Last week’s Jinja Shinpō had an article about the dedication of a new jinja, Tamakazura Jinja, in Nara Prefecture. This is interesting for a couple of reasons.
The first is that it is the establishment of a completely new jinja. The kami was not transferred from another jinja, but rather called down directly to this site. This is unusual, but, as this event shows, it does still happen. It also seems to be uncontroversial, as the report in Jinja Shinpō is positive, and the enshrinement ceremony was attended by the chief priests of two of the most important local jinja, Ōmiwa Jinja and Tanzan Jinja.
The other reason is the nature of the kami of the new jinja. Tamakazura’s mother had love affairs with two high nobles, who were friends, and after giving birth to her daughter, she raised her in Kyushu. When Tamakazura returned to the capital, she was recognised, and adopted as the daughter of the noble whose daughter she actually wasn’t.
In a novel.
Tamakazura is a fictional character in The Tale of Genji, a novel written over a thousand years ago. She is not fictional in the way that King Arthur is fictional; she is fictional in the way that Sherlock Holmes is fictional. She was made up by a known author (Murasaki Shikibu) who did not even pretend to be telling a true story.
It is very interesting that this appears to be no bar to being a kami.
The three jinja in this article are a good illustration of why it is a bad idea to translate “kami” as “god”. The kami of Ōmiwa Jinja is Ōmononushi no Ōkami. He appears in the ancient legends of Japan as an aspect of Ōkuninushi no Ōkami, and curses the land until he is appeased by the establishment of a jinja where one of his descendants serves as the chief priest. If you think about examples like this, it can seem that “god” is a reasonable translation of “kami”. After all, Ōmononushi doesn’t sound that different from, say, Zeus in the Greek myths, and we call Zeus a Greek god. And that’s right; it is not too misleading to describe Ōmononushi as a god.
However, the kami of Tanzan Jinja is Fujiwara no Kamatari, a historical figure and the founder of the Fujiwara clan, who lived about 1400 years ago. The current chairman of Jinja Honchō is descended from him; the clan was important enough that we can be as certain of this as we are of pretty much any historical fact. Describing Fujiwara no Kamatari as a god is, at the least, very misleading. It suggests that people think of him in the same way as they think of Zeus, which is not the case. He really existed, he played a very important role in Japanese history, and his descendants are still very significant in the Shinto world today.
And then there is Tamakazura, who is a fictional character but a literal, real-world kami. Describing her as a god makes the priests involved seem idiotic, delusional, or both. But she is a kami.
This is why I do not translate “kami”.