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In-depth The Shifting Landscape of Japanese Religion
Kami: The Evolution of Japan’s Native Gods

Hashizume Daisaburō [Profile]


Since ancient times, Japanese people have revered kami, the gods of Shintō. And for over a millennium they have also practiced Buddhism, sometimes conflating Buddhas with their native divinities. Sociologist Hashizume Daisaburō traces the changes in the Japanese view of kami over the centuries.

God ≠ Kami

When the English word God is translated into Japanese, it is generally represented by the kanji (Chinese character) 神 and pronounced kami. However, to avoid misunderstanding, it would be better to think of God, 神, and kami as three separate concepts.

“God” is the supreme being of monotheism and is customarily capitalized to indicate the unique nature of the deity and draw a distinction with the multiple gods of polytheism.

The written Japanese form, 神, is influenced by the Chinese meaning of the character. Common words in both languages using this character, such as 精神 (pronounced seishin in Japanese), meaning “spirit” or “mind,” and 神経 (shinkei), meaning “nerves,” are related to human mental qualities. Pronounced shen in Chinese, the character 神 carries some divine attributes, but they are of a decidedly low rank and far below those of the highest power in Chinese theology, termed 天 (tian) or 上帝 (shangdi) in Chinese.

Japan’s kami were traditionally thought of as anthropomorphized natural phenomena. They included the kami that appear in the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan), Japan’s ancient records of myth and history, kami that were worshiped in shrines, and everything possessing extraordinary qualities, including the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, the sea, large rocks and trees, and even some smaller plants, animals, and people. This is how they were defined by the eighteenth-century scholar of Japanese classics Motoori Norinaga. According to Motoori, anything that inspired awe and sensitivity to ephemeral beauty (aware) was a kami.

For Japanese people who believe this, their country is a rich natural landscape with kami to be found wherever they turn—in short a kami no kuni or “country of kami.” If this phrase is translated into English as “God’s country,” it can be misunderstood as a fanatically nationalistic expression, but this is not what the phrase actually means.

A Blended Faith

Japan’s traditional faith, based on worship of kami, is known as Shintō. There are no records to show what it was like in ancient times, and many details are unclear. We cannot even say if there was a set of beliefs and rituals sufficiently unified that we could call them Shintō. It is likely that the religion came into being as a blend of different elements, including the following:

  • The nature worship of hunter-gatherers in the Jōmon period (ca. 15,000 BC–300 BC)
  • The worship of clay figurines as symbols of crop fertility and the shamanism introduced from the Korean Peninsula in the Yayoi Period, when rice farming had taken hold (300 BC–250 AD)
  • The bronze weapons and mirrors imported from China and used by chiefs in festivals and magic rituals
  • The influence on rulers’ festival and funeral rituals from Chinese divination, astronomy, calendar studies, and thinking related to the legendary transcendental figures known as shinsen, or “divine immortals”
  • The worship of family gods and the building of shrines by a range of local communities and groups

The Japanese began to think of these elements together as Shintō after Buddhism spread to Japan and they compared the new religion with their traditional practices.

The Difference Between Kami and Buddhas

Buddhism was founded in India by Gautama Buddha (born in the fifth or sixth century BC) and has an immense written canon and intricate set of doctrines. Before arriving in Japan, it was adapted on its journey through China, where texts were translated into Chinese and religious orders were organized and run in a Chinese style. Japanese people developed their concept of kami by contrasting them with the Buddhas of the introduced faith. The main points of difference are as follows:

  • Buddhas are living humans who have achieved enlightenment (satori). When Buddhas die, they escape from the cycle of life and death and cease to exist. Kami are a different order of being from ordinary humans, but some kami are the ancestors of humans and can live and die.
  • Buddhas are men, and they do not marry. Kami can be male or female, and they sometimes marry.
  • Buddhists make images and statues of Buddhas and enshrine them in temples, but Buddhas do not live in temples. Shintō believers do not make images of kami. Objects for attracting kami known as yorishiro are placed in shrines, but kami do not live in shrines.

Alongside such other forms of advanced Chinese culture as the ritsuryō system of centralized government, astronomy, calendar studies, medicine, and architecture, Buddhism was a tool the ruling class used to secure its power and prestige. Following the introduction of this new set of beliefs, Buddhism and Shintō began to occupy different spaces in Japanese religious life.

Reform of Shintō, Appeal of Buddhism

The Yamato court is thought to have had its beginnings around the third century AD in what is now the Kansai region. It was a confederation of regional forces in which only the clan believing itself to be descended from the kami Amaterasu (the sun goddess) had the right to perform rituals. Forces in other regions revered different kami as ancestors—for example, those in Izumo venerated Ōkuninushi. Myths drawn up about harmonious coexistence of the different forces’ kami supported the formation of the confederation.

In the eighth century, the Nihon shoki and the Kojiki were completed. These influential compilations of legend and history positioned Amaterasu as the most important of all the kami and the emperors as her descendants, who alone inherited the right to perform rituals and to rule. As a result, all of the forces outside the imperial line explicitly lost these rights. However, the Yamato government did not proscribe the other kami and set up a monotheistic religion as the people of Israel did when declaring Yahweh to be the one true God. Instead, it gave them positions in the hierarchy under Amaterasu, with cooperation between kami intended to reinforce cooperation between different groups.

In this context, Buddhas were notable in that their complete separation from the kami meant that they were not subordinate to Amaterasu. Forces excluded by the emperor’s monopoly on ritual and power following the reform of Shintō were free to adopt Buddhism. These forces were concentrated in and around Yamato Province, now Nara Prefecture, and through inheritance of bureaucratic government positions and landed estates (shōen) had developed into an aristocracy. Most of them embraced Buddhism, built temples, and hoped to be reborn in the Western Paradise. The idea of being reborn as a Buddha after death was a new one and quite different from the tenets of Shintō. By contrast, for the peasants who worked in the estates belonging to the aristocracy, temples, and shrines, their traditional faith in local kami was altogether more familiar and natural than Buddhism.

Different Ideas of Life and Death

What was the Japanese concept of the afterworld? Some believed that their souls returned to the mountains. Others thought that they went underground to a land of the dead called Yomi or across the sea to a paradise called Tokoyo. There was a vague belief in defilement (kegare) associated with death, and that the dead traveled somewhere far from the settlements where people lived.

The emperor worshiped Amaterasu, the various other kami, and his own ancestors. The religious ceremonies of the court were based on Chinese models, but worshiping deceased ancestors as gods was unique to Japan. It was believed that dead emperors became kami after their defilement had been cleansed away in some distant place.

By contrast, Buddhism in its original form maintains that people work to attain nirvana, or Buddhahood, through ascetic practices while passing through a cycle of life and death. When people die without attaining nirvana, they are immediately reborn in new bodies to live again; there is no land of the dead and no eternal soul. In other words, original Buddhism and Shintō have entirely different ideas of death.

This idea of reincarnation was not accepted in Japan when Buddhism was brought to the country. Instead, the Chinese belief that the dead become demons living in hell entered Japan through Taoism and Buddhism and gradually spread. Buddhism became popular by adapting itself into the forms most acceptable to Japanese people.

  • [2014.04.03]

Sociologist. Professor emeritus at Tokyo Institute of Technology. Pursued doctoral studies in sociology at the University of Tokyo. Professor of sociology at Tokyo Tech from 1995 to 2013. Works include Gengo gēmu to shakai riron (Language Games and Social Theory) and Sekai ga wakaru shūkyō shakaigaku nyūmon (An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion).

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