[Table of Contents]

Evolution of the Concept of KamiI

ITÔ Mikiharu

1. Introduction

A truly remarkable variety of kami make their appearance in the mythic world of the early Shinto classics Kojiki[Glossary: kojiki] and Nihon shoki[Glossary: nihon_shoki]: kami of heaven (amatsukami[Glossary: amatsukami]) and kami of earth (kunitsu-kami[Glossary: kunitsukami]), human kami and "animistic" natural kami of sea and mountain, ancestral kami of the imperial house and those worshiped by powerful local lords. In the myths, the imperial ancestor deity Amaterasu is placed at center stage, with the tales and legends of various other kami woven around her. It bears repeating that behind that structure lay the strong impetus of the religion (i.e., political ideology) of the Yamato court[Glossary: yamato_chotei] and its conscious designs for national unification.1

The myths in Kojiki and Nihon shoki were subjected to a considerable degree of systematization on the basis of this ideology, and the same can be said for the concept of kami as it is expressed in those myths.

In all likelihood, the elaboration of that interpretation of kami and the divine lineages based on it was a process which began prior to, and continued into the period of the compilation of the two mythic classics, but the world of the kami that unfolds in those classics nonetheless represents a tangled web. New and old, great and small --- a manifold variety of kami appear, and the overall scheme that emerges is not always wholly consistent. With that proviso in mind, I want to consider the way in which the concept of kami is developed within the divine world of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki.

2. Divine Coexistence and Integration --- the World of Deities in the Indigenous Religions of Southeast Asia.

The agricultural peoples of Southeast Asia possess a widespread concept of a kind of spirit or soul called phi. According to the ethnologist Iwata Keiji, the Thai and Lao peoples believe that phi dwell not only in humans, but in plants, animals, and even in mineral matter, and they discriminate between these various beings by referring to "the phi of a human," "the phi of an animal," "the phi of the river," "the phi of a tree," the phi of a rock," "the phi of a cave," and so forth. Further, two kinds of phi are recognized, the "good phi" which are friendly to humans and other living beings, and the "evil phi" which may invade the human body and cause sickness. The phi which reside within humans and rice are also called by the name khwan.2

The fact that the khwan dwells in rice the same way as it does in human beings is likely a reflection of the important role rice plays as staff of life for these agriculturalists; according to the Thai way of thinking, the khwan first enters the human being on the third day after birth, and it gains power as the individual grows from childhood to maturity. And so long as the khwan is settled within the body, the individual remains healthy and happy. Should the khwan leave the body, however, the individual will fall sick and encounter misfortune.

Similar to the way that the khwan which indwells humans is crucial for human life, the khwan of the rice is indispensable for the preservation and maturation of the rice, and a poor harvest will result if the khwan departs from the rice. It should be noted that the khwan of rice is thought of as feminine, and when personalized, goes by the name mâe phoosòb, or "mother of the rice"; it is she that is believed responsible for bringing about an abundant harvest.3

This kind of vague belief in spirits or souls like the supernatural beings called phi and khwan is found widely throughout continental Southeast Asia. The belief in semangat among the Malay peoples reported by W.W. Skeat4 and A.C Kruijt5 around the beginning of this century likely involves the same basic conception as phi and khwan, but the supernatural worldview of the swidden agriculturist Lamet people in northwest Laos is rather more complicated.

According to the ethnologist Izikowitz, the Lamet peoples believe in supernatural beings called mbrog, prierr, si, and klupu. Mbrog is a synonym for prierr, and refers to a nature spirit or the soul of a dead person; frequently, the Lao word phi is used instead of the native mbrog. Further, although it is said that si means a ghost (the spirit of a dead person), while klupu corresponds to soul, their concepts of supernatural beings are, in fact, rather more complexly woven, as illustrated by their use of mbrog yig and mbrog mar for "village spirit" and "field spirit," prierr om and prierr ta for "river spirit" and "valley spirit," si-ep gael and si-ep pog) for "fire spirit" and "ash spirit," and phi moit and phi senog for "mountain spirit" and "spirit of the plain."

Further, inasmuch as it is limited to humans and rice, the Lamet concept of soul, klupu, is similar to the Thai khwan; but it appears that concepts of spirit and soul are not clearly differentiated in their minds, with the result that the supernatural being dwelling in the rice is called both the "soul of rice" (klupu go) and "spirit of rice" mbrog go.6

In short, a variety of supernatural beings appear in the world of indigenous Southeast Asian religion, and those entities maintain an easy concourse with the world of human beings. In turn, I find this issue suggestive in the context of the ancient Japanese concept of kami for a number of reasons. First, before compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, it is likely that the Japanese people widely venerated minor kami rooted in the same kinds of animistic conceptions of ambiguous spirits or souls as appear in the indigenous religious world of Southeast Asia.

Second, as various minor deities evolved in Southeast Asia, one can detect a process whereby those deities were integrated and came into coexistence, presenting us with suggestive material for comparision with the Japanese case.

