Why Are There So Many Gods in Japan?

Ethos and Pathos in Japanese Religion

Seiji Katanuma

Seiji Katanuma, “Why Are There So Many Gods in Japan? Ethos and Pathos in Japanese Religion,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 121–34.

No sooner had I submitted this title than I regretted choosing a difficult topic. I thought of changing my title to “Why are there so many regrets in my mind?” because it is beyond my ability to make any definite conclusions. Instead, I would like to suggest a scheme which might be helpful within the framework of this panel in stimulating further discussion.

There have been numberless native gods and goddesses in Japan. They are known as kami. They are beasts, natural phenomena, plants and trees, seas and mountains, human beings, and so forth. You might be surprised if you were to hear that there is a strange god, “the ancestor god of electricity—the prince of the excellent magnet,” in the Osaka area who is one of the great American inventors, Thomas Edison. These “ridiculous” aspects of ancient Japanese religion are the topic of my discussion. For this purpose, the oldest literature of Japan, the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Matters,” [1] should first be carefully studied.

The first character to appear in the Kojiki is the Central Deity of Heaven. This deity does virtually nothing and soon disappears. Immediately after this, the gods of nature come onto the stage.

Generally speaking these gods, who are performing characters on the stage of mythology, are gods with human form. This use of human form is significant and tells us something about the religious mind of the ancient Japanese.

First, the ancient Japanese, according to the Kojiki, abandoned an abstract concept of heaven and metaphysical ideas of the universe. Instead, they preferred to give human form to natural forces. For instance, if a comparison can be made between the mythology of Japan and Greece, a different concept of the so-called “god-nature” relationship would emerge. In Homer’s world of Greek mythology, deistic aspects are rarely seen, and they are hidden behind a hedge of human gods. However, the ancient Japanese easily and unrestrainedly bestowed divinity on mountains, seas, and stones, and worshipped them as gods even though they had already accepted the concept of human gods. This duality leads to the question, “What were the gods in Japan?”

After the Central Deity of Heaven disappeared so hurriedly in the Kojiki, the gods of succeeding ages appeared as beings with the highest authority and in the form of the imperial family’s ancestors. One of these ancestor gods, Amaterasu Omikami, caused her great light to shine throughout the heavens, as can be seen in the old name of Japan, Toyashihara no Chiaki no Nagaihoaki no Mizuho no Kuni, or “the Fair Land of Reed-Plains and Fifty-Hundred Autumns of Golden Ears of Rice.” Amaterasu is also described as a priestess who worships an uncertain supreme existence and who sits down in the sacred weaving room weaving robes of dedication for that uncertain existence now and then.

It is well for me now to introduce some scholarly opinions regarding the essential character of the native gods of Japan in order to provide a premise for grasping a true picture of them. In studying the history of Shinto, the first scholar to offer a feasible definition of the kami was Norinaga Motoori. [2] He says:

Kami, or gods, are things like birds, beasts, trees, grasses, the seas and the mountains, whatsoever is fearful and unusual even though they have, on the other hand, beautiful virtues. Kami, in the first place, are gods of heaven, earth, and nature; second, kami are the spirits in the shrines built for worshipping them; third, kami are human beings. The phrase “beautiful virtues” means not only “superior virtues” or “honorable virtues,” but also wondrous things which are evil or fearful.

This is a good description of the gods in Japan. This explanation of “beautiful virtues” will, I am sure, assist us in understanding the characteristics of the kami.

Mr. Tetsuo Watsuji puts these gods in four main categories: [3] (1) gods who worship the Emperor; (2) gods who worship as well as are worshipped—the ancestor gods of the imperial family; (3) gods who are merely worshipped—the rain god, the wind god, etc.; (4) gods who seek to be worshipped—gods who curse. Dr. Watsuji then concludes: “Gods who worship are superior to those who are worshipped in their divinity.” [4]

Tanaka Gen comments on Dr. Watsuji’s analysis as follows:

According to our common sense, that which is worshipped is much superior to that which worships. The most supreme God himself has a positive function from which comes all the world’s order and harmony. However, the kami or gods described in the Kojiki or Nihongi (The Chronicle of Japan), are completely different from the type of existence mentioned above. The gods in these works of ancient literature who worshipped others are much superior to those who themselves are worshipped. The qualitative existence which seems to be the highest is a kami whose identity is most ambiguous. [5]

He suggests here that it is necessary to clarify the gods who are identified ambiguously.

