Shinto’s kami and jinja seeking world acceptance


Special To The Japan Times

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.

  • Kazuhisa Nakatani

    The description in the booklet, “Individuals who have made a great contribution to the state or society may also be enshrined and revered as kami”, sounds like it’s backing the hawkish conservatives’ take on Yasukuni shrine.

    Just review the history books, and you’ll notice that enshrining individuals as Kami (e.g. enshrine war dead as Kami) is a modern concept — devised by the nation-sponsored Shinto religion (国家神道) in the late 19th and early 20th century.

    In pre-modern times, individuals were enshrined when:
    1) The person was a high-ranking aristocrat or warlord (in short, very important)
    2) The person died with a great resentment (e.g. deceived and lost in a political or real war)
    3) The soul of the person came back to haunt the community (causing natural disasters and/or epidemics)

    Clearly the purpose of the enshrinement was to appease revengeful spirits, rather than to honor “individuals who have made a great contribution to the state orsociety.” (Prominent examples are Kitano-tenmangu in Kyoto and Kanda-myoujin in Tokyo)

    Some successful warlords in the 16-17th century enshrined themselves (or their sons and grandsons did that on behalf), but they are exceptions — and those cases still do not fit the description of the booklet.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Well, how about the case of Sugawara no Michizane, for example?

      That is perhaps the most well known example of the practice, and it dates from the Heian period, about 1,000 years ago.

      I don’t think it would be correct to attribute his deification solely on the basis of his being a 雷神, as he was enshrined as the deity of scholarship and learning.

      • Kazuhisa Nakatani

        Acctually, my comment was written mainly with Sugawara no Michizane (Kitano-tenmangu) in mind.

        1) He was prominent scholar and bureaucrat/aristocrat
        2) He exiled to Kyushu (the end of world for his ranks) due to the defeat in political conflict, and died with great resentment (so people in Kyoto believed)
        3) After his death, severe earthquakes, thunderstorms and famines hit the capital region (plus some of his rivals died of mysterious disease) — and people believed these were the results of his wrath

        Kitano-tenjin-engi-emaki (北野天神縁起絵巻) explains how and why the shrine was built. The scroll was created in 13th century, so its description should not been distorted by modern ideology.

  • Nana Kwame Anthony

    Nakatani is correct – In Ifa we used the word ancestors for those who give greatness to a community, nation or family – individuals making themselves Kami is understood as those who are immortal, part of ancients myth, many part of the “forces of nature”. Individuals making themselves g_ds should be put to rest. It hurts the debate with those who say there is no isshinkyō no kami

  • Björn Mohns

    To specify words for ‘deity’ is a difficult, but comprehensible step. On a more general, academic level you have to talk about ‘deities’ whatever religion it is about, so the christian people ‘have’ a deity, the shinto people ‘have’ deities and so on. If you want to go deeper into a religion, of course you have to find words to separate those ‘belief systems’.

    By the way, in German language you have the same problem: the word ‘Gott’ means the ‘one and only’ god in Christian belief, but it is also the word to describe deities in other cultures. But it is always strange to use the plural for this word, so you sometimes use varieties, although those are much more incorrect as description.