In my post about New Years, I briefly mentioned kami, in the context of praying to them for luck. I didn’t really explain what kami are, as it would have been a bit of a detour, but it got me thinking about writing a separate post about them. I’m fairly sure that I’m right in thinking that while many people in the west have at least a vague notion of buddhism, most are not too familiar with shinto. Since kami are central to the ancient religion of Japan, and their meaning cannot be easily translated, we shall start there. So without further ado, here is what I dug up in my research on kami.
The easiest way to describe kami would be that they are the deities of Japan’s indigenous religion, shinto. However, the word deity is not quite right, spirit or phenomena might be closer, and also the more obscure ideas such as mind and or principal. There simply isn’t an English word that perfectly fits the concept of kami. If you’re already getting confused, don’t worry, it’s a little clearer from here.
They take many forms from natural elements, forces of creation, some animals, and occasionally spirits of the deceased. Manifestations of musubi, the interconnected energy of the universe, they are nonetheless part of the natural world. However their plain of existence, shinkai, though mirroring our own world, is invisible to humans. If you’re still feeling a bit shaky on the idea of kami, the Edo Period philosopher Motoori Norinaga wrote that "...any being whatsoever which possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary, and is awe-inspiring, is called Kami.”
Coming from the west, many of us are used to much more refined definitions. God is God, angels are angels, and various other religious icons fit their mold as well. Kami would be a bit like wrapping up gods, angels, demons, spirits, and saints all into one definition. And often those roles are played by kami as the three main variations of kami are amatsu-kami (“heavenly deity”), kunitsu-kami (“the gods of the earthly realm”), and ya-o-yorozu no kami (countless kami or “eight million kami”). Though just as the definition of kami is fluid, so is their nature, and these are not strict groups.
Some kami can be seen as anthropomorphic, such as Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. Like the greek gods, Amaterasu and the other “god-like” kami are not omnipotent but rather work within their field, so to speak. They also have flawed personalities, capable of both noble and ignoble acts. In fact, all kami are believed to have both good and bad characteristics, containing both a gentle soul (nigi-mitama) and an assertive soul (ara-mitama). When respected the kami can be nurturing and kind, but if neglected or disrespected they can be destructive.
Okay, when I said earlier that things would become clearer, I may have been being a tad optimistic. Let’s take it down to a more elemental sphere. Shinto is a fairly recent establishment, which was designed to preserve the ancient practices of the indigenous beliefs. These beliefs centered around kami, which were understood to be forces of nature. It is believed that what started with hunter-gatherers as a worship of sea and earth evolved into worshiping kami of rain, soil, rice, and growth of crops with the introduction of farming. Kami are ever shifting along with the needs of their people.
The ancient people of Japan saw kami in places of great beauty like mountains, waterfalls, boulders, animals, trees, and rice paddies. While in a European pagan religion there might be a god of trees in general, in Japan each tree might have its own kami. Respecting the resident kami in these objects or animals became an important part of their practices. Less solid naturalelements such as wind and thunder were connected to kami and also conceptual qualities like fertility and bountiful growth. This is still the case today.
Though kami “reside” in such things as waterfalls, mountains, and trees, they are not immobile, but can move from place to place. Yorishiro are objects that can attract and house kami during a religious ceremony, if you’d like to attract a kami into a physical object. They are usually natural things, most commonly trees or rocks, and even occasionally people. Once the kami is housed in a yorishiro it is called a shintai and a shide, rope adorned with paper streamers, is placed around the yorishiro to make their sacredness manifest. Most shinto shrines still have one of the original yorishiro that has been used for centuries. There are estimated to be around 100,000 shinto shrines in Japan, but the most common yorishiro are found in Japanese homes.
Kami are not solely the realm of awe inspiring phenomena or conceptual ideas. In the home kami reside in the well (suijin), in the oven (kamado-gami), and even in the toilet (benjo-gami). Human’s have a duty to respect and honor kami, but kami have roles to play too. For instance kamado-gami (the oven kami) is supposed to prevent fires, which is pretty important if you live in a house made of wood and paper. It is often desirable to attract more kami, so yorishiro are used. Kadomatsu are yorishiro made of pine and bamboo that are used during new year to attract the new year’s kami into your home. The manekinneko, lucky cats (which you have probably seen) are meant to attract kami of luck.The kamidana and butsudan are yorishiro altars in the home that are used for honoring your deceased loved ones.
In Shinto the belief is that kami began life and it is therefore sacred. However, as humans are unable to see the divine it is necessary to achieve magokoro (purification). Kami are the only beings who can grant magokoro, and they will only do this if you follow the four affirmations of shinto. These are holding onto tradition and family, loving nature, maintaining physical cleanliness, and practicing matsuri (the worship and honoring of kami). Only in this way will kami let you see the divine.
I hope that this explanation has brought some clarity to the concept of kami. The definition of kami cannot be pinned down or solidified and neither can kami. I grew up surrounded by nature and have always felt that it has a divinity all to itself. I have had a rough idea of kami for a while now, but in researching more I was very struck by how much the concept complemented my already half formed ideas. Even if you do not share the belief in kami, you can agree that the natural world has a mysterious power. Even as the human race moves farther away from it, we cannot deny it is there. I personally feel that we would all be better off in life if we remembered that and tried to bring it into our daily lives.
Until next time, I hope that you are granted good fortune by kami.