Dr. Watsuji explains further:

Ritual and the administrators of ritual came to hold sanctity as the means for emerging from an infinitely deep mystery. For this reason, they were revered in their divine characters. However, the infinitely deep mystery itself had no opportunity to become translated into gods, even though it made gods what they were by using its might as the hidden unlimited power. . . . That mysterious ultimate is the source of all the gods yet never becomes any particular god. In other words, the source of the gods—the sacred “Nothingness”—is the very thing which does not form any of the gods. [6]

Although Dr. Watsuji’s analysis is impressive, it is still vague as to why the Ultimate eventually gave godhood to the Emperor of Japan.

Let us briefly focus on the situation of the first goddess of the imperial family, Amaterasu. Originally the divine “being” representing the godhood of the sun was not Amaterasu alone, but many gods. Some of these gods are: (1) Hoakari no mikoto—the god of fire’s light; (2) Amaterukuni teruhiko Hoakari no mikoto—the shining male god of fire’s light of the brilliant heaven land; Amaterutakahime no kami, the female supreme god of fire of the brilliant heavens; (4) Hime no kami—female god of fire; (5) Toyohi no kami—the plentiful fire; (6) Asahi toyoakaruhime no kami—female god of plentiful brilliant fires of the morning sun; (7) Amateru maratakeo no kami—the fierce and powerful god of the shining heavens; (8) Amaterumikadono kami—the honorable gateway god of the shining heavens; (9) Amateruya hirume no kami—the female sun god of the resolute shining heavens.

Takeshi Matsumae, a recognized Japanese mythologist, concludes that Amaterasu Omikami of the Ise Grand Shrine, which is the main shrine of the imperial ancestral gods, might be the sun goddess who was originally worshipped by fishermen. His opinion is supported by evidence linking fishermen and boats, as well as boats and the sun in Greek, northern European, Babylonian, Persian and Indian mythology. He observes that “simple, primitive sun gods and goddesses worshipped by fishermen were directed toward the ancestor goddess of the imperial family by the Yamato government in a certain era, probably in the early middle part of the fifth century.” [7] My only reservation on this is the fact that Amaterasu Omikami is so closely related to the heavens. She came into existence as a deity when Izanagi no Mikoto (Amaterasu’s father, the male god of creation) washed his left eye and told her that she should rule Takamanohara “the plains of Heaven.” Amaterasu appeared as the ruler goddess of the plains in heaven.

In the Norito, the ritual chants of the Engishiki, which was compiled from A. D. 905 to 927, there is a useful explanation of how the emperor was so strongly connected with heaven. It says: “The Emperor in every generation, having the holy commands of gods and goddesses, has been delegated to rule over the world.” [8] In that context we can easily understand a relationship between Amaterasu and the imperial family. Even though she was merely worshipped by fishermen, as Takeshi Matsumae says, it did not mean that she was the sun goddess having close connections with fishing boats, but that she was the ruler of the world where not only fishermen but also people of every class lived. In other words, in place of the abstract Central Deity in Heaven, the ancient Japanese set and established more concrete, understandable goddesses like Amaterasu as the object of their worship. They acquired a political goddess like Amaterasu by abandoning the somewhat abstract and metaphysical concept attached to the Central Deity of Heaven. Choosing from many available, I would like to introduce an evidential poem written by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro in the early Manyoshu or “Collection of Ten Thousand Poems.” [9] It says: “Our Greatest Majesty/ who is the prince of the sun/ which is shining/ all over the heaven/ is going to act/ as if/ he were a god. . . .” That poet certainly understood Amaterasu’s background. In Hitomaro’s imaginative world of poetry Amaterasu would be a superior deity. Without her, Takama no Hara would be completely dark, as would the Fair Land of Reed-Plains and Fifty-Hundred Autumns of Golden Ears of Rice. Whenever the poets in the days of the Manyoshu sang their verses, not only Kakinomoto but many others used the word yasumishishi as a pillow word or modifier, particularly in praising the emperor. Yasumishishi literally means “ruling every corner of the world” or “ruling over the world peacefully.”

