KAMI . From a historical and religious viewpoint, what is meant by the Japanese word kami cannot be exhausted by the term itself, for it is also often expressed in other terms, such as tama (spirits), as well as by names for natural things beginning with such prefixes as mi (sacred), hi (spiritual, sacred forces) and itsu (sacred power). These can refer to concrete landscapes of place, sky, mountain, hill, river, sea, or forest, or sometimes to the nameless and extraordinary. In some expressions, the whole universe is permeated by the sacred kami nature, thus constituting a monistic universe. The characteristics of kami in the early phases of Japanese history share many common elements among the primary religious traditions of various communities in the world.
Characteristics of Kami
There are several important characteristics of kami in the early Japanese expressions. First of all, the kami in the archaic level of religious experience, manifests its totality, and it is ambivalent. The term kami refers to all beings—good and evil—that are awesome and worthy of reverence. The kami who is in charge of fertility of a territory or the well-being of its society usually reigns over the territory and can harm or destroy it when disregarded. And the kami must be well respected; otherwise, it punishes people. There are numerous cases in which kami reveals awesome and dreadful natures, and yet the same awesome kami often shows gentle and loving natures at the same time. Those kami who are in charge of epidemics have the power to spread illness, and also to heal. In that sense, kami is regarded as a terrible being who has superhuman powers to reign over territory, a being in charge of fertility and well-being. One of the most famous examples appears in the Kojiki (chapter 92) that the emperor Chuai had to die because he disregarded the will of kami revealed through an oracle. There are many cases of the kami that curses (tatari-gami), who harms people when disrespected, but bestows blessings when the kami is well respected.
The invisible and concealed Kami
Secondly, the kami is basically concealed and invisible. The most original seven kami "at the time of the beginning of heaven and earth" in Japanese myth, are all "not visible," or "they hid their bodies" in the myth (the Kojiki, pp. 47–48.) There are many evidences of the invisible nature of kami. As basically concealed and invisible, kami responds to prayer by descending to earth and dwelling in tangible objects such as sacred space, tree or rock, or human beings. The prayers are addressed to kami through ritual, and then, following the ritual, kami returns to the invisible world. The above story of the emperor Chuai involved the trance of the empress Okinaga-tarashi-hime through whom the invisible kami -spirit delivered the message. Not only in the classical texts, but also in the whole history of Japanese religions, the visible world of religious phenomena is intensely affirmed because it is connected to and sustained by the invisible world of kami -spirits through the "seamlessness of the border-space" by various channels of mediation between the two worlds, the visible and the invisible, the world of kami and that of the human. This seamlessness of the border-space as well as the frequent passage of the kami -spirit through it ensured the monistic spiritual universe of early Japanese people. (Kitagawa, 1987, pp. 44–45) The sacred fall of Nachi, as it is seen, is described and worshipped as the sacred body of kami, as is the sacred mountain of Miwayama. They are among the specific examples of the manifestations of kami, which remains, however, basically hidden.
Following the introduction of Buddhism into the Japanese archipelago (c. 550 ce), indigenous religions, now influenced by Buddhist expressions, began building shrines and producing fewer kami images. Prior to Buddhism, people prayed only at specific iwakura (sacred rocks) or go-shinboku (sacred trees), or other special places where kami visited in response to requests for their presence.
Itinerancy of the kami
A third characteristic of kami in early Japanese expressions is that it visits, drifts about, but does not stay in one place forever; it visits sacred places, possessing the medium to deliver oracles in response to requests. This mobility of kami makes possible the periodic visits by the sacred visitors in various local communities; it also means that kami can have various places to visit or vehicles to possess. Kami moves and drifts horizontally and vertically, freely. It is important to remember Joseph Kitagawa's remarks about the kami spirit moving through the seamless border-space between the human and the divine world, or between the world of the living and that of the dead, as evidence of this mobility.
Kami of different natures
A fourth characteristic of kami in this early Japanese world is that it seems that many kami of different natures coexist. This multiplicity has been often mistakenly interpreted as a "polytheistic" nature of Japanese religious tradition by Japanese scholars in modern times. However, these concepts—polytheism, monotheism, and pantheism—come from the Western philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677). In other words, they are concepts that were imposed upon Japanese religious phenomena from Western culture, and do not do justice for interpreting such phenomena in Japanese history.
The existence of numerous kami does not necessarily mean "polytheism." In various religious traditions of the world there is clear evidence of the dialectic between one god and many gods within the same tradition. Japanese history traces the emergence of "monolatory" religions (religions of one-god worship) in the serious crisis situations of society in the late Heian (794–1185 ce) and Kamakura (1185–1333 ce) periods, as well as in the late Tokugawa (1600–1868) to early Meiji (1868–1912) eras. Yet when the crisis situations were over and an ordinary life returned, people reverted to the world of numerous kami.
