Are gods, monsters and mascots equal? Part 1, History

On the evolution of folklore beliefs in Japan — and its new forms.

Part 1 of 2 — Less religion, more stories and spirituality. Read part 2 here.

kami is a word used in Japan to describe gods, deities or spirits. The most popular one might be 天照大神, Amaterasu Oomikami, the Shinto goddess of the sun and of the universe.

Amaterasu imerging from the cave, painted by the ukiyo-e artist Kunisada

Japan’s rich imaginary results from centuries of national appropriation of local myths and foreign divinities. Most of the kami come from Japan’s two most prevalent religions, Shinto and Buddhism, which coexisted in harmony for more than a millennium to a point that they have partially syncretized. The concept of kami (神) is associated with Shinto (神道), which literally means “the way of the kami and is a traditional religion born in Japan. But Shinto has never been detached from East Asian beliefs; in fact the word Shinto itself comes from the Chinese word Shendao, written the same (神道), and meaning “folk religion.”

Take for example the siblings/lovers duo of Izanami and Izanagi. They are the descents of the very first kami, the creators of Japan and the initiators of the cycle of life and death. Izanagi is also Amaterasu’s creator. While they are undeniably pillars of Shinto cosmology, in the ancient texts on which Shinto is based on, they are also explicitly compared to the Yin and Yang, a Taoist (therefore Chinese) concept. Besides, the myth of Izanagi’s failed descent into hell to rescue Izanami strangely resembles the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a myth old of at least 2600 years.

Izanagi and Izanami searching the seas, painting by Kobayashi Eitaku

Those ancient texts mentioned above are the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, both written in the early 8th century by request of the Empress — back in the days when women could become empresses. They relate the partially historical, partially mythological birth of the Japanese nation. It does so with a clear political effort from the Imperial family to legitimize its power over Japan, claiming a direct lineage with Amaterasu which supposedly still runs into the blood of the soon to be Emperor, Naruhito. Shinto cosmology from its origins is associated with the centrality of the Emperor.

There is a myriad of other kami — 8 million in total according to the saying — who originated from very various times and places. Some of them came from rural legends, others from national history, and some more from abroad, in particular from China and India, and were imported along with Buddhism. Take the Seven Lucky Gods for example, 七福神 shichifukujin. Those gods are well-known all around Japan, and present different aspects of modern daily life.

In the Ningyocho neighborhood in Tokyo for example, students come to Suehiro shrine to pray for good results at their exams to Bishamonten, originally the Hindu god Kubera, patron of the fighters, nowadays the god of victory in Japan. There is one shrine for each of the seven gods around the neighborhood and a popular pastry shop makes red-bean cakes shaped to their effigy. Besides Bishamonten, Benzaiten and Benkokuten are also Hindu deities incorporated into Shinto deities, while Jurojin, Hotei and Fukurokuju are partly historical, partly mythological figures from Taoism or Chinese Buddhism, and only Ebisu comes from Shinto. He is thought to be the abandoned son of Izanami and Izanagi.

The Seven Lucky God by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Besides those anthropomorphic gods with either historical or divine lineage, ghost spirits (幽霊 yūrei) and monsters (妖怪 yōkai) have also been haunting the common Japanese imaginary. Together they constitute a rich bestiary of living objects, revengeful women spirits, and other multi-tailed foxes whose legends are still alive to this day. And their stories are as popular nowadays as they have been for centuries.

If you are interested in discovering more about contemporary yōkai, you could check out the works of the manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, the child anime and games Yokai Watch, the Okami video games or the Ghibli movie Pompoko (among other Ghibli movies) for a good start. Wikipedia’s portal on Japanese mythology is another basic reference.

Pom Poko’s ghost parade scene. The bearded man with the pink fish is probably a representation of Ebisu, and the one with the bag of Hotei, two of the Seven Lucky Gods

Some yōkai are mentioned in Shinto cosmology, like Yamata no Oroshi, the eight-headed dragon defeated by Susanoo no Mikoto (Amaterasu’s brother). Others like the anthropomorphic creatures with a turtle shell known as kappa are also venerated in some Shinto shrines, but their narrative is less unified, with different stories told about them around Japan. The folklorist Kunio Yanagita, who spent his life recording and analyzing Japan’s folk tales, related stories of kappa mischievously impregnating women in the Tono region (Northern Japan). Other legends describe them as trick-loving innocent creatures, or as sumo wrestling and cucumber fans. And some say they love digging into people’s anus with their claws to harvest some mythical organ…

There are as many myths and legends as they are villages in Japan.

