to gather. As this phenomenon mostly occurred without any connection to traditional jinja, it can be regarded as a typical form of Folk Shinto.

In the Tokugawa era about eighty percent of the population were farmers and peasants. Therefore, agricultural rituals were the most important among the various rituals related to professions. Nowadays, the percentage of farmers has decreased to as little as several percent, but the number of agricultural rituals remains large in many districts. In such rituals, the community members band together to pray to and give thanks to the kami. Ancestral spirits are often included as kami in these types of rituals. Yanagita Kunio[Glossary: yanagita_kunio], the so-called founder of folklore in Japan, advocated the idea that the gods of rice fields and the gods of mountains are actually ancestral spirits. The fusion of kami and ancestral spirits is one of the characteristics of Folk Shinto.

Among the kami of Folk Shinto, there exist such various types of kami as those venerated at jinja, those influenced by Chinese folk beliefs, those that became famous as a result of the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto, those that came to be venerated by chance, and those whose origins are not clear. It is a feature of Folk Shinto that the people --- the "end-users," if you will --- pick and choose from among these miscellaneous kami the ones they wish to venerate. The benefits to be obtained by praying to these kami play are big part in their choice.

Concluding Remarks

As we have seen, the ideas of kami among Japanese are quite diversified and call for a variety of analyses. Researchers from across a wide spectrum of disciplines --- mythology, comparative religions, the history of Japanese religions, and Japanese thought --- are conducting studies about kami. The papers included in this volume demonstrate one aspect of such research.

The ideas of kami among Japanese have heretofore been discussed principally as a matter of comparison with Western ideas of monotheism. In the future, however, a comparison with the ideas found in East Asian countries should prove interesting partly because of their similarity with Japanese ideas of kami and partly because of their differences. Polytheism is common in these countries, but the combination is different than that in Japan.

The fusion of Buddhism and Shinto --- which some scholars have understood as a typical phenomenon in Japanese religious history --- should be compared with similar phenomenon in Asian countries --- for example, with the fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism in India, with Buddhism and Taoism in China, and Buddhism and shamanism in Korea. The material for such comparisons is abundant. Our expectation for the future is to undertake research from this perspective.


1. Many etymological theories exist regarding the origins of kami, but none of them is entirely satisfactory. Among them, the interpretation of Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) is the most famous and popular. In his interpretation the word kami was used as an appellation for all beings which possess an extraordinary ability or virtue, and which are awesome and worthy of reverence.

2. For this reason, scholars have tended to analyze the nature of kami in ancient times in terms of animism. It may be possible to discuss the characteristics of kami in this way, if animism is defined as E.B.Tylor did, that is, as the general belief in spiritual beings. However, the ideas of kami tend to contain rather systematic principles in the course of historical development. Therefore, animism alone is inadequate for discussing the various characters of kami.

3. It should be noted that the concept of Shinto (the way of kami) itself was developed only after Buddhism had been introduced in order to identify the indigenous Japanese religious system.

4. Jingûji or shrine-temples were established according to this notion.

5. Honji-suijaku literally means true nature-manifest traces. In other words, kami were understood to be manifest traces of Buddhist realities, that is, buddhas or bodhisattvas. For example, the honji or true nature of the Grand Shrines of Ise was believed to be the buddha Birushana (Skt. Vairocana), or one of the bodhisattvas Kannon (Skt. Avalokitesvara); the Grand Shrine of Izumo's honji was the bodhissattva Seishi (Skt. Mahasthamaprapta); and the Atsuta Shrine had Dainichi Nyorai (Skt. Vairocana) as its honji.

6. Other estimates put the figure around 700,000-800,000.

7. See Sasaki Kiyoshi's paper in this volume.

8. According to the research survey carried out by the Project on Religious Education at IJCC, Kokugakuin University, over nine hundred religious schools existed in Japan in 1993 and 67.4% of them were established by Christian denominations. Those established by Buddhist denominations followed, and about one fourth of the total. See IJCC ed., Data Book on Religious Education, Suzuki Publishing Co., 1993.

9. For example, while the notion of tenshin chigi originated in China, the content of the notion differs somewhat between China and Japan. To the notions of heavenly gods (tenshin) and earthly gods (chigi) in Chinese belief the Japanese notions of amatsukami[Glossary: amatsukami] and kunitsukami[Glossary: kunitsukami] were mixed. According to the presently prevailing theory, amatsukami refers to the gods who are connected with the origin of the Yamato dynasty, while kunitsukami refers to indigenous kami in each local district.

10. One of the most important points to keep in mind when considering the development of ideas of kami at jinja (shrines) is the identity of the financial supporters of the jinja in each historical period. The nation was the chief supporter in the ancient and medieval periods. From the middle of the medieval period, however, national control of the jinja became weaker and the situation became more complicated. At the end of the 12th century, the samurai class took control of the government from the nobles and established the Kamakura government. Political control by the samurai class continued until the middle of the 19th century. With the appearance of samurai, worship of kami came into new stage. Each clan of samurai enshrined their ancestral deities, sometimes with the hope of making a connection with a famous samurai clan such as the Genji. Thus, Hachiman was widely enshrined as it was the ancestral deity of the Genji clan. In the Tokugawa era ordinary people took a more important role in supporting jinja. As commercial activities became more and more active in the Tokugawa era, Inari, the kami benefactor of businessmen and merchants, began to spread throughout Japan. In the period from the Meiji restoration to the end of WWII, the state managed the main shrines. The Shinto priests of these shrines were a kind of government official. With the separation of church and state in the postwar constitution worship at jinja became quite free and jinja supporters were ordinary people. The result of this is that popular jinja managed well irrespective of their origin or historical development, while some jinja in sparsely populated rural areas had to close.

11. On the concept of "new religion," see the discussion in the introductory chapter in the second volume of this series, New Religions.

12. This is often observed in modern Japan. On this point, see the third volume of this series, Folk Beliefs in Modern Japan.

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