Kami (かみ in Hiragana) (神) are the spirits or phenomena that are worshipped in the religion of Shinto. They are elements in nature, animals, creationary forces in the universe, as well as spirits of the revered deceased. Many Kami are considered the ancient ancestors of entire clans, and some ancestors became Kami upon their death if they were able to embody the values and virtues of Kami in life. Traditionally great or charismatic leaders like the Emperor could be kami. In Shinto, Kami are not separate from nature, but are of nature, possessing positive and negative, good and evil characteristics. They are manifestations of Musubi (結び), the interconnecting energy of the universe, and are considered exemplary of what humanity should strive towards. Kami are believed to be “hidden” from this world, and inhabit a complementary existence that mirrors our own, shinkai (the world of the Kami). To be in harmony with the awe inspiring aspects of nature is to be conscious of Kannagara [the way of the Kami] (随神の道 or 惟神の道).
Though the word Kami is translated in multiple ways, no one definition expresses its full meaning. In this way, the ambiguity of the meaning of Kami is necessary, as it conveys the ambiguous nature of Kami themselves. As Shinto is an inclusive religion, Kami has been expanded to include Buddhas.
Yōkai (妖怪?, ghost, phantom, strange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity" and "apparition; mystery; suspicious". Yōkai range eclectically from the malevolent to the mischievous, or occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Often they possess animal features (such as the Kappa, which is similar to a turtle, or the Tengu which has wings), other times they can appear mostly human, some look like inanimate objects and others have no discernible shape. Yōkai usually have a spiritual supernatural power, with shapeshifting being one of the most common. Yōkai that have the ability to shapeshift are called obake.
- Main article: Onis
One of the most well-known aspects of Japanese folklore is the oni, which is a sort of mountain-dwelling ogre, usually depicted with red, blue, brown or black skin, two horns on its head, a wide mouth filled with fangs, and wearing nothing but a tigerskin loincloth. It often carries an iron kanabo or a giant sword. Oni are mostly depicted as evil, but can occasionally be the embodiment of an ambivalent natural force. They are, like many obake, associated with the direction northeast.
- Main article: Tengu
A goblin from Japanese mythology that has several supernatural powers and skills in martial arts, the tengu were originally extremely dangerous demons and enemies of Buddhism, but over centuries, their behavior changed from spirits of the damned to active defenders of Dharma.
The best English translation of kami is 'spirits', but this is an over-simplification of a complex concept - kami can be elements of the landscape or forces of nature.
Kami are close to human beings and respond to human prayers. They can influence the course of natural forces,
and human events.
Shinto tradition says that there are eight million million kami in Japan.
- Main article: Kappa
Along with the oni and the tengu, they are one of the most well-known yōkai in Japan. Kappa (河童?, "river-child"), alternatively called Kawatarō (川太郎?, "river-boy"), Komahiki (“horse puller”), or Kawako (川子?, "river-child"), are a yōkai found in Japanese folklore, and also a notable cryptid. It has been suggested that the kappa legends are based on the Japanese Giant Salamander or "hanzaki", an aggressive salamander which grabs its prey with its powerful jaws.
Concepts of kami
Shinto belief includes several ideas of kami: while these are closely related, they are not completely interchangeable and reflect not only different ideas but different interpretations of the same idea.
Kami can refer to beings or to a quality which beings possess.
So the word is used to refer to both the essence of existence or beingness which is found in everything, and to particular things which display the essence of existence in an awe-inspiring way.
But while everything contains kami, only those things which show their kami-nature in a particularly striking way are referred to as kami.
Kami as a property is the sacred or mystical element in almost anything. It is in everything and is found everywhere, and is what makes an object itself rather than something else. The word means that which is hidden.
Kami have a specific life-giving, harmonising power, called musubi, and a truthful will, called makoto (also translated as sincerity).
Not all kami are good - some are thoroughly evil.
Kami as 'God'
The idea that kami are the same as God stems in part from the use of the word kami to translate the word 'God' in some 19th century translations of the Bible into Japanese.
This caused a great deal of confusion even among Japanese: the Shinto theologian Ueda Kenji estimated in 1990 that nearly 65% of entering students now associate the Japanese term kami with some version of the Western concept of a supreme being.
The next section shows that kami are actually very different from the Western concept of God.
Kami as beings
The concept of kami is hard to explain.
Shintoists would say that this is because human beings are simply incapable of forming a true understanding of the nature of kami.
To make understanding easier kami are often described as divine beings, as spirits or gods. But kami are not much like the gods of other faiths:
- Kami are not divine like the transcendent and omnipotent deities found in many religions.
- Kami are not omnipotent.
- Kami are not perfect - they sometimes make mistakes and behave badly.
- Kami are not inherently different in kind from human beings or nature - they are just a higher manifestation of the life energy... an extraordinary or awesome version.
- Kami don't exist in a supernatural universe - they live in the same world as human beings and the world of nature.
- Kami include the gods that created the universe, but can also include:
- The spirits that inhabit many living beings.
- Some beings themselves.
- Elements of the landscape, like mountains and lakes.
- Powerful forces of nature, like storms and earthquakes.
- Human beings who became kami after their deaths.