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Fairy Tales Fairies Faery Woodlands Magazine Blog About
Japanese Kami and Yokai
Some Kami are in many ways similar to the original fairy beliefs of Europe, and it is these Kami which this website is primarily concerned with.
Kami is a complex term, one which is often translated into English as spirit, god or occasionally fairy. In truth all of these terms may fit sometimes but not all the time. Fairies might seem to fit the best if given the original place of fairies in European mythology but in modern lore the term has changed so much that most people who have not studied fairies extensively would not see this.
The best definitions for Kami are perhaps "A kami is any thing or phenomenon that produces the emotions of fear and awe, with no distinction between good and evil." and or those things which are worth praying to in the Shinto conception of the world. Finally Ashkenazi states that;
"the term (kami) functions as both a noun and an adjective. As a noun, Kami means a powerful being with an interest in the lives of humans and the ability to invervene in human affairs, either directly or indirectly, by influencing the activities of other kami, animals, or natural events and features.... As an adjective, the term means something colse to 'holy': a mysterious and elveating quality that various living beings, including animals nd humans posess to varying degrees."
Kami then is not necessarily a designation of physical power as whats worth praying to is in and of itself a variable term; if one needs their radishes to grow larger then one doesn't need to make a major offering to a heavenly Kami, instead one can request aid from a smaller local Kami. Thus Kami lie on a continuum from heavenly Kami which rule over major phenomenon such as the Sun, the Wind and Underworld, etc to minor Kami which live within rocks, trees, etc and may not be very powerful.
Many of the Kami, and those which this site is concerned with are in fact not necessarily physically stronger then humans; a farmer threatened to beat a thunder Kami if it didn't grant his wish to have strong children, a child saved the daugher of a Dragon King from a group of other children, people may go and cut down the trees which kami live in. Ultimatly then as with fairies kami lie on a plane which seems to be much more level with humanity. In some ways this makes sense mythologically speaking given that many humans were believed to be related to the Kami in certain ways. Though thse humans themselves weren't typically Kami (except for the Emporer of Japan, and the spirits of some of some people which had died.
The truth is that it must be accepted that as a religious being Kami are beyond our understanding, they are rather an synthisis of ideas which may seem controdictory. Rather to understand the nature of Kami one must study Kami to try to grasp the complexity of the term.
First Kami as previously mentioned is a concept related to being awe inspiring and worth praying to. It is also a designation which typically implies some level of sacred/purity though kami themselves can do impure things so kami is not a garantee of purity.
Althoughy there are many types of Kami a few of interest are;
Kami which come from and typically continue to live in the heavens, these Kami are can be equated to the Greek idea of deity to some extent.
Kami of Natural Phenomenon
These Kami live within mountains trees, cause the thunder, etc. To some extent or another nearly everything has a spirit within it, but not all of these spirits are necessarily kami.
Kami of Abstact ideas and Goals
These include Kami of Education, Kami of Fertility, etc.
Human souls which have become Kami after they died Sugawara no Michizane for example became Tenjin a Kami of Scholarship. Ancestrial spirits in general can be considered Kami to some extent as well.
Along with these basic designations there are also levels of Kami, further each kami has four souls and three natures. Their natures are; Aramitama, Nigimitama, and Sakimitama - any one of these natures can become dominant thus completely changing the way the Kami acts, what they desire, and what goals they will have.
The Aramitama is violent and generally destructive. However, it is important to keep in mind that destructiveness is not always harmful. After all, it was violence and destructiveness that saved Japan from the genocide of the Mongols and protected people from other dangers.
The second type, Nigimitama, is the gentle functional nature which Kami uses to make the crops grow and the water pure. However, Kami in this state do not go out of their way to do good. They simply keep the natural order of things so that there is enough for humans and animals to survive. Kami which have entered the state of Aramitama need to be calmed and returned to the state of Nigimitama through active worship.
This means not only are there many kami each with their own personality but each Kami has various souls which can manifest at different times.