[Table of Contents]

Immanent Legitimation: Reflections on the "Kami Concept"

Norman Havens

1. The Concept of Kami and the Concept of Deity

As work began on this volume, our working title was kami kannen, a common enough expression in the Japanese context, but one which presents a distinct ambiguity in the face of translation. For those not familiar with the Japanese language or Japanese religion, the expression might be rendered in its most general sense (i.e., from a global perspective) as "concept(s) of deity"; this is the way, for example, the expression appears to have been translated in Hirai Naofusa's article on "Shintô" in the Encyclopedia of Religion.1 This rendering is useful in any general treatment where an understanding of the concept of "deity" is implicit, or can be bracketed, and is not itself held up too closely to scrutiny. It is used best to refer to the kami concept applied to those individual personalities identified as superhuman actors in Japanese myth and legend, and who have continued to serve as objects of reverence throughout Japanese history.

A more extended example of this usage can be found in the entry kami in the Dictionary of Religious Studies [Shûkyôgaku jiten] published in 1973 under the editorial supervision of Oguchi Iichi and Hori Ichirô.2 As its name implies, this dictionary is compiled from the broad perspective of the discipline of religious studies, with the result that the entry kami discusses matters which in a similar Western work would be dealt with under a topical heading such as "god," "divinity," "deity" or even "the sacred." The emphasis is placed solidly on the interpretation of universal human religious experience (primarily within Western scholarship), and the 8000-character article makes no specific reference to the way the term kami is used in Japanese, except insofar as the term may provide an anecdotal example of the "larger" meaning of kami as "deity." Kami kannen, in this context, would refer unequivocally to the academic concept of the "deity or "divinity."

This does not mean, of course, that the concept of deity itself has achieved any more agreed-upon or universal status in religious studies. After noting that titles like Brahman, God, Shang-ti, and kami are not the same --- and yet not totally unrelated --- the author of the article deity in the Encyclopedia of Religion asks, "Can we affirm that all those names refer to deity as a broad category? Is deity perhaps the common name for God, the godhead, the divine, brahman, mana, and so on?" Considered as "homeomorphic equivalents" (in the sense that they "perform corresponding yet different functions in their respective systems"), the term deity would indeed seem to serve that kind of general role, with the result that the author continues by suggesting,

It is tempting to use the word deity as an abstract noun for all such all such homeomorphic equivalents. Deity would then refer to God, kami, brahman, Zeus, Rudra, T'ien, the Tao, El, Baal, Urdr, Re, Kâlî, and so on. This enterprise is relatively simple as long as we remain within more or less homologous cultures, making it easier to find common properties like infinity, omniscience, goodness, immutability, omnipotence, simplicity, unity, and so on . . . 3

But even this kind of modest attempt serves as an illustration of the difficulty of the project, since it turns out that in its most fundamental sense (see below), kami in Japanese is characterized by none of the characteristics listed here as suggested elements of "homology" between religious cultures --- neither infinity, omniscience, goodness (at least in any necessary sense), immutability, omnipotence, simplicity, nor unity.

In contrast to this kind of broadly theoretical usage, kami kannen can also refer more narrowly to the "concept of kami" as it is found in Japan, in other words, to the way the Japanese term kami has been understood historically, lingustically, and theologically, particularly within the Shinto tradition. In this case, it makes little sense to render the expression offhand as "concept of deity," since as is suggested by the preceding comments, whether the meaning of the term kami is adequately expressed by the English "deity" is precisely one of the issues in question.

For example, when linguist Ôno Susumu discusses kami no kannen in his One-Word Dictionary: Kami (Hitogo no jiten: Kami4), he is not attempting to achieve an understanding of the "concept of the sacred" as it has unfolded in human religious history. Rather, he approaches his subject by analyzing the linguistic roots of the term kami itself, and while he discusses elements of linguistic borrowing and makes comparison to other religious traditions, his primary purpose is to shed light on the contents of the Japanese experience, and how, and with what contents, the concept of kami has been apprehended in his country's history. Once again, a perspective of this sort would make it disingenuous to unguardedly translate the expression kami kannen as "the concept of deity."

