A couple of weeks ago, one of my patrons asked me if there were kami outside Japan. The answer is not entirely straightforward, so it gets a blog post.
First, there are two related questions that do have entirely straightforward answers. Non-Japanese people may venerate the Japanese kami within Shinto (Jinja Honchō is taking active steps to encourage that among visitors to Japan), and the Japanese kami may be venerated outside Japan (Imperial Japan founded a number of overseas jinja for that purpose, as did Japanese emigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Combine those, and it is clear that non-Japanese people may venerate the Japanese kami outside Japan, as seen at Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America.
But are there non-Japanese kami? That is, are there kami that come from outside Japan? This is a difficult question to answer, because Shinto does not have a clear theory of what kami are.
According to one popular account, formalised by Moto’ori Norinaga in the eighteenth century, kami are anything that inspires awe by transcending the everyday. This includes natural features such as Mount Fuji, or waterfalls such as Nachi Falls in Wakayama. If Mount Fuji is a kami, then Mount Kilimanjaro surely counts, and if Nachi Falls count, then Niagara Falls clearly do. So, in that case, there would be non-Japanese kami.
The problem with this definition is that it seems a bit too broad. One might think that the concept of “kami” should have something to do with the cultural traditions of Shinto. In that case, you could define “kami” as things that inspire awe by transcending the everyday, and are venerated for that reason within Shinto. (This is my current best attempt at a definition, although it still has problems.)
In that case, the question becomes “are any non-Japanese entities venerated within Shinto?”. Here, the answer is “yes”, although this is still not simple. Benzaiten was originally a Hindu goddess, Saraswati, and her veneration was taken into Shinto, where it is still important, through Buddhism. However, it is also possible to argue that Benzaiten is (now) a Japanese kami, and was simply based on the Hindu original. On the other hand, it does not seem right to argue that Saraswati is now a kami, even when being revered within Hinduism. There might be a kami of Indian origin in Japan, but it doesn’t seem to me that that means there is a kami in India.
If we do allow Benzaiten to be the “kami name” of Saraswati, does that mean that you could make, say, Zeus into a kami by revering him through Shinto? As I argue in my essay on the essence of Shinto, that depends on who you are. Shinto is not a universal religion, which means that part of what makes something Shinto is that it is being practised by a Japanese person in Japan. If you are a non-Japanese person outside Japan venerating Zeus, then it is unlikely to be helpful to describe your practice as Shinto. And if your practice is not Shinto, it cannot make Zeus into a kami. Could someone in Japan do it? Probably, yes, although it would really need to be someone associated with an established jinja. In that case, given the existence of a jinja established to venerate Tamakazura, a character in the Tale of Genji, it would even be possible to transform Tolkien’s Valar into kami.
But maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking whether the supernatural entities known as kami in Japan exist elsewhere, awaiting veneration.
If this is the question, I have no idea. I do not even have any idea whether there are supernatural entities known as kami in Japan, or whether they have anything in common if they do exist. The only survey I have seen that asked Shinto priests whether they believed in supernatural kami revealed that over 95% did, but I do not know whether they are right, whether, assuming they exist, all those supernatural things have anything in common, or whether they could exist outside Japan. Suppose, for example, that kami are supernatural spirits of natural phenomena. This is an idea that fits naturally in Shinto. It would still be possible for “kami” to refer to the spirits that are venerated in Shinto, so that, even if the spirits also existed in other countries, they would not be kami in those other countries. Not only do I not know the answers to these questions, I do not think that most Shinto priests would have an answer for them, generally because they have never thought about them. I also strongly suspect that the priests who do have answers do not agree with one another about what the answers are.
In short, it is very difficult to answer the original question, because it is not clear what “kami” are, and what it would take for something to be a “non-Japanese kami”.