The Japanese Gods: An Introduction to the Kami Pantheon

The Japanese gods are known as "kami" and are both a part of Japanese mythology as well as worshiped to this day at shrines and temples throughout Japan. Since the pantheon of Japanese gods and goddesses come from a mixture of religions and beliefs (namely Shinto and Buddhism), it can be quite confusing for a non-Japanese person to figure out who is who and which beliefs come from where. This article will serve as an introduction to the Japanese pantheon, Japanese people's religious beliefs, provide a basic list of Japanese gods, and answer some Kami FAQs.

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Shrines, Temples, Kami, and Bodhisattva

If you’ve ever been to Japan, or seen it on television, chances are you’ve been exposed to Japanese shrines and temples. From the floating red torii (gate) of Itsukushima Bay in Hiroshima, to the graceful curves of Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo and its associated towering pagoda, these places of prayer are some of the most iconic and beautiful places in Japan.

But did you know that there is actually a difference between shrines and temples? The first, shrines, are places of worship for the uniquely Japanese religion called Shinto, which is as old as Japanese history itself. The second, temples, are places of prayer for Buddhism, a religion imported from India around 1,500 years ago.

You might have heard of kami, traditional Shinto gods of Japanese mythology. Maybe you're even aware of their seemingly endless multitude, as every corner and neighborhood in Japan seems to have a shrine dedicated to one god or another. But chances are you have no idea where the kami fit into the religious scene in Japan today. And what about the Buddha and bodhisattva? What do the Japanese people believe in, exactly? Who are their gods, what are their names, and what do they do? How does it all tie together?

Keep reading to find out.

Religion in Japan Today

To understand Japanese gods you must understand Japanese religion. Today and historically, there have been two major religions in Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism. There’s no real agreement on the number of followers for either, with percentages varying wildly from one estimate to another. This is due to the uniquely Japanese attitude toward religious belief. We’ll come back to this in a bit. For now, let’s go over Shintoism and Buddhism in a bit more detail.
 

Shintoism

Shinto, or Shintoism (神道, "the way of the gods"), is the indigenous religion of Japan. It is centered on the worship of "kami," which can be translated as anything from "gods," to "spirits," to "forces of nature." These kami are usually worshiped at the thousands of shrines that dot Japan's islands, from tiny roadside huts that could fit inside a summer festival food stall, to great sprawling woodland complexes.

There is no central authority for Shintoism, nor are there sacred texts. Rather, it is an amalgamation of thousands of localized belief systems that tend to have similar themes and forms of worship. Shinto worshippers don’t choose one particular kami and follow it, but rather perform the rituals for any number of Japanese gods, and for any number of different reasons. 

Buddhism

Buddhism, an import from the Asian mainland, is a bit more structured compared to traditional Shinto worship. Buddhism originated in India, and eventually exploded in popularity throughout South and East Asia, arriving in China during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. From there, it made its way to Japan by about 500 AD, during the Kofun period.

However, it wasn’t until the Kamakura period, several hundred years later, that it really took root in the islands. Just like Shintoism, Buddhism in Japan isn’t centralized under a single authority, but rather is split into different schools, all with differing interpretations of the religion. Where some, like "Amida" (Pure Land Buddhism), explore the celestial components of the Buddha through scripture, others, like "Zen," focus on training the mind toward awareness through meditation.

Unlike Shintoism, however, Buddhism did not originally involve the worship of gods. As it spread throughout Asia, different schools emphasized different ideas, some of which involved the worship of gods or deities. The schools of Japan ended up taking heavy influence from Shinto beliefs, and thus added gods into their tradition. 

What Do Japanese People Actually Believe?

According to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, 69% of Japanese people follow Shintoism while 66% of people follow Buddhism. Rather than a rounding error or sketchy sampling methods, this is indicative of a way that Japanese religion is a bit different when compared to others across the world.

