Religious Beliefs

What do Shinto practitioners believe about ultimate spiritual reality or God?

Kami is the most important term in Shinto theology. Its general meaning is “high or superior being,” and it can be applied to a host of spiritual presences and powers. Every kami is said to emanate its own distinctive divine energy or force. Among the various specific designations are the following: Nature kami include the deities of mountain, and agriculture, and bestowers of sustenance, vegetation such as sacred ancient trees, and the heavenly lights. Some deities have manifested themselves as animals, such as a white bird, a deer, or a monkey. Ancestral or tutelary deities (ujigami) include patrons of the clans, but they can also be nature kami. These are associated especially with shrines in regions once under the political control of the powerful families. As has often happened in Chinese traditions, some of Japan’s kami also originated as historical figures who became deities by dint of their leadership in a clan. Large numbers of major shrines are dedicated to such figures. Other important historical kami include literary figures as well.

Zoomorphic kami form another significant category, as represented, for example, by Inari’s fox. A classification of kami connected with ancestor veneration and exorcism are wrathful deities and malcontent spirits called goryo or onryo. They reflect the moral ambivalence Japanese discern in the spirit world. Popular belief holds such evil spirits responsible for disasters from earthquake and famine to war and political failure. Many of the great sacred sites enshrine tragic heroes who suffered political downfall. Some kami function as scapegoats in that they become the focus of popular blame for all manner of unhappy events. Japanese tradition sometimes identifies kami as either ara, wild and natural, or niki, placid and cultivated. In some cases separate shrines dedicated to these aspects of the same kami are located some distance apart. Another distinction is that between celestial deities (amatsukami) and the kami anciently associated with particular localities. Tradition portrays some kami as guests or visitors from a mysterious and faraway land called tokoyo, perhaps an acknowledgment of their origin in Buddhism and other imported traditions.


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