According to Iwata Keiji, the minor deities worshiped by the Thai, Lao, Lamet, and Khmer peoples are not always uniform in nature, and he suggests that difference is a reflection of differences in the means of subsistence of those peoples. Within the hunting-gathering way of life, the concept of supernatural existence remains at a rudimentary stage, but when the way of life develops to incorporate larger-scale hunting activities and swidden agriculture, minor animistic kinds of deities begin to be found in coexistence. And when that lifestyle develops to center on hydraulic rice agriculture, with the concomitant formation of village, tribal and national societies, a process of selection, differentiation, and ultimately, syncretism occurs within the system of minor deities. Labeling this process one of "evolution," Iwata suggests a pattern whereby primitive kami evolve to be discriminated as kami of land, ancestors, and rice.7 It should also be noted here that the term kami as used here by Iwata refers to the concept of "spirit" [seirei] or soul [reikon] approximating the ancient Japanese notion of tama.

What is of particular interest is Iwata's suggestion that changes occurred in the concept of kami in conjunction with changes in a people's ecosystem and corresponding shifts in the social system, whereby minor animistic deities evolved from a state of mere coexistence, through functional differentiation, to integration. Specifically, with evolution in the form of social integration, kami are imbued with more diverse powers and integrated, rising from the status of agricultural tutelaries and protectors of local community life to the status of national protectors. And together with that process, the status of kami within folk culture changes from one of vague spiritual presences to "deities," which are worshiped as powerful and noble divine beings.8 How the origins of Japanese culture are related to the culture of Southeast Asia is not yet fully clear, with the result that we must remain cautious at any attempt to draw direct parallels between the ancient Japanese world of kami and the spiritual beings found throughout Southeast Asia. At the same time, the world of minor deities of the Thai and Lao peoples, and the hypothesis regarding those deities suggested by Iwata may provide important hints toward our understanding of the complex world of kami characterizing the period before and around the compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki.

According to Minamoto Ryôen, it was during Japan's prehistoric Jômon period that the concept of kami took shape, rooted in animism and animatism, and the worship of nature spirits called chi, mi, and tama.9 In that context, a considerable number of the kami appearing in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki are suggestive of the minor deities found in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, it is also possible to recognize kami in the Japanese classics which correspond to the tutelaries of the local community or nation as noted by Iwata. With one eye on these points, I want to consider the ancient Japanese concept of kami through the metaphors of a "coexistence" of minor deities and "integration" of major deities.

3. The Coexistence of Minor Deities

While it is almost impossible to achieve a uniform interpretation of all aspects of the kami concept as it unfolds within the myths of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, Motoori Norinaga[Glossary: motoori_norinaga]'s frequently cited definition is noteworthy as one attempt at a comprehensive interpretation of the kami concept.

According to Motoori, the term kami refers to the various deities of heaven and earth seen in the classics, together with all the spirits of shrines devoted to those kami. This category includes humans, of course, as well as varieties of birds and beasts, trees and grass, sea and mountain and all other "awe-provoking things which possess superlative power of an extraordinary kind." Further, by "superlative" Motoori means not only noble, good, and valorous, since evil and weird things, if they provoke superlative awe, are also called kami.

Among human beings, the emperors are kami, and other people may become kami. And among non-human things, for example thunder (kaminari) is by definition called the "sounding kami" (naru kami), while things like dragons, tree spirits, and foxes likewise are highly uncanny, and so are kami due to their ability to inspire awe. Further, the murmuring crags, and trees and grasses are likewise kami, while seas and mountains are also frequently called kami. In sum, the category kami includes both noble and base, strong and weak, good and evil, making it difficult to discuss them in any comprehensive way (Kojikiden[Glossary: kojiki-den], Part 3II).

The essence of Motoori's understanding of kami lies in his characterization of them as "superlatively awe-inspiring," but his description includes a number of other thought-provoking characterizations as well. One of those is his attention to the ambivalence of the kami concept, as reflected in the fact that kami demonstrate mutually opposing attributes such as good and bad, noble and base, honorable and despicable, strong and weak. But what I want to consider here is Motoori's focus on the diversity of kami, and the fact that he views them all --- animal kami and plant kami, kami of seas, mountains and other natural phenomena, human kami such as the kami of heaven and kami of earth --- as being uniformly characterized by their possession of superlative awe-provoking power. Unfortunately, in his determination to achieve this comprehensive grasp of the kami concept, Motoori provides little analysis of individual kami of nature.

It should be noted that while Motoori includes the term tama (spirit) as one of the awe-inspiring beings making up the category of kami, such spirits were apparently not originally considered the same as kami. On the contrary, they were more likely spirits or souls resembling the phi and khwan of Southeast Asia.

One of the kami appearing within the mythos of Kojiki and Nihon shoki is called Ukanomitama. This kami was apparently some kind of rice-spirit or rice-soul (inadama[Glossary: inadama]), but the characters used to write the name differ, depending on the version of the legend one consults. In the Kojiki, the kami is called Ukanomitama no kami, and described as the child of Susanoo, who wed Ôichihime following his expulsion from the Plain of High Heaven. As reflected in the name itself, Ukanomitama no kami carries with it the characteristic of being simultaneously both tama and kami.

On the other hand, within the Nihon shoki, different characters are used to express this same deity as Ukanomitama no mikoto or merely Ukanomitama. Ukanomitama no mikoto is described as having been produced after the procreative deities Izanaki and Izanami[Glossary: izanami] gave birth to the great-eight-island-nation[Glossary: oyashimaguni], when they were starving and without energy.III Ukanomitama, on the other hand, is said to have been produced as Izanaki killed the fire kami Kagutsuchi[Glossary: kagutsuchi] and the latter's blood poured out to stain some rocks.IV It is striking that in the former case, the deity is given the humanizing suffix mikoto,V while in the latter case, the implication is that Ukanomitama was originally a supernatural being separate from the category of kami.