All this by way of emphasizing that the kami concept continues to challenge us with a substantial degree of complexity and ambiguity, and anyone studying the concept in Japanese religious history must be aware of the multiple ways and contexts in which the term may be used, and for what purposes. In their discussions of kami kannen in the context of human religious history, Japanese historians of religion may use the word as a convenient catchall equivalent to the English "sacred," referring to any religious object, from the metaphysically supernatural God of Christianity to the most abstract sense of numen lying at the root of the experience of mysterium tremendum. In the narrower context of Japan, however, and particularly in the hands of most Shintoists, the term kami kannen refers, with few exceptions, to their own tradition's historical and normative understandings of the place and contents of the kami concept in Japanese religion and society. And as will be immediately apparent by a glance at the table of contents, it is this, the broadly "Shinto" interpretation of the "kami concept" which forms the focus of the articles in the present volume.

2. The Kami Concept and God

If the English "deity" has limited or questionable usefulness as a rendering of the Japanese kami, the rendering as "God" is clearly even more inapt. At the time of Japan's first contact with Europeans and Christianity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, however, little confusion was occasioned between the Europeans' concept of Christian God and the local Japanese kami, since early Roman Catholic missionaries made the decision to render their religion's concept of a supreme being by means of Chinese Neo-Confucian terminology like tenshu and jôtei.5

Individually personalized Japanese kami, by contrast, appear to have been identified as ancient men and women ("lords and kings of ancient times") who were enshrined due to their superb achievements. The Europeans seem to have perceived (or been taught) little distinction between such obviously mythological figures as Izanagi[Glossary: izanagi] and Izanami[Glossary: izanami] ("the first man and woman") and historical personages like Kôbô Daishi. Of additional interest, some of the Europeans interpreted the Japanese kami through the conceptual vocabulary of Greek mythology. Luis Frois, for example, referred to Benkei as the "Hercules of Japan," and Richard Cocks described Edo's Atago shrine as being dedicated to a "god of darknes (or hell), as the antientes called Pluto."6

Some of these characterizations were more apt than others, but confusion between the God of Christianity and the Japanese kami concept was at this point largely avoided.

The situation changed considerably, however, throughout the subsequently Edo period, as Nativist scholars felt the impact of discussions of Christian concepts through the medium of "Dutch learning" (rangaku),7 and the situation was confused even further by the introduction of Protestant Christianity around the time of the Meiji Restoration. It is now a commonplace that much of the blame for the current confusion revolving around the notion of kami can be focused on the historical decision to use kami to translate the concept of God in Protestant versions of the Christian Bible made in 1859 and 1862.8 As a result of this choice, scholars of Shinto continue today to criticize the mistaken association of the Japanese term kami with "God," lamenting that this mistranslation may even be resulting in a dilution of the original Japanese kami concept. Based on informal surveys taken in his university classes, for example, Shinto theologian Ueda Kenji estimates that nearly sixty-five percent of entering students now associate the Japanese term kami with some version of the Western concept of a supreme being.9

This criticism represents a valid concern, and is not merely a parochial response to Western cultural influence. As Joseph Kitagawa pointed out long ago in reference to the need for the application of both linguistic and historical methods to the study of Japanese religious history, "The ambiguous meaning of the term kami alone demands rigorous and multidimensional analysis and research. Its usual translation as "spirit" or "god" is quite unsatisfactory and misleading . . ."10 In short, the Shinto kami concept does not refer to a transcendent, "wholly other" principle or being apart from creation, but rather to a quality of being with full participation in the unity of existence.

In describing Japan's earliest mythos as lacking any creator deity or true creation myth, Ueda thus states that "both the Nihon shoki[Glossary: nihon_shoki] and Kojiki[Glossary: kojiki] speak of a preexisting substance from which the kami `became.' In short, kami in the Japanese language means the essence of being (sonzai no honshitsu), or that agency (hataraki) which gives being its fundamental being-ness (sonzai wo sonzai-tarashimeteiru). "11

At the same time, while all of existence may be infused with kami-nature, not all phenomena are recognized as kami. Only those which reveal the kami-nature best, as manifestations of awesome power are revered as kami. This underlines the ambiguous nature of the term, since it can be used to refer to an underlying quality or property that infuses existence ("kami-nature"), as an adjectival description of phenomena that exhibit the quality best (something is "kami-ish" or "awesome") and by extension as a noun to refer to such phenomena (something is a kami).

