Kami and Ancestors Death in the Japanese Tradition THINK IAFOR

April 14, 2016

In Part 5 of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph, Professor Stuart D. B. Picken looks at kami, and how the concern of the Japanese for the welfare of ancestral spirits is a feature that runs throughout their history and permeates every aspect of Japanese culture.

1. Ancestral Souls as Kami

Much of the important research into folk religion and folk culture was done in Japan in the 20th century, and particularly in the work of Yanagida Kunio (1878-1962). (Yanagida, Kunio (1875-1962) Complete Works in 31 Vols.: Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1961-72). Both he and his followers have stressed the point that there is no distinction between the souls of kami in ancient mythology and the souls of ancestors, since they are still collectively revered and worshipped. However, while perhaps it may be true that most ordinary people would have difficulty defining the distinction, it ought to be made by those studying the phenomena since it was that distinction that made possible a separate role for Buddhism when it reached Japan. While Buddhism and the older tradition we call Shinto have had long and complex relations, the basic division of labor that emerged between them is fairly clear.

It is interesting to note that kami may die physically and also that they have souls that may live on. This becomes significant for the distinction between two types of souls. There are those of human beings who have lived and died and there are those kami who have lived and died. This is the distinction between the souls of physical forbears and the souls of kami. Shinto’s many cults and rituals concern themselves with kami and the souls of kami but not with the souls of people who have lived and died except in certain rare cases, or where the State has decided for political ends, to have someone ‘enshrined’. There are also rare instances of a person being enshrined during his lifetime following the performance of some great feat. The separation between the two types of souls is otherwise quite distinct.

As a footnote to this part of the discussion, I have seen what is regarded as the grave of a kami located in a shrine. The grave of Sarutahiko-no-mikoto is located at the Tsubaki Okami Yashiro in Mie Prefecture about an hour by road from the central city of Nagoya. But because the corpse is seen as a source of pollution, no human being is interred in the precincts of a shrine. Because of this distaste about death, the human dead, both their corpses and their souls became the concern of Buddhism at a later stage.

2. Ancestral Souls and Sangaku Shinko

While in some places the protective kami of a community and ancestral souls may become identified, even in such cases, initially, the distinction is still drawn, as the following case shows. This is often where the residence of the ancestral souls is identified as a nearby mountain, a feature of sangaku shinko, the ancient mountain cult of Japanese religion.

The village of Toyamatsu, in Jinseki-gun, Hiroshima Prefecture, was researched by a film crew from the Research Center for Cultural Anthropology, in Shinjuku, Tokyo, between 1963 and 1970. It was discovered that a set number of rituals were performed throughout the year relating to the worship of fire and the land, the seasons of the year, ancestors and rice production. The myo is the basic unit of social organization in that community. Before rice-planting, a ritual is performed to invite the guardian kami of rice to the paddy fields. This guardian kami is invited down from the mountains to the farmhouses. Some of these are in fact members of the community who after their deaths had gone to inhabit the mountains. The mountain kami therefore live with the ancestral spirits of the people. While the ancestral souls are given kami status after thirteen years, they are nevertheless distinguished from the mountain kami.

“The concern of the Japanese for the welfare of ancestral spirits is a feature that runs throughout their history and permeates every aspect of Japanese culture.”

In the same community there is a ritual called megurigito that is held in midsummer and is a unique form of ancestor reverence. The members of the council of elders carry their ancestral kami from door to door in a small omikoshi (a portable shrine or palanquin) and visit the members of the myo. In each house, after prayers to the kam, the visitors receive food and sake. Thereafter public works and matters of village concern are discussed. Matsuri (festival) and matsuri-goto (government) are thus combined as in the days of the Yamato court. In that village is illustrated the most basic and oldest forms of sangaku shinko, the cult of the mountain kami. The mountain is the residence of the protective kami of the community and of the ancestral spirits. Of greatest significance is the obvious concern for the location and welfare of these ancestral beings who extend their protection to the living. One of the central pillars of Japanese tradition about death and one of the invisible supports of the Japanese social system is reverence for ancestors. The concern of the Japanese for the welfare of ancestral spirits is a feature that runs throughout their history and permeates every aspect of Japanese culture. It also serves to reinforce the distinction between ancestors, and the souls of kami who are not ancestors.

3. Ikioi and Marebito

While formalized reverence for ancestors in the home and in front of the butsudan (family altar) was introduced with Buddhism, the ancient Japanese seemed always to have had some reverence for the souls of their physical forbears and for people of remarkable vitality, possessed of unusual powers. They recognized the power of such a person’s soul. Those possessing ikioi, energy, power or vitality beyond what is normal for human beings were to be feared in their lifetimes since souls as great as theirs, if offended, could easily wreak great revenge after death. In the Japanese classics, there is the example of Emperor Yu-Riyaku (457-459) whose moral conduct hardly entitled him to reverence, but whose other qualities made him an object of fear. He received a special revelation from the great kami of Kadzuraki, which added notably to his prestige.