Further, at that time, the uka of Ukanomitama was also read uke, so it appears that the deities Toyoukehime[Glossary: toyoukehime] and Toyoukanome no mikoto were also thought of as inadama (rice spirits). The deities Yafune-Kukuchi no mikoto and Yafune-Toyoukehime no mikoto appear within the ritual liturgy (norito[Glossary: norito]) for the Ôtono-hokai[Glossary: ohotonohokahi,_otono_hogai] ritual as found in the Engishiki[Glossary: engi_shiki]; the former is described as a kodama (tree spirit), while the latter is called an inadama.VI It might also be noted in passing that Yafune apparently referred to the container and lid used for enshrining a kodama or inadama when someone changed dwellings or built a new house.10

What I consider particularly relevant here is the fact that once again, the two kami here are interpreted as tama. In the Kojiki, (Yafune) Kukuchi no mikoto is called Kukunochi no kami and described as a tree kami, while in the Nihon shoki it is called Kukunochi and described as the "tree ancestor" (ki no oya), making it likely that the deity was originally understood as a tama dwelling in trees.

In the Nihon shoki, the earlier mentioned [Yafune] Toyoukehime no mikoto is called Toyoukebime no kami and described as the child of the deity Wakumusubi[Glossary: wakumusubi_no_kami]; once again, the deity is apparently viewed as a tama dwelling in rice. In a fragmentary passage from the Settsu no kuni fudoki[Glossary: fudoki], the origin of the mountain name Inakurayama is attributed to the legend that the deity Toyoukanome no kami dwelled in the mountain and amassed rice there, with the result that this deity Toyoukanome no kami may also have originally been viewed as an inadama.11

The ethnological historian Oka Masao states that ancient Japanese religion was composed of five categories of beliefs, including beliefs in mo or mono, tama, marebito[Glossary: marebito] (strange visitors from afar), kami, and worship of the heavenly bodies. Mo or mono referred to spiritual beings which existed within and were closely linked to physical objects or human bodies; tama were spirits which resided within human bodies (or occasionally within other objects), but were capable of entering and leaving their place of residence at will, almost as though the body were no more than a container; and kami were beings which normally existed in heaven but descended on contingent occasions to earth. 12When viewed in comparison to concepts of the sacred found within the indigenous religious world of Southeast Asia, the mo or mono described by Oka appear to correspond to the Southeast Asian phi, while tama and kami correspond to the khwan.

Oka speculates that these two sets, mo/mono and tama/kami originally formed differing religious morphologies. Whether his assessment is correct or not, it cannot be denied that substantial confusion is manifest in the concept of the sacred as expressed in the divine world of Kojiki and Nihon shoki. One evidence of that confusion is the fact that the supernatural beings referred to as tama are on occasion also called kami, a fact noted early on by Orikuchi Shinobu[Glossary: orikuchi_shinobu].

Orikuchi paid particular attention to the relationship between tama and kami within the ancient Japanese notion of the sacred. And he concluded that the two were originally different categories, but that a change occurred in the way tama was perceived, so that it came to be translated by the word kami instead. According to Orikuchi, tama originally referred to an abstract entity which revealed its form on contingent occasions. Later, however, it came to be viewed as having the two aspects of good and evil; the good side came to be known as kami, while the evil component was viewed as mono.13

Tama as understood by Orikuchi was a somewhat different entity from that described by Oka, representing a rather nebulous supernatural being akin to spirit or soul. Orikuchi likely assumed some kind of animism to lie behind the notion of tama, and the fact that the ostensible rice-spirit ukanomitama is found called by names like Ukanomitama no kami, Ukanomitama no mikoto, Toyoukenome no mikoto, or Toyoukehime may have been the result of the fact that, as Orikuchi concluded, the word kami had come to be used to represent the tama concept.

It seems undeniable that a good deal of confusion was occurring in the concepts of tama and kami during the period surrounding the compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki. And it may well be that deities with names like Ôkunimitama no kami and Ôkunitama no kami evolved from within just such a set of circumstances. And the fact that the so-called "tree spirit" Kukunochi likewise is described both as a "tree kami" and as a "tree ancestor" is likely a result of the fact that the distinction between tama and kami had already become obscured by that date.

In the period prior to compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, the various minor deities known as tama and kami must have been broadly worshiped as central figures within the spiritual world of that time. The various nature deities represented by kami of mountain, sea, wind and field were also minor divinities of this kind.

In the Kojiki, the kami of the sea is called Ôwatatsumi[Glossary: watatsumi] no kami[Glossary: owatatsumi_no_kami], the kami of the mountain is Ôyamatsumi no kami[Glossary: oyamatsumi_no_kami], the kami of wind as Shinatsuhiko no kami, and the kami of field as Kayanuhime no kami or Nozuchi no kami. Further, the kami of wind is said to be male while the kami of field is female. No doubt, such nature deities were --- in the same way as the "rice spirit" and "tree spirit" seen earlier --- formerly worshiped as minor deities.

