Friday, February 26, 2010

The Way of the Kami

Japan is filled with gods, spirits, monsters, demons, dragons and all manner of other things. They worship the Kami, which can be translated as both a god and a spirit. They believe that many things hold spirits, trees, stones, animals, even man-made objects which have reached 100 years of age hold a spirit. This would make them animists. This part of the religion is called Shinto, which we can split up into two Chinese words Shin "spirit/god" and Tao "the way" to make it the way of the spirits or the way of the gods. This is considered to be the religion of Japan, and comes down from prehistoric times, making it one of the worlds great pagan religions. It used to be not very organized, and only started changing when Buddhism came to Japan and the 2 religions became antagonistic to each other. For a long time the 2 fought, until finally, war gave way to peace and the 2 religions began to merge and influence each other. The modern Japanese government decided to have a national religion though, and so broke the 2 up, forcing them apart from each other, so that they could proclaim Shinto as the national religion. Many Japanese beleive that only Japanese can be Shinto (and Koreans as well, since they used to have the same religion basically,) causing this to be a Ethnic based religion, i.e. racist. There are Shinto temples in America though, and there are some white (non-Japanese) priests, which has caused a stir and a whole debate over whether the gods of Japan would care about and work with/through other peoples. But since all kinds of people use Greek gods and Norse gods and Egyptian gods, etc..., then there would be no problem with people using the Japanese gods.

Buddhism on the other hand, is not Ethnically based. Anyone can be a Buddhist, so even Bodhisattvas that only exist in Japan will help other people, too.

There is another native religion of Japan, started by the original inhabitants of Japan, the Ainu people. The Ainu were there first, then came people from the Korean continent that took over their lands and the 2 people became intermarried. The government of Japan refuses to admit that the Ainu or the aboriginal peoples though. They had, and still have, a bear cult, which can also be seen among some peoples in Russia, showing that they are culturally related to those peoples.
Torii, Japanese spirit gates, placed at the entrance to many temples or holy places.

Here I will list some of the gods/kami of Japan. Maybe in another post I will cover the other beings like the Yokai, Oni, Baku, etc...

Izanagi-no-Mikoto-the first man, father of the gods, god of life. He crossed the bridge of light into the world and stirred up the oceans to create the first land. He married Izanami and together they had several children, but they were all deformed and horrible. These deformed children were the result of Izanami's insolence of being the first to speak in this new world and so they walked around the world again and allowed him to speak first. After this, they birthed the other islands of Japan and then the gods were born, until Ho-Masubi, the fire god was born and his fiery birth killed Izanami. In a rage Izanagi killed his fiery son and then went on a quest to the underworld to find his wife. She was an underworld goddess now though, and looked like a corpse, and so he fled from her sight and washed his eyes and nose in a river, to cleanse her sight and smell from him, and from this were born Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi and Susanoo.
Stirring the ocean to create the first land

Izanami-no-Mikoto-the first woman, mother of the gods, goddess of the underworld and death, as she was the first to die when she gave birth to the fiery god Ho-Masubi. Her first children were deformed, brought on by her sin of being the first person to speak in the world, which should have been her husband (this is a patriarchal society, obviously.) After cleansing this sin, she gave birth to most of the islands of Japan and many gods. When her husband left her in the underworld after seeing what had become of her form, she shrieked that she would kill 1000 living things each day as vengence. So he said that 1500 things would be born each day.

Ho-Masubi/Kagu-tsuchi-god of fire, his esplosive birth killed his mother, Ianami. His father, Ianagi, was so enraged with grief that he slew his son. From his body arose the mountain gods and from his blood came the sea and rain gods. Though he was still worshipped, so he didn't stay dead, and in fact there is another legend that states that his mother birthed a twin brother of sorts before she died, the water god Mizuhame, so that he could pacify his brother if he should become violent.
This was the only picture I could find of Ho-Masubi
(modern art from pgannon.com)