For example, looking at the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, there is a large emphasis placed on belief. This tends to draw lines between them: you either are a believer in one or the other, and syncretism (religion mixing) is rare. Japanese religion and culture take a different approach. Belief isn’t the focus of religion. In fact, it’s not even really all that important. What takes the center stage are methods and actions.

Do you follow the rituals that you were taught to do? Do you act in a way that is appropriate? Do you carry out your life in the correct fashion? These questions predominate Japanese thought, and not only in the religious sense, either. Japanese religion and culture are heavily intertwined, to the extent that actions and methods that may have started out purely as religious rituals are now ingrained cultural attitudes.

What this all means is that religion in Japan isn’t black or white. Japanese people often freely borrow aspects from both traditional Shinto kami worship as well as from the various schools of Japanese Buddhism and apply them to their lives, mixing and matching with no regard for the boundaries of belief. 

The Japanese Gods

The Japanese people and their syncretic culture created a massive pantheon of gods. Where originally the kami were only the providence of Shintoism, once Buddhism was introduced into Japan, the two religions freely took ideas from one another.

Before the arrival of Buddhism, the kami were less “gods” as other religions might imagine them and more like “spirits,” or forces of nature. Each kami was associated with a certain natural power, like the wind; or a place, like a mountain. They were worshiped for their qualities, of which each force had their own, be it good, evil, strength, or fertility.

After Buddhism’s arrival and influence, these kami were anthropomorphized, taking on human forms with human personalities and failings (not dissimilar to the Greek pantheon). Buddhism, on the other hand, developed its own pantheon of gods with heavy reference to both the Shinto forces of nature as well spiritual association with certain qualities.

Together, the two religions form the Japanese kami pantheon. Traditionally, there are said to be 8 million gods ("yaorozu no kami"), which might be hard to imagine. However, 8 million is a traditional expression of uncountability, equivalent to saying there are an infinite number of kami. This is both a response to the highly local nature of both Shintoism and Buddhism (a single shrine can house any number of kami from one to a hundred); as well as the fluid and amorphous definition of kami themselves. As forces of nature, there is a kami for everything, and they are everywhere. 

Here, we’ll highlight three of the Major Shinto Kami, three of the Major Buddhist Kami, as well as briefly look at the Seven Lucky kami.
 

Major Shinto Kami

In spite of the extreme localism of Shintoism, the major figures of the pantheon are fairly universal throughout Japan, and they form the backbone of the greater story of Shintoism. These include many gods, such as:

  • Amaterasu-Omikami: Goddess of the sun, ancestress of the imperial house, and considered the “primary” god
  • Ame-no-Uzume: Goddess of dawn and patron of dancers
  • Fujin: God of the wind, one of the eldest gods, and one who was present at the creation of the world
  • Hachiman: God of war
  • Inari Okami: God of rice, fertility, and general prosperity
  • Izanagi: Forefather of other gods and the Japanese islands
  • Izanami: Sister and wife of Izanagi and creator of the cycle of life and death
  • Ninigi-no-Mikoto: Great-grandfather of the first emperor of Japan
  • Raijin: God of thunder and lightning
  • Ryujin: Dragon god and controller of the tides
  • Suijin: God of water
  • Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto: Moon god

Each of these kami has their own personalities, strengths, and stories associated with them, but many are actually relatives of one another. In mythology, the gods often interact, befriending and fighting one another as the forces of nature mix and match. 

Here we'll highlight some of the above gods in a bit more detail. 

Izanagi and Izanami: The Last of The Creators

Izanagi and his sister (and also wife) Izanami were the last of the primordial creator kami, and together, they created the Japanese archipelago. Tasked with giving shape to the lands of the Earth, Izanagi and Izanami took a jewel-encrusted spear and stirred the muddy waters of the Earth, forming the first island, named Onogoro.

On that island, they built a giant pillar, from which each would walk around in the opposite direction. When they met on the other side, they would procreate and birth further islands. Their first attempt failed, as Izanami was the first to greet Izanagi upon their reunion, and they birthed a boneless “leech-child” Ebisu as a result of this breach of propriety. They set Ebisu adrift on a raft (he later grew bones and became the very popular god of fishermen) and tried again, this time with Izanagi being the first to greet Izanami. This was far more successful, and they did this several more times until all the Japanese islands were created, as well as various other kami. 

