Different Yet the Same: Kami and Shen

by , 2003

The words kami in Japanese and shen in Chinese both are translated into English as the word god. Although they both refer to somewhat similar supernatural elements, they are by no means identical to each other. Chinese shen is an abstract term referring to spirits and relating to abstract thoughts such as the heavens and the afterlife. In contrast, kami are very often related directly to a person or actual object and are worshiped in a hope for more day-to-day help or this worldly benefits. In order to help explain the relationship between kami and shen, I will first explore the similarities between the two terms, then discuss the unique characteristics which define both shen and kami.

Motori Norinaga, an eighteenth century Japanese intellectual, said that the meanings of shen and kami "coincide seventy or eight per cent of cases… Ever since ancient times, their meanings have both been expressed in a single character… with no difference being paid to the difference between the two" (qtd. in Xiaolin 1). When the Japanese first borrowed the Chinese writing system to use as their own, they used the Chinese character for shen to express both kami and shin (another Japanese word for spirits, more closely associated with shen.) In all of the Chinese texts that the Japanese imported, shen was translated as either kami or shin, using kami when the spirit was well defined and shin when it was more of an abstract thought. It was not until the Japanese later differentiated their writing from Chinese that the characters for shen and kami became different. The non-differentiation between the two words helps to show their close similarity to each other.

Chinese shen is a word that can be translated into English as god, but more accurately as spirit. There are three forms of the idea of spirit that shen encompasses: the human spirit found within individuals, spirits or gods as separate entities, or spiritual because of a lack of yin and yang and other natural concepts (Teiser 326). All three of these concepts, especially the first and the third, are very abstract concepts. Because they are difficult to understand through natural reasoning, they are seen as mystical.

The first category of shen, human spirits, can also include the human soul. These are spoken of in Chinese literature such as "The Scripture of the Yellow Court" which documents specific deities (shen) living within the human body. "The spirits of the liver, lungs, and spleen are above, representing Heaven, as contrasted with the navel… representing the underworld of matter and generation" (Kroll 362-3). This document goes on to cite the roles that many of the shen living inside of you perform. "And the sacred estrade of the heart will prove an everlastingly impregnable structure" (365). Of the spirits inside of you, the most important are those of the heart. The "Simple Questions of the Yellow Emperor" also describes the heart as the most important: "The heart functions as the prince and governs through the shen; the lungs are liaison officers who promulgate rules and regulations; the liver is a general and devises strategies (qtd. in Schipper 100). This passage again designates the heart as the ruler of the body and assigns specific roles to the individual parts of the body functioning as spirits. The shen living inside your body can travel to heaven to report any major transgressions that you have committed. However, unlike the ching spirits, shen will not deliberately try to bring you suffering (36).

Secondly, shen can refer to individual spirits or gods. This meaning of shen is why the word is often translated into English as god. shen in this sense represents the beings opposite of the gui (demons) like those represented in "Spellbinding." shen in this sense is closely associated with yang and the goodness of the world. In fact, shen are "manifestations of the yang material force, and ghosts are manifestations of the yin material force" (Teiser 326). When Chinese were faced with unexplainable events, the often blamed them on shen spirits or gui ghosts, depending on whether they were good or bad. Obviously, no one ever actually saw the shen spirits; they existed just as an explanation for the good things that happened which could not be explained naturally. shen spirits were often thought of as residing in heaven, very distant from people.

Finally, the word shen can represent something "inspiring awe or wonder because it combines categories usually kept separate, or it cannot be comprehended through normal concepts" (326). In other words, shen can represent anything that cannot be comprehended through normal reasoning. A good example is death and the afterlife. If a Chinese man lived an appropriate life and had decedents, his shen sprit, associated with yang, would travel up to heaven to become an ancestor while his p'o would remain in the bones of his corpse (Schipper 37). Here, shen are the force that gives us the life that inanimate objects lack. They are not specific deities or confined within a specific part of the body, but rather are just thingd that cannot be explained by any other word. Also, shen are seen here as the means by which we will continue living after death. Although our bodies will decompose eventually and our p'o will dissipate, our shen force will go on living as an ancestor.