Amaterasu-goddess of the sun, she is the sister of Tsukuyumi and Susanoo. She was born from a tear shed from Izanagi's left eye. She once hid in a cave because of her brother, Susanoo's, abusive and lewd behavior. As the goddess of the sun, she took all daylight with her, causing much turmoil. The other gods tried and tried to get her to come out, but she would not. So, they devised a plan to lure her out, saying they found a new goddess to replace her, that was even more beautiful than her and had a party, with the goddess Uzume dancing and creating mirth. They placed a mirror, the Yata no Kagami, in front of the cave and curious to see the new goddess, she came out and saw her reflection(for the first time). The gods then sealed the cave shut so she could not return. She was so pleased with her reflection that she decided to stay out, but banished Susanoo to the earthly realm to atone for his behavior. She was the grandmother of the first Emperor of Japan, Ninigi, and as such is viewed as the special goddess of Japan(land of the rising sun) and guardian of Japanese people. As the sun goddess, she is one of the most powerful of the Kami and so is their ruler. One of her activities is to weave the sacred kimonos of all the other gods, showing her as a caring mother figure. She sent her grandson to the earthly realm to help pacify the land, giving him her 3 sacred possessions, the Yata no Kagami(mirror,) the Kasanagi-no-Tsurugi (sword) and the Yasakani-no-megatama (curved jewel, symbol of benevolence.)
Uzume dances to lure Amaterasu out of the cave
She leaves the cave to see what all the fun is about

Tsukuyomi-god of the moon, brother of Amaterasu and Susanoo. He was born from a tear from the right eye of Izanagi. He once visited Uke-Mochi, and viewed how she made food. He was so horrified that he slew her. Amaterasu was so angry and embarassed by this act, that she will have nothing to do with him, and this is why they never see each other.

Susanoo-no-Mikoto-god of storms and seas, a folk hero. The brother of Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, born when Izanagi blew his nose. He was a wild and rude god, and offended(or abused) his sister so much, that she fled into a cave. When the other gods finally got her out of the cave, he was banished to the Earthly realm for his actions. This is when he became a folk hero, as he wandered around he met an old couple that told him that 7 of their 8 daughters had been devoured by Yamata no Orochi, and eight headed dragon. He slew the Orochi by getting each of it's 8 heads drunk on barrels of saki and they fell asleep, then he hacked it to pieces, finding a magical sword in the tail, the Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi ("Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven") or the Kasanagi-no-Tsurugi ("Grasscutter Sword"). He presented this sword to his sister as a gift and she allowed him back into the heavenly world.
Susanoo versus Orochi, a common theme in Japan

Ishikori-dome-the smith goddess, she made the first mirror, the 8 sided Yata No Kagami, to help lure Amaterasu out of the cave she had sealed herself in.


Ana-no-Uzume-goddess of dance, revelry and mirth. She danced and spread mirth to help lure Amaterasu out of the cave she sealed herself in.

Uke Mochi-goddess of food. Tsukuyomi came to visit her one day, and so she decided to prepare a feast, but Tsukuyomi spied upon her and was horrified to see that she was creating food from her body. He slew her and from her body arose all the foodstuff that humans eat.


Ninigi-No-Mikoto-the grandson of Amaterasu, father of Hoori and Hoderi and great-grandfather of Jimmu. He was sent to the earthly realm to pacify the land and plant rice. Amaterasu gave him her 3 sacred gifts, of the Kasanagi-no-Tsurugi(sword), Yata-no-Kagami(mirror) and the Yasakani no Megatama(jewel,) which he gave to Jimmu and have been kept by the emperors since then.

Hoori/Yamasachihiko-god of hunting, younger brother of Hoderi and great-grandson of Amaterasu. He lost his brothers fish hook in the ocean when he wanted to try his hand at fishing. So, he went diving to find it and met Otohime, Ryujin's the sea dragons daughter. She fell in love with him and took him to her fathers palace. Ryujin was not happy, as he was the guardian of the sea and he thought this was a fisherman, a plunderer of the sea. Eventually Ryujin gave into his daughters pleas and allowed the two to marry. They lived happily for many years, until Hoori became homesick and remembered the whole reason he came down there was to find his brothers treasured hook. Ryujin found the hook and Hoori returned to the surface world with his bride, who was not pregnant. After settling into life on the surface world, she went into labor and asked that her husband not see her until it was over. He was annoyed that he couldn't see his child being born though and snuck a peak, only to see her change into a dragon. He screamed in horror, she screamed in fear and fled, leaving him his son. Later, she sent a sister up to raise her son as a nanny, but the 2 fell in love and had a son together, Jimmu, who became the first emperor of Japan.

Hoori meets Otohime

Hoori losses the fish hook

Hoderi-god of fishing, older brother of Hoori and great grandson of Amaterasu.