Of all the kami descended from this pair, none is more important than Amaterasu, the god of the sun and the keeper of the celestial plane. 

Amaterasu-Omikami: Keeper of the Celestial Plane and the Sun

When it comes to major kami in the Shinto pantheon, none is more important than Amaterasu, kami of the sun. Originally personified as a “he” and gradually shifted to a “she,” Amaterasu is considered the “primary” kami amongst all the other kami. She is the ruler of the sun, and by extension, the heavens and the universe. Her name means (directly translated) “the great god who shines from heaven,” placing her at the center of everything. The imperial line in Japan, starting with the legendary Emperor Jimmu, claims descent from Amaterasu. 

There are so many stories about Amaterasu, but here are some highlights:

  • She was born from the left eye of her father, Izanagi. From him, she was given the responsibility to rule the celestial plane. She had two brothers as well, Tsukuyomi and Susanoo, kami of the moon and kami of storms respectively.
  • Amaterasu and her brother had offspring together when Amaterasu took bites out of Susanoo’s sword and spit them out as children.
  • Susanoo and Amaterasu's relationship eventually turned sour, and Susanoo disrespected her so badly that she hid out in a cave, thus plunging the world into darkness.
  • The other gods came up with a plan to lure her out of the cave, holding a raucous party outside to get her attention and placing a mirror outside. When she peeked her head out and asked what was going on, she was told that a goddess even more beautiful than herself was outside. Thus she was lured out of the cave and light was restored to the world.
  • The mirror from the last story was given to Amaterasu's grandson with the instructions to worship it as if it were Amaterasu herself. This is the reason that "shinkyo" (holy mirrors) are still commonly seen at the altar of many Shinto shrines, as they are thought to serve as a connection to the gods.   

Inari Okami: Rice, Foxes, and General Prosperity

Inari Okami is one of the most popular Japanese gods in both Shinto and Buddhist traditions. Over a third of all Shinto shrines in Japan (almost 32,000) are dedicated to the worship of Inari Okami. Starting out as the patron of swordsmiths, Inari grew to encompass everything from fertility to industry and all forms of success and wealth.

Unlike the other kami, Inari lacks an agreed-upon form. Inari has been imagined as everything from a man, woman, or androgynous Buddhavista (follower of Buddha), to a snake, dragon, and even a spider. In some cases, Inari is seen as a group presence of multiple kami combined into one.

Which form Inari takes is heavily regionalized, and depends on the shrine. However, Inari’s association with foxes is almost universal, and at most shrines dedicated to the kami, you will also find statues of foxes. This is because the fox is seen as Inari's messenger in this world. This is also true with the color red, and most Inari shrines are painted bright red, making them easy to spot. 

Major Buddhist Kami

Despite heavy syncretism and the sharing of some gods (such as Inari), Japanese Buddhist schools have a select few of their own gods. A lot of these kami take inspiration both from South Asia as well as indigenous Shinto kami. However, unlike the Shinto kami, who are inspired by the forces of nature, most Buddhist kami have their origins in real-life or semi-legendary monks who are said to have ascended into godhood. Examples are:

  • Aizen Myo-o: King of Wisdom
  • Amida Nyorai: Primary Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism
  • Daruma: Founder of Zen Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu
  • Idaten: Guardian of monasteries and monks
  • Jizo: Protector of children, travelers, and mothers
  • Kannon: God of mercy

Again, we'll highlight a few of the above and look at them in a bit more detail. 

Amida Nyorai: Pure Land Buddhism

Amida is one of the celestial Buddhas: people or spirits who have achieved Buddhahood and are worshiped/followed for it. Amida’s exact origins are contested, but he was a Buddhist monk who lived somewhere in Southern Asia. At some point in Amida's life, he resolved to become a Buddha and to create a perfect land for himself and others to be reborn into. Amida described this perfect land in a series of 48 vows.

