In Shintoism kami 神 describes all spirits of divine nature, of essence or natural forces. The Chinese 神 (shin or jin) refers to traditional Chinese nature spirits and may have entered the Japanese language through the Ainu loanword “kamuy” (Ainu: カムイ, Japanese: 神威 or 神居, kamui), describing spiritual or divine being in Ainu mythology.
Kami encompass natural spirits, thus displaying animistic aspects, as well as human-like deities resembling the gods of ancient Greece or Rome. The Japanese scholar Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長; 1730-1801) defined them as “any thing or phenomenon that produces the emotions of fear and awe, with no distinction between good and evil.“
It is commonly said that there are eight million Shinto deities (八百万の神 【やおよろずのかみ】 yaoyorozu no kami), but “eight million” should not be taken too literal and rather be interpreted as “countless” or as a very large quantity. In Japanese language, they are usually referred to by the suffix “-kami” (神) or “-kamisama” (神様). Likewise kami may refer to male and female deities, although megami (女神) is sometimes used for female spirits.
Amatsu-kami and kunitsu-kami
Shinto belief distinguished between celestial or heavenly deities (天津神 【あまつかみ】 amatsu-kami) and earthly deities (国津神 【くにつかみ; ちぎ(地祇)】 kunitsu-kami). While ancient animistic beliefs described kami as divine forces of nature who were worshipped in trees, boulders, waterfalls, mountains and fields, the written chronicles of the 8th century, the Kojiki (古事記) and the Nihon shoki (日本書紀), depicted a more structured mythology and a complex pantheon of deities.
Both chronicles described the creation of the world through Izanagi-no-mikoto (伊邪那岐) and Izanami-no-Mikoto (伊弉冉尊), the conflict between Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大御神) and her brother Susanoo (須佐之男), the earthly rule of Susanoo’s descendants and the eventual conquest of the world by Amaterasu’s descendants, the dynasty of the Japanese tennō (天皇).
Kami in Shinto
Kami play a central role in Shinto belief, but due to the different nature of animistic Shinto and modern Shinto is unclear as to what can actually be defined as a kami. While archaic Shinto regarded forces of nature in particular as objects of reverence, modern Shinto took a more anthropomorphic approach, by worshipping not only mythological figures, but also historical figures and spirits of ancestors. The latter are often regional deities venerated in shrines that were built in their honour.
Kami are not necessarily omnipotent and benevolent; they possess two faces or spirits (mitama 御魂): a gentle one (nigi-mitama 和御魂) and a violent one (ara-mitama 荒御魂), originally characteristic of nature’s sudden changes.
]The ara-mitama is the rough and violent side of a spirit. A kami’s first appearance is as an ara-mitama, which must be pacified with appropriate pacification rites and worship so that the nigi-mitama can appear. The nigi-mitama is the normal state of the kami, its functional side, while the ara-mitama appears in times of war or natural disasters. These two souls are usually considered opposites, and Motoori Norinaga believed the other two to be no more than aspects of the nigimitama.
Ara-mitama and nigi-mitama are in any case independent agents, so much so that they can sometimes be enshrined separately in different locations and different shintai. For example, Sumiyoshi Shrine in Shimonoseki enshrines the ara-mitama of the Sumiyoshi kami, while Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka enshrines its nigi-mitama. Ise Shrine has a sub-shrine called Aramatsuri-no-miya enshrining Amaterasu’s ara-mitama. Atsuta-jingū has a sessha called Ichi-no-misaki Jinja for her ara-mitama and a massha called Toosu-no-yashiro for her nigi-mitama. No separate enshrinement of the mitama of a kami has taken place since the rationalization and systematization of Shinto actuated by the Meiji restoration.
Source: Yonei, Teruyoshi. “Aramitama”. Encyclopedia of Shinto. Kokugakuin University; from Wikipedia
It has to be noted that in the early 8th century and with the advent of Shingon and Tendai Buddhism several Buddhist divinities (hotoke 仏) were associated with the kami, because they were either regarded as “provisory” incarnations of divinities (gongen 権現) or as some sort of guardians of Buddhism.
