If you read English-language discussions of Shinto, you are almost certain to come across references to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Indeed, I am currently reading Helen Hardacre’s Shinto: A History, which is good so far, and she refers to the kami in the same way.
Is this legitimate?
As readers of this blog and my other writings about Shinto probably already know, I do not translate “kami” at all, and certainly not as “god”. The concepts are very different, and referring to “kami” as “gods” is likely to make Shinto harder to understand, not easier.
Talking specifically about Amaterasu Ōmikami, the Shinto establishment do not refer to her as the sun kami. They prefer, instead, to say that the sun is used as an image for her, a metaphor for her importance and influence. She is not the kami of the sun, and certainly not actually the sun.
So, that would suggest that I think that calling Amaterasu Ōmikami the Sun Goddess is misleading and a bad translation. And, indeed, I do not do it.
In the famous myth of the cave of heaven, the whole world goes dark when Amaterasu Ōmikami goes into the cave, and becomes light when she comes out again. In the myths of Jinmu Tennō, he decides that he has lost a battle because, as a descendant of the sun, he should not have attacked while facing the rising sun. And the early ninth century Kogoshūi, which has a whole section on how Amaterasu Ōmikami is much more important than all the other kami, consistently refers to her as “the sun kami”.
Later myths get more complex, but esoteric Buddhism associated Amaterasu Ōmikami with Dainichi Nyorai, or “the Great Sun Buddha”. (This is the Japanese name for Mahāvairocana.) There are also numerous images of Amaterasu Ōmikami with sunlight coming out of her head, and modern popular depictions often associate her with the sun, even in Japan.
From the other side, although “god” is a terrible translation of “kami” in general, it isn’t, to be honest, that much of a problem when applied specifically to Amaterasu Ōmikami. Obviously, if you think of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim God, you are going to go seriously wrong, but if you think of the Greek and Roman gods, your image will not be too far off. She is supposed to have that sort of power, there are coherent legends about her, and she is still an important figure in nationwide devotion.
So, although I wouldn’t say it, “the Sun Goddess Amaterasu” is not, in itself, a terrible misrepresentation of Shinto.
The problem is that it starts people talking about “Hachiman, the War God” or, worse, “Amë no Uzumë, the Goddess of Dawn”, and those are terrible misrepresentations.