The Yato no kami seen in the Namegata-gun section of the Hitachi no kuni fudoki can likewise be considered within the category of such minor deities. The Yato no kami were described as snakes, many of whom were said to live in fields near the government office for the county (gun). These snake-kami were the object of great fear, since it was said that if one laid eyes on such a kami, his family line would be exterminated.

During the reign of Emperor Keitai (r. 507-531), a man named Yahazu no uji no Matachi cleared a field of reeds in the valley west of the government office, planting rice fields there. In response, the Yato no kami there gathered its cohort kami and attempted by various means to impede the farming. Matachi grew enraged and killed the Yato no kami, simultaneously scattering the other deities in the gang. He then dug a furrow at the border of the mountain and erected a post there, declaring to Yato no kami, "From this point upward shall be the kami's land, but from here below are human fields. Henceforth, I shall be the kami's priest, offering you worship forever. In exchange, you must curse me no longer." With this, he built a shrine at the place and there enshrined the Yato no kami. The legend goes on to say that Matachi developed some ten chô of fields and that his descendants followed in his footsteps, continuing thereafter to offer worship to the Yato no kami.

This tale has an afterword: during the reign of Emperor Kôtoku(r. 645-654), a man named Mibunomuroji Maro occupied the same valley and erected a moat around the lake, whereupon the Yato no kami reappeared in force, climbing up oak trees on the banks of the lake and refusing to move.

Maro shouted in a loud voice, "I repair this lake for the sake of the people who live here. What kami is it that stands against this authority?" He then turned to the workers on the site and commanded them to "kill, without fear, any living thing you see, whether fish or creeping thing." As he finished saying these words, the divine snakes hid themselves away.

It is said that this tale of Yato no kami is a reflection of the political situation as the Yamato court spread into the northeast area of Japan and extended its central authority to those local regions. As a snake, the Yato no kami was a "rough deity" (araburu gami ), and the motif whereby it is later enshrined is striking. It is virtually certain that this kind of rough nature-kami was widely enshrined and worshiped in regions other than Hitachi Province as well.

According to the mythos, the local serpent deity of Izumo, Yamata-no-orochi[Glossary: yamata_no_orochi] was subdued by the kami Susanoo; Yamata was also a nature-kami like the Yato no kami, and within the pages of Kojiki and Nihon shoki, such nature-kami frequently take the shape of animals. For example, when Yamatotakeru[Glossary: yamatotakeru] no mikoto stopped to eat at the pass of Ashigara during his eastern campaign, the kami of the pass appeared to him as a white deer. Or again, the mountain kami of Ibuki was said to appear as a white boar. According to Ishida Ichirô, Yato no kami was one of a number of survivals from prehistoric Jômon-period kami which changed their form and attributes.14 The same may be true of the kami of seas, mountains, winds, and fields like Ôwatatsumi no kami, Ôyamatsumi no kami, Shinatsuhiko no kami, and Kayanuhime no kami. Before these deities were given such names within the official mythos, they may have been, like Yato no kami, fearsome nature deities which went unworshiped.

Within the mythic world of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, I think there were likely other tama and kami based upon animistic traditions, in addition to those minor kami I have already mentioned above. At a point considerably prior to the compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, an intimate rapport likely arose between such tama, kami, and human beings, much like the relationship found within the indigenous religious world of Southeast Asia. But as Harada Toshiaki has pointed out, when one limits one's remarks to the accounts of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, the difference between tama and kami was merely a matter of degree.15

This is mere speculation on my part, but it may be that the ancient Japanese concepts of tama and kami, like the mbrog and klupu concepts of the Lamet peoples, were in fact mutual composites, even while being superficially distinct on the level of folk categories. Here, I merely want to emphasize the fact that these two notions were equally personalized within the mythic world of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, and took root as the objects of worshipful activity.

4. The Integration of the Kami

I pointed out earlier that the divine world of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki gives clear indication of the strong religio-political ideology of the Yamato court, which was then attempting to bring unity to the ancient nation. And as part of that ideology, the ancestral deity Amaterasu, enshrined at the Grand Shrine of Ise[Glossary: ise_no_jingu], came to be installed at the center of the mythic world.

According to the Kojiki, Amaterasu was produced as Izanaki washed his left eye while bathing at Awagihara in Tachibana of Himuga. As transmitted by the myth of the heavenly cave[Glossary: ama_no_iwato], Amaterasu was also the paramount kami, symbolizing the sun. It might be noted that the Nihon shoki relates that after Izanaki and Izanami stated they would give birth to the lord of all, the first thing they produced was the sun kami, which was called variously Ôhirumemuchi, Amaterasu ômikami[Glossary: amaterasu_omikami], and Amaterasu ôhirume no mikoto.

It should also be noted that strangely little legendary material is found in the Kojiki and Nihon shoki regarding Amaterasu. The main stories worth mention include the birth of Amaterasu noted here, together with the division of rule among the three illustrious children and the story of how Amaterasu hid away in the rock cave of heaven. It appears, however, that worship of solar deities was widespread at that time, as evidenced by the presence of names including elements related to amateru in early documents.

For example, early works like Engishiki list shrines such as the Kagamitsukuri ni masu Amateru-mitama Shrine in Shikinoshimo of Yamato; the Konoshima ni masu Amateru-mitama Shrine in Kadono of Yamashiro; the Niiya ni masu Amateru-mitama Shrine in Shimanoshimo of Settsu; the Amateru-tama no Mikoto Shrine in Amata of Tanba; and the Ibo ni masu Amaterasu Shrine in Ibo of Harima. Similarly, the Sandai jitsuroku lists the deities Amateru-takahime no kami and Asahi-toyoakaruhime no kami, while a fragment of the Yamashiro no kuni fudoki includes the divine name Amateru-takamimusubi no mikoto.

