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Fear and Trembling

Shinto priests are generally very reticent on the question of the appropriate attitude towards the kami. This is even true of the Shinto establishment, which has a very clear position on the appropriate attitude to the Tennō, but, as far as I can tell, no official position on the appropriate attitude to (other) kami. They do make it clear that you should respect the kami, but that is extremely vague — and I suspect that the vagueness is deliberate. The Shinto establishment does make clear statements about how priests and others should, and shouldn’t, behave, but not about psychological attitudes.

This is, in itself, a large difference from Christianity and Islam, where the most important thing is one’s attitude to God or Allah. The first lesson is that people’s attitude to the kami is something that Shinto can afford to be vague about. Indeed, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there are serving Shinto priests who, it seems, do not believe that the kami exist in anything like the traditional form, and that is no obstacle to their service. (I understand that there are a significant number of Christian priests who no longer believe in God, but that is a significant problem for them.)

That said, I am coming to the conclusion that there is a standard attitude to the kami. This is the attitude that priests can assume is normal, and I think a majority of priests probably hold it.

The attitude is, to quote the title of a recent article in Jinja Shinpō, “fearful respect”.

Part of this is entirely straightforward fear of what the kami might do. Many kami are closely linked to the natural environment of Japan, and that natural environment is dangerous. (Over the Heisei era, it looks as though more people died in natural disasters than were murdered. Car accidents still kill far more, however.) Historically, it seems that when kami were petitioned about disasters, the assumption was that the kami were causing the disaster (for continuing events like droughts or epidemics), or might do so (for earthquakes and storms), and the petition was asking them to stop. That is, in general, the kami were not seen as defending people from other threats; the kami were the threat, and needed to be kept sweet.

That element does, however, seem to be of lesser importance these days. The idea is more that the kami are distant from, and superior to, people, and that one should be nervous and tense when approaching them. You do not have a relaxed and friendly relationship with them, and if the kami are like a parent, then it is a traditional Japanese parent rather than a modern best-buddies American parent.

In many ways, this is the attitude that is built into Shinto ritual. There is distance from the kami, which is in the honden, while the people are in the haiden, and you must be purified before approaching the kami. Requests are made and thanks offered, but in a very formal way, using ancient Japanese.

Love does not seem to be important on either side of the equation. The kami do not love people, and even compassion is more associated with Buddhism. That is not to say that particular kami might not be fond of particular people, but “the kami so loved the world that she gave her only son” is not something that even begins to make sense in a Shinto context. (Leaving aside the fact that Amaterasu Ōmikami had five sons in any case.) Similarly, people are not supposed to love the kami.

At this point, it is important to be clear that I think one of the reasons why priests are vague about this attitude is that it is not universally shared. In addition to the priests who do not believe in the kami, I am sure that there are some who place great importance on their love and compassion. That, however, does not appear to be mainstream.

An analogy with attitudes to people is, I think, very helpful. The attitude many priests have to the kami is similar to the attitude you might have to a Nobel Laureate, or a member of royalty, or a teacher. Or, indeed, to a crime boss. Kami do not need to be good, they just need to demand fearful respect.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Trembling”

  1. I think this is great article that can be applied to Yasukuni Jinja. Yes, the spirits of criminals are venerated but not out of love, not out of a belief that their actions should be emulated, and the moral character of the enshrined Kami is irrelevant. After all, didn’t Sugawara no Michizane’s spirit kill many people? And yet, school children venerate him today. Isn’t Hosogami causing Covid right now?

    I think monotheists need a complete paradigm shift to understand Shinto.

    1. I think you are right about the need for a paradigm shift to understand Shinto, and this is one of the reasons why I don’t translate “kami”. They are not gods; that’s an actively unhelpful way to think about it. I think Yasukuni Jinja could fit into this tradition, but it remains the case that this is not how the people serving their think about it; they do think of the enshrined war dead as heroes. Indeed, the formal name for them, “eirei”, means “heroic spirits”.

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