Day 18-19: Kami-sama

Sorry everyone that I haven’t been posting yesterday. Everyone here, including me, was kind of freaking out about our presentation today, so we all did some good old hikikomori to work through the night… The presentations are later today in the afternoon, but everything is prepared from my side, so I have some time to kill. I think I will do a final post tomorrow about my topic, but I thought I might wrap some other things up first. As I mentioned before, we had a fantastic last lecture on “Japanese Mythology” two days ago, given by the excellent Hashimoto-sensei, and (to me) this would have made for a great opening into the whole class. He was approaching shinto with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade, and it is of course a bit silly that know words like “shinsou shinri” (depth psychology) or “kouzou shugi” (structuralism) while I have serious troubles listening to stories what the city looked like 60 years ago. Anyways, his lecture seemed, in the best sense of the word, “post-structuralisic” to me, in that it was at the same time deconstructing religious myths (i.e., explaining them in structruralis terms) without reducing them to these structures, or rather, without giving these structures a higher “ontological value” as the actual functions that these myths fullfil. If that makes any sense.

His general impetus was that we can not translate “kami”, and we should certainly not translate it as “gods”. This works the other way round as well: the appropriate Japanese transcription for “God” can thus only be ごっど (“goddo“), maybe. While his argument was that you would not “translate” his name as “Mr. Bridge-Root” either, it is of course true that “kami” – whatever it may denote – is not a proper name but a kind of description of a class of phenomena (the same could be said about “God”, probably, which denotes a single phenomenon not in need of a proper name, either). We have been learning a lot about the structure of Shrines before. They usually have a “haiden“, which is a kind of outer hall for prayer, and a “honden“, the main sanctuary that you are not allowed to enter (were allowed that in many occasions). Within the honden, there resides the “shintai“, a “sacred object”, literally the “body of the kami”. This is what the whole shrine is all about, and they are never displayed to visitors. The three original sacred objects (sanshu no jingi) are, of course, the legendary Mirror Yata no Kagami, the legendary Sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi, and the legendary Pearl Yasakani no Magatama. In many other cases, the artefacts are swords, mirrors, or pearls, as well. Mirrors are especially fascinating since the word “kagami” (Mirror), which you write with the kanji 鏡, could also be expressed phonetically with the kanji 仮 (ka) and 神 (kami), which would mean “a reflection of the kami” (thanks to Bert for pointing that out to me). In any case, artefacts are only one form of sacred objects since, in its most elementary form, shinto is about the worship of nature, so the shintai might also be an ancient tree, or those two rocks in the ocean. Mount Fuji is, of course, a kami, and there is a shrine to worship it/him/her, but there might still be a sacred object, since Naiku’s Yata-no-Kagami-mirror is only where the spirit of Amaterasu Ômikami is worshipped, but “it” “is”, of course, more properly the sun itself that is worshipped.

So, do we have a threefold structure of the deity: the object where it resides (shintai), the natural phenomenon itself (in the sky or wherever), and the “actual” kami, somehow identical yet different from the other two? No definite answers there! However, after Hashimoto-senseis lecture, a few things started to make more sense. First, what do these kami “do”? His answer was fantastic: nothing, at best, they are just there! Much like Totoro (you know, in “My Neighbour Totoro”), they are not known for standing up early in the morning to go to work. We better think about them as sleeeeeeeeping all day. That’s great. And it is a metaphor, obviously. Sleeping means just “being in harmony”, being there. If they actually do “act”, it will always be a kind of disruption, like an earthquake, something we do not particulariy like. So the original form of “prayer” is a kind of “oyasumi nasai“, “sleep well, kami-sama”.

This brings us, finally, back to our food-question: what happens to the food that the kami are presented, two times a day, by the shinto priests? Its really not much of a mystery at all: the priests eat it. They like food. Everyone likes food. It would be a shame to do anything else, and why would any kami want that, anyway? Kami “want” nothing anyways. Although its really funny to think about the concept of “offering” in this way (its really not much of a “sacrifice” if you eat it yourself, right?), it is also fitting: Offering food to the kami is as much something you do for yourself, since it just symbolizes “being in sync” with the things that are. The kami are there. They don’t care much about you. They don’t, because they are not intentional beings, I think. And here is, of course, a connection to Buddhism, where the whole idea of will, purpose, desire, and intention is leading you astray anyway. In a weird way, this seems like a purely self-referential symbol that doesn’t point beyond itself but still is all the more symbolic, somehow: i think, at that point, it would be necessary to bring the concept of “tradition” into play, as a kind of type behind the token, and that is what is being symbolized. The repetition, the temporality, the continuity. You *could* pick any other form. It is only form, because there is no content, but it is not a random form, but one that is fostered within continuation. It could be anything. But it isn’t. Probably, the mirror is also just a mirror. And the sun just the sun. But it is still shining, and that’s something. So we better find a way to synchronize to that, and that way is *some* kind of tradition, some continuation, some form.

I think, in any case, we have to imagine the concept of “kami” much more like a natural phenomenon: the forces that exist. Or maybe this is wrong and it is the other way around: the kami are not an extension of the natural into the beyond, but the kami-world is the spiritual within the material and trivial and mundane: everything that “exists” has some kind of flux, some kind of continuation, some kind of transformative vector which should – at best – not be interrupted. But more streamlined. So, although the word “spirit” has some other connotations which might not be quite fitting, the way the “spirit-world” is represented in many Anime and Manga (think “mushishi”) is, it seems to me, a pretty good first approximation. Most important of all, the kami are not dependent on naming and identification, so every little piece of hill and every little stream can be thought of as “kami”. Naming and identifying is secondary, at best. So, yeah, if you read shinto in this decisively non-nationalistic way, Germany would be littered with kami as well. In the end, its just that you are fascinated by nature as some kind of process, and everything else should be an extension of that fascination: A  continuous process, as well. I think. Maybe that’s all the insight I am going to get. Now I have to get back to my presentation. Different topic. But connected, maybe. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

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One Response to Day 18-19: Kami-sama

  1. Ulli says:

    highly interesting! Thanks for this great report and now we know, what happens with all this food 😉

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