Granted that the notion of kami is inadequately, even mistakenly expressed by the Western "deity," "spirit," and "god," how should the concept then be understood in historical context? We must begin by admitting that not all the blame for ambiguity in the kami concept can be laid at the foot of mistranslations --- at least, not from the European languages alone. The earliest knowlege we have of the kami concept comes from the earliest Japanese classics, works like the Nihon shoki, Kojiki and Fudoki[Glossary: fudoki], which in their written style and contents were already influenced by continental religious ideas. In addition, the early Japanese religious cosmos was not populated by kami alone, but other religious entities as well, such as mono, tama, chi and mi, and the status of these entities, and their relationship to kami has never been decided upon to the satisfaction of all Japanese scholars.12

3. The Kami Concept and the Supernatural

What most observers are in agreement with, at any rate, is the fact that the Japanese cosmos represented a unitary, metaphysically undivided world, and was not characterized by the kind of bifurcation into metaphysically distinct realms of nature and supernature, body and spirit that characterize much of Western religious experience. In fact, it is this, more than any other factor, which militates against the application of Western philosophical and religious "god" concepts which most often imply such a metaphysical distinction. Whatever kami was used to mean, it did not refer --- at least in ancient times --- to beings of a metaphysically distinct category. For example, it is also well known that the religious ideas introduced from China and India --- those of Buddhism, in particular --- were not comprehended as indicating a radically new metaphysical order. The earliest records locate Buddhist objects of worship firmly within the conceptual vocabulary of the native Japanese kami concept, calling the Buddha a "neighboring kami" or "foreign kami."13

The Japanese worldview did involve two aspects or phases, a "visible world" (kenkai) and"invisible world" (yûkai), but these two realms were not metaphysically distinct. Instead, as Muraoka Tsunetsugu notes, "While we say the yûkai was invisible, it was thought of as having substance like a kind of shadow."14 Yûkai was thus sometimes conceived of as a place distantly removed, but still on this earth. Even the "otherworldly" realms of Takamagahara, the High Plain of Heaven[Glossary: takama_no_hara] populated by the heavenly kami and Tokoyo (the "everlasting world"), were "portrayed in outline as extensions or reflections of the phenomenal world and were not glorified as having a greater value than the human world."15

The "pure lands" of Buddhism were likewise not comprehended as transcendent states, but physical places located somewhere on an extension from everyday life. In the Heian period, funereal boats were thus launched from Kumano in the conviction that their occupants would reach the Pure Land of the bodhisattva Kannon, and some Buddhist followers even set off themselves in similar small craft, sacrificing themselves in the belief that the Pure Land lay just over the ocean.16

The thin wall lying between the visible and invisible worlds was reflected as well in the concept of tama; it was believed that "inside kami and human bodies was a semi-spiritual, semi-physical ether-like substance which possessed a mysterious efficacy or agency (reimyô na hataraki), and this substance was called mitama[Glossary: mitama] or tamashibi.17

It can be argued that the description of "semi-spiritual, semi-physical" meant the substance was in fact neither, since neither an entirely "physical," nor the opposite, an entirely "spiritual" category appears to have been part of the conceptual vocabulary. Ueda hints of the same point when he says that all things in existence were fundamentally capable of displaying kami quality, making them neither sheerly physical matter, nor metaphysically spirit: "the Japanese had no word to indicate sheer "matter" (busshitsu) in the Western sense. As intimated by the term mono no ke [lit., the "aura of a thing"; a spectre], even the word mono [thing] was thought to refer to a kind of spiritual being (reiteki na sonzai). Namely, all things were conceived of as spiritual existence, which existed in a relationship of mutual effect on human beings, and those which possessed particularly awesome agency were the tama [spirit] revered as kami."18

As a result, Hirai Naofusa's remark that "in ancient Japanese the word kami was used adjectivally to mean something mysterious, supernatural, or sacred"19 is correct in its description of the mysterious and adjectival aspects of the term, but I suggest that care must be exercised in the use of words like "supernatural" if we are to avoid imputing to the early Japanese specialized metaphysical conceptions of physical Nature and transcendent Supernature.

As noted above, the word kami was used both as a substantive refering to "things" (mono) which demonstrated the kami-like agency, and also as an adjectival description of the trait or agency itself, a certain extraordinary quality, almost a physical attribute, of phenomena existing in ordinary experience, and which aroused a certain response. In that sense, most Shintoists agree that the most cogent definition of kami, and the one which best expresses the subjective quality of the experience, remains the description given by Motoori Norinaga[Glossary: motoori_norinaga](1730-1801) in his Kojiki-den[Glossary: kojiki-den] :

I do not yet well understand the meaning of the word kami (and all the old explanations are wrong), but in general, the word kami refers to, first of all, the various kami of heaven in earth spoken of in the classics, and the spirits [mitama] enshrined in their shrines, and it goes without saying that it also refers to people, and even birds and beasts and grass and trees, ocean and mountains --- and anything else which has superior and extraordinary power, provoking awe. Here, "superb" means not only superior in nobility and goodness, but also awe-inspiring things of great evil and weirdness, anything which provokes a high degree of wonder.

