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Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

Updated: Mar 6

Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan, centers around the worship of Kami, which are revered spirits or deities. The Kami can embody natural elements, ancestors, historical heroes, or even abstract concepts. The exact number of Kami is undefined, as the belief accepts the existence of myriad deities, each associated with various aspects of nature and human life.


Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

In the Japanese archipelago, where nature and spirituality are intertwined in the very fabric of the culture, there exists a rich and varied pantheon of deities known as Kami. These entities, central to the practice of Shintoism, the indigenous Japanese worship, offer a unique window into the soul and spirit of this island nation.


Introduction

The Kami, much more than mere deities, are the incarnations of everything that is sacred and powerful in the natural and human world. They symbolize a wide range of aspects, from the elemental forces of nature to human values and virtues. It is difficult to determine the exact number of Kami in Shintoism, as the tradition accepts the continuous emergence of new deities.


In this article, I explore the fascinating universe of the Kami, delving into their mythological origins, their roles in contemporary Japanese society, and their enduring influence on the country's daily life. I have observed for many years how these deities shape the Japanese worldview. Here, I aim to transcribe how they harmonize the ancient and the modern, the tangible and the mystical, right down to the daily lives of families and individuals.


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This dive into the world of the Kami is an invitation to understand how, in Japan, the sacred infuses every aspect of existence, offering a unique perspective on a culture where the spiritual and the material coexist in a profound and meaningful symbiosis.


The some 80,000 Shinto shrines spread throughout Japan serve as places of worship for these deities and as centers for the celebration of ancient traditions. Shintoism, rich and diverse, proposes a multitude of Kami, each with a particular role and significance. Here is a personal and rational presentation of the different categories of Kami, as well as examples of notable shrines that illustrate their diversity and importance in Japanese culture.


Education

Kami and Shintoism are generally part of the curriculum taught in schools in Japan. However, this is done in a way that respects the separation of religion and state. Social studies or Japanese history classes often include information on Japan's traditional religions, including Shintoism and Buddhism.


In these courses, students learn about the cultural and historical aspects of Shintoism, including the Kami, but this is taught in an educational context rather than a religious one. The aim is to provide students with an understanding of religion as an integral part of their history and culture.


It is important to note that Japan's approach to education aims to emphasize respect for the diversity of beliefs while providing a balanced education on the country's religious traditions.


Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

© O. Robert


Main Categories of Kami

Kami of Nature and Creation

Representing natural elements such as mountains, rivers, wind, and thunder. Examples:

1. Amaterasu Ōmikami (天照大神), the sun goddess.

2. Susanoo-no-Mikoto (須佐之男命), god of the sea and storms.

3. Izanagi (伊邪那岐) and Izanami (伊邪那美), the divine couple who created the islands of Japan and several other Kami.

4. Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (月読命), the moon god, brother of Amaterasu.

5. Sarutahiko Ōkami (猿田彦大神), Kami of the earth and guide of other deities.


Kami of Ancestors, Heroes, and Mythology

Representing historical or mythical people revered as Kami for their virtues or achievements. Examples:

1. Emperor Jimmu (神武天皇), the first emperor of Japan according to mythology.

2. Ōkuninushi (大国主), Kami of magic and medicine, known for pacifying the spirit world.

3. Tenjin (天神), Kami of education, the deified form of Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar and politician of the Heian era.


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Protector and Warrior Kami

Representing deities who protect certain communities, families, or professions. Examples:

1. Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神), Kami of fertility, rice, agriculture, and foxes.

2. Hachiman (八幡神), the tutelary deity of warriors, often associated with the protection of Japan and its people.

3. Marishiten (摩利支天), a deity of Buddhist origin integrated into Shintoism, protector of warriors.


Kami of Fertility, Wealth, and Well-being

1. Ebisu (恵比寿), one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, protector of fishermen and merchants.

2. Daikokuten (大黒天), another of the Seven Gods of Fortune, associated with wealth and abundance.


Kami of Arts and Culture

1. Benzaiten (弁才天), the only female deity among the Seven Gods of Fortune, patron of arts, music, and eloquence.

2. Kagutsuchi (カグツチ), Kami of fire and forging, important for artisans and metallurgists.


Conceptual Kami

Deities representing abstract ideas or values. Example:

1. Musubi-no-Kami (産霊神), Kami of creation and growth.


Relationship to Emperors and Imperial Families

Emperors of Japan have historically been considered direct descendants of Amaterasu Ōmikami, the sun goddess. This belief established a sacred connection between the imperial family and the Kami, conferring a quasi-divine status on the emperors. However, after World War II, Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity under the new constitution.


Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

© O. Robert


Main Kami Celebrated Today in Shrines

Compiling an exhaustive list of all the known Kami in Japan is a daunting, if not impossible, task due to the number and diversity of deities in Shintoism throughout history.


However, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of 20 emblematic and widely revered Kami in contemporary Japanese tradition. They are celebrated individually according to family beliefs but also collectively during festivals or special days, such as New Year's Day.


1. Amaterasu Ōmikami (天照大神): Sun goddess and mythical ancestor of the imperial family.

2. Susanoo-no-Mikoto (須佐之男命): God of storms and the sea, brother of Amaterasu.

3. Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (月読命): Moon god, also a brother of Amaterasu.

4. Izanagi-no-Mikoto (伊邪那岐命): Creator deity, father of the principal gods.

5. Izanami-no-Mikoto (伊邪那美命): Creator goddess and partner of Izanagi.

6. Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神): Kami of agriculture, rice, fertility, and foxes.

