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Kami (Jap.). Sacred powers venerated by the Japanese, described in the Shinto mythologies, and enshrined in Shinto shrines (jinja) as objects of worship. The etymology of kami is uncertain; the word is at once singular and plural, and while it often refers to personified beings, it also retains the sense of awesome sacred power. The kami are numerous, even innumerable, according to the traditional phrase yaoyorozu no kami (‘vast myriads of kami’), implying that the cosmos is replete with divine powers in which all forms of existence participate. The kami are commonly divided into heavenly kami (amatsukami) and earthly kami (kunitsukami). But any form of existence that possesses some extraordinary, awe-inspiring quality could be called kami: mountains, seas, rivers, rocks, trees, birds, animals. Humans who have some extraordinary quality—people like emperors, family ancestors, heroes—could be referred to as kami.

The kami who are worshipped in the thousands of shrines in Japan are predominantly those mentioned in the Shinto mythologies.

Amaterasu-ō-Mikami is usually recognized at the head of the kami, but her position is not absolute or exclusive, for she pays her respects to the other kami, and ordinary people worship other kami as well as Amaterasu. There are also, of course, kami with negative, destructive powers (e.g. magatsuhi-no-kami) who are the source of sin and uncleanness and who inflict calamities. But ultimately they too are manifestations of a power of life which requires reverence and worship.

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