Of people, those called kami of course include the most exalted lineage of emperors, who are called "distant kami" since they are so far removed from the ordinary person, and worthy of reverence. Then there are the human kami, who existed long ago and also at present; a certain number of human kami exist in each province, village, and house, each in accord with his or her station.

The kami of the age of kami [jindai] were also mostly men of that time, and since all the people of that age were kami, it is called the "age of kami." Of those things which were not men, for example, lightning was known as a "sounding kami" [narukami], and the "sound of kami" [kaminari], so also the dragon and tree spirits, and foxes, since they were uncommonly mysterious, were called kami. . .

There were also many occasions on which mountains and oceans were called kami; this does not mean that a spirit [mitama] indwelling the mountain was called kami, but that the mountain itself, or the ocean itself, was kami, and this, too, because of their superbly awe-inspiring quality.

In this way, kami are of manifold varieties, some noble and some base, some strong and some weak, some good and some evil, each being immediately in accord with its own mind and behavior.20

This definition, which undoubtedly bears a striking resemblance to the concept of mana,21 is all the more noteworthy for its rejection of sheer linguistic evidence --- Motoori's forté --- in favor of a pyschological profile of the word's meaning in use, namely as a description of the kinds of phenomenon which might arouse the subjective sentiment of awe and wonder --- the mysterium tremendum or "dreaded unknown." As a result, other Edo-period thinkers like Arai Hakuseiand Ise Sadatake may have been mistaken in interpreting kami from an assumed etymological association with "upper" (kami), but their musings likewise did not depend entirely on the (mistaken) understanding of linguistic affinity, but on an apprehension of how the term was actually used, namely, as a reference to the functional or phenomenological attribute of "superior."

In this context, Motoori's definition of kami seems to have in common with the Latin usage of religio more of a function as an adjectival reference to the various kinds of things which stimulate a certain attitude or response, than as the description of an essence or substance.22 This perspective may make it possible to interpret Shinto "polytheism," often expressed as Yaoyorozu no kami ("eight- million myriads of kami") not merely as "countless gods," but rather as countless phenomena capable of arousing the recognition of powerful, non-everyday presence.

In the classics, kami are found both as personalized beings and impersonal quality, but it is well known that the latter examples are by far more numerous. For instance, while the Jinmyôchô (Book of kami) within the early tenth-century Engishiki[Glossary: engi_shiki] does include the names of personalized deities in a few shrines of the capital region and a certain limited number of other locales, these are far outweighed by those kami which are referred to only by the name of their shrine, or merely called by the name of the place where they were located, as in the "kami of so-and-so location." This practice seems to be a reflection of a period in which kami-ness was used less frequently to refer to reified personalities than as a pointer to the quality of any phenomenon which aroused the numinous response. In Harada Toshiaki's words,

Such cases are not merely the result of an oversight in listing the deity's name, but rather of the fact that it was considered fully sufficient to refer simply to kami, indicating that it was ujigami[Glossary: ujigami] of that locality. In short, these kami did not possess such conspicuous individuality that they necessitated the affixing of personalizing names."23

Harada elsewhere notes that while the word kami is most frequently used in the classics as a noun, either standing alone or attached to other nouns, it can also be found in applications where it plays a role of a "word or modifier affixed to express the possession of a kind of numinous quality or capacity."

For example, the expression kami-Susanoo no mikoto[Glossary: susanoo_no_mikoto] does not mean "Susanoo who is a kami" but rather "Susanoo no mikoto who is so kami-like in nature [Susanoo no mikoto no kami-teki na koto]" or his "numinous quality (sono shinpiteki na seishitsu)." Likewise, in the case of the place name Kami-Asajigahara, it does not mean "the Asajigahara where the kami lives" nor "the Asajigahara under the dominion of the kami," but rather represents a marveling accolade to Asajigahara, describing the perception of numinous presence in the wide expanse of the plains there. It can also be attached to a verbal, as in Kamutsudoi or Kamihogi --- these words do not actually mean "a gathering of the kami" or "the kami delivers a blessing," but rather serve to point to a gathering, or activity of benediction in which ordinary people perceive something with extraordinary numinosity or power.24

