by Maki Sato

Conceptual definition

The belief system of Shinto thinks highly of spirit[PDM1]  (tama, 御霊) that descend on any objects. The spirit is occasionally personified, sometimes with given names (e.g., Amaterasu oomikami, 天照大神), but unnamed spirits also exist that show and prove their existence through particular objects or natural phenomena. Because of kami’s inherent invisibility and the flexibility of not possessing substance as proof of its presence, kami is freed from ontic existentialism. In other words, kami is everywhere, and kami is nowhere. Such ambivalent existence enables kami to unite with nature per se, with living/posthumous human beings (arahitogami, 現人神), and with icons in other religions. For example, kami unites with the bodhisattvas of Buddhism (bosatsu, 菩薩) and with Indian-derived religious icons (e.g., Saraswati, benzaiten, 弁財天). The unification between Shinto and Buddhism is called honjisuijaku (本地垂迹), which was crystallized and sophisticated in the medieval era (chusei, 中世).

Additionally, because of kami’s inherent characteristics deriving from nature per se, there is no inherent evil or good attached to the concept of kami. The spirit of kami and human beings are thought to be made of one-soul-four-spirits (ichireishikon, 一霊四魂). One-soul is named naobi (直霊); four-spirits are aramitama (raging, fierce, 荒魂), nigimitama (harmonious, calm, 和魂), sakimitama (wealth, happiness, 幸魂), kusimitama (health, wonder, 奇魂). Depending on the environment and circumstances, a soul shows different facets in the form of spirits. For example, Sugawara-no-michizane (菅原道真, 845–903), who is worshipped as kami in the well-known shrine of Kita-no-tenmangu (北野天満宮), was first regarded as aramitama or more of a cursing god (tatarigami, 祟神). He was believed to have become a cursing god and punished his political opponents posthumously. However, because of the rituals to pray for his spirits to be in peace, he gradually became a kami for studies (gakumon, 学問) and is worshipped elsewhere in Japan.

Reflexive to such kami notion freed from ontic existence and freed from the static notion of good and evil requires human beings to self-discipline themselves and stay honest based on one’s decisions. In other words, kami shows various aspects of oneself dependent on the situation in requesting truth and righteousness (makoto, 真). Moreover, there are no sacred texts, such as sutras, that human beings or kami can refer to for the righteous justifiable judgment. Therefore, Shinto is freed from static judgement, but it is ever-changing, and all the righteous judges are dependent on one’s righteous work of the mind. Cleanliness is required to keep one’s mind right. Thus, misogi (cleansing of the body, 禊) and harae (cleansing via rituals and spoken words 祓) become essential.

Philosophical significance

The persistence of self through self-discipline and keeping a righteous mind (makoto-no-kokoro) was first argued by Motoori Norinaga (本居宣長, 1730–1801) through his establishment of kokugaku (study on Japanese classic literature, 国学). His initial intention was to quest for the ancient Japanese authentic mind. Through the careful reading of Kojiki (712, 古事記) and Nihonshoki (720, 日本書紀), Norinaga gradually attempted to find a pure Shinto in the classic Japanese texts. Before Norinaga, Hayashi Razan (林羅山, 1583–1657) argued about the similarity between Confucius and Shinto (jukashinto, 儒家神道). Norinaga’s works are a success by Hirata Atsutane (平田篤胤, 1776–1834).[PDM2]    

Historical context

The concept of Freedom is not explicitly written or explained in Shinto. Therefore, it is almost impossible to identify when the term appeared. However, the concept of kami as freed from a) ontic object (the spirits can descend on anything, or it can appear itself through natural phenomena), b) sacred text (sacred texts do not exist in Shinto), c) the notion of good and evil, exists from the establishment of Shinto through Japanese encounters with Buddhism around the eighth century.

Historical uses

Historically, there are various human beings who became kami in Japan (e.g., Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 豊臣秀吉 became Toyokunidaimyojin, 豊国大明神 and Tokugawa Ieyasu, 徳川家康became Toshodaigongen, 東照大権現). Human beings can become kami posthumously, freed from this-worldliness (gensei, 現世).

Relationships to other terms

Masuraoburi/Taoyameburi (ますらおぶり、たおやめぶり): The term identified by Motoori Norinaga through his careful study of ancient texts. There are kami with a given gender, but there are more neutral kami without a specified gender. Norinaga invented the term to explain an inclination to a certain gender from neutrality, becoming a man or a woman. Norinaga also used the term in explaining the culture of warriors as masurao in the twelfth century in contrast with taoyame, an aristocratic culture of Heian.

Related terms


Conscience: the idea of inner kami (uchinaru kami) and its emergence and refinement concerning the introduction of Confucius 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 the spoken words (kotodama). Therefore, everything in nature can do both good and evil to human beings, including languages. 

Truthfulness/Honesty: makoto no kokoro

Kokoro: heart-mind


Mergeable (自由、融合可能性), Syncretism (人神), Self-disciplined(自律)


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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]The use of singular spirit/plural spirits is inconsistent, but I was not sure how intentional that was or if it was a problem of translation.  

 [PDM2]I am not sure what this sentence means. Was Hirata Atsutane a champion of Norinaga? An intellectual heir?