The Japanese word kami is loosely translated as “deity” or “spiritual being.” The difficulty in translation is that we have no word in the English language that actually equates to the meaning of kami. To complicate things even further, Japanese has a concept called kotodama, which means the soul of the word; the etymology and the actual sound or resonance of a word have great importance. Thus, understanding the etymology—the origin and the development of the semantic meaning of the word—will broaden our spiritual experience of kami as well.
The term kami can mean either singular or plural; Japanese does not make this distinction in its use of nouns. If we want to emphasize plurality, we would then use the term kami tachi. Although there may be many kami, they all share the same character—an aura of divinity. Rocks, rivers, animals, trees, places, and even human beings can be said to have kami nature. Anything that can inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the beholder in a way that testifies to the divinity of its origin or being can be called kami. Thus, we may experience kami in the great stillness of a forest, in the thundering of a waterfall, as well as in the silence in the shrine.
The word kami was used in Japan even before written language was introduced from China. In studying the origin of the word, particularly from the viewpoint of kotodama, the spiritual meaning of a word, many scholars have suggested additional derivations which I find particularly interesting. Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) thought kami was derived from kabimoye, meaning “to grow and germinate.” Yamazaki Ansai (1618-1682) said it was an abbreviation of kagami, “mirror” which is found on altars of Shinto shrines. Another suggestion was that kami is an abbreviation of kashikomi, “reverential awe.” Hori Hidenari (1819-1897) suggested a reference to the dual aspects of the divine: ka, meaning “something concealed” and mi, meaning “something visible.” I especially like this last analysis; the juxtaposition of concepts seems particularly poetic and very much like a koan that lends itself to deep reflection and contemplation.
At Shin Mei Jinja, we have enshrined Sarutahiko no O Kami, head of all earthly kami, and Ame no Uzume no Mikoto, kami of meditation and divine movement. When we do walking meditation in the forest, we pray to Kami no Mori—the many kami that abide in the trees.
My teacher Guji Yukitaka Yamamoto, 96th generation Chief Priest of Tsubaki Grand Shrine, taught;
In Shinto each individual stands on a vertical line connecting the kami, your ancestors and your descendants, past and future. Additionally, each person is also on a horizontal line that connects you with your neighbor, your friends, society, country, and with foreign nations.
In the vertical line, tate no musubi, we respect and revere the kami and our ancestors, keishin suso, as well as respecting and honouring our descendants. In the horizontal line, we respect and harmonize with other people, kyozon kyoei, in our local as well as in our world communities.
As we do regular spiritual practice, we will correct our path, purify our spirits, and be lifted closer to the kami.
NOTE ON IMAGE: KAMI MICHIBIKI / May the Kami protect and guide us. Calligraphy by Guji Yukitaka Yamamoto.