All of these shrines and divine names reveal there was widespread belief in solar deities of the same kind as the imperial ancestral kami Amaterasu. A deity known merely as the "sun deity" (hi no kami) is also seen in references to the island of Tsushima. In that section of the Nihon shoki for the fourth month of the third year of Emperor Kenzô (r. 485-487), it is reported that the "sun deity" possessed a man named Abe no omi Kotoshiro and delivered an oracle, with the result that the deity was enshrined and served by the Atahi of Shimotsuagata in Tsushima. This sun deity is further identified as Amanohikami no mikoto, ancestral deity of the district lord (agatanushi) of Tsushima, and a deity which apparently came to be enshrined throughout the Kinai region as the result of various divine oracles.16

Other sun-related divine names like Hinome no kami also appear, making it even more likely that prior to the compilation of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, this kind of solar deity was worshiped by a broad spectrum of the populace centering on the capital provinces of the Kinai region. And the kami which served as the object of their worship was likely the same kind of nature-kami as the solar deity seen on Tsushima. The appearance of deities whose names include the character combination "Amateru" was likely a result of the integration of various minor local deities by the imperial ancestral deity Amaterasu --- the "politico-religious symbol" of the Yamato clan --- in conjunction with the unification of the ancient nation by the Yamato court. And the fact that the "sun deity" enshrined by Shimotsuagata no Atahi of Tsushima was spread throughout the capital provinces of Kinai can likewise be viewed as the result of the same kind of integration by the imperial ancestral deity Amaterasu.

This kind of integration of kami did not stop with the sun deities alone. According to Harada Toshiaki, the kami of Kashima and Katori were woven into the hierarchy of deities centering on the Yamato clan. Both Kashima and Katori were originally no more than local kami of the eastern frontier regions, but with the establishment of ancient national institutions, these local deities came to play supporting roles as martial or envoy deities. Further, the Kunitama no kami which came to be enshrined in many localities were likewise apparently the results of integration under the Kunitama no kami of the central Yamato and Izumo areas.17

The deity Kunitama no kami was probably a tutelary deity[Glossary: chinju] of a delimited geographical area called a kuni. According to Motoori's Kojikiden, Part 9, shrines worshiping Kunitama no kami included, in addition to Ôyamato no Ôkunitama[Glossary: yamato_no_okunitama] Shrine of Yamato Province, the Yoshino Ôkuzumitama Shrine in Takechi District of Yamato Province; the Minushi ni masu Yamashiro Ôkunitama no Mikoto Shrine in Kuze District of Yamashiro Province; the Kutama (Kunitama) Shrine in Hine District of Izumi Province, Ikukunitama Shrine in Higashinari District of Settsu Province; Kawachi-Kunitama Shrine in Uhara District of Settsu Province; Ôkunitamahime Shrine and Watarai no Ôkunitamahime Shrine in Watarai District of Ise Province; Owari no Ôkunitama Shrine in Nakashima District of Owari Province, Aômi no Kunitama Shrine in Iwata District of Tôtômi Province; the Noto no Ikukunitamahiko Shrine in the Noto District of Noto Province, and the Shima Ôkunitama Shrine in Kanzuagata of Tsushima Island.

Each of these shrines was dedicated to a kami which had rendered service in the administration of a local kuni, with the result that it would certainly appear that Kunitama no kami was another deity widely worshiped at that time throughout Japan. It might be noted that a fragmentary passage of the Ise no kuni fudoki recounts a legend concerning the occasion Emperor Jimmu ordered Amanohiwake no mikoto to "search out the land." Along the way, smoke was seen rising from a peak at Karisa in Watarai, so Amanohiwake asked, "Does this place have a ruler?" and sent a messenger to investigate; the messenger returned, replying," Ôkunitama no kami is here."

Further, it appears that the Ôkunitama no kami of Yamato was, together with the imperial ancestral deity Amaterasu, the most highly revered of all the Kunitama no kami. The Nihon shoki reports that a terrible epidemic spread through the Yamato area during the reign of Emperor Sujin (legendary reign 97-30 B.C.E.). The emperor offered worship to Amaterasu and Yamato Ôkunitama no kami within the imperial palace, but the two deities were in mutual awe, with the result that they could not dwell together in the same place. The next year, the emperor assembled the eighty myriads of kami at the plain of Kamiasachi (near present-day Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture), and there performed a rite of divination. As a result of the ritual divination, a woman named Kami-Yamato Totobi Momosuso-hime no mikoto became possessed of a deity that called itself the Ômononushi no kami dwelling in Yamato. In its oracle, the deity reported that the world would be at peace once more if only it were offered worship by its child Ôtataneko. The emperor sent an order throughout the realm to search for the person called Ôtataneko; when he was found, he was made priest in the worship of Ômononushi no kami. Likewise, the man Nagaochi was simultaneously made priest for the worship of Yamato no Ôkunitama no kami, whereupon the pestilence subsided and the land was restored to harmony.

