Kami are the divine spirits of Japan's native religion, Shinto. According to Japanese folktales, there are 8 Million kami, a number considered synonymous with eternity in Japanese traditions and culture.
You will encounter various monuments devoted to several gods of ancient Japanese mythology throughout Japan.
Kami, or Japanese gods, can be good or evil. Throughout Japanese mythology, you will find gods that are unbelievably powerful or comparatively gentle.
Today, we have rounded up a list of the most important Shinto and Buddhist Kami in Japanese myths. Read on as we elaborate on the role of these gods and goddesses:
Raijin And Fujin
Raijin is a kami of lightning, storms, and thunder, who is portrayed holding hammers and surrounded by drums, whereas, Fujin is a god of wind pictured with a pouch of wind.
Together, Raijin and Fujin are the deities of weather and storms and often appear as a team.
In Japanese stories, they are the most feared kami because of the damage storms and typhoons have caused to Japanese islands throughout the centuries.
As a playful anecdote, parents in Japan would tell their kids to hide their bellybuttons during storms so Raijin wouldn't consume their bellies.
As frightening deities, Raijin & Fujin often appear at the entrances of shrines and monuments as guardians. Every visitor is subject to their watchful gaze before entering.
Raijin has three fingers, each denoting the present, past, and future, while Fujin has four fingers representing north, south, east, and west (cardinal directions).
Inari is a Shinto deity of prosperity, agriculture, finance, and industry. This god has approximately 40,000 shrines devoted to it, making up one-third of all shrines in Japan.
It is right to say this kami is among the most revered Shinto deities.
According to Japanese folktales, Inari was very passionate about foxes and even used them to deliver earthly messages. You will often see the statues of foxes around the shrines of Inari-Okami.
While visiting the shrines of Inari, people offer aburaage, Japanese food, to these foxes.
Benzaiten or Benten is the Shinto god borrowed from the Buddhist belief. She is among the seven lucky kami of Japan and has many similarities with the Hindu deity, Saraswati.
Benzaiten is a goddess of everything that flows, such as water, emotion, knowledge, and music. In the common fantasy, she is a goddess of love as well. Her shrines are usually considered romantic spots for Japanese couples.
Moreover, Benzaiten's Enoshima shrine is one of the most famous shrines of Japan. It is usual for couples to visit and hang pink ema or ring love bells together.
Tenjin is the kami of literature, scholarship, and education. Surprisingly, this kami was once a common man known as Sugawara-no-Michizane. He was a prominent poet, politician, and scholar of 8th century Japan.
Michizane was one of the Heian Court's high-ranking members, with enemies in the Fujiwara clan — the most influential family at that time. This clan was notorious for going up against the Japanese government during the Hein period.
Eventually, Michizane was banished from the Court under the clan's pressure, and shortly after that died a solitary death.
After his sudden demise, Kyoto was hit by a series of horrific floods and lightning. Many of the Michizane's adversaries, including the Emperor's sons, died in strange accidents one after another.
Meanwhile, drought and plague also spread across Japan. The government and the citizens attributed these unexpected, dreadful events to the vengeful spirit of the late Sugawara-no-Michizane.
To appease his spirit, the government subsequently reinstated his status and rank while removing all evidence of his punishment. However, chaos ensued.
In a last-ditch effort, the government bestowed his spirit with the title of "Scholarship Kami" and Tenjin (Sky deity). They also proceeded to build a shrine explicitly devoted to Sugawara-no-Michizane.
In modern-day Japan, students visit the shrine before exams for the blessings of the scholar deity!
Hachiman is a kami of military arts and war. He is known to provide thorough guidance to warriors who wish to excel in battle.
In Japanese myths, it is believed that Hachiman is the defender of all Japanese islands. He is attributed to blowing a divine wind that destroyed the large Mongol fleets of Kublai Khan, protecting Japan from invasion.
Around 25,000 shrines are devoted to Hachiman across Japan, just behind Inari, which has almost 40,000 shrines.
Amaterasu-Omikami stewards the sun, universe, and High-Plains, from which every other kami descends. She is one of the most important deities and a primary kami in the Shinto religion.
Legend has it that most Japanese Emperors were her descendants; this was used as a rationale to defend their uninterrupted reign.
Amaterasu-Omikami is the beloved daughter of Izanagi and Izanami and was born from her father's left eye. She has two other brothers named Tsukuyomi and Susanoo, both of whom are immensely powerful Kamis.
Izanagi And Izanami
Izanagi and Izanami are two of the principal deities in the creation myth of the Shinto religion.
According to the Japanese folktales, these two deities stirred the oceans with their spear. The mud that dripped from the spear's tip created Japan.
They both had hundreds of children who later on became Japanese gods and goddesses in the Shinto religion.
According to mythical Japanese stories, it is believed that kids who pass away before their parents cant pass the divine Sanzu River in the next life as they haven't collected adequate good deeds. They are destined to stack small stones along the riverbank for eternity.
Jizo is a protector of childbirth and children. He has to help these kids cross the divine river by covering them in his robe.
Throughout Japan, you'll find temples filled with tributes to Jizo. These are mostly donated by grieving parents who lost their children.
Moreover, visitors also offer hats and bibs to stay warm. Parents would leave rocks/stones and toys near the statues hoping that their kids are guarded in the next world.
Ungyo And Agyo
Ungyo and Agyo are fearsome protectors of Buddha, often placed at entrance doors of Japanese temples.
Ungyo is the symbol of power and strength. His empty hands depict confidence, while his mouth remains shut.
On the other hand, Agyo is the symbol of blatant violence. Unlike Ungyo, his menacing teeth are visible, and his fists are either clenched or carrying a weapon.
Kannon is a Japanese Buddhist kami of mercy. She is the Bodhisattva — someone who attains enlightenment but delays Buddhahood until everyone else is enlightened.
Several temples throughout Japan are devoted to Kannon. As Christianity was banned in the 17th century, Christians would disguise depictions of the Virgin Mary in Kannon statues.
These came to be known as Maria Kannon statues.
Shitenno are four horrifying deities borrowed from Hindu gods to guard the temples of the Japanese Buddhists.
Each Shitenno deity is linked with a season, direction, element, and virtue. In many instances, Shitenno are shown stomping on evil spirits.
Want To Dig Deeper In Japanese Gods And Myths?
Japanese mythology is a rich blend of legends, folklore, and traditions about Japanese gods and goddesses.
Understanding the role of all 8 million Kami's seems next to impossible. However, proper Japanese lessons can help you learn about critical figures to grasp the essence of Japanese mythology fully!