Since modern times literature has been another medium to renew or perpetuate the legends of local or national kami. To mention but a few, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s novel Kappa involved a parallel world inhabited by kappa, mixing elements of his own imagination with well-documented research on the different beliefs surrounding the creatures. Kappa were used by Akutagawa as an alien creature to draw a satirical criticism of his contemporary society. Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe narrates in M/T and the Narrative About the Marvels of the Forest and The Game of Contemporaneity the grotesque legends of his village. His books are full of kami of his ancestors, the founders of his village on Shikoku island. Then at the end of M/T (spoiler alert), he connects himself and his family into the stories of his village, thus actualizing the narrative and buying himself a ticket to join the pantheon of kami of his town.

Yamata no Oroshi eight-headed dragon in the Clover Studio videogame Okami. Source

Who believes in kami nowadays?

Kami are still alive and well in Japan through the power of stories, as contemporary artists, let them be mangaka, writers, screenwriters or game designers, are perpetuating the legends of Shinto deities, creating new legends around them or even introducing either new or local kami to the national common imaginary. But do people still believe in them?

Most of Japanese people don’t actually believe in Shinto the way Buddhists or Christians believe in Buddhist teachings or God ; with faith. According to a 2008 survey by the ISSP (International Social Survey Program) published by the NHK, only 3% of Japanese people said they had faith in Shinto, against 35% for Buddhism, and 49% who claimed not having faith in any religion. Also, only 21% of the people surveyed claimed feeling familiar with Shinto, while another survey found that 80% of the population are Shinto practitioners.

Those statistics exemplify the paradoxical situation in contemporary Japan regarding religion and spirituality. Indeed, most Japanese people consider themselves atheist, and yet most Japanese people keep performing Shinto practices all year round. If not faith, one could say that the general feeling towards kami is respect. It seems less of a debate in Japan to ponder whether kami are real or not. They are rather appreciated on one side for their rich folk stories regardless of their divinity, and on the others as a medium to develop one’s own spirituality. As for Shinto, it has to be understood not like Christianity, Islam or Judaism, but rather as a custom-based religion embedded into people’s life.

Young Japanese people do not have faith in religion, but they believe in spirits and afterlife.

The ISSP survey gets even more interesting when looking at the answers from the young generation. Only 17% of the 16–29 declared having faith in a religion, which is three times lower than the 60+. Yet there are twice more young people than elders who believe in spirits, reincarnation and afterlife. It seems this new generation, while still connected to the traditions and spirituality surrounding Shinto, are moving away from it as an institution.

The Ushijima Shrine in Tokyo. The brown torii (door) on the right leads to the main temple where are enshrined three deities: Susano’o no Mikoto, Ame no Hohi no Mikoto and Sadatoki Shin’ō no Mikoto. The red torii on the right, with its characteristic red flags, lead to one of the numerous shrines dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and foxes. Located near the Skytree Tower, this shrine is a popular spot for pre-wedding pictures.

Most Japanese people would say that nowadays Japan is a very tolerant country in terms of religious differences, although it might arguably be because there are not much diversity of religion besides Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity. A growing number of people are identifying with Buddhism, a religion without a god at the top, Gautama Buddha being merely a religious leader. Still, many people in Japan express their belief in the concept of god, without necessarily having to name it Christian, Shinto or Buddhist god.

There are general beliefs in natural forces, in some sort of unintelligible energy that can affect human lives. But Shinto was originally concerned with human’s connection with nature. In nowadays’ urban society, spirituality seems to be less informed by Shinto thoughts, and more of a family or even individual matter, although Shinto and Buddhist philosophies certainly impact on such self-formation of spirituality.

To sum up, I discussed in this article the history of beliefs in kami: they come from local folk stories, foreign religions and historical facts which have been constantly mixed to create a wide national imaginary of natural spirits, immortal gods and other monsters; all of them called kami. Shinto, Japan’s animistic religion, has taken the duty to enshrine those millions of kami and worship them.

Nowadays however, there is a growing cleavage between traditional religion and daily life spirituality. On one side of this dichotomy, people keep participating to the perpetration of Shinto through shrine visits, participation to religious festivals and religious ceremonies on particular occasions (marriage, New Year…). As for Buddhism, it plays an important role in people’s apprehension of death and the afterlife, and also takes shape in the perpetration of practices often similar to Shinto ones.

On the other side, people’s understanding of kami is pretty complex. The original Shinto gods and folktale yōkai are mostly appreciated for their stories as part of a rich mythology. But people keep entrusting kami by giving them offerings and praying to them for good luck. Although in decline like in the rest of the world, spirituality is alive and well in Japan. So what exactly has changed in the way people feel about kami? Read my next article to learn more on the contemporary forms of spirituality in Japan!

Liberal Art Master student, I write my small answers to the big issues that obsess me in politics, development, literature, art, LGBTQ, …