In short, Harada concludes that it is most likely that the original sense of kami did not include the personalized sense of "deity" that would later come to characterize the jingi[Glossary: jingi]. In most cases, even when used alone, it referred to no more than a vague presence with little personalization or individuality. Even expressions like araburukami (rampaging kami) or takekikami (mighty kami), and occasions when the word kami is used to refer directly to natural phenomena like sea and mountains represent "nothing more than an indication of numinous qualities stemming from the emotion of awe toward such phenomena."25

4. The Kami Concept, Imperial Kami-Nature, and Religious Legitimation

While it is not difficult to understand the Shinto claim of an immanent (non-transcendent) kami-nature, that quality alone may not explain the devotion which Shinto apologists pay to it --- particularly in the context of their criticisms of the association of kami with words like deity and god. The criticism appears at times to go beyond a mere reluctance to adjust to changing metaphysical paradigms, or parochial concerns for not having their own religious terminology and concepts tainted by those of a foreign tradition. On the contrary, I want to briefly consider whether the debate over the content of kami --- whether it refers to an immanent agency of power and the ground of existence, or to a metaphysically transcendent, supernatural "god" --- might not be considered a pointer to the way in which Shinto apologists consider Japanese society --- most importantly, the relationship of emperor and subjects --- to be legitimated.

In that context, one factor which has a clear role in the context of Shinto distaste for the word "god" as a translation for kami is the interpretation of Emperor Showa's so-called "Renunciation of Divinity" (or Declaration of Humanity), issued as an Imperial Rescript on January 1, 1946. The crucial lines of the Rescript state that the "ties between Us and Our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine . . ."26 While the Japanese word translated as "divine" here is the Japanese term akitsumikami ("kami which has appeared in reality," or "manifest kami," a traditional referent for the emperor), some Shintoists have suggested that what the emperor was really denying was the notion that he was a transcendent deity modeled after the Christian God, and that as such, the declaration was meaningless, based as it was on a "misunderstanding" of the nature of kami. Ueda Kenji, for example, states that the emperor's Declaration of Humanity is sometimes taken as a rationale for a denial of emperor worship, but "this is fundamentally an error. The error is the result, primarily, of confusion between the Christian concept of an absolute god and traditional Japanese beliefs."27

In other words, Emperor Showa was denying that he was a supernatural supreme being, not that he had kami-nature (which in any case would be largely dependent upon his subjects' own subjective perception of his "non-everyday power"). For example, Ueda elsewhere states that

Postwar journalists have portrayed the Rescript issued on January 1, 1946 as indicating the emperor's own denial of his kami status (shinkaku-sei) and proclaimation of his humanity. This is correct in a sense, but from another perspective, it is fundamentally mistaken. When I say it is correct in a sense, I mean that it is only a matter of course that the emperor is a human and not a kami in the sense that Westerners mean it. In the history of the Japanese emperors, it has never been said that the emperor is not a human being. The problem, in fact, is the word kami. Sad to say, the Japanese people have forgotten that the word kami is pure Japanese --- Yamato-kotoba.28

If it was the status of kami "as Westerners mean it" that the emperor was denying, then he denied nothing, since he had never claimed to be a God in that sense, anyway.

In fact, of course, the claim that a "misunderstanding" voids the significance of the "Declaration of Humanity" must be counted a red herring, since it is doubtful the Allied architects of the Shinto Directive and those who supported the issuance of the Declaration were arguing against private Japanese religious beliefs, and a "correct" understanding of kami in accordance with the theories of Motoori, Ueda, and other Shinto theoreticians would not likely have resulted in a change in their policy orientation at all. Rather, they were attempting to modify Japanese socio-political behavior, namely what they considered to be the attitude of unquestioning submission to the emperor (as kami, however defined), which they believed had been of singular importance in supporting Japanese militarism. The perception itself was, of course, not new to the framers of the Shinto Directive and the Declaration. Their findings were based specifically on Holtom's work published in 1937, while the general observation that State Shinto[Glossary: kokka_shinto] represented the artificial creation of a "new religion" fostering emperor-worship and demanding unquestioning loyalty and subservience had been made already by Aston in 1912.29

While the emperor's status as kami has never been that of a transcendent, supernatural supreme being, the title of "manifest kami" (akitsumikami) suggests that it is in the emperor that elemental "kami nature" is most completely revealed. That quality, together with his status as direct lineal descendant of Amaterasu ômikami[Glossary: amaterasu_omikami] --- the highest kami with nearest proximity to the original "essence of being" (kami-nature) --- gives him the legitimacy and capability to act as a symbol of national integration, reconciling and harmonizing the various estates of the Japanese social order, in the same way that Amaterasu is described as acting as a harmonizing influence on the Plain of High Heaven. Ueda thus describes Shinto as a polytheistic

faith which sees the holy within each and every particular being. As a result, if everything were left to itself, it would fall apart in confusion and disarray, with the upshot that it would even be impossible for each individual being to demonstrate its own particular agency to full effect. There simply must be some integrating center.30

