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The Kami Amaterasu leaves her cave - one of the rare pictorial representations of Kami in Japanese art, here by Kunisada .

Kami ( Japanese ) primarily denotes spirits or gods worshiped in Japanese Shinto (Shintoism) . In Japanese, however, the term can also be related to deities of other religions ( see below ).

A concrete translation of the term into German is difficult. The kami concept can u. a. can be applied to nature spirits, ghosts and the souls of the deceased, which in other cultures are not or rarely referred to as "deities". As is common in other polytheistic or animistic religions, kami do not or not necessarily have the properties of the one or the highest God known from monotheistic or philosophical religions (e.g. infinity, omniscience, immutability, omnipotence). Moreover, anything that evokes an intense emotional response in people - be it awe, joy, fascination, amazement, fear or other feelings - can be viewed as kami.

Like Shinto itself, the conceptions of kami have seen several significant changes throughout history. The term “kami” can therefore only be adequately explained with reference to the context of its historical development.


According to a phrase, the number of Kami is yaoyorozu ( 八 百万 ), which literally means “eight million”, but is to be understood more in the sense of “ myriads ”. The Shintō knows both kami, which show human traits and character traits, and are therefore referred to as jinkakujin ( 人格 神 ), human kami , as well as shapeless protective deities ( 守護神 , shugojin ), who grant people grace and benefits.

Kami are summoned, persuaded or repeatedly asked for help by shamans . They can temporarily reside in yorishiro - long, thin objects like trees, rods, or phallus-like objects. Their traditional residence is in the mountains.

One of the most popular definitions still today is the more psychological one of the Kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801):

“[…] In general, the word 'kami' refers primarily to the various kami of heaven and earth in the Japanese classics and the spirits [ mitama ] entrapped in their shrines, and needless to say, it is also refers to people, even to birds and animals, grass and trees, seas and mountains - and everything else that has outstanding and extraordinary power and arouses awe [...] "

- Motoori Norinaga : Kojiki-den .

Word meaning

The origin of the word is disputed. It is generally assumed that it originated in old Japanese . Different etymologies of the word kami suggest an explanation by deriving the omission of middle syllables of the words kamugami ("shine to the eye") or kagami ("mirror"), which is supposed to have originally described the essence of the kami. It has been shown to have been used for the first time in the Yayoi period . The most straightforward derivation is that of kami = with the meaning of those who are above me , as in 上 様 , still in use today as the boss of the house .

In the Ainu language there is the term kamuy ("bear; deity"), which probably flowed into the Ainu language as a loan word from ancient Japanese. The Ainu linguist Tresi Nonno, on the other hand, claims that the word was borrowed from the Ainu language into Japanese during the Jōmon period . The missionary John Batchelor also assumed that the term had its origin with the Ainu.

Other derivations, however, assume a Siberian origin from the word Kam (Mongolian for shaman) or an origin from Malayo-Polynesian languages . Today, however, these derivations are considered unlikely.

Japanese synonyms

Apart from kami there are also other, more archaic names for Japanese gods such as mono , tama , chi and mi , which are difficult to distinguish from kami and in the oldest Japanese scripts such as Nihonshoki , Kojiki and Fudoki are almost identical Wise used. There are also synonymous Chinese loanwords such as jingi ( 神祇 ) or kishin ( 鬼神 ), each of which contains the character for kami (Sino-Japanese shin , jin ). The name Shintō can be traced back to these Chinese words and means “way of the gods” ( shin (“gods”) do (“way”)).

Kami typologies

The Kami of Shinto can be roughly divided into the following categories:

  • Deified natural beings and natural phenomena
  • Magic animals (usually malicious snake or fox spirits that take possession of humans)
  • Ancestral deities or spirits (mythological figures)
  • Deities of Indian, Chinese or Korean origin
  • Deification of influential historical figures
    • Special case: deification of vengeful spirits of the dead ( goryō )
  • Deified objects

The oldest and most original of the categories are probably the deified natural phenomena, which point to the roots of Shinto in the various ethnic religions of Southeast Asia and are a form of pantheism . The ancient Japanese saw something divine in mountains, rivers, megaliths, animals and plants, as well as in natural phenomena such as fire, rain, wind and thunderstorms.

