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Identifying Kami

A little while ago, I read a book about jinja in depopulated areas of Japan. (過疎地神社の研究 (Kasochi Jinja no Kenkyū, Research on Jinja in Depopulated Areas), 冬月律 (by Fuyutsuki Ritsu)) The book is a report of several years’ anthropological study of the jinja in an area of Kōchi Prefecture, on Shikoku. Dr Fuyutsuki interviewed the priests and the sōdai, and the book is very interesting, in part because it makes it clear that it is not easy to say anything general about the problem. I may write at more length about it in the future.

This blog post, however, is about the appendix, which lists all the jinja in the area that are registered as religious corporations. This appendix was compiled with the cooperation of the chief priests, and gives the name of the jinja, lists the venerated kami, and other data about the impact of depopulation. The list of venerated kami is interesting for several reasons. First, out of 103 jinja, there is only one Inari Jinja, and the frequency of other kami is rather different from the national level. That is another sign of the high level of local diversity in Shinto.

The most interesting point, however, is that, of 103 jinja, eight list the kami as “unknown”.

This information was gathered from the chief priests, by a researcher who spent several years getting to know the priests and the important laypeople. If he couldn’t find out which kami were enshrined at a jinja, then it is virtually certain that no-one alive knows.

These are not small shrines by the side of the road or in someone’s garden; these are religious corporations, and at least one of the jinja has a mikoshi (although it doesn’t have enough young people to take it out these days). Nevertheless, it does not seem to be a source of great concern that nobody knows which kami is enshrined. Certainly, it isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the book.

Given the way that Shinto practice works, this is not actually too surprising. First, very few people involved with a jinja worry about the name of the kami. People visit their local jinja to pay their respects to the kami, have prayers said, and visit or conduct the regular matsuri. The traditions of that particular jinja make a big difference to these activities, but the identity of the kami does not. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon for people visiting a jinja to not know who the kami is.

Further, norito are very often addressed to the “kami of [jinja name]”, rather than to named kami. In part, this is practical — my local jinja enshrines about a dozen kami in the main sanctuary, and naming them all would take quite some time, even leaving aside the issues of etiquette involved in putting them in an order. However, it may also be connected to deep traditions in Shinto. There is good evidence that early practice was frequently directed at the kami of particular places, rather than a named kami known from multiple locations. In some cases, that effectively continues, because the kami of some jinja have names that simply mean “the kami of this location”.

Thus, it might not be quite right to say that the kami of those jinja are unknown. They are known to be the kami of those jinja, and they are venerated at those jinja. The practices are known, and the norito can be addressed to “the kami of this jinja” without introducing any ambiguity about which kami you are talking to. Names are only needed when you want to identify kami across jinja, and say that the same kami is enshrined at different jinja. As I have mentioned before, even with the names, this is far from straightforward in Shinto: Ebisu is identified with two different kami from the myths, depending on the jinja, Inari with three, and while Hachiman is almost always three kami, which three differs from one jinja to another — and one of them is often just “Himëgami”, which simply means “female kami”.

It is probably fair to say that Shinto practice does not require people to be able identify a kami outside the context of a single jinja. There are cases where the identification is important — it does matter that a lot of jinja enshrine Amaterasu Ōmikami, and that the same kami is enshrined in all of them — but those are the special cases. The default is that matsuri honour the kami of this jinja — whomever they may be.

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8 thoughts on “Identifying Kami”

  1. This is a great post. I’ve noticed a lot of non-Japanese people interested in Shinto seem to unusually focused on venerating a certain named kami. It often feels like they are imposing neo-pagan ideas on Shinto. So it is interesting to read about how the name the often kami is often not even known.

    1. I wouldn’t say “often” — it’s less than 10% of these jinja. But I agree with the general observation. Veneration of a particular named kami is much, much less important in Shinto than in neo-paganism. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course — Inari Kō are a thing. Still, it is a minority approach. On the other hand, the majority approach is “venerate your local jinja and others you happen to pass”, which simply isn’t available to most non-Japanese people with an interest in Shinto.

  2. Thank you for this post, very interesting. Is it possible that the phrase “the kami of [jinja/location]” is implicitly open-ended, instead of being a placeholder phrase for the finite set of named kami of that jinja/location?

    In other words, if there’s a jinja with (for example) three *named* enshrined kami, do Japanese think of that jinja as enshrining *exactly three* kami, or are the named kami just the “headliners” and there is a potentially larger/infinite number of other unnamed, unidentified enshrined there?

    I’m sure folks don’t think about this in such explicit terms, but do you get what I’m driving at?

    1. This is an interesting question, and because people do not think in such explicit terms, it is hard to give an absolute answer. However, I think there tends to be a known number of kami. The Engishiki lists the number of kami enshrined at each jinja, but does not give the names, and the Outer Sanctuary at Jingū enshrines three (if I recall correctly) unknown kami.

      Of course, jinja also tend to know the names of the kami, so it is entirely possible that there are jinja where the priests are unsure how many kami are enshrined, as well as not knowing what their names might me. However, these are independent questions, because there are definitely cases where the number is known, but the names are not.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Shinto certainly recognises kami in some objects; there is a myth in which eight objects (swords, mirrors, jewels, spears, and scarves, I think) are explicitly described as kami. (It’s the myth of Amënohiboko, and it’s recounted in my essay on myths of Suinin Tennō.) There are also a number of other cases in which a sword is described in myth as a kami, and there are rituals at a number of jinja to appease used needles, chopsticks, and writing brushes.

      However, because Shinto doesn’t do theology, it is not clear whether all items have kami, or what precisely is meant by honouring the spirits of used needles.

      I hope that helps; the answer to so many questions about Shinto beliefs is “It isn’t clear, and depends on the person”.

  3. Pardon David San, but is it a Shinto belief, or Japanese belief that the Kojiki itself is a kami? Arigato amigo.

    1. I haven’t come across any jinja that treats the Kojiki as a kami, so it is not a general belief. The same is true of particular copies of the Kojiki. I’m not going to say that no-one believes that, but it certainly isn’t standard.

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