Close to this is the tradition of the marebito, an extraordinary visitor, a kind of holy man whose presence could invoke special blessings. (Slawik, Alexander, “Zur Etymologie des japanischen Terminus marebito ‘Sakraler Besucher’,” in Weiner Volker-kundliche Mitteilungen, 2, 1954 : pp. 44-58).

Such people often toured remote communities bringing news of good fortune. Rituals and ceremonies accompanying the visit of such a guest appear to have great antiquity. Concern for the welfare of the dead and a spontaneous feeling of reverence for their souls led to the rise of similar rituals.

But what of the modern times and the present? The recognition of ikioi and the marebito enables the modern Japanese to accept and make use of fortunetellers (who divine the past and its mistakes rather than predict the future) and other people of unusual religious qualities. The leaders of most of the new religions are people displaying some notable shamanistic qualities, whether male or female. These ideas crystalize in the traditional concept of ikigami and continue to manifest themselves in the contemporary practice of ancestral reverence

4. Ikigami, Living Human Kami

This concept has been controversial, but is an excellent illustration of how the living and the dead intertwine in the Japanese imagination. Ikigami until the early 20th century was a disputed concept especially among foreign scholars. Dr. D. C. Holton wrote in 1922: “There is no evidence that such kami ever, during their actual lifetimes, became centres of organized cults and received worship at the shrines.” (Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan Vol. XLIX part II, p.152, May 1922). To this, Professor Kato Genchi, (A Study of Shinto: The Religion of the Japanese Nation Tokyo: 1926), made a reply in which he cited numerous instances. He described Shinto as a ‘the anthropic’ religion in which there could be awareness of true divinity within the highest humanity. (17th International Congress of Orientalists, Oxford 1928) He also referred to numerous shrines he had discovered in which people were worshipped during their lifetimes for deeds and services so apparently exalted, that those people were deemed worthy of reverence. Kato made reference to two shrines in which the spirit of Emperor Meiji was enshrined during his lifetime although the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo was not established until after his death. One was in Ishinomaki, near Sendai, created in 1876 and the other in Kami-Ina Gun, in Shimano in 1893.

These shrines exemplify the later ‘Buddhisization’ of Shinto, the beginnings of the ideological manipulation of reverence for kami and the deliberate confusion of kami and ancestors that was part of state policy after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. They also, from the standpoint of pure Shinto, provide instances of living human kami, cases that are quite apolitical and good examples of how the concept was popularly appreciated and applied.

Case studies cited included the following examples of the tradition. Matsuoka Yorozu (1838-91) was a fair-minded and competent judge in a case involving the villagers of Ohara and Minamida, in Iwata Gun of Totomi Province. They requested the right to water from a pond belonging to another community. Matsuoka allowed the claim, ensuring the continued life of the villages and in honor of the judgment, and of the judge himself, a shrine was set up beside the pond. As a result of a similar judgment, in a similar situation, another shrine had already been set up to his soul at Okabe Machi, Suruga Province, around 1871.

“It is one of Japan’s interesting paradoxes, that the highest honor that Japanese society may pay to one of its members is to treat that person, in life, as though he or she were dead.”

In 1787, a shrine was erected in the suburbs of Ashikaga City to the soul of Kanai Shigenojo (who did not die until 1829) in honor of his inventive genius in the art of weaving. He became the protective kami of the weaving profession. His descendants lived near the shrine at least until the early years of the 20th century. In Fukuoka Prefecture, in Kyushu, an annual ceremony was performed on 17 November every year to revere the soul of Hayashida Moritaka who was born in 1848 and who was still alive and in his eighties at the time Kato visited the area. He was a great benefactor and philanthropist within the community. The basis of reverence was purely ethical and had nothing to do with either magic or politics.

