What are Kami?
Kami (神) are very difficult to define, as the term kami itself can come to mean many different ideas and aspects. It is even suggested that even the Japanese themselves do not have a clear idea of what kami are. The simplest way to describe kami are that they are nature spirits which are worshipped in the Shinto faith.
Kami can be creationary forces, spirits of the deceased, protectors of forests, rivers and mountains and even deceased humans. In the West, we have the concept of Gods and Goddesses – in Shinto, these are also kami – as well as the numerous nature spirits and supernatural beings. Some kami are considered to be the ancient ancestors of entire clans, and it is even believed that some humans can become kami after death if they were able to embody the values and virtues of kami in life.
Kami are not inherently different in kind from humans – they are just a higher manifestation of the life energy which we are all created from.
Perhaps the best way to understand kami is to remember that kami are not separated from nature, they are nature. Rocks, trees, rivers and such are not simply symbols of the kami, they are the abodes in which the kami reside. Some places are marked with a shimenawa (a twisted rope with sacred white paper) to indicate it as sacred.
Kami are understood to be the life force of the Universe with no substance of true form. They are omnipresent so can be embodied in ofuda, shrines and other places across the world, without it affecting their power.
Kami are believed to be hidden from us and inhabit a complementary existence, shinkai (the world of the kami) (神界). In Shinto, we strive to work with and not against nature and to be conscious of the kami that reside in this world.
There is no set number of kami, and new kami are coming into this world all the while. This is expressed in the Japanese phrase yaoyorozu no kami (百万神 — literally “the eight million kami) – a term used to show that the number of kami are beyond counting.
It should be noted that often the word ‘god’ is used to translate kami. This is not correct – kami are not the same concept as a god. The idea that kami are the same as a 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.
The Concept of Good and Evil
Kami, like humans, can have good and evil, positive and negative aspects. They are not perfect or inherently good and there can be kami whom are malignant spirits and cause chaos and disorder. It is believed that in order to prevent these events, these kami must be revered and worshipped. This is a reminder that not everything in nature is a positive event – natural disasters are very much part of our existence. This also shows the awe-inspiring power of the kami.
These kami are not completely negative though – in all kami are positive and negative attributes. There is no definitive standard of good and evil for the kami, no real moral code. It is important to note that the human concepts of good and evil do not apply for the kami. Any action done by a kami is usually considered to be in harmony with the world, they are basically our spiritual role models.
Forms of Kami
Kami can be a myriad of different concepts and ideas. Some of these are:
- The legendary kami from Japanese mythology that created the Universe
- Elements of nature such as mountains, lakes, forests etc
- Heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, stars and planets
- Powerful forces of nature such as storms and earthquakes
- Aspects such as war, luck, wisdom and fertility
- Earthly desires such as foodstuffs and agriculture
- Youkai (妖怪) – a class of supernatural beings in Japanese folklore
- Deceased humans or animals
Some of the major kami revered in (and outside) of Japan are:
- Amaterasu-Omikami (天照大神 or 天照大御神) – The kami who brings all life and so is considered the most important kami. Kami of the Sun and the spiritual ancestor of the Imperial family.
- Ame-no-Uzume (天宇受売命 or 天鈿女命) – Kami of dawn and revelry.
- Benzaiten/Benten: A female kami associated with music and the arts.
- Ebisu (恵比須, 恵比寿, 夷 or 戎): A lucky kami of fishermen and small businesses.
- Fūjin (風神) – Also known as kami-no-kaze, he is kami of the wind.
- Hachiman (八幡神): The kami of archery and war. Divine protector of Japan.
- Inari Okami (稲荷大神): Kami of rice and fertility.
- Izanagi and Izanami: The first man and woman who created Japan and many kami.
- Ryujin (龍神): Also known as Owatatsumi, he is the dragon kami of the sea.
- Susanoo-no-Mikoto (須佐之男尊): The storm and wind kami. Brother of Amaterasu.
- Suijin (水神) – Kami of water
- Tenjin (天神): The kami of education. Originally a human, Sugaware no Michizane (845-903 CE).
- Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (月読の命 or 月夜見の尊) – Kami of the Moon.
You can find a much longer list of kami here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Japanese_deities#Shinto