If this Yamato no Ôkunitama no kami stood at the apex of a hierarchy of Kunitama no kami which were broadly worshiped centering on the Yamato area, then the Ôkunimitama no kami of Izumo, who was said to be the child of the deity Ôtoshi no kami,VII likely stood in a similar relation at the center of Kunitama no kami worship centered in the Izumo area. The Izumo no kuni fudoki contains numerous legends of deities which were, or likely were, Kunitama no kami.

One legend states that the village of Inashi in the district of Ou is the place where Ôkunitama no mikoto took a meal on the occasion of his descent from heaven. The village of Yashiro in the same district received its name (Yashiro or "shrine") since the ancestor of the Iki clan, Amatsuhiko no mikoto (who had descended from heaven as companion to Amenofuhi no mikoto) declared, "This is the shrine in which I shall reside." Likewise, the name of the village of Susa in Iishi District derives from the fact that Kamu-Susanoo no mikoto[Glossary: susanoo_no_mikoto] said that while the province was small, it was the place where "my noble spirit (mitama ) has found rest." This kami also has characteristics making one think of Kunitama no kami. The place name of Kishima Village in the same district is said to be due to the presence of the deity Kishimatsumi no mikoto, and it can thus be assumed that this deity was similarly worshiped as a kind of Kunitama no kami.

Further, the origin of the place name Etomo in Aika District is explained as a result of the fact that Iwasakahiko no mikoto, child of Susanoo no mikoto, made a progress through the country, at which time he said of the fresh and lovely land, "I shall build my palace shrine here," with the result that it was called Etomo or "blessing-companion."

The name of Tada Village in the same district originated in a similar manner. Namely, when Susanoo's child Tsukikitooniruhiko no mikoto was progressing through the land, he came to this place and said "I will reside here," so the land was called "much greatness" (tada). Each of these places can be considered a locale where a Kunitama no kami was enshrined.

The Kojiki states that the Ôkunitama no kami of Izumo was born to Ôtoshigami and Inuhime, the daughter of Kamu-ikusubinokami. What is interesting is the fact that Ôkuninushi no mikoto was apparently viewed as a kunitama no kami, as evidenced by the fact that he is called Utsushikunitama no kami in both Kojiki and Nihon shoki. In all likelihood, the minor deity kunitama no kami widely worshiped throughout the Izumo region was woven into a hierarchy of kunitama no kami dominated by deities like Ôkunimitama no kami and Ôkuninushi no mikoto.

Further, in the mythic world of the Kojiki and Nihon shoki, the relationship between kami and their human groups is subsumed under the hierarchy of the imperial house and its founding ancestor Amaterasu.

The Nihon shoki states that the priest who was assigned to worship Ômononushi no kami was the deity's child Ôtataneko, and terms like oyagami[Glossary: soshin] ("parent deity" or "ancestral deity") or oya (parent or ancestor) are frequently used in this way within the pages of Kojiki and Nihon shoki.

For example, the three deities of the sea (watatsumi no kami) which were produced at the time of Izanaki's lustration were said to be "ancestral deities of the clan Azumi no muraji." Likewise, of the five deities which accompanied Ninigi no mikoto[Glossary: ninigi_no_mikoto] at the time of his heavenly descent[Glossary: tenson_korin], Amenokoyane no mikoto was the ancestor of the murajiVIII clan Nakatomi[Glossary: nakatomi_no_muraji], Futotama no mikoto was ancestor of the obito clan Inbe[Glossary: inbe], Amenouzume no mikoto was ancestor of the kimi clan Surume, Ishikoridome no mikoto was ancestor of the muraji clan Kagamitsukuri, and Tamanooya no mikoto was ancestor of the muraji clan Tamanooya.

It should be noted that the Nihon shoki calls these five ancestral kami by the title "distant ancestors" (tô tsu oya or), and the expression "first ancestor" (hajime no oya) also appears on occasion, for example when Honosusori no mikoto is called "first ancestor [hajime no oya] of the Hayato." Terms like tô tsu oya and hajime no oya are likely expressions of the attempt to project the concept of oya (parent/ancestor) even further into the distant past.

It has been said that the root meaning of oya was originally "mother," but here, the examples of oya and oyagami, or tô tsu oya and hajime no oya are all indicative of origins in the various clans ranked as omi , muraji , kimi , and obito, and which fell under the domination of the Yamato court. According to Ueda Masaaki, as early as the latter half of the fifth and early sixth century the Yamato court had already begun attempts to fix the descent of the imperial house and local noble families, and to construct fictive genealogies linking themselves to divine forebears.18 That genealogical consciousness became settled from around the latter part of the eighth century, resulting in the compilation of the well-known Shinsen shôjiroku[Glossary: shinsen_shojiroku] ("New compilation of clan surnames") around the beginning of the ninth century.