7. Hachiman (八幡神): Kami of warriors and protector of Japan.

8. Ebisu (恵比寿): Kami of luck, fishing, and commerce.

9. Daikokuten (大黒天): Kami of wealth and commerce.

10. Benzaiten (弁才天): Goddess of music, art, and wisdom.


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11. Fūjin (風神): God of wind.

12. Raijin (雷神): God of thunder and lightning.

13. Sarutahiko Ōkami (猿田彦大神): Kami of strength and courage.

14. Tenjin (天神): Kami of education and scholarship, incarnation of Sugawara no Michizane.

15. Ōkuninushi (大国主): Kami of medicine and magic.

16. Kagutsuchi (カグツチ): Kami of fire.

17. Konohanasakuya-hime (木花開耶姫): Goddess of Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms.

18. Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto (天宇受賣命): Goddess of dawn and joy.

19. Takemikazuchi-no-Kami (建御雷神): Kami of thunder and swords.

20. Toyotama-hime (豊玉姫): Goddess of the sea and mother of the first emperor.


Each Kami has its own story, attributes, and domain of influence, reflecting the varied aspects of nature, culture, and life in Japanese tradition.


Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

Shrines and Associated Kami

Shinto shrines (jinja 神社) are the exclusive places of worship for the Kami. Each shrine is dedicated to one or several specific Kami and is often located in a naturally beautiful or awe-inspiring location. Here are some significant examples:


1. Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮): The most sacred shrine of Shintoism, dedicated to Amaterasu Ōmikami. Located in Ise, it is rebuilt every 20 years following an ancient tradition.


2. Itsukushima Jinja (厳島神社): Located on the island of Miyajima, this shrine is famous for its "floating" torii gate. It is dedicated to marine and sea kami.


3. Meiji Jingu (明治神宮): Located in Tokyo, this shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.


4. Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社): Located in Kyoto, this shrine is dedicated to Inari Ōkami and is famous for its thousands of red torii gates.


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5. Izanagi Jingu (伊弉諾神宮): Located in Awaji, this shrine is dedicated to Izanagi, considered the father of other Japanese deities.


6. Tsukuyomi-no-Miya (月読宮): A shrine dedicated to Tsukuyomi, the moon god, often associated with shrines to Amaterasu.


7. Nishinomiya Jinja (西宮神社): The main shrine of Ebisu, famous for its annual Ebisu Matsuri festival, attracting many visitors.


8. Hachimangu (八幡宮): Shrines dedicated to Hachiman, the Kami of warriors, found throughout Japan, with Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura being particularly famous.



Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

Fine Art Print © O. Robert

 
 

Main Festivals Celebrating the Kami

In Shintoism, Kami are celebrated throughout the year during various festivals and special days. These festivals and celebrations reflect the core aspects of Shintoism, such as respect for nature, the importance of seasons, and the veneration of ancestors and nature spirits.


These occasions allow Japanese people to reconnect with their traditions and pay homage to the Kami associated with these specific days. Here are some of the most important:


1. Shogatsu (New Year, January 1st): The most important day in the Shinto calendar. Shrines are visited to pray for good fortune and health for the coming year. It's common to visit a shrine at midnight on December 31st or on January 1st.


2. Setsubun (Early February): Marks the end of winter and the arrival of spring according to the old calendar. People throw soybeans outside their homes to ward off evil spirits and invite good luck.


3. Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival, March 3rd): Although not a Shinto festival per se, it involves elements of purification and prayers for the health and happiness of young girls.


4. Hanami (Cherry Blossom Season, late March-early April): A celebration of the transient beauty of nature, often associated with picnics under blooming cherry trees.


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5. Tango no Sekku (Children's Day, May 5): Also known as Kodomo no Hi, it is a day to celebrate the health and happiness of children, especially boys.


6. Tanabata (Star Festival, July 7): Based on a Chinese legend, this festival celebrates the story of two divine lovers represented by stars, who can meet only once a year.


7. Obon (Festival of the Dead, August 15): A Buddhist festival that has been integrated into Shinto practices, Obon is a time to honor the spirits of ancestors.


8. Shichi-Go-San (Festival for children of 3, 5, and 7 years old, November 15): A celebration to pray for the health and happiness of children of these specific ages.


9. Niiname-sai (Harvest Festival, November): A thanksgiving ceremony for the year's harvest, often celebrated by the emperor and in shrines across Japan.


Japan: Kami, Spirits of Nature and Ancestors in Shinto Tradition

The Final Word

Each Kami in Shintoism symbolizes different aspects of life, nature, and cultural values. Their veneration is manifested in rituals, festivals, and visits to dedicated shrines. Shinto shrines are not just places of worship but also cultural centers where traditions, legends, and history are celebrated and preserved.


Shintoism, with its diverse pantheon and practices rooted in the daily life of the Japanese, continues to profoundly influence Japan's cultural and spiritual identity. Studying the Japanese Kami inevitably immerses us in a worldview where the sacred and the everyday intimately intertwine. The Kami, with their multitude and diversity, reflect a cosmology where every element of nature, every aspect of human life, possesses a divine essence.


This Shinto perspective invites a relationship of respect and harmony with the environment, recognizing in every rock, river, or tree a sacred or spiritual presence. The Kami are not just distant mythological figures but living actors in daily reality, offering lessons in balance, respect, and continuity between the past, present, and future.


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Disclaimer

My articles on Buddhism, Shintoism, or Taoism are merely a reflection of a personal interest in art and history. They do not aim to convey religious messages, influence, or convince readers in any way. My texts solely seek to document the cultural evolution of countries through photography.

 

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