The Way of the Kami


Shinto & the State
The Birth of Japan
Izanagi and Izanami stood on the floating bridge of Heaven and held counsel together, saying, “Is there not a country beneath?” Thereupon they thrust down the jewel-spear of Heaven and, groping about therewith, found the ocean. The brine which dripped from the point of the spear coagulated and became an island which received the name of Ono-goro-jima. The two deities thereupon descended and dwelt in this island. (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 14)
  • How is this creation story similar to and/or different from the more familiar account of Genesis in the bible?
Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto consulted together saying, “We have now produced the great-eight-island country, with the mountains, rivers, herbs, and trees. Why should we not produce someone who shall be lord of the universe? They then together produced the Sun Goddess, who was called O-hiru-me no muchi. (Called in one writing Amaterasu no O-hiru-me no muchi.) The resplendent luster of this child shone throughout all the six quarters. Therefore the two deities rejoiced saying, “We have had many children, but none of them have been equal to this wondrous infant. She ought not to be kept long in this land, but we ought of our own accord to send her at once to Heaven and entrust to her the affairs of Heaven.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 20-1)

After “all the Central Land of Reed-Plains” was completely “tranquilized,” Amaterasu gave her grandson, Ninigi, the Three Treasures (a curved jewel, a mirror, and a sword) and sent him down to rule the earth, saying: “This ... Land is the region which my descendants shall be lords of. Do thou, my August Grandchild, proceed thither and govern it. Go! And may prosperity attend thy dynasty, and may it, like Heaven and Earth, endure for ever.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 28)
According to tradition, Ninigi’s Great Grandson, Jimmu, went on to become the first “emperor” of Japan in 660 B.C.E. The present emperor of Japan, Akihito, is said to be a direct descendent of this lineage, which is ultimately traced back to the kami Amaterasu.
The “Deities” of Shinto

In its earliest form, the people of a particular region established a symbiotic relationship with the powers of nature that were responsible for protecting the community. For example, since water flows from the mountains to the fields, this natural cycle was personified as a kami of the mountain (yama no kami) that descended in the spring to become the kami of the field (ta no kami), which then returned to the mountain after the fall harvest. People therefore offered “first fruits” to this local kami in order to ensure the protection of the community. This idea of living in harmony with kami of the natural world is known as kannagara, which Yukitaka Yamamoto, ninety-sixth Chief Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, describes as follows:
The Spirit of Great Nature may be a flower, may be the beauty of the mountains, the pure snow, the soft rains or the gentle breeze. Kannagara means being in communion with these forms of beauty and so with the highest level of experiences of life. When people respond to the silent and provocative beauty of the natural order, they are aware of kannagara. When they respond in life in a similar way, by following ways according to the kami,they are expressing kannagara in their lives. They are living according to the natural flow of the universe and will benefit and develop by so doing. (Living Religions, 226)
More generally, the term kami may be understood as ...
the spirits that abide in and are worshipped at the shrines. 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. (The Sacred Paths of the East, 247)
Tree surrounded by a shimenawa (a rope made from rice stalks that identifies a space as sacred and wards off evil spirits).
The “Wedded Rocks” (representing Izanagi and Izanami) at Futami no Ura are linked by a shimenawa.
The perfectly conical shape of Mt. Fuji has made it one of the most venerated “nature” kami throughout Japanese history.
Nachi waterfall is a sacred space for Shinto. The falls were originally devoted to kami veneration. Today they are also associated with the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy, Kannon. Note the shimenawa at the top of the waterfall.