As I mentioned earlier, Amaterasu has the character of a priestess weaving a sacred robe at the holy weaving room as well as that of a ruler of the world. She therefore belongs to Dr. Watsuji’s second classification—a goddess who worships and is worshipped. This characteristic makes her the first ancestor god of the imperial family. If my interpretation is correct, Amaterasu Omikami might be explained conclusively as follows: first, according to descriptions in the Kojiki and Nihongi she is thought to be an existence which should occupy a divine position with holy authority. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that she was merely worshipped by fishermen. Rather, she was the kami of the Yamato tribe who worshipped the sun. The reason why the Yamato tribe developed this religious trend will have to be explained in another paper; the sun goddess might have been a tutelary deity when the Yamato tribe came over the ocean to the islands of Japan from another place.

Second, Amaterasu Omikami, a weaver as well as a ruler, may have been the deity of the Hata or Shin tribe, which was actually the most influential, powerful and skillful group in Japan. In other words, the ancient Japanese put the first ancestor goddess of the imperial family into the position of a priestess, one who could communicate with unknown existence by dedicating offerings and prayers, rather than by delving into the most sacred area of the holy existence and finding out what the Ultimate or Nothingness was.

Third, if my analysis is correct, there might be a new point of view for grasping the reality of Amaterasu Omikami. The word ama-terasu has been explained as an honorific form of the expression “ama-teru.” As I noted above, there are many gods and goddesses who have the name of “amateru,” which literally means “heaven shines or blazes” (intransitive verb). But it is my opinion that the word “ama-terasu” means “to throw light on” or “to illuminate brightly” or “light up” (transitive verb). Such usage can be seen many times in the old literature. For example, note the word takaterasu in the Manyoshu. [10] So Amaterasu Omikami was transformed from shining by herself without artificial aids to throwing light throughout the world. She was changed from a mere existence to a conductor. She was changed from the natural to that which affects others. This means that Amaterasu Omikami was indeed transformed into a political ruler of the highest position.

As rice agriculture developed, the religious dignity of the ancestor deities of the imperial family deepened. There was a close parallel between rice production and the prestige of imperial government. In time, Amaterasu Omikami became the epitome of sacred godhood for the Fair Land of Reed-Plains and Fifty- Hundred Autumns of Golden Ears of Rice. And the imperial family in turn became divine over the course of Japanese history because it traced a direct lineage to Amaterasu Omikami.

Shinto was established in this way in a land where the Japanese people had naturally been without doctrines. The core or essential aspect of Shinto, for this reason, came to be explained by only two things, “light” and “darkness.”

Japan became a country of great splendor and brightness where the golden rice shafts glittered as they waved in the autumn sun. It was ruled by Amaterasu Omikami and after that by her descendant emperors, all of whom epitomized an environment in which the Japanese people were very happy and active.

The World of Death

The Japanese called the world of death the country of tree-roots. It was the next world to which all would go for a certain time upon leaving this one. The Japanese hated the filth of this world and its shadow of death; they dreamed of a heavenly world after death.

In the Manyoshu few poems speak of death, which is surprising, considering that there are more than 4500 poems in the collection. In examining this oldest collection of poems we find that the ancient Japanese expressed death by such words as mimik-aru or “to leave one’s body,” andkamuagaru or “to be exalted as a god.” This is also the concept of death in the Kojiki. The world of death was regarded as Tokoyo no Kuni or “the everlasting country” which lay far beyond the sea of flowing rice shafts. They pictured a peaceful land where one would be embraced as a mother embraces a child. However, there was no specification as to who would go to the country of roots and who would go to heaven. But for the ancient Japanese people, the concept of death was never of a pessimistic nature.

The Consciousness of Sin

The ancient Japanese were not conscious of sin and evil. Rather, they were conscious of light as opposed to dark, and filthiness as opposed to purity. Killing was a sin, not because it took away the victim’s freedom by taking his life, but because it was an unclean act that stained the shining land with blood.

Shinto is not a logical or philosophical system, although Shinto means “the Way of the Gods.” As Norinaga Motoori says, there was little discussion of what the Way was. In fact there was little attention paid to it at all. The Japanese followed the Way without consciously recognizing its existence. However, in most foreign countries it has been the custom to debate about many different doctrines and philosophies, some arguing for this way and others arguing for that way. Anciently in Japan there was peace and order because there were no such theories and doctrines in the imperial great eight island country, where the descendants of the sun goddess have consecutively succeeded to the throne. [11]

Living the course of nature, simply and purely, was, I daresay, all that Shinto had to offer by way of religion.