The role of that "integrating center," in turn, is played by Amaterasu and her descendants:

Shinto never proposed a belief in a monotheistic, absolute, omnipotent, omniscient God like that of Christianity. Even the highest kami in Shinto, Amaterasu ômikami, was fearful of the raging behavior of Susanoo no mikoto, and hid herself away in the Rock Cave of Heaven . . . . [with the result that] "heaven and earth were plunged into darkness, and various evil kami began their disorder, with all manners of disasters occurring. Amaterasu ômikami is thus spoken of only in terms of the harmony of the Plain of High Heaven, as the central, divine quality of integration."31

This description of Shinto "polytheism" as a system of diverse particulars harmonized around an integrating, universalizing center appears to be a crucial pillar of Ueda's position, and forms the other side of the Shinto denial of a supernatural God that stands outside his creation as source of legitimation and judgment. If all beings --- including the kami --- are less than absolute, and exist within a unitary, relativized world, then no absolute God can exist as an object of prayerful petition, or as the ultimate source of transcendental legitimation for social action.32 Instead, legitimation would appear to be immanent in the hierarchy of the Japanese social system itself, namely, a function of one's "proximity" to the line of descent linked most intimately to the original ground of being from which kami and all other existence derives.

In short, while neither omnipotent nor equivalent to the "original essence" from which the world emerged, Amaterasu remains the kami closest to that essence, and thus the highest and most noble of all, model for all other kami, and for her descendants, the historical emperors, who, in turn, serve as exemplars for their subjects. Anzu Motohiko thus states that

Amaterasu ômikami is not an absolute, omnipotent kami, but she is the highest and noblest of them all . . . (she) possesses the mighty authority (iryoku) which serves as exemplar for all the other kami (kamigami o shite kamigami tarashimeru). That mighty authority is the very truth of Amaterasu's divine might and virtuous power. In relationship to the emperor this means that the emperor is the exemplar for the people (kokumin o shite kokumin tarashimeru), the Sumera-mikoto, the most noble and exalted personage. 33

But the emperor does not only model himself after Amaterasu. One feature of the principle of legitimacy via proximity to the highest kami essence, if it can be so called, is reflected in certain themes of the enthronment rites (Daijôsai), whereby the crown prince becomes a "true" emperor" via union with Amaterasu:

The emperor is the direct descendant of Amaterasu ômikami; it is a commonplace to followers of Shinto that the ritual of Daijôsai, in which the Crown Prince accedes to the status of emperor, is a mystical rite in which the emperor becomes united with Amaterasu ômikami, and it thus represents the highest ceremony incorporating the most fundamental meanings of Shinto doctrine. If one looks into the essence of the emperor as revealed in the classics, one must first look into the kami status of Amaterasu ômikami as revealed by the classics. If one can understand even a bit of the divine might and virtuous power of Amaterasu ômikami, then one can, via that understanding, begin to grasp a bit of the essence of the emperor, who becomes united with Amaterasu ômikami.34

Unlike the legitimacy of a personal conscience informed by a transcendent God, legitimacy via proximity to and descent from the ultimate kami essence is not available directly to all. As expressed in the third of the "Three Principles of a Reverent Life" (issued by the Association for Shinto Shrines in 1950), the follower of Shinto is enjoined to "Gratefully receive the emperor's mind and will . . ." A strict reading suggests that these articles of faith for postwar Shintoists invite the Shinto believer to accept as his own personal mind and will the "mind and will of the emperor," throwing into ambiguity the legitimacy of action which goes against prevailing social standards.

Finally, I would suggest that a number of aspects of the worldview expressed here can be compared with what some Japanese scholars have called the "vitalistic" concept of salvation in the new religions. Such a comparison should not be surprising, given the fact that both shrine Shinto and the new religions have emerged from the same bed of Japanese folk belief. Since an in-depth treatment goes beyond the purposes of this paper, let me note just a two motifs of similarity.