Ryujin-dragon god, guardian of the seas and it's creatures. The father of Otohime, and grandfather(and great-grandfather) of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. As the god of the sea, he was revered by many sailors and fishermen, who depended on his kindness for their livelihoods. He lived in a palace of coral an crystal, named Ryugu, under the sea and used turtles, jellyfish and fish as his messengers. He once game the Empress Jingo magical tidal jewels that would control the tides (and then some,) which she used to attack Korea, first removing the water under their ships, grounding them, and then to send a tidal wave to crush, and drown, the fleeing sailors and warriors. He made the jellyfish boneless when he sent it on a mission to find a monkey for him to eat and the poor thing came back emptyhanded, so was beaten so severly that his bones all crumpled to powder.
Ryujin or one of his servants

Musubi-no-Kami-god of love and marriage, appears as a young man. He also represents creation or the power of becoming, which makes him very similar to Eros, who was first thought of as a child of Chaos (the primodial god) who used love to help create the universe, and later as a demi-god son of Aphrodite, that went around shooting arrows of love at people. Musubi lives in a sacred cherry tree, Kanzakuri, where he will leap out of and offer young girls a bough of cherry blossoms, with a promise of love in their future (not his love, the love of a human man.)

Gekka-O-god of binding in marriage, he ties the bride and grooms feet together with a magic red silk cord.

Hachiman-god of war, bravery and honor, the divine protector of Japan and it's people. He was a real historical figure, Emperor Ojin, that was deified after his death. He was thought to be the special guardian of the Minamoto Samurai clan, who took eventual became the shoguns of Japan. He is also very popular with the average people (peasants in the old days.) Over half the registered shrines in Japan are for him, making him second only to Inari, the rice god. He was so popular that the buddhists found a way to make him into a bodhisattva of sorts, following the way of the warrior, so he became a kind of synchronistic deity, fusing the 2 main religions of Japan.

Inari-god/goddess of rice and fertility. This ambigous deity has shrines all over Japan, and is very important, as rice is the staple food there. S/He uses pure white foxes as messengers, and you will see them all over the shrines. Because of this, s/he is also called the fox god, but many priest discourage this (because the foxes can also be thought of as evil.) Both a god and a goddess, appearing as either one, someitmes a young maiden, or an old man, a bodhisattva or a even as a fox. This deity has more shrines than any other in Japan, showing the importance of rice to the people. The shrines often have the red torii (spiri gates) at the entrance, and since there are so many shrines and so many torii, red has become associated with Inari. The shrine itself is often flanked by a pair of fox statues, one male and one female. People would leave offerings of rice or saki at the temple, but the most common is to offer a fox statue.
Statue of Inari as an old man, with his white foxes
Inari, as a young woman, appears before a samurai
Fox guardian at a shrine to Inari

Fuujin-god of the wind, often depicted as an Oni with a bag slung over his shoulder. He is thought to be one of the oldest gods, present at the creation of the world, where he let loose his winds to clear the mists between heaven and earth, letting the suns light reach the world. What is even more interesting is that there is clear evidence that Fuujin was actually originally the Greek wind god Boreas, who traveled along the silk road as the wind god Wardo and was eventually brought over to Japan. He is of course now his own unique self and is not Boreas anymore, but it is amazing nontheless. The buddhists use him too, claiming that he was a demon that the Buddha captured and converted, becoming a wind god.

Raijin/Raiden-god of thunder and lightning, often paired with Fuujin and depicted as an Oni. As an oni figure, he is fond of eating childrens navels, so parents would tell their children to cover their tummies. He carries a circle of drums with him, beating on them produces the thunder. He is similar to his Chinese counterpart, Lei Gong, but is more well known in the west, in part thanks to the Mortal Combat game (though he appears a lot more human looking in the game and subsequent movies.) He is very well known in Japan, with pretty much everyone knowing who he is, even if they are not Shinto, and his image appears on a number of things from cards, to cups to blankets.

He has a companion beast, Raiju, which is the actual lightning itself. It appears as a cat, tanuki, or a blue wolf make of fire or wrapped in lightning. This beast becomes aggitated during storms and will leap about, causing fires to everything he touches. He likes to sleep in navels, of which Raijen will shoot arrows of lightning at to wake him up (frying the poor individual whose navel he was sleeping in.) So don't sleep outside during a storm, and even if you are inside, it is suggested that you sleep on your stomach. Raiju was used to make the Pokemon character Raichu, Pikachu's evolved form.

Chimata-no-Kami/Sai-no-Kami-god of crossroads, roads and footpaths. He was originally a phallic god, and the phallus is still his symbol, and images or carvings of a phallus are placed at crossroads.


O-Watatsumi-god of the sea and all it's creatures, the most important of the sea gods. Some people think he is the same as Ryujin.

O-Yamatsumi/Ohoyamatsumi-god of the mountains, the most important of all the mountain gods. He is the son of Izanagi and older brother of Amaterasu. He is also the father of Konohanasakuya-Hime, the kami of the sacred Mt. Fuji.