Within these vows is the idea that anyone who desires to be reborn in this perfect, or “pure” land, simply had to call Amida’s name. If they truly desired it, at the moment of their death, the Amida would call on them and bring them into the Pure Land. Those who join Amida in the Pure Land are given the teachings in order that they, too, can become bodhisattvas and Buddhas in time. 
 

Daruma: Founder of Zen Buddhism

Daruma is probably one of the most well-known Buddhist kami. A semi-legendary monk from Central Asia, Daruma (which is a Japanese transliteration of dharma, which means awakening in sanskrit) had big blue eyes and a wild beard. He traveled throughout China during the 5th century, during which time he spread the ideas of Chan Buddhism. This, when it made its way to Japan a century or two later, would become Zen Buddhism.

Daruma is associated with many different stories, of which the wall-gazing is the most famous. It is said that Daruma attempted to enter a Shaolin Monastery in southern China but was refused entrance. To show his dedication, he moved to a nearby cave and for nine years stared at a wall, unspeaking and unmoving. During these nine years of wall staring, some say he fell asleep during the seventh year, after which he cut off his eyelids to make sure he would never sleep again. Others say that he only stopped staring after he was finally admitted to the Shaolin monastery. Some go as far as to say that he died there, sitting upright, staring at the wall, legs atrophied. This story, among many others, elevated Daruma from a simple monk to godhood in the Zen tradition.

Nowadays, one of Daruma's most famous influences are the tiny red Daruma dolls one can find all over Japan. The squat design depicts the wild, bearded face of Daruma, though both of his eyes are missing. When one buys a Daruma, it is bought with the intention of making a wish/goal. When the owner makes the wish or goal, they color in one of Daruma's eyes, and eventually, when it comes true, they color in the other eye. In this way a one-eyed daruma doll serves as a motivator and a reminder. 

Jizo: Protector of Children and Mothers

Like most of the Buddhist kami, Jizo was also a monk at some point in his life before he achieved Buddhahood. His statues are usually found on roadsides and near graveyards. The story goes that children’s souls are tormented by "oni" (demons) if left alone, and they are forced to stack stones into towers that are inevitably knocked over. Jizo protects these children by hiding them in his clothing.

Therefore, Jizo statues are often found decorated with kerchiefs and hats, or even a full set of clothing. Similarly, you can usually find small towers of pebbles next to statues of Jizo, as they are believed to help the children finish the towers faster and enter into Jizo’s protection. 

The Seven Lucky Kami

As the most recent of gods in Japan, all of the Seven Lucky Kami (the "shichifukujin") with the exception of one, Ebisu, originated outside of Japan. Most of them were taken from Indian or Chinese gods of good fortune, and all are associated with certain professions.

Ebisu is the patron of fisherman, having been the failed boneless offspring of Izanami and Izanagi when they tried to create the Japanese islands. Daikokuten is the patron of cooks, farmers, and bankers, along with being a demon hunter. Bishamonten brings fortune in battles, while Benzaiten watches over the creatives, artists, writers, and dancers. Jurojin prolongs life and Hotei is the overweight patron of children and diviners. Fukurokuji and Kichijoten fight for the last spot (with one sometimes taking the place of the other), the former being a hermit and the latter a patron of beauty and happiness. 

These gods are worshiped for their protection and ability to bestow luck upon certain professions or people. Initially, merchants worshiped one god, Ebisu, for protection and luck, and this practice spread among other professions until each had one of the seven for itself. The reason there are seven is that seven is traditionally seen as a lucky number. You can often find statues or figures of the lucky seven in buildings related to their patronage. 

Comparing the Kami

Who could be said to be the strongest of the Japanese gods out of the thousands that exist?

As mentioned before, the Japanese gods aren’t omnipotent or omniscient like gods are in other religions. Each kami exists to represent a single force or multiple related forces, and are usually just a personification of that force. Because of their rather limited breadth, their strengths are almost always accompanied by weaknesses.