It should be noted that the expression "descent" as used above did not refer merely to the determination of genealogical relations. It was, rather, an ideology designed to integrate all the members belonging to a given group. The concept of "descent" (shutsuji) is crucial to social anthropology, and an active debate has been carried on by Western anthropologists since the 1920s regarding the issues of descent and descent groups. But such concepts are not necessarily certain even now, and there are roughly three currents of thought on the issue. The first is represented by the Africanists, who limit descent narrowly to indicate the right of membership in a group. Another is represented by the oceanists, who propose that descent be interpreted more broadly to indicate the genealogical bonds of ancestors and their descendants. And the third is the definition of descent not merely as a group's membership principle, but as an ideology meant to integrate the members of the group.19

It is this last definitional current which I wish to emphasize here. By viewing descent as a matter of ideology, research on descent and descent groups has shifted from the substantive level of group composition to the conceptual level of group integration, a tact pioneered by J.A. Barnes, Daryll Forde, and Marshall Sahlins. Barnes focused on social groups in the New Guinea highlands, showing that in societies where the dogma of descent has latent force, that dogma works through genealogy to reflect current conditions or a desired improvement in conditions.20

Forde studied the patrilineal descent group called yepun found among the Yakö tribe in Africa, and which is rooted in a system of dual unilineal descent. He noted in particular the fact that, on the one hand, persons from differing lineages are accepted as adopted children and given the same rights and obligations as ordinary members, while on the other hand, a small number of members claim patrilineal descent continuing from an apical ancestor. He noted that their ideology included the element of unilineality (either patrilineal or matrilineal), and came to view that ideology as forming the ultimate basis for group attribution.21

Sahlins extended Forde's concepts, arguing that group composition is fundamentally different from descent, and that a group is not originally composed on the basis of a dogma of descent. On the contrary, he believed that it is better to say that the dogma of descent is itself artificially impressed onto the real composition of the group. As a result, non-unilineal quasi-bilineal descent groups --- like the yepun of the Yakö people --- may maintain the superficial claim that all members belong to a single, unified patrilineal descent group, even while in fact carrying a considerable number of non-patrilineal members.22

And my reason for discussing the matter of descent and descent groups is for this same reason. Namely, I think that the powerful local clans of omi, muraji, and kimi beneath the Yamato court may have sought their descent in lineage from the kami as a form of ideology which would integrate the members in their respective clan groups. If so, it is likely that, by claiming as ancestor (or ancestral deity) one or more of the kami woven into the divine lineage centered on the imperial ancestral goddess Amaterasu, each of these clans legitimated their status to the outside world, while internally integrating the people beneath their control.

5. Conclusion

The issue of the origin of the ancient Japanese people's concept of kami is a problem both ancient and new. And the same goes for the issue of the historical development of that concept. Many attempts have been made at interpretation, but it is difficult to claim that the debate has been carried out with full vigor, in part due to constraints on available historical materials and other related issues.

Future developments in archaeology and research into the period of prehistory will probably help solve the issue of the concept of kami, but independent of such research, there is also the need to consider relevant methodological issues. Here, I have focused on the world of indigenous religion in Southeast Asia and a few elements of research regarding that sacred world, in conjunction with the perspective of the coexistence and integration of those deities. And using this perspective as an analytical framework, I have considered the problem of the development of the concept of kami in ancient Japan.

Needless to say, this is only a first attempt, but I hope that this kind of research will be undertaken more vigorously from other perspectives as well. And by stimulating such debate, it is my hope that further light will be shed on the ancient Japanese concept of kami.


1. Ueyama Shunpei, Kamigami no taikei: shinsô bunka no shikutsu [Organization of the Japanese kami: an exploratory excavation of deep culture] (Tokyo: Chûô Kôronsha , 1972), 74; Oka Masao, "Kôshitsu no shinwa: sono nigensei to shuzokuteki bunkateki keifu ni tsuite" [Myths of the imperial house: their duality and ethno-cultural lineage], in Itô Seiji and Ôbayashi Taryô, eds., Nihon shinwa kenkyû [Research in Japanese myth] vol. 2 Kuniumi shinwa, Takamagahara shinwa [Myth of the birth of the land and myth of the plain of high heaven] (Tokyo: Gakuseisha, 1977), 169.

2. Iwata Keiji, Sômokuchûgyô no jinruigaku [An anthropology of grass, trees, fish and creeping things] (Tokyo Tankôsha, 1973), 208-209. Idem, "Kami (seirei) to kami" [Kami (spirits) and gods], in Gorai Shigeru et al., Kôza Nihon no minzoku shûkyô [Series in Japanese folk religion] (Tokyo: Kôbundô), vol. 3 Kami kannen to minzoku [Folklore and the concept of kami] (1979), 47-48.

3. Ayabe Tsuneo, "Tai no kokuboshin to sono girei: Tai no kokubo Mee Posopu o meguru kannen" [The Thai goddess of grain and its rituals: notions regarding the Thai goddess Mei Posop], Niiname Kenkyûkai, ed., Niiname no kenkyû [Research on the festival of firstfruits] (Kyôdô Shuppan), no. 3 Ine no saigi [Rituals of rice] (1967), 160-162; S. J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults of Northeast Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 57-59; R. B. Textor, Roster of the Gods: An Ethnography of the Supernatural in the Thai Village (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files, 1973), 4:522-525.

4. W. W. Skeat, Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula (London: Macmillan Co., 1900).

5. A.C. Kruijt, Het Animisme in den Iudischen Archipel (`s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1906).

6. K.G. Izikowitz, Lamet: Hill Peasants in French Indochina (New York: AMS Press, 1979) 212-260, 339-340.

7. Iwata Keiji, "Hoo pii (seirei no hokora) ni tsuite: Tônan Ajia ni okeru Bukkyô izen no shinkô" [Ho phi (spirit shrines): religion in pre-Buddhist Southeast Asia], in Oka Masao Kyôju Kanreki Kinen Ronbunshû Henshû Iinkai, ed., Minzokugaku nooto [Notes on ethnography] (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1962), 226-229; idem, "Tônan Ajia no kami no ie: Kumeeru zoku to Thai zoku no jirei o chûshin ni" [The house of the gods in Southeast Asia: examples from the Khmer and Thai peoples], in Kanaseki Takeo Hakase Koki Kinen Iinkai, ed., Nihon minzoku to nanpô bunka [The Japanese race and southern culture] (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1968), 939-940.