The Influence of Buddhism

Now I would like to discuss Buddhism in Japan. Let me describe an event that occurred in the early days of Buddhism. In the beginning of the sixth century Buddhism came from India to Japan by way of China and the Korean peninsula. This new religion began to steal the hearts of many people. Before fifty years had passed, members of powerful royal and aristocratic families had adopted this religion. In the year A.D. 584, a noble man, Soga no Umako, who might have been a minister of finance, built a small Buddhist sanctuary on his own estate. The following year he built a pagoda on the hill Ono.

The conflict between modern Buddhism and traditional Shinto can be illustrated in the following example: The progressive Soga Clan was in serious conflict with the traditionalist Mononobe Clan, which was once the most powerful clan and protected the god Ninigi, the first god to come down from heaven to Japan. In the year 586 Mononobe Moriya suddenly sent an army to Soga’s mansion and burned Soga’s pagoda, his small sanctuary, and a statue of Buddha. You can imagine how unpleasant this new Buddhism was to the Mononobe Clan, who believed in the traditional Shinto faith.

However, the powerful crown prince, Shotoku was deeply attracted to Buddhism, and after three volumes of commentaries on Buddhist scripture were produced, Buddhism began to prosper. Are there any religions in the world which were permitted to exist after officially losing a conflict with another religion or after having fought a war against another religion? This is not limited to a few specific religions but extends to those beliefs which would represent a nation. When we study Christianity, Judaism or Islam, for example, we find long histories of violent conflicts.

We are faced with an interesting problem. What became of Shinto after Buddhism spread into Japan on a national scale? How did Buddhism gain its prosperity? In short, how was the Japanese history of religion affected? These questions must be considered very carefully in order to understand the religious consciousness of the Japanese.

It was Mahayana Buddhism that was brought to Japan. I am not a Buddhist specialist, but if my own interpretation may be permitted, it produced a shock within the spiritual life of the ancient Japanese people. I do not have time to discuss this in detail, so I will cover only the main points.

Let me introduce briefly the influence of Buddhism on the ancient Japanese people by citing a poem sung by Yuge no Miko, Prince Yuge.

As the cloud which hangs over

The Mifune Mountain

Must surely pass away,

I realize that my life

will not go on forever. [12]

I believe you can feel a tone of ephemerality in the grievous emotion of Prince Yuge’s heart.

Another poem is sung by Otomo no Tabito, whose family was once as prestigious as Mononobe, but now fallen.

In the next world

It would not matter

If I became a bird or an insect

If I could just be happy now. [13]

This poem introduces Buddhist ideas of transmigration and retribution. The poet, who never became the minister of the central government but spent his life as a local officer, was sighing a deep sigh by indulging himself in pleasure and rejecting nirvana. These two poems show a strong Buddhist influence among the Japanese people of ancient times.

Let me illustrate three main ways Mahayana influenced Japanese life. First, Mahayana Buddhism introduced the foreign ideas of individual existence to the Shinto mind of ancient Japan. In the Japanese’s inner world, the teaching that “truth is beyond speech and thought, and therefore it is nothingness (sunyata), that all worldly phenomena are illusory” gradually took concrete form. Second, Mahayana Buddhism presented new concepts in understanding the mind. Third, Mahayana Buddhism presented a new view of nirvana or the next world. However, to Shinto, Mahayana Buddhism, with its superior teachings, did not become Shinto’s enemy, but rather a teaching “above” and “superior” which could be embraced as a mother embraces her child. Shinto never vanished from Japan, yet at the same time Buddhism influenced the spiritual life of the people. The two continued in a coexisting relationship. This compromise had been carried out skillfully through the so-called theory of “Honji Suijaku,” which is said to mean that Buddha (who is called Honji) was brought to Japan by the Shinto gods as Suijaku. But in spite of the religious prosperity of Buddhism, Shinto, the ancestral religion of the imperial family, was still honored. The indigenous Shinto gods held a sacred place for the emperors of every generation. They were the source of political and religious authority.

Briefly speaking, the religious structure of Japan is unique, with its ancestor-god worship which went from family to clan, and clan to emperor, and fit into the political structure, which ran from the emperor to the clan, and from the clan to the family. This structure had a long history which continued until August 15, 1945, the end of World War II. Japan had been defeated by the United States, and on New Year’s Day, 1946, the emperor made his so-called “human declaration,” in which he declared himself to be human and not a god.