First, and like the Shinto cosmology expressed earlier by Ueda, the vitalistic concept has been described as viewing the cosmos as "a living body or a life force with eternal fertility. Sometimes it is perceived as a deity . . . . the whole universe is grasped as one living body. And from this stems the notion that all things are harmonious, interdependent, mutually sympathetic, and constantly growing."35 According to this worldview, social and personal unhappiness arises as the result of selfish egos, and can be rectified only by restoring one's harmony with the Original Life, repenting and recovering a pure heart, ridding oneself of selfishness and renewing feelings of gratitude for the beneficence provided by the Original Life.36 (Emphasis added)

Second, and even most striking, however, is the characteristic feature of this paradigm whereby most of the founders of new religions gain their legitimacy via claims to be "living gods" (ikigami) who have achieved ultimate proximity to the "Original Life" by a mystical experience of unification with that primary essence. The prototypical example might be Kurozumi Munetada[Glossary: kurozumi_munetada]'s experience of "direct receipt of the heavenly mandate," in which he opened his mouth and gulped in, directly, the yôki or "yang essence" representing the original life.37 Kurozumi was claiming, in effect, his own version of a special experience of "union with Amaterasu," no less than that which Anzu claims for the emperor in the Daijôsai.

This kind of comparison may provide us with a clue toward understanding the frequent appearance of imperial motifs in the postwar new religions, in particular, and provides a way of viewing the changing currents of religious legitimation in postwar Japan.

According to Ueda, Shinto does not view the real world as perfect, but neither does it look for a perfection lying outside this world in some other, transcendent reality. Only by harmonizing the diverse wills of all people beneath the centering, integrating kami-power embodied in the heir to Amaterasu's line will there result social and personal stability, co-production and the fruitful development of all of life: "This has been the reality of Japanese life demonstrated through history. The emperor, as the center, or centripetal force harmonizing those various powers, has existed as the fervent symbol of the people's happiness, and of the safety and identity (dôitsusei) of the nation."38

Lacking transcendence, the Japanese kami concept is interpreted by Shinto theologians like Ueda as representing the immanent agency and "becomingness" of all existing things, an agency which manifests itself in phenomena of non-everyday, awe-inspiring power. In turn, that agency is viewed as being manifest most completely in this world in the person of the emperor, as a result of his direct lineage from Amaterasu ômikami, and by virtue of his union with Amaterasu in the Daijôsai. If so, then that fact alone helps explain why some Shinto ideologues continue to so resolutely emphasize imperial veneration as a crucial pillar of Shrine Shinto; lacking a transcendental source of value, the emperor, with his ties to Amaterasu, serves as core source of legitimation for the traditional Japanese society and state. This thus suggests ways in which the kami concept is relevant not only as an object of worship within Japanese Shinto, but also as a crucial factor in debates over social criticism, and as an element relevant to certain reoccurring themes in the new religious movements as well.


1. Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1987), s.v., "Shintô."

2. Shûkyôgaku jiten (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1973.

3. Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v., "Deity."

4. Ôno Susumu , Hitogo no jiten: kami (Tokyo: Sanseido, 1997), 7.

5. Ibid, 82ff. Also see the articles by Sasaki Kiyoshi and Inoue Nobutaka in this volume for other examples of how the Christian concept of God may have been apprehended by late-Tokugawa period Japanese.

6. Michael Cooper, comp. and annot., They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (Berkeley: University of California Press: 1965), 300, 298, 303.

7. In addition to Sasaki Kiyoshi's article in this volume, see Ueda Kenji, "The Monotheistic Tendency in Shinto Faith," Acta Asiatica, no. 51 (Studies on Shinto) (Tokyo: The Tôhô Gakkai, 1987), 77-95.

8. Ôno Susumu, Ibid, Hitogo no jiten: kami, 83-5. It is not irrelevant to remember that this was around the same time that the Western concept of a separate arena of life called "religion" was introduced to Japan via the newly coined term shûkyô.

9. Ueda Kenji , Shintô shingaku (Tokyo: Jinja Shinpôsha, 1990), 20-22.

10. Joseph Kitagawa, "Prehistoric Background of Japanese Religion," On Understanding Japanese Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 36. Originally published in History of Religions 2:2 (Winter, 1963), 292-328.

11. Ueda Kenji, "Shôchô Tennôsei no michi to Nihon no michi" [The way of the symbolic imperial institution, and the way of Japan], in Shinpojiumu: Gendai tennô to Shintô [Symposium: The modern emperor and Shinto], Tamaru Noriyoshi, ed. (Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 1990), 123.