Konohanasakuya-Hime-goddess of Mt. Fuji, a sacred mountain in Japan. She is the daughter of O-Yamatsumi and the wife of Ninigi, mother of Hoori and Hoderi. Her symbol is the cherry blosson, and she is called the "blossom princess." Because this is her symbol, and cherry blossoms are fleeting, human life is short. If Ninigi had married her sister, Iwa-Naga, the rock princess, human life would have been very long.

Mt. Fuji


Amaatsu-Mikaboshi-god of stars, specifically the pole star, and of evil. He is the personification of the void, the primordial darkness that existed before creation. He was the only being there, and ruled it absolutly and with absolute darkness, stillness and silence. Then for one tiny instant he lost control when the In and Yo (yin-yang) began flowing and the movement caused the universe sprang into being. As it was the ruler of the void, all things that rushed to fill that void have peices of it now, including humans, and this is the cause of our passions (well the dark side of our passions.) He is not really a god per say, but a force, the anithesis of life and light. It is constantly trying to return the universe back to the dark and silent void (i.e. destroy it) and feeds off of these negative emotions and dark passions. Those who die with strong attachments to him will have their sould turned into his agents, or even become Oni. Some Onmyoji (Japanese sorcerers) worship him in an attempt to steal his power. Many blame him and the Onmyoji for the atrocities commited by the Japanese before and during WWII. This god became a major villian in Marvel comics Hercules, where he killed Zeus and recently took over an alien pantheon. He was the inspiration for the Star Wars Sith Palpatine. He was also the inspiration for a villain in the Sailor Moon series(the season where the daughter comes back in time and they don't know who she is.) He has been compared to Satan by some, though Satan wants to pervert creation in defiance and rebellion to God, while Mikaboshi just wants to destroy everything, people, gods, the whole universe. So, not the same at all. And while Mikaboshi is thought of in the male tense, it is not male or female, existing in the void before anything even remotely like sexes was formed.
As he has no real form, there are no real depictions of him used.
Here is the Marvel comics version of him

Bodhidarma/Daruma-the founder of Zen buddhism, he was an Indian monk whose teachings reached all the way to Japan, where most people think Zen buddhism came from. Often seen as the little Daruma rolly-polly dolls, used as toys for children, or as good luck charms. The good luck lasts for one year, so a new doll would be bought the next year, while the old one would be burned together at the temple with other old dolls.
I got one of these when I was in Japan, too.
I had no idea it was supposed to be a toy though, I like that idea.

Kannon/Kwannon-god/goddess/bodhisattva of compassion and mercy. This deity is the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin, who is really the male Bodhisattva Avaloketisvara. In Japan there seem to be more male images of Kannon than female, but both are shown. Kannon is widely revered in Japan, and is seen as the protector of children, as well as the giver of children. There are many incarnations of Kannon, as woman, as man, as demon, as god, as bodhisattva, as tengu, etc...all of them are there to help people. Together with Jizo and Amida (see below,) they are the bedrock of Japanese buddhism, with Jizo offering salvation from hell, Amida giving people the pure land and Kannon offering salvation in this life.
Kannon in a masculine form, with multiple arms
Giant, building sized statue of Kannon, in a more feminine form

Amida Nyorai-is the Bodhisattva Amitabha, the "buddha of infinite light." Bodhisattva of protection and forgiveness. He created the pure land, a place for those that have not yet broken the cycle of rebirth to go to when they pass on, to learn more of the Budda's teachings and then become Bodhisattvas themselves to return to the world and help more people. It is basically a kind of short cut to Nirvana, or a time extension so you can learn more. There are many 48 different vows to take to get to the pure land, though you only need to complete one to get in. The 2 easiest that I have seen are to call upon Amida's 10 times or more, or to call upon him when you are about to die. This easier path is what led so many people to him, and frankly, I myself am attracted to this idea. While I will still endeavor to learn more in this life, it is a relief that Amida give's me extra time in his pure land if I haven't figured it out. Some people love life and want to be born again and again. I am not one of those people, I am someone that feels the weight of too many lifetimes and am ready to go to Nirvana. That is why I am both a pagan and a buddhist and feel comfortable in the Asian pagan-buddhist faith.