In the prehistoric tribal cultures of Japan, individual Ujigami with their individual worship rites developed from ancestor worship, some of which spread through contact between the tribes.

There are two types of ancestral spirits. The ones who have already reached the stage of Buddhism (usually 33 years after their death). These often appear to shamans in the form of a jewel (tama). In some areas of Japan these ancestral spirits are transferred to the public Shinto shrine as kami and serve as protective deities (ujigami) for their community. Ancestral spirits who have not yet reached the stage of Buddhism appear to shamans as distinguishable and recognizable individuals. The other kind of ancestral spirits are malicious in nature. These include the spirits of the deceased who received no attention from their descendants, ancestral spirits who had no descendants to care for them, and spirits of people who died premature, unnatural deaths. These spirits need special attention so that they can find the way to Buddha existence. Shamans can question these spirits and find out what is missing so that the offspring can provide appropriate assistance.

Shintō-Buddhist syncretism ( shinbutsu shūgō ) is essential to the history of the kami . This phenomenon describes the complex interaction and fusion of Buddhist teachings and ideas with the original religion of Japan since the introduction of Buddhism from China to Japan at the end of the 6th century. The idea that was customary at first regarded the new gods only as foreign kami ( 蕃 神 banshin ) or Buddha-kami ( busshin ). The later Buddhist doctrine of honji suijaku ( 本地 垂 迹 , original substance and manifest traces ) declared the worship of Buddhist monks and bodhisattvas to be derived worship of transcendental truths. Within this system, the kami were referred to as myōjin (immanent deity) and gongen ( 権 現 , avatar ).

Other religions imported from abroad, such as Daoism and Confucianism, also had a significant influence on the decorations, descriptions and designations.

Special categories and concepts

  • Amatsukami ( 天津 神 ) or Tenjin ( 天神 ) - heavenly kami
  • Kunitsukami ( 国 津 神 ) or Chigi ( 地 祇 ) - Erdkami
  • Banshin ( 蕃 神 / 蛮 神 ) - ancestral gods of peoples and tribes who immigrated to Japan, literally barbarian kami
  • Boshijin ( 母子 神 ) - mother-child- god couple who are worshiped together
  • Gairaishin ( 外来 神 ) - Kami that were adopted from the outside
  • Gunshin ( 軍 神 ) - Kami of the art of war
  • Haishishin ( 配 祀神 ) or Haishin ( 配 神 ) - "Nebenkami" of a shrine in contrast to the Shushin
  • Haraedo no Kami ( 祓 戸 の 神 ) - Ortskami that is invoked during the purification ceremony
  • Himegami ( 姫 神 / 比 売 神 ) - feminine kami, goddess
  • Hitorigami ( 一 人 神 ) - single kami , as opposed to those that appear as male-female couples
  • Kamurogi / Kamuroki ( 神 漏 岐 ) and Kamuromi ( 神 漏 美 ) - collective terms for male and female ancestral kami
  • Kotoamatsukami ( 別 天津 神 ) - the first five Kami from the Kojiki (The Zōkasanshin + Umashiashikabihikoji-no-Kami and Ame-no-tokotachi-no-Kami)
  • Mikogami ( 御 子 神 ) - descendant of a kami
  • Mikoto ( / ) - Honorary title held by a kami or a revered personality
  • Myōjin - Archaic term for Kami with particularly impressive powers or virtues
  • Saijin ( 祭神 ) - collective term for all kami worshiped in a shrine, d. H. Shushin and Haishishin
  • Shingō ( 神 号 ) - divine title of a kami
  • Shinshi ( 神 使 ) - divine servant, assistant to a kami in animal form
  • Shinjū ( 神 獣 ) - divine animals
  • Shushin ( 主 神 ) - main kami of a shrine
  • Sumegami ( 皇 神 ) - noble kami, especially ancestors of the imperial family
  • Tenjinchigi ( 天神 地 祇 ) for short: Jingi ( 神祇 ) - collective term for the kami of heaven and earth
  • Wakamiya ( 若 宮 ) - a shrine that is an offshoot of a main shrine, or where a descendant of the main deity is worshiped
  • Zōkasanshin ( 造化 三 神 ) - The three kami of creation (Amenominakanushi, Takamimusuhi and Kamimusuhi)