As Buddhism permeated into China, it took much of the focus on death and the afterlife away from shen concepts. Although people could still look forward to having their shen spirit become an ancestor, many instead turned to gaining a good rebirth by following Buddhist ideals. Japanese thoughts of the afterlife were similarly focused on Buddhist thought. However, the Japanese people still had an important place for the kami in their beliefs; they often turned to the kami asking for this worldly benefits, or genze riyaku. This belief in the kami and asking them for daily help became so popular in Japan that it was given a name: Shinto, meaning "The Way of the kami." Shinto is an indigenous Japanese religion that focuses on the kami. In contrast to many other religions, "Shinto has never renounced the desirability of the good things in life" (Reader and Tanabe 14). Instead, Shinto is a practice adopted in order that one might benefit his or her life today. It is much more immediate than most other religions. For instance, kami can be "petitioned for future blessings, especially when a new venture such as marriage is undertaken" (Tanabe 599). For this reason, Shinto is more often associated with Japanese weddings while Buddhism is turned to in the time of death, a time requiring more assistance the daily services kami provide.

The main form of practicing Shinto is to travel around to different shrines associated with specific kami. Two such shrines are those of Yasukuni and Ise. As Poppo the Pigeon will tell you, there are almost 2.5 million kami enshrined at Yasukuni (Gardner 670). These kami are, of course, the many soldiers that died fighting for Japan between 1853 and 1945. People visit this shrine to worship the kami and ask them for help in protecting the Japanese state. Their requests are not for anything beyond this world -- they are only concerned with this-worldly-benefits. Likewise, those visiting the Two Shrines of Ise focused their attention on specific deities while hoping for immediate benefits. Residing in the inner shrine is Ameterasu Omikami, the sun god and the ancestress of the Japanese emperors. The spirit of grain and food, Toyuke no Omikami, resides in the outer shrine (Teeuwen 683). The two kami are believed to actually be within the walls of the shrine. Because of this, they are more closely accessible to people than if they resided in the heavens, and can therefore be asked for more mundane things such as happiness in this life. kami are real, tangible objects. "Anything then, man or beast or plant, organic or inorganic, which was out of the ordinary… was invested with kami capacity, because of its very unnatural quality" (Bownas 343). Because of their unnatural qualities, the objects turned kami were thought to have supernatural powers, like shen. Unlike shen, though, kami exist as real objects that can be found here in our own world.

Although shen and kami are usually both translated into the word god in English, they clearly are not the exact same as each other. kami are relied on for things that we need here in this life. The Japanese people request things like successful marriages and national security from them. They are often here in our own world in the form of an object. In contrast, shen are abstract thoughts and ideas or beings found far out in the heavens. They are generally turned to in matters more significant than this earthly life. But, the differences between the two are not great enough that they can be divided into different words in western languages or classical Chinese writing. Both kami and shen are supernatural forces that can aid people when worshipped properly -- they are both gods.

Works Cited

Bownas, G. "Shinto". Encyclopedia of the World's Religions. Ed. R.C. Zaehner. New York: Barnes & Noble Books: 1997. 342-356.

Gardner, Richard. "Nationalistic Shinto: A Child's Guide to Yasukuni Shrine." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 666-671.

Kroll, Paul W. "Body Gods and Inner Vision: The Scripture of the Yellow Court." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 359-365.

Reader, Ian and George J. Tanabe, Jr. Practically Religious. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai'i Press: 1998.

Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993.

Tanabe, George J. Jr. "Introduction: Japan." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 591-612.

Teeuwen, Mark. "Motoori Norinaga on the Two Shrines at Ise." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 678-693.

Teiser, Stephen F. "Introduction: Chinese Religion." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 295-329.

Xiaolin, Wang. "Cultural Differentiation: On shen and Xin in Chinese and Japanese." Trans. Robert Neather. City Univ. of Hong Kong. 17 Apr. 2003. <http://www.cityu.edu.hk/ccs/Newsletter/newsletter3/HomePage/CulturalDiff/CulturalDiff.html>.