Jizo-is actually the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, who took it as his role to teach mankind the ways of Buddha, after the death of Buddha until the time of Maitreya, the last Buddha. In Japan he is the protector of all mankind and rescues souls in hell. He especially cares for dead children, as they are believed to not have had enough time to gather merit to cross over, so are stranded in-between and forced by demons to carry rocks down a river to make piles, basically crude stupas, as penance for making their parents grieve (this is a culture of absolute respect for sure!) He will scoop up those children and hide them in his robes keeping them safe until their time has passed and they can move on. Grieving parents will often leave childrens toys at his idols or dress him in childrens clothes, hoping that he will take pity on their child and give them special attention. His statues are often seen in semetaries or anyplace that children have died. He protects travllers too. so roadside statues of him are common as well. He looks like a Buddhist monk, with a shaved head, often with closed eyes and cubby, child-like cheeks. He carries a staff with rings atop it, which he would shake, like a rattle, to ward off demons. He is a very popoluar Bodhisattva in Japan, and can be found in Shinto areas as well.
Offerings left for Jizo, to keep their deceased children safe from demons and punishment

Ekibio-Gama-god of plagues and epidemics. I am not sure if he causes it, like Bimbo-Gami causes poverty, or if he helps ward away plagues, or if he is the personification of plagues (then he should be an Oni, not a Kami.)

Emma-O-god of the undeworld and judge of the dead, he keeps the souls of the dead until it is their time to be reborn or they are saved and can go to a heavenly paradise. He is really the Hindu-Buddhist god Yama, and is also the same as the Chinese god Yanluo (The Yama King.)

Fudo-god of fire, wisdom and protection from disaster. He appears rather like a sumo wrestler in appearance.

Okuninushi-god of healing, medicine and sorcery. He was once a man, whose brothers grew jealous of and so they killed him, but his mother was able to resurrect him. His brothers then again killed him and he took refuge in the underworld. While in the underworld, he met Susanoo and his daughter, Suseri-hime. He immediatly fell in love with her and Susanoo gave him many tests to perform to prove his worth, hoping to destroy him. With Suseri's aide, as well as that of an animal ally he was able to overcome these tests, but then decided to tie Susanoo's hair to the rafters of his palace while he slept and fled with this daughter and stole Susanoo's bow and arrows. Susanoo had finally grown fond of him, so allowed him to escape and told him to use his arrows to kill his treacherous brothers, which he did. He became the ruler of the province of Izumo, until Ninigi came and took his place. He then became the ruler of the unseen world of spirits and a healer.
Sukunaa-Biko-god of rain, faming and cultivation, he was a friend and ally of Okuninushi. He was dwarf-like in appearance.

Kawa-no-Kami-god of rivers, the lord of all the river gods, goddesses and spirits.

Bimbo-Gami-god of poverty. He causes it wherever he dwells, so people perform rituals to get rid of him. He is a thin and filthy man, and during times of economic troubles people would beat idols of him to punish him and force him to leave.
Recession bothering you?
Go beat the crap out of Bimbo-Gami!

Marisha-Ten-goddess of war and victory. She had 8 arms, each bearing a sword and had an army of 7 ferocious boars. She was able to confuse the enemy, by making you invisible. She is the Japanese version of an indo-European goddess and Tibetan boddhisattva, Marici.

Shichi Fukujin-The seven gods of luck, which are almost the same as the
Chinese 8 Immortals

  • Benten-goddess of words, speech, eloquence and music
  • Bishamon-god of warriors, guards and the punisher of criminals, protector against diseases and demons
  • Daikoku-god of wealth
  • Ebisu-god of mirth, joy and happiness
  • Fukurokuju-god of wisdom and longevity
  • Hotei-god of contentment and abundance
  • Jurojon or Gama-god of longevity
  • Kichijoten/Kisshoten/Kudokuten-goddess of happiness, fertility and beauty, sometimes considered to be the 8th god of fortune

Modern worship in Japan, means you can carry luck on a keychain,

and all your gods, too


Japan is a land of gods and spirits, a land little touched by Christian and Muslim hands, so there are just too many gods to list here. There are other gods I wanted to list, but much of my research from my travels is still sitting in storage waiting for me to move. I may work on some of the spiritual creatures, demons, monsters and heavenly beings of East Asia next time or I may work on the gods of another country like India or the Phillipines. I am also open to requests if you want me to focus on a specific country, otherwise, wait and see what I post next.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I vote for the Hindu gods for your next entry!

tigeryogiji said...

Very interesting! :)

Darshan said...

Well, Anon, since you are the only one that asked, I guess I will do a post on the Hindu gods. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

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Although I consider wicca and kami highly destructive to human´s soul, it is my duty to thank you for an extensive and very well done presentation.

God suffers because of our confusions, but He never stops loving us.


Kind regards,

Anonymous reader. (Regretfullly, some prudence is needed here on my part, so please do not conisder my anonimity as a sign of disregard)

This is a personal message.