Shinto, Jinja, and Kami

Shinto, Jinja, and Kami

Shinto is a central element in the setting of Kannagara, but it is not well-known outside Japan. I aim to have the game itself introduce the necessary ideas in play, but for this development blog, I fear that short info dumps are unavoidable.

Shinto is the practice of performing matsuri for kami, primarily at jinja. There are no good English translations for “Shinto”, “matsuri”, “kami”, or “jinja”, so I will use the Japanese words, and explain them. There are roughly equivalent words, but if I start by using those, the explanation begins by trying to clear up the misunderstandings that the words create. It’s easier to just use the Japanese.

The most important single concept is that of “kami”. The best place to start is with a translation of the definition of “kami” offered by Motoori Norinaga, an extremely influential Shinto scholar of the eighteenth century. This is the definition that most Shinto priests would offer today if asked for one, and the definition taken as the starting point in most discussions of kami.

What do we call “kami”? The many spirits revered at jinja, starting with those we see in ancient texts, are kami. Further, — even if we do not speak of human beings — birds and beasts, trees and grasses, seas and mountains, anything, indeed, that possesses power and authority beyond the norm, every thing that inspires awe: all these are kami. (When we talk of things going beyond the norm, this is not limited to those worthy of respect, those unusually good, or those that raise society up. Things that are exceptionally evil or unnatural are also kami.)

Kami are not necessarily immaterial or immortal. The chief priest of a major shrine can write, even today (in an article published at the end of April this year) “the spirit that resided in the pool, or rather, the pool itself, was the kami”. Mount Fuji is the kami of many shrines, and in that sense my answer to the question “do you really believe that kami exist?” is “yes, I can see one from my balcony on a clear day”.

The normal concept of a kami, however, is of an undying invisible spirit that is conscious and able to respond to matsuri. Mount Fuji just as a volcano would not be a kami in this sense, and, in Kannagara, all kami are conscious beings. They are not necessarily invisible spirits, but most are. They do, however, all meet Norinaga’s definition. They are not necessarily good, or friendly, and there are limits to their power, but they all inspire awe.

The relationship between kami and people was summarised in the first article of a set of fundamental laws for Japan issued in the thirteenth century.

The kami increase their authority through the respect of the people, and the people increase their prosperity through the blessings of the kami.

That is, the kami depend on people just as much as people depend on kami. Kami are greater than most people, but they do not have absolute power, and they need to have people respecting them, primarily through the performance of matsuri. This is also something that will form part of Kannagara.

A jinja is a place where kami and people can meet, and the people perform matsuri for the kami. It is a sacred space, and, these days, normally has several buildings, but buildings are not strictly necessary. At most jinja, the kami is believed to be present at all times, in a particular location and often a particular object, which is normally hidden from view. Sometimes, the kami is believed to be present in a mountain or similar natural phenomenon, however, and those are not hidden. A jinja almost always includes a woodland or forest, and a jinja without even a single tree is very unusual.

Matsuri are very important to the game, and will get their own post a little later. The people associated with a jinja can create and perform matsuri to increase the power and authority of the kami of the jinja, convince an unhelpful kami to be more benevolent, and even become kami themselves. These are central activities in Kannagara.

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