12. Kitagawa renders tama and mono as "souls and spirits," and notes that they "were often interfused with the notion of kami." See "Paradigm Change in Japanese Buddhism," in On Understanding Japanese Religion, 261. In a more extended discussion of these entities in the same volume, Kitagawa states that early documents like the Kojiki, Nihongi, and the Fudoki "used these terms, kami, mikoto, tama and mono and chi (shi) almost interchangeably." See his "Religion and State in Early Japan," 121.

13. See for example Kiyoko Motomachi Nakamura, transl. and ed., Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition: the Nihon ryôiki of the Monk Kyôkai. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, vol. 20 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 112. Here, what Nakamura translates as "pagan images" is marôdogami in the original. See also Usami Masatoki, "Gohôzenshin kara honji suijaku e (Nara - Heian) ()," in Kôza Shintô no. 1, Kamigami no tanjô to tenkai, Shimode Sekiyo and Tamamuro Fumio, eds. (Tokyo: Ôfûsha, 1991), 183, for a similar account in the Nihon shoki.

14. Muraoka Tsunetsugu, Muraoka Tsunetsugu Chosakushû Kankôkai, ed., Shintôshi, Nihon shisôshi kenkyû , vol. 1 (Tokyo: Sôbunsha, 1956), 9.

15. Hirai Naofusa, "Shintô," in Encyclopedia of Religion.

16. Wada Atsumu, "Kumano no genzô" in idem., ed., Kumano gongen (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1988), 32.

17. Muraoka Tsunetsugu, Shintôshi, 9.

18. Ueda Kenji, "Shôchô Tennôsei no michi to Nihon no michi," 123.

19. Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1987), s.v., "Shintô"

20. Standard translations of this passage can be found in Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore deBary and Donald Keene, comps., Sources of Japanese Tradition 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 21-22, and D.C. Holtom, The National Faith of Japan: A Study in Modern Shinto (reprinted in H. Byron Earhart, Religion in the Japanese Experience: Sources and Interpretations [Belmont, CA, 1997], 10-11).

21. H. Byron Earhart remarks that Motoori's definition "may be taken to stand as a remarkable and almost classical definition of the now widely used term mana." Religion in the Japanese Experience: Sources and Interpreta-tions, 10.

22. Wilfred Cantwell Smith discusses this sense of religio in his The Meaning and End of Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978 (1962), 18.

23. Adapted from Harada Toshiaki, "The Origin of Rites of Worship within the Local Community," in Inoue Nobutaka, ed., Norman Havens, translator, Matsuri: Festival and Rite in Japanese Life (Tokyo: Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University, 1988), 27.

24. Harada Toshiaki, "Jôdai kamikan no shosô" [Aspects of the kami concept in ancient Japan] Nihon kodai shûkyô (Tokyo: Chûô Kôronsha, 1970), 97-98.

25. Ibid., 100.

26. From William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions, reprinted in H. Byron Earhart, Religion in the Japanese Experience (above, note 14), 43-44. The original Japanese can be found in Gendai tennô to Shintô (above, note 11), p. 258.

27. Ueda Kenji, Shintô shingaku, p. 6.

28. Gendai tennô to Shintô, 122.

29. Abe Yoshiya, "Hirugaette Heisei jidai no shûkyô no kadai o tou" [[Second thoughts about religious issues in the Heisei era], in Gendai tennô to Shintô, 48-50.

30. Ueda Kenji, Gendai tennô to Shintô, 123-124.

31. Ibid, 124.

32. J.W.T. Mason suggests that "there are no prayers in a religious sense in Shinto, for prayers are petitions from humanity to a separated deity. Shinto does not separate humanity from divinity and ecclesiastical praying is therefore impossible in pure Shinto. Shinto priests recite norito[Glossary: norito], which are forms of paying respect and expressing gratitude for divine spirit's assistance to divine spirit, somewhat as we return thanks for man's help to man." See The Meaning of Shinto, (Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat Press, 1935, 1967), 92.

33. Anzu Motohiko, Shintô to Nihonjin [Shinto and the Japanese] (Tokyo: Jinja Shinpôsha, 1986), 21-22.

34. Ibid, 16.

35. Tsushima Michihito, Nishiyama Shigeru, Shamazono Susumu, and Shiramizu Hiroko, "The Vitalistic Conception of Salvation in Japanese New Religions: An Aspect of Modern Religious Consciousness," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6:1-2 (March-June, 1979), 142.

36. Ibid, 147.

37. Helen Hardacre, Kurozumikyô and the New Religions of Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, 54.

38. Gendai tennô to Shintô, 124.

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