Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮, Ise Jingu Shrine) has recently published a sasshi (冊子, booklet) in English, titled “Soul of Japan — An Introduction to Shinto and Ise Jingu.”
The news was picked up by some Japanese media because the shrine used, for the first time, words such as kami (神, God or deity), matsuri (祭り, festival) and jinja (神社, shrine), rendering them untranslated in romaji (ローマ字, Roman letters), instead of using their English equivalents.
Ise Jingu and Jinja Honcho (神社本庁, Association of Shinto Shrines) copublished the booklet in April. Their aim is to make Shinto-related words such as kami known to the outside world, just as judo (柔道) and ninja (忍者) already are.
While it is doubtful that jinja will suddenly be erected in Europe or that anime featuring kami and matsuri will be aired on Saturday-morning cartoon programs, Ise Jingu’s tantōsha (担当者, person in charge) thinks that ki wa jukushita (機は熟した, the time is ripe.)
“(The word) Shinto has already become known. It is time for us to sekkyokuteki ni (積極的に, proactively) hasshin suru (発信する, transmit) other words related to jinja and Shinto so their honrai no (本来の, true) meaning can be widely understood,” an Ise Jingu spokesman said.
The booklet “Soul of Japan” says that a deity is a god in a tashinronteki (多神論的, polytheistic) belief system, and thus deity is a somewhat appropriate translation of kami. However, Ise Jingu and Jinja Honcho want to differentiate kami from the deities of other religions.
“It’s not wrong to say kami are Shinto deities. But a deity is not a very common word, and we thought using the word kami was more appropriate. So we may as well spread the word ‘kami,’ and want people in the world to know kami as kami,” the spokesman said.
Moreover, in explaining to Japanese people what God or a deity is, we probably have to use the world kami because there is no other better Japanese word. To clarify the difference between God and a deity in Japanese, you basically need to say that God is isshinkyō no kami (一神教の神, monotheistic “God”) and that a deity is tashinkyo no kami (多神教の神, a polytheistic deity).
After Ise Jingu and Jinja Honcho published the booklet, all other jinja in Japan will probably follow suit because the two bodies are effectively the official organizations for jinja.
Following the move, the city of Ise in Mie Prefecture changed its traffic signs in line with the English description of the booklet.
The booklet explains that Shinto teaches that there are kami in the mountains, forests and other things. There are yaoyorozu no kami (八百万の神, 8 million kami), as a saying goes. Mountains and forests are the origin of jinja, the booklet explains.
Kami derived from nature, such as the kami of rain, the kami of wind, the kami of mountains, the kami of the sea and the kami of thunder have a deep relationship with our lives and profound influence over our activities. Individuals who have made a great contribution to the state or society may also be enshrined and revered as kami, according to the booklet.
The booklet also shows with text and drawings how to perform temizu (手水, purifying one’s hands and mouth with a wooden dipper before approaching the main sanctuary of a shrine, basically the act of washing hands and gargling) and the etiquette when praying to kami. Shrines usually have stone water basins for temizu.
On the J-Cast News website a gengogaku senmon no daigakukyōju (言語学専門の大学教授, professor specializing in linguistics) said that words describing a Japanese concept that does not exist outside Japan are easily absorbed into English. For example, the term emoji (絵文字, a combination of letters that looks like a drawing) is often used in English.
Interestingly, Toyota Motor Corp.’s kaizen (改善, improvement) is now used in English, the website says. The word kaizen became noticed when Japanese automakers outperformed global rivals , such as General Motors, in 2000s and the global automobile industry were trying to learn from Toyota’s business methods.
Linguistic experts also say that such Japanese-English words tend to be adopted if they are shikaku ni uttaeru mono (視覚に訴えるもの, lit: something appealing to sight, but actually a tangible thing) or jissai ni taikan dekiru mono (実際に体感できるもの, something you can actually experience).
For example, the words “anime” and “manga” are now used worldwide because people can watch and read them. And the Japanese word “tsunami” became a universal word after the English term “tidal wave” failed to correctly describe the horrors people saw after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
It is unknown if kami and jinja will reach the same level of recognition as ninja and judo. But those words will certainly spread little by little if Shinto kankeisha (神道関係者, people involved in the world of Shinto) continue to spread their gospel.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.