Shinto is based on belief in, and worship of, kami.

Kami can be elements of the landscape or forces of nature.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.

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, harmonizing 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

The term kami is sometimes applied to spirits that live in things, but it is also applied directly to the things themselves – so the kami of a mountain or a waterfall may be the actual mountain or waterfall, rather than the spirit of the mountain or waterfall.

Not all kami are sufficiently personalized to have names – some are just referred to as the kami of such-and-such a place.

Three types of kami are particularly important:

  • Ujigami, the ancestors of the clans: in tribal times, each group believed that a particular kami was both their ancestor and their protector, and dedicated their worship to that spirit
  • Kami of natural objects and creatures, and of the forces of nature
  • The souls of dead human beings of outstanding achievement

A Japanese Description of Kami

Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was one of the most distinguished Japanese scholars of religion and enthusiasts for Shinto revival. He described kami like this:

“I do not yet understand the meaning of the word ‘kami’. In the most general sense, it refers to all divine beings of heaven and earth that appear in the classics. More particularly, the kami are the spirits that abide in and are worshipped at the shrine.”

In principle human beings, birds, animals, trees, plants, mountains, oceans – all may be kami. According to ancient usage, whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence, or inspired a feeling of awe was called kami.