Early Japanese history also shows the manifestations of numerous kami the people prayed to. It is possible, therefore, to say that one of the important characteristics of early Japanese history is the coexistence of various kami. In the oldest Japanese chronicles of the Kojiki (The records of ancient matters), the names of more than three hundred kami are mentioned. In the Engishiki (Procedures of the Engi era), the prayers are addressed to various kami, not only to the kami of the High Heaven but also to the kami of the earth, such as a land, an oven, the kami of road, or the kami of the palace gate. In other words, each kami was assigned to the specific role within the world of meaning in the religious life of the early Japanese people.
The kami of locative type and of Utopian type
A fifth characteristic of the Japanese kami also manifests the aspects of the tutelary kami of local tribes, concrete places, matters, and affairs, which possess them and are in charge of them. People pray to the kami of the road, to the kami of mountain, or the kami of the river, with offerings, asking for protection and permission to get through or cross over. The kami of the wind, of the fire, or of the oven responds to the prayers of the respective person who is concerned with the place. But if he or she ignores the kami, the kami becomes a terrible kami that harms him or her. As is the case with the religious world of primary culture, the kami of the place dominates the place, territory, border, pass, or doorway, and often they are called by the name of the place, as the kami of the doorway, the kami of the pass, or the kami of a particular village. In other words, the kami manifest awesome, terrible natures as well as gentle, loving, fascinating natures. In the contradistinction with this type of kami, there are utopian types of kami that drew and attracted people to the far-away, sacred centers. In the famous millenarian movement of the tokoyo-gami (kami of the eternal paradise), people gave up their properties and ran dancing and singing to Mt. Fuji, where the kami promised to descend with the paradise of longevity and wealth. The movement was quickly suppressed by the government in 644 ce, the third year of the emperor Kogyoku right before the establishment of the Ritsu-ryo state. Also, various types of pilgrimages were developed throughout Japanese history, in which people left the place of their daily life temporarily for the blessings of the kami in far-away centers.
Kami in prehistoric cultures
From a historical and cultural viewpoint, the tradition of the prehistoric Jomon period (about 10,000 bce to fourth century ce) embraced the evidences of the kami closely entwined with the hunting-and-gathering culture, that is, the tradition of the slash-and-burn agriculture as well as that of fishing. The representative kami of this tradition were the earth-goddess-type kami of mountain and of sea. In the Yayoi culture (fourth century bce to seventh century ce) the paddy-rice cultivation in the low land areas became the important source of production. Whereas in the slash-and-burn agricuture, people had to move to change the field of cultivation every three to twenty years for the fertile soils, in the paddy-rice cultivation, people had to stay in one place to enrich the soil through generations. In the paddy-rice agriculture tradition, the kami of the land (field), water (rain), sun and moon, as well as the spirit-kami of rice (ina-dama) among others, all with specific and articulate functions, were organically integrated and synthesized into a world of the kami of rice-spirit to constitute a pantheon of various kami. The resulting pantheon was the basis of the myth of the ancient state.
The Kami in the Myth of the State
Various kami in the Kojiki point to the new historical stages into which Japanese people entered socially and religiously. In other words, new orientations of the human had entered into Japanese history. These were "new" in the sense that they were no longer simply primary; rather, they were the elements of civilization as the state entered into the story and nature of kami.
Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801), the founder of the Shinto theology of the Tokugawa period, treated the Kojiki as the sacred text of the Shinto and came up with the interpretation of Kami as "any entity with unusually powerful spiritual function that imparts a feeling of awe." His delineation of kami is profound and broad. However, it could be misleading if the Kojiki is treated as the only channel to the sacred in Japanese religious tradition.
As is often pointed out, the Kojiki is already colored by the ideology of the ancient Ritsuryō state. When Motoori interpreted the historical events by going back to the Kojiki, the interpretation itself was influenced by the state ideology of ancient Japan. The Kojiki is the text that interprets the origin of the state in the genealogy of various kami ; therefore all kami in this text are situated in the story for the legitimatization of the state. Here, kami tend to have a more impersonal nature, and all kami are organized in the mythic structure of the state as the originator and ancestors of the state, as well as of the people and their descendants. The kami of the High Heaven and earthly kami are organized into the ideology of the unity of the state. The divinity that once was the tutelary kami of some specific local clan or village community is thus separated from the community and developed into the tutelary kami of the whole state-land—the ancestor kami of the nation. But evidence in folklore and in Japanese texts indicates that people have experienced kami not spoken about in the Kojiki and the Engishiki. Such a variety of kami is observed in the later development of Japanese history.
