The Language of Shinto: “Kami”

Kami Large and Small

In reading up on Shinto at Wikipedia (link here), I read it stated that Shinto scholars think translating “kami” as “god” or “deity” can cause a misunderstanding of the term. I mulled this over. If there is a problem, it is with cultural assumptions – not the translation.

In ancient Greek polytheism, gods could be great thunderbolt-wielding deities, or could be gods of the vegetable garden out back. All were considered “gods” in the broadest sense of the term. (Or put another way, this is the broadest sense anyone could take the term.)

You see, my real problem with this setup isn’t that people might associate the word “kami” with beings that simply must be the equal of Zeus/ Jupiter, Ares/ Mars, or the monotheistic religions’ “God” concept. That’s an issue of cultural expectations.

My problem with it is that this is contrary to the normal understanding of the average Japanese person reading their own native language.

Before I began my long journey to learn the Japanese language, I might have easily accepted what I had read as fact. However, it is much more difficult now. I have seen Japanese writers, in their own language, use “kami” (かみ) to unequivocally mean “god,” in direct, stark contrast to “akuma” (悪魔あくま), which can be read as devil, demon, or fiend (without necessarily much distinction or difference).

To use one wild example, the grandson of a world-famous scientist is bequeathed a super-powerful robot called Mazinger Z following the violent death of the grandfather. The grandfather’s dying words to the young man are, and I paraphrase, “This power is yours. With it, you could conquer the world! You could become a god – or a devil!”

In Japanese parlance, “Kami-sama” (神様かみさま) is God, as in, the monotheistic variety. This is simply “kami” plus an honorific, going from god to God, with a capital G.

So, the native meaning of “kami” isn’t exactly in doubt.

I have sympathy with the scholars’ view that the translation might lead to confusion, but that is an issue of cultural knowledge, bias, and assumptions, not the fault of the translation itself or the word itself.

Now, of course, this is my personal opinion on the matter, but I thought I should illustrate where I’m coming from on this.

I should also note that the average Japanese person is unlikely to know much about the finer points of Shinto, certainly not to the level of the scholars quoted in the Wikipedia article.

Basically, I just think that what the word is saying is correct, and the fact people are hearing something incorrect in their heads is a different issue… making it somewhat dangerous to start confusing kami with “spirits” per se. Better to correct the cultural bias.

Grammar Note

Also note that the article takes a detour to talk about the Chinese reading of the kanji.

To put it bluntly, this cannot be relied on in any way.

As one example, the Japanese kanji for neck, “kubi” (くび), unambiguously means “head” in Chinese, but the Japanese adopted it as their symbol for neck. Japanese use “atama” (あたま) as their general word for “head.” If you look closely enough, you’ll see that the first kanji is the right-side part of the second kanji.

So, what the original Chinese would have said about a particular kanji isn’t a perfect guide to what something is supposed to mean in Japanese. Totally besides this, meanings of Chinese kanji changed in Chinese over the centuries in numerous cases. Many kanji became obsolete as simpler versions came into vogue. Language is a living, changing thing, after all – even with pictographs. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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