List of some well-known god names

Use outside of Shinto

Gods of the Ainu (natives of Northern Japan)

Important gods ( kamuy ) of the Ainu are:


The Christian god was transcribed in Japanese in the 16th century directly from Portuguese or Latin as deus ( デ ウ ス ) or - in neo-Confucian Chinese terminology - referred to as tenshu ( 天主 , lord of heaven ) or jōtei ( 上帝 , "supreme being") . For the first time in the Meiji period , as part of the introduction of Protestant Christianity in Bible translations (1859 and 1862), the term Kami was also used for the Christian God. From this point on, the term kami was also used for the gods of other religions .

Similar to the German word “Gott”, the Japanese Kami can also be applied to a person who is particularly outstanding in their field. The football god Pelé is a Kami of football in Japanese . The suffix -sama is often added as an additional sign of respect . Child prodigies are also sometimes referred to as kami .

The term kamikaze , known from the military, means god wind .


  • Basil H. Chamberlain: The Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters. Asiatic Society of Japan, 1919 ( online ).
  • Timothy J. Vance: The Etymology of Kami. In: Journal of Religious Studies , Volume 10/4, 1983 ( PDF; 3.9 kB ).
  • Sokyo Ono: Shinto: The Kami Way. Tuttle Publishing, 2003 ( online ).
  • Mary P. Fisher: Living Religions. 7th edition, 2008.

See also

Web links

Commons : Kami  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Sallie B. King: Egalitarian Philosophies in Sexist Institutions: The life of Satomi-san, Shinto Miko and Zen Buddhist Nun. In: Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion , Volume 4/1, 1988, pp. 14-15. Translation by Jürgen Schuster : Shamanism and the Christian Church in Japan. In: Klaus W. Müller (Ed.): Mission in foreign cultures. Contributions to mission ethnology. Festschrift for Lothar Käser on his 65th birthday (= edition afem - mission academics. Volume 15). VTR, Nuremberg 2003, ISBN 3-933372-91-7 , pp. 243-252.
  2. a b Jürgen Schuster: Shamanism and the Christian Church in Japan. In: Klaus W. Müller (Ed.): Mission in foreign cultures. Contributions to mission ethnology. Festschrift for Lothar Käser on his 65th birthday (= edition afem - mission academics. Volume 15). VTR, Nuremberg 2003, ISBN 3-933372-91-7 . Pp. 243-252.
  3. ^ Translated and quoted from Norman Havens: Immanent Legitimation: Reflections on the 'Kami Concept'. In: Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion , Volume 4, 1998 ( online ).
  4. ^ A b John J. Keane: Cultural and Theological Reflections on the Japanese Quest for Divinity . BRILL, 2016, ISBN 978-90-04-32240-0 , pp. 6–10 ( limited preview in Google Book search).
  5. DC Holtom: The Meaning of Kami. Chapter I. Japanese Derivations . In: Monumenta Nipponica . tape 3 , no. 1 , 1940, ISSN  0027-0741 , p. 1-27 , doi : 10.2307 / 2382402 , JSTOR : 2382402 .
  6. https://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/2272
  7. Tresi Nonno: Images of androgynous beings of Jōmon epoch . In: Cultural Anthropology and Ethnosemiotics . tape 4 , no. 4 , November 2018, p. 49 ( wordpress.com [PDF; accessed December 16, 2019]).
  8. John Batchelor: The Ainu and Their Folk-Lore , London 1901, pp. 580-582.
  9. 神 - Yahoo 奇摩 字典 搜尋 結果. Retrieved December 14, 2019 .
  10. Hans A. Dettmer: The mythology of the Ainu. In: Egidius Schmalzriedt (Ed.): Gods and Myths in East Asia (= Dictionary of Mythology . Volume 4). Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-12-909860-7 , p. 198 ( limited preview in the Google book search).