Skip to content


A few days ago, I was talking about translation with people at Jinja Honchō (as I often do, that being my job…), and the difficulty of translating certain words came up. I have mentioned before that “kami” is basically untranslatable, which is why I don’t. In this post, I want to talk about “worship”.

It is not uncommon for “sūhai” or “hairei” to be translated as “worship”, “haiden” to be translated as “worship hall”, and “sūkeisha” to be translated as “worshipper”. I try to avoid all of those translations. “Sūhai” and “hairei” are “paying respects” or “venerating”, “haiden” is “prayer hall”, and “sūkeisha” is “adherent”. Why?

As you might guess, it is because I think “worship” is a bad translation. I think it seriously mischaracterises what is going on when most people visit jinja, and their attitude to the kami. To start with, “worship” is not well-defined in English. To take an example that has been historically very important, Protestant Christians think that Catholic Christians worship saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary; Catholic Christians argue what they do is not worship, which is reserved for God. In contemporary usage, it is not that uncommon to talk about fans worshipping a celebrity, if you are talking about the most extreme fans. This is clearly not meant to indicate that you think those fans believe that the celebrity is the infinite creator and redeemer.

Now, almost no-one in Shinto “worships” the kami in the Catholic sense. The Catholic sense does have a very close tie to attitudes appropriate to the infinite creator and redeemer, which is why they are clear that they do not worship saints. I don’t think that there are any significant parts of Shinto in which people believe something like that of any kami.

What about the looser senses, the ones used when you say someone worships a celebrity? I think these senses include a number of important ideas. First, there is the idea that the object of worship is an exemplar in some respect, often moral, but possibly artistic. They may not, perhaps, be perfect, but they are vastly superior to the normal run of people, and, in particular, superior to the worshipper. This superiority is very rarely simply a matter of power, because another part of worship is the idea that it is right and appropriate to honour the target in this way. Fear of what they will do to you if you do not is not normally taken to be appropriate to worship. (Christian teaching is clear that you are not truly worshipping God if you are only motivated by fear of hell.) Finally, worship includes the idea that you are willing to do almost anything for the object of your worship; you would obey their commands, and will try to act as you believe they want you to.

In this loose sense, some people do worship celebrities, and some adherents of Shinto do worship particular kami. However, most people visiting jinja do not.

One big group are the people who see Shinto as purely cultural, and do not believe in the kami. They are obviously not worshipping them.

However, even the people who do believe in the kami in some sense typically do not regard them as exemplars, and do not have any sense that they should obey the commands of the kami. They typically respect the kami, and often think of them as powerful and maybe dangerous, and ask them to intervene in their lives, but they do not see a general need to obey them, nor do they want to imitate the kami. This makes “worship” a bad description of what they do.

It is also a seriously misleading translation, if applied to what happens at Yasukuni Jinja. I do not think anybody worships the war dead there. The attitudes described by almost everyone writing about the jinja are those that people have at war memorials in Europe or the USA, with, sometimes, the added idea that the spirits of the war dead are actually present and aware of what is going on. This is not worship.

The translation problem, then, is that we do not really have an English word for what most people do at jinja, because it has not been a culturally significant activity in the English-speaking world. That is a problem that I have to do my best to work around.

I have a Patreon, where people subscribe to receive in-depth essays on various aspects of Shinto, about once per month. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

4 thoughts on ““Worship””

  1. Liudmila Karukina

    There’s also a question of calling Shinto a “religion”, which has different meaning in Japanese, as far as I remember. The topic of adequate translation of such things to/from Japanese is a rich one.

    1. Yes, that’s another problem. But that one’s slightly different because there is a live debate within Shinto itself as to whether it is a “shūkyō”, in addition to the question of whether “shūkyō” and “religion” are the same, and whether Shinto is a religion. There are a lot of difficult problems here; definitely a rich topic.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Olivier van Renswoude

    An interesting issue. For the past few years, I have been busy conceiving of something close to a Northwest European counterpart of Shintō. The verb that has always felt natural and most fitting in my own language (Dutch) is eren, which simply means ‘to honour’. The prefixed vereren means ‘to honour, revere, pay respects’ and is used in relation to gods, saints and important people, whereas aanbidden more strongly means ‘to venerate, worship, adore’.

    1. Yes, “honour”, “pay respects”, and even “venerate” are words that I use as an alternative to “worship”. The problem can be worked around, but it isn’t straightforward.

      Thanks for the comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.