Why had the emperor been worshipped by the Japanese? I would like to relate an account of a round-table discussion, as printed in the June 1937 edition of Shufu no Tomo, or “The Housewife’s Friend.” The participants, older mothers from farming areas of Japan, had lost sons in the war between Japan and China. One of these mothers said:

When the call came for our older son to join the war effort, we said again and again, “We offer our son’s life to the great emperor . . . and may it be taken quickly!” Recently our hopes were realized and the emperor allowed our son to receive an honorable death in the war.

Another woman said:

The night our son’s body was brought into the Yasukini Shrine on a white palaquin, we were so full of thanks we could hardly contain ourselves. Just the thought that this unworthy child should be allowed to receive such an honor . . . it is wonderful!

And another:

We must thank the Great Emperor for our son’s honorable death. It is an honor greater than we deserve!

And still another:

Now that our son has been taken, we are able to go up to the Yasukini shrine to worship our Great Emperor and receive his praise. We have no regrets. Even if we were to die this very day we would be content. Why, we would die laughing.

And finally:

Truly when we think that our son will return no more we cannot help feeling lonely but, when we think that he died for our country and that we will receive the admiration of the Emperor, we become so encouraged that we forget all else.

These remarks lead us to an important corollary. I think you could recognize certain characteristics in the remarks of these mothers. Did you recognize the fact that they always said “we” or “our” in place of using “I” or “my”? Each one had her mura, or “the place where people gather together,” where farmers worked the rice fields in the twilight. Humble straw cottages stood along the narrow footpath between rice fields. They had to live in this agricultural area. And rice agriculture demanded the cooperation between family members and people of the village. Even though something bothered someone, he could not leave that mura, because that meant not only leaving his home but abandoning his means of living. Over many generations unconsciousness of “self” had formed. The farmers thought first of their family. The self concept existed somewhere beyond their mura and nation. They had no consciousness of an almighty God who attached importance to a relationship between Himself and individual humans. They were conscious only of an emperor who was head god of a nation containing many muras, and muras containing many families.


By way of conclusion, I would like to reiterate four basic points. First, the Japanese concept of god is quite different from that of the Christian. In Japanese the word kami or god merely means above or superior. Second, this had led the Japanese people to a religious generosity in which everything that appears “above” or “superior” easily becomes deified. Third, their attitude toward nature allowed them to produce many gods. Japan, a country of rice production, has been blessed by a beautiful natural environment; but at the same time her people have suffered from the dreadful appearance of typhoons, floods and landslides. This awesomeness of nature, its “beauty” and “havoc,” have spontaneously become the people’s gods. Fourth, to the ancient Japanese who had lived within an agrarian rice culture, nature was the most evident fact of existence; there was no way to exert power in opposition to it. They learned to harmonize with nature. They also learned that diligence, a characteristic of their stone-like endurance, their agricultural life, helped them enjoy nature. Through such homeopathic sentiment and emotion, they could finally succeed in becoming identified with nature. And in so doing, their Shinto religion, developed along animistic, shamanis-tic, and polytheistic lines.


[1] The oldest historical record of Japan, compiled by Ono Yasumaro in A.D. 712. It contains three volumes.

[2] A scholar of the Japanese classics, Norinaga lived from 1730 to 1801.

[3] Tetsuo Watsuji, Nihon Korai Bunka (Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten, n.d.), 61–63.

[4] Ibid., 64–66.

[5] Gen Tanaka, Kodai Nihonjin no Sekai (Tokyo, Yoshikawa Kobunkan, n.d.), 19.

[6] Tetsuo Watsuji, Nihon Korai Bunka (Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten, n.d.), 76.

[7] Takeshi Matsumae, Kamigami no Keifu (PHP Kenkyusho, n.d.), 62.

[8] Hoshizume no Matsuri in the Engishiki.

[9] The oldest collection of Japanese poems. It contains twenty volumes and more than 4,500 poems covering approximately four hundred years from A.D. 350 to 759.

[10] Manyoshu, vol. 1, no. 45.

[11] Norinaga Motoori, Naobi no Mitama (1771).

[12] Manyoshu, vol. 3, no. 242.

[13] Ibid., vol. 3, no. 348.