Buddhism and Kami
When Buddhism was introduced into Japan, the Buddha was treated as a foreign kami. Soon, however, Buddhism and Shinto began interacting, and with the establishment of the ancient state, Buddhist schools, the Shinto pantheon, Confucian ideology, and Yin-Yang Daoist specialists were all organized into and monopolized by the government system of the Ritsuryō state during the Nara (710–784 ce) and most of the Heian period. When persons belonging to these religions were controlled by the government, various folk-religious movements emerged spontaneously to fulfill the needs of the populace outside of the religio-political hierarchy of the government.
Various crises during the Nara and Heian period, including the gradual erosion of the state system of Ritsuryō and repeated famines and epidemics in the central Japan, led to a new expression of kami known as the goryo-shin (the Sacred Spirit-Kami ). The kami of the goryo were originally the onryo (the vengeful spirits of the dead) whose lives went unfulfilled because of their tragic deaths, often through political strife. Still, they were turned into graceful kami in response to the veneration of people.
These onryo and kami of goryo became popular among the ordinary people, which in itself symbolized the agony of the unfulfilled living and dead. But these kami were also accepted as those who would harm people who did not pay due respects to the kami. All sectors of Buddhism responded with various counter-magic against onryo, from which new Buddhist movements emerged.
The emergence of these new Buddhist sects, called "Japanese Buddhism," was preceded by the violent movement of onryo and goryo. Also, through the Heian and Kamakura period, syncretic relationships were developed between Japanese kami and foreign kami (Buddha), in which various Japanese kami were interpreted first as an incarnation of Buddha (honji suijaku ), then later reversed—it was kami that had gone to India to become Buddha.
The influences of Buddhism remained overwhelmingly strong in the Kamakura period. During the Tokugawa period, however, neo-Confucian ideologues began interpreting the indigenous tradition of Shinto as separate from Buddhism. This tendency was most clearly seen in the development of National Learning represented by Motoori's study of the Kojiki, in which he attempted to wipe away all foreign influences in the study and interpretation of the Kojiki. Furthermore, Motoori's interpretation of the Kojiki as the sacred text, as well as his way of understanding kami, was succeeded—and developed more nationalistically—by A. Hirata and later theologians. In this scholarhip, kami and the Buddha were not only separated from each other theoretically, but also practically. This concept of kami, and this tradition of interpretation, is therefore also a new development.
One of the problems of kami in folk and popular religions is that Buddhists practially lost their religious freedom during the Tokugawa period. This was undertaken by the jidan seido, the Tokugawa neo-Confucian regime's control of the Buddhist temples as the official temples to which all people had to register to be certified as a nonmember of malicious religions, including Chrisianity. Shinto shrines were also controlled as one of the official religions under the the regime. People's religious needs were thus met by the emergence of numerous phenomena of fragmented—but very rich—elements of the syncretic integration of folk religion, such as pilgrimage movements and folk religious practices of various magico-religious activities (e.g., divinations, amulets, incantations, and many kinds of prayer in urban and rural areas).
From the lower strata of society, then, three (popular) founded religions—the Kurozumi, the Konko, and Tenri—emerged spontaneously through the religious experiences of each of their founders. Each of these religions, while critically reassessing their contemporary civilization and the structure of society including Buddhism and Shinto, created universalistic and egalitarian teachings in which all the influences of Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism, and Taoism were organically blended together but integrated through their religious experience on the basis of strong undercurrents of folk religion. They had all-inclusive kami in the center of their teaching, and they responded to the religious needs of the alienated. These three religions thus became the historical prototypes of new religions in modern Japan.
Another point is that through the contact with the Western powers, Japanese people achieved the Meiji restoration—the establishment of the new unity of the state by restoring the sacred emperor, the living-kami, as the descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. This allowed them to achieve a modernization and westernization of Japan—the powerful modern state. The living kami, as the focal point of national identity and indigenous culture, thus came to be exposed to the secular history of the modern international struggles. This is indeed a new, paradoxical context for Japanese kami. In addition, through the missionary activities of Christian groups the notion of the Japanese kami came to be influenced by the notion of the god of transcendence, for Christian missionaries applied the Japanese word kami to explain their god, Yahweh, or the absolute.
Japanese Religions, article on The Study of Myths; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Shintō; Study of Religion, article on The Academic Study of Religion in Japan; Transculturation and Religion, article on Religion in the Formation of Modern Japan.
Bock, Felicia G., trans. The Engi-shiki (The procedures of the Engi era). Tokyo, 1972.
Hardekar, Helen. Shinto and the State, 1868-1988. Princeton, N.J., 1991.
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Michio Araki (2005)
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