8. Iwata Keiji, Kami no tanjô: genshi shûkyô (Tokyo: Tankôsha, 1970), 225; idem, "Kami (seirei) to kami," 49.

9. Minamoto Ryôen, "Nihon ni okeru kami kannen no hikaku bunkaronteki kôsatsu" [A comparative cultural study of the Japanese concept of kami], in Tôhoku Daigaku Bungakubu Nihon Bunka Kenkyûsho, ed., Kami kannen no hikaku bunkaronteki kenkyû (Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1981), 14.

10. Yanagita Kunio, "Ukanomitama-kô" [On the deity Ukanomitama], Teihon Yanagita Kunio-shû [The collected works of Yanagita Kunio, standard edition], vol. 31 (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1964), 164.

11. Itô Mikiharu, "Ta no kami" [The kami of the rice field], in Kôza Nihon no kodai shinkô [Series on ancient Japanese religion], ed. Matsumae Takeshi (Tokyo: Gakuseisha, 1979), vol. 2, Kamigami no tanjô [Birth of the deities], 163-164.

12. Ishida Eiichirô et al., Nihon minzoku no kigen [Origins of the Japanese people] (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1963), 60-62, 238.

13. Orikuchi Shinobu, "Reikon no hanashi" [Tales about souls], Orikuchi Shinobu zenshû [Collected works of Orikuchi Shinobu], vol. 3 (Tokyo: Chûô Kôronsha, 1955), 261; Anzu Motohiko et al., "Shintô no shomondai" [Issues in Shinto], Shintô shûkyô, no. 3 (1951), 49-50.

14. Ishida Ichirô, "Nihon jôdai no kami-kannen" [The ancient Japanese notion of kami], in Kami-kannen no hikaku bunkaronteki kenkyû [Comparative-culture research on the concept of kami], ed. Tôhoku Daigaku Bungakubu Nihon Bunka Kenkyûsho (Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1981), 83-85.

15. Harada Toshiaki, "Tama ni tsuite"[About tama], Nihon kodai shûkyô [Ancient Japanese religion], rev. ed. (Tokyo: Chûô Kôronsha, 1970), 113.

16. Matsumae Takeshi, Nihon shinwa no shin-kenkyû [New research on Japanese myth] (Tokyo: Ôfûsha, 1960), 106.

17. Harada Toshiaki, "Kokka soshiki no hatten to kamigami no tanjô" [Development of national institutions and the integration of the gods], Nihon kodai shûkyô, 225-227.

18. Ueda Masaaki and Matsumae Takeshi, "Taiwa: kamigami no tanjô" [Dialogue: Birth of the deities], in Kôza Nihon no kodai shinkô, vol. 2 Kamigami no tanjô, 263.

19. Itô Mikiharu, Kazoku kokka-kan no jinruigaku [Anthropology of the "family state" model] (Mineruva Shobô, 1982), 96-115.

20. J.A. Barnes, "African Models in the New Guinea Highlands," Man 62 (1962), 6.

21. Daryll Forde, "Some Further Unconsidered Aspects of Descent," Man 63 (1963), 12-13; idem, Unilineal Fact or Fiction: An Analysis of the Composition of Kin-groups among the Yakö, in Studies in Kinship and Marriage, ed. I. Schapera (London: Royal Anthropological Institute, 1963), 38-57.

22. Marshall D. Sahlins, "On the Ideology and Composition of Descent Groups," Man 65 (1965), 104-105.

Translator's Notes

I. Originally published as "Kami kannen no tenkai" in Shimode Sekiyo and Tamamuro Fumio, eds., Kamigami no tanjô to tenkai [The birth and evolution of the gods], Kôza Shintô [The Shinto series], v. 1. (Tokyo: Ôfûsha, 1991).

II. Ôno Susumu, editor., Motoori Norinaga zenshû [The complete works of Motoori Norinaga], (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô, 1968), vol. 9, 125.

III. In the sixth version of the myth "in one writing." See W.G. Aston, Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697 [London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1896, 1956], Part I, 22.

IV. In the seventh version "in one writing"; this portion of the "seventh version" is omitted from Aston's translation.

V. Mikoto is a term denoting high respect, frequently affixed to the names of kami appearing in the Nihon shoki and Kojiki. The word is frequently explained as originally meaning one who, as a noble minister (mikoto-mochi), received and bore the dictates or "word" (mi-koto) of the deity; from this, it became a reference to the deity itself.

VI. See Felicia Gressitt Bock, Engi-Shiki: Procedures of the Engi Era, Books VI-X (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1972), 80-83.

VII. According to the Kojiki, Ôtoshi no kami was the child of Susanoo and Kamu-ôichi-hime. See Donald L. Philippi, Kojiki (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 92.

VIII. The titles muraji, obito and kimi were used to refer to relative clan rankings under the so-called kabane system.

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