Take, for example, Amaterasu-Omikami. As the kami of the sun and the guardian of the celestial plains, she is taken to be the kami of all kami, the leader of the bunch. But even she couldn’t handle the torment of her brother Susanoo, as he repeatedly destroyed her house and disrespected her. She required the help of the other kami to cheer her up and bring her out of the cave that she hid in. 

As such, there’s no real way to delineate the strongest or the fastest from the many thousands of kami that exist, because just like in nature, no one force dominates. They all play their own role in shaping the world. The sun is needed just as much as the moon, and although day and night are separated, they still share the same sky.

Kami exist in a certain, respectable balance, one that is emulated by the two religions in Japanese culture today. Just like Shinto and Buddhism, the kami complement one another, and even though there may be strife between the kami, it all ultimately ends up where it began, with everyone playing the role they were given. 

Japanese Gods FAQ

Who Is the Most Powerful Japanese god?

Every Japanese god has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Where one might excel, another exists to balance it out. While one might assume Amaterasu, as the Goddess of the Sun and guardian of the celestial plane would take the crown as the most powerful of the gods, even she was tormented by her brother Susanoo and forced into hiding. 

How Many Japanese Gods Are There?

Traditionally, there are said to be 8 million kami. However, this is an old phrase which is used for when things are so large as to be uncountable. Essentially, there aren't 8 million gods but rather so many as to be practically infinite. 

Who Are the Gods of Shinto?

There are so many different Shinto Gods that for anyone to make one list is impossible. As it is, the major Shinto Gods are as follows: 

  • Amaterasu-Omikami: Goddess of the sun, ancestress of the imperial house, and considered the “primary” god
  • Ame-no-Uzume: Goddess of dawn and patron of dancers
  • Fujin: God of the wind, one of the eldest gods, and one who was present at the creation of the world
  • Hachiman: God of war
  • Inari Okami: God of rice, fertility, and general prosperity
  • Izanagi: Forefather of other gods and the Japanese islands
  • Izanami: Sister and wife of Izanagi and creator of the cycle of life and death
  • Ninigi-no-Mikoto: Great-grandfather of the first emperor of Japan
  • Raijin: God of thunder and lightning
  • Ryujin: Dragon god and controller of the tides
  • Suijin: God of water
  • Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto: Moon god

However this is barely scraping the surface of Shinto gods, and for each major god there are two or three times as many local or minor gods as well. 

Do the Japanese Have a God?

Yes, but rather than a single God as in monothestic traditions, the Japanese follow their own unique pantheon of kami. 

Who Was the First Japanese God?

There are seven generations of primordial creator kami who are said to have created the universe and populated it with things, before the creation of Japan and the first kami. The first generation of gods are called the "Kotoamatsukami," and was said to have consisted of five genderless gods. 

Where are kami found?

As forces of nature, kami exist everywhere. One doesn't need to search for kami to find them, but rather, they are a part of the world around you. Certain shrines dedicate themselves to certain kami, but those are far from their only resting place. 

Who Is the God of Shinto?

The Shinto tradition has far from just a single god, but rather, a massive pantheon akin to the one in ancient Greece, though much larger in scope. 

What Religion Are Japanese Shrines?

Shrines in Japan are for the Shinto religion, or Shintoism.

Temples in Japan, on the other hand, are for Buddhism. 

What Is a Japanese Temple Called?

In Japanese, temples are called お寺 (otera). These buildings are for Buddhist worship.

Shrines, on the other hand, are called 神社 (jinja) and are dedicated to worshipping Shinto kami.  

The Gods of Japan Are Waiting

Now that you know more about Japan's unique pantheon of gods, be sure to explore the many ancient temples and shrines found around Japan when you visit! Having a basic knowledge of the gods will definitely increase your enjoyment of these beautiful and historic places.

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Title image: KPG_Payless / Shutterstock

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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