A divine life-force energy permeates the natural world. In some cultures this is called chi, others prana or awen; in ancient Japan, that energy was given definition with kami.
The indigenous faith of Japan, Shinto, is not unlike other shamanic traditions found among human cultures. Expression of faith typically takes the form of showing honor and reverence for ancestors as familial and individual guardians, as well as showing deep respect for the abundance of kami, or gods, that occupy the islands.
Modern paganism typically tries to fit kami into the concept of the pantheon that has been defined by classical studies rather than a spiritual experience. Kami are often described by scholars as having been derived by nature. I would argue that kami are emergent rather than derivative; they are a natural phenomenon resulting from the cosmic mix of this sphere in the same way the Gulf Stream or glaciers are. Kami are found within all elements of nature, which includes human beings. Philosophy in the modern world places the Human being below the gods and above the natural world; in Shinto philosophy, much like most animistic systems around the globe, the Human being occupies the same definition of nature that the sea, a rock, or a flower does.
Kami may be worshiped anywhere at any time and with any intention and prayer, or lack of one. Many people choose to make a pilgrimage to large, sacred Shinto shrines while others may not. Worship is characterized by an act of cleansing the body, mind, and soul. This is often done through washing the hands and mouth at the entrance to a shrine, bathing before paying homage to ancestors at a home shrine, or showing general respect for cleanliness and tidiness. The emphasis on cleansing permeates into the expected character of a person, where honesty and purity are regarded as virtues of the most value.
So, where did kami and Shinto come from? The answer is, quite fittingly, lost to a time unreachable to our contemporary lenses. There is no founder nor origin of Shinto, nor are there any specifically divine texts, dogmas, or doctrines. Shinto, the way of the kami, is a legacy of how the ancient Japanese experienced the natural world of their lands, and the kami that emerged from those natural forces.
There are a few kami of particular importance. Izanagi and Izanami who birthed the islands of Japan are well known, but Amaterasu, the sun goddess, and Inari are likely the most widely worshiped. Amaterasu’s shrine, Ise-Jingu, is a must for any pilgrim. She is the thread that unites the Human world with the kami as an ancestor of the Japanese people, the royal lineage, and the one who bestowed grain cultivation to the people. Then, it is Inari who keeps watch over agriculture. Shrines to Inari are dotted throughout the landscape, on mountaintops, edges of rice fields, or alleyways in the city.
Like Loki or Set, a kami that often plays a trickster or even antagonistic role in Shinto folklore is Susano’o, kami of the seas. As anyone living near a body of water knows, those natural forces from which kami are emerged are not committed to keeping human comfort on this planet in mind. Nature is severe. Tides rise, rivers flood and destroy crops, lightning sets ablaze a sun-baked forest. Even nature’s creatures, from small insects to wolves, can cause havoc to our homes and livestock, devastate our crops, or bring illness to our families. While the Human being is meant to strive for purity and honesty, they’re also meant to seek the blessing of kami in control of nature, as well as tolerate the hardships they might bring.
Much like the druids of Celtic lands, the ancient Japanese would gather in sacred spaces deep in nature to commune with the kami and seek these blessings of safety, bountiful harvest, and prosperity. These spaces could be a sacred river or waterfall, a boulder, or an ancient tree. Today, of Japan’s 80,000 shrines are surrounded by woodland. While visiting, you may notice a few boulders or tree stumps roped off in the gravel pathways. These are relics of power spots or places where the kami themselves descended. Holding your hands out to the aura of these objects – but not touching them physically – is a common method to directly connect with the power of kami and sacred space.
Of all the elements that make up the folklore and power of kami, what I have found the most interesting is the relationship Shinto has with wood. The islands of Japan are thick with forest, so it isn’t hard to see why, in a practical sense, this renewable and sustainable resource became a favorite for both Human civilization and creation of sacred shrines. The architecture is a stark contrast to what is typically associated with ancient religious belief, where stonework and grand megalithic structures come to mind. In Japan, it is wood; and that wood is thoughtfully and routinely replaced, beam for beam when it ages. Why?
Because, in modern terms, wood is sustainable. The trees that are selected to create the beams of Ise-Jingu are renewable; this is, in essence, an expression of the eternity that the kami symbolize. Permanence has never been a staple of Shinto, or even Eastern, philosophy. Though the design of Ise-Jingu is the same with each passing generation, the physical wood witnessed has changed, signifying the passing of things within a grander scale of eternal time.
This is perhaps the greatest lesson that we in contemporary times can take from the kami. We build cities and extract resources with such ferocity, such speed and disregard for the future, that we’ve severed our connection to eternal time. Rather than participating in the natural sphere of eternal time, we’ve removed ourselves from it; by considering ourselves outside of nature, we’ve not doomed nature – but doomed ourselves.
Nature will find a way. Life will always grow. But if we are going to be the ancestors of tomorrow, we need to earn that through working with the flow of kami, of awen, to create it.