The same may be said of the reverence accorded to Hamaguchi Gohei who in a famous incident saved the inhabitants of an entire village from destruction by a tidal wave following an earthquake. Being aged and weak, he had remained at home during a festival. The farmhouse where he lived overlooked the coastal shelf where the village was situated. Because of the excitement of the festival, the villagers were unaware of either the earthquake or the abnormal recession of the tide. Hamaguchi, through age and experience, knew what would happen next. He and his little grandson were alone and he had not the power to shout. So he did the only thing he could to attract attention, he set fire to his own rice fields. As soon as the smoke became visible, the priests in the Buddhist temple on the opposite hill rang the bell and, in accordance with community custom, the villagers raced up the slope to put out the fire. Just when the entire community had assembled safely and was wondering why the fire had started, the tidal wave surged in and washed away the whole village, licking the very edges of the high ground where Hamaguchi’s farm stood. Once they realized what he had done, the villagers declared him Hamaguchi Daimyojin (Great Gracious Kami) and built a shrine to him. (Hearn, Lafcadio Gleanings in Buddha Fields, Tokyo: Charles Tuttle: 1971; original text dates to 1897.)

It is one of Japan’s interesting paradoxes, that the highest honor that Japanese society may pay to one of its members is to treat that person, in life, as though he or she were dead. Lafcadio Hearn, in recounting the above story, wonders in a philosophical way, how the villagers could believe that the soul of Hamaguchi was both within himself and in the shrine at the same time. He was told that the soul was capable of being in more places than one at any given time, a concept that fits the Buddhist doctrine of the unity of mind. The Japanese peasant was perhaps more sophisticated than he seemed to be to foreign observers of the time.

5. Modern Ancestral Reverence

Takeda Choshu’s book on ancestor worship is the most comprehensive attempt to discuss the topic since the end of World War II. (Takeda, Choshu Sosen Suhai (Ancestral Reverence) Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1957) His work points to specific aspects of the cult, such as the social factor of the ie, or family tradition and its perpetuation in modern society. He makes an important point in drawing attention to the fact that ancestor worship is an emotional attitude towards the deceased, and claims that it is natural to most Japanese. In other words, Japanese concern for ancestors arises not as a matter of principle alone, but spontaneously suggesting that the Japanese have a natural reverence for their ancestors in much the same way as they have for sacred places. Ancestor worship has become ritualized and is divided between the kamidana (kami-shelf) and the butsudan (Buddhist family altar) While modern forms of expression may seen remote from the times of antiquity, the ancestor worship of the past lives on. In moments of natural and spontaneous self-expression, the roots of the emotion expose themselves.

A century ago, Lafcadio Hearn, in one of his essays on ancestor worship, remarked on the survival of these attitudes and emotions among his young students, and on their lack of self-consciousness in expressing old sentiments. In essays, they frequently used expressions such as ‘Never must we cause shame to our ancestors’ or ‘It is our duty to give honor to our ancestors’. On this he made the following comments:

“During my former engagement as a teacher of English (in Matsue) it happened more than once that ignorance of the real meaning behind such phrases prompted me to change them in written compositions. I would suggest, for example, that the expression “to do honor to the memory of our ancestors,” was more correct than the phrase given. I remember one day even attempting to explain why we ought not to speak of ancestors exactly as if they were living parents! Perhaps my pupils suspected me of trying to meddle with their beliefs; for the Japanese never think of ancestors as having become “only a memory”: their dead are alive.” (Hearn, Lafcadio Kokoro “Some Thoughts about Ancestor Worship” Tokyo: Charles Tuttle).

Hearn also noted that this was one of the most profound detectable emotions among the Japanese of his day and that there, he considered, were located the roots of patriotism, since concern was not merely with one’s own ancestral group but also with the ancestors of the nation. Takeda’s research seems to confirm his contention that ancestor worship has two important roots. One is derived from the social factor of the family system and the other from the religious factor of ancestral spirits in general.

These views may be set alongside the research of Robert J Smith who investigated the contemporary state of ancestor worship in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. (Smith, Robert J. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan Stanford, C.A.: Stanford University Press, 1974) He was literally mocked by colleagues at Stanford University who declared that he would not find any ancestral altars in Tokyo. In the event he found many more than even he expected and that a large number did not contain any Buddhist artifacts whatsoever. In these remarks about the earliest tradition of Japan regarding death and the dead, I have tried to identify several basic themes, indicate the basic distinction between kami and souls, and to demonstrate that these ideas, combined with a spontaneous reverence for the dead, remain distinguishing features of the tradition. It was into this background that the imported tradition of Buddhism had to make room for itself.

Image | Tokyo Times


This is Part 5 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, “Buddhism and Death in Society ” will be published next Thursday on April 21, 2016.


Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: Buddha and Kami
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. […] Japan’s Literary Classics Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part […]

  2. […] Japan’s Literary Classics Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: Buddha and Kami Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults […]

  3. […] Japan’s Literary Classics Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part […]

  4. […] Japan’s Literary Classics Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan Part 5: Kami and Ancestors Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan Part […]

  5. […] The greater gods of the people, those figuring in popular imagination as creators, or as particularly directing certain elemental forces, represent a later development of ancestor worship. […]

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About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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