by Maki Sato

Tama – Body/Embodiment and Body-Value-freed-Spirit

Conceptual definition

Shinto believes that kami does not have its own body, but it is a pure spirit (tama, たま or mitama, 御霊). Therefore, the sacred spirits need to borrow or rely on objects so that they can appear and communicate with human beings. Most of the time, the sacred spirits use objects in nature as their object or place of descent (yorishiro, 依代 or mitamashiro, 御霊代). Other times, the sacred spirits may use (descend on, kourin, 降臨) human bodies or living bodies of animals to reveal themselves. In the shrines, something like a mirror, sword (tsurugi, 剣), jewel stone (gyoku, 玉), and column (hashira, 柱) is thought to be the object where kami arrives. Occasionally, a temporal shrine (himorogi,神籬), set up with bamboo and tree branches, is made to call for the spirit to descend. In nature, leaves, trees, waterfalls, mountains, capes, and rocks are believed to be where kami prefers to come down and settle (yadoru, 宿る). In other words, kami is not visible to us human beings, but it visualizes itself through the sacred objects and landscapes in nature. Because of its inherent invisibility, kami can be everywhere and in any being. Once the kami is thought to have descended, the object or the landscape it occupies becomes a sacred body (shintai, 神体).

Philosophical significance

The concept of spirit (tama,たま or mitama, 御霊) includes spirits’ given personhood (jinkaku, 人格). However, they are mostly thought of as sacred spirits deriving from a motif from the nature and natural phenomena (such as volcanic eruption), as can be read in the Kojiki (古事記, 712) and Nihonshoki (日本書紀, 720). Shinto’s concept of spirit is unique in that all the spirits have both good and evil aspects. Therefore, there is no rigid dualistic concept of good and evil in Shinto spiritualism (Kamata, 1999: 77), which allows the spirits to be free from the short-sightedness of human concepts of good and evil. In other words, there is no spirit which is purely good or purely evil. Moreover, among the spirits, there are no dualistic or antagonistic frictions (though they occasionally fight with each other for other reasons, such as irritation or jealousy). However, as seen by human beings, phenomena happen within the spirits’ relationship of relativity, generation (creation), and change because of the moving and changing process of the spirits.

In short, because of the inherent concept of invisibleness and its freedom from the dualism of good/evil, tama descends as a terror to human beings using natural phenomena such as earthquakes, pandemics, and famine. There will be fertility and prosperity when the tama is peaceful and harmonious among themselves and with human beings. Thus, the liberty of Shinto spirits to embody themselves in objects and phenomena that are contingently regarded as good and evil in human society becomes the grounding reason for human beings to both fear and revere them[PDM1] . The contingent moods of the spirits force human beings to make a continuous effort to apprehend the spirits, which becomes the key to staying in harmony with Japanese spirits.

Historical context

The concept of the spirits (mitama) descending to objects and the descended object becoming a kami-embodied object (shintai, 神体) first appears in the Kojiki (古事記, 712) and Nihonshoki (日本書紀, 720). In both Kojiki and Nihonshoki, it is written that Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess) gave her grandson, Niniginomikoto (the ancestor of the emperor), the mirror, sword, and stone jewel as signifiers of spirituality at the time of his earthly descent. However, the word itself, kami-embodied object (shintai, 神体), appears around the mid-Heian period.  

Figures, texts or sources that established the term

The word shintai (神体) appears in the first Japanese dictionary, Irohajiruishou (色葉字類抄)1144–1165, Tachibana Tadakane (橘忠兼). [PDM2] As explained above, the term used is an object where the spirit descents.

Historical uses

The word shintai itself is not commonly used. However, the kami-embodied object concept is still commonly accepted in the twenty-first century. The object where the spirit descends is called yorishiro (依代). When spirits descend upon trees, they become shinboku (神木). Rocks upon which spirits descend are called iwakura (磐座) or iwasaka (磐境). Such kami-embodied objects (shintai, 神体) become objects of worship.

Relationships to other terms

Kotodama (言霊): relates to words and phrases (koto, 言) having their spirit (tama, 霊).

Significant references/uses

It is not easy to trace the exact influences of Shinto on Japanese thoughts in general. Because of historical complexity and the interrelationship between Buddhist thoughts and Shinto, one can only assume that there are influences from Shinto ideology even still among contemporary scholars of philosophy.

Japanese contemporary phenomenologist Omori Shozo (大森荘蔵, 1921–1997) discusses the relationship between phenomenology (a bodily sensation that is only detected by the subject) and emotion (ujou, 有情) from a phenomenological viewpoint. Yuasa Yasuo (湯浅泰男, 1925–2005), known as a philosopher who first discussed qi in the Japanese context, focuses mainly on the problem of the body in contrast to mind and reason. In later years, Yuasa also discussed the relationship between qi and body.

Related terms


Conscience: the idea of inner kami (uchinaru kami) and its emergence and refinement concerning the introduction of Confucianism and Christianity to Japan, in contrast to Buddhism that polished somewhat an externality of conscience.

Value-neutral: since the notion of kami is freed from the sense of evil and good, kami may cause problems to humans (e.g., natural phenomena such as thunder, storms, and pandemics) when human beings and kami are not in a harmonious relationship. Kami requires purity and honesty (shojiki, 正直). Therefore, human beings are constantly required to question their daily life practices, which leads to developing a conscience.

Pantheism:kami could descend on any object, including spoken words (kotodama). Therefore, everything in nature can do both good and evil to human beings, including languages. 


Yuru-chara (ゆるキャラ): Hiroo Sato (佐藤弘夫) argues that the Japanese affection and passion for inventing new characters may derive from the internalized idea of kami. For example, to provide a visual body to the prefecture as a prefectural character. See, e.g., Kumamon, Bally-san, Funasshi.


Kasulis, T. P., 1948-. 2004. Shinto. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʿi Press.

伊藤, 聡(1961-). 2012. 神道とは何か : 神と仏の日本史 / 伊藤聡著. 中公新書. 東京: 中央公論新社.

鎌田, 東二(1951-). 1999. 神道用語の基礎知識 / 鎌田東二編著. 角川選書. 東京: 角川書店.

國學院大學日本文化研究所. 1999. 神道事典 / 國學院大學日本文化研究所編集. 縮刷版 ed. 東京: 弘                                  文堂. An encyclopedia of Shinto = Shintô Jiten [神道事典]. Tokyo: Institute for                                  Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University.

佐藤, 弘夫(1953-). 2021. 日本人と神 / 佐藤弘夫著. 講談社現代新書. 東京: 講談社.

島薗, 進(1948-). 2010. 国家神道と日本人 / 島薗進著. 岩波新書. 東京: 岩波書店.

 [PDM1]I would consult the author to make sure that this edit does not interfere with her intended meaning.

 [PDM2]I am not sure what is happening here, so I don’t want to mess with it. My guess is that Irohajiruishou is the title of the dictionary and Tachibana Tadakane is its writer/compiler/creator? It seems likely that 1144-1165 are the years he was alive, but they could also maybe be page numbers? I would consult the author.