- Izanagi (伊弊諾 or 伊邪那岐) The forefather of the gods, he is the first male as well as the god of creation and life. He and his wife, Izanami, were responsible for the birth of the islands of Japan and many kami, though she died in childbirth. Later, after his failed attempt to retrieve her from the underworld, he sired Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukuyomi.
- Izanami (伊弉冉 or 伊邪那美) Izanagi’s wife and sister, she is the first female as well as the goddess of creation and death. She died shortly after the birth of Kagu-tsuchi, and Izanagi followed her to the underworld, but failed to bring her back to the living world. A marital spat between the pair caused the cycle of life and death for all living beings.
- Amaterasu-Ō-Mi-Kami (天照大神 or 天照大御神) Commonly called Amaterasu, she is the goddess of the sun as well as the purported ancestress of the Imperial Household of Japan. Her full name means “Great Goddess” or “Great Spirit Who Shines in the Heavens”; she may also be referred to as Ōhiru-menomuchi-no-kami (大日孁貴神). Due to her ties to the Imperial family, she is often considered (though not official) to be the “primary god” of Shinto.
- Ame-no-Uzume (天宇受売命 or 天鈿女命) Commonly called Uzume, she is the goddess of dawn and revelry, instrumental to the “missing sun motif” in Shinto. She is also known as The Great Persuader and The Heavenly Alarming Female.
- Hachiman (八幡神) Also known as Hachiman-shin or Yawata no Kami, he is the god of war and the divine protector of Japan and its people. Originally an agricultural deity, he later became the guardian of the Minamoto clan. His symbolic animal and messenger is the dove.
- Inari (稲荷) The god or goddess of rice and fertility. His/her messengers and symbolic animal are foxes. He/she is often identified with the Buddhist deity Dakiniten.
- Fūjin (風神) Also known as Kami-no-Kaze, he is the Japanese god of the wind and one of the eldest Shinto gods, said to be present at the creation of the world. He is often depicted as an oni with a bag slung over his back.
- Ame-no-Koyane (天児屋命 or 天児屋根命) A male deity, he is considered the “First in Charge of Divine Affairs”, as well as the aide to the first Emperor of Japan. He is also considered to be the ancestor of the Fujiwara family.
- Ryūjin (龍神) Also known as Ōwatatsumi, he is a dragon, as well as god of the sea. He resides in Ryūgū-jō, his palace under the sea built out of red and white coral, from where he controlled the tides with magical tide jewels. His great-grandson would become Emperor Jimmu.
- Ninigi-no-Mikoto (瓊瓊杵尊) Commonly called Ninigi, he was the grandson of Amaterasu. His great-grandson was Kamuyamato Iwarebiko, later to be known as Emperor Jimmu, first emperor of Japan.
- Amida Nyorai (無量光佛 or 無量壽佛) Commonly referred to as Amida-butsu (阿弥陀如来), he is the primary Buddha of the Pure Land school of Buddhism. He is also believed to be a Buddha who possesses infinite meritorious qualities; who expounds the dharma in his pure paradise and is likely the most well known and popular of the Five Wisdom Buddhas.
- Daruma (ダルマ) He is traditionally held in Buddhist mythology to be the founder of Zen Buddhism, as well as the founder of Shaolin kung fu. One legend reports that after years of meditation, Bodhidharma lost the usage of his eyes and appendages. The Daruma doll was created in honor of this legend.
Searching the Seas with the Tenkei (天瓊を以て滄海を探るの図 Tenkei o motte sōkai o saguru no zu); Painting by Kobayashi Eitaku, 1880-90 (MFA, Boston; image credit).
Amaterasu-ōmikami (Utagawa Toyokuni III, aka Kunisada, image credit)
Susanoo-ni-Mikoto and the Water Dragon by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (image credit)