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Home » 7. Concepts and Doctrines » Basic Concepts
Concepts of Humanity (Ningenkan)
The word jinkan (ʹ֡means the world, and in Japanese, when read as ningen it is used to indicate a person. The term ningen indicates that a human being is a physical space inhabited by a spirit. The Kojiki and Nihon shoki (kikishinwa) mythology is almost mute on the topic of the birth of the first human beings. The Kojiki states that Izanagi, who had been assisted by three peaches in his escape from the netherworld, said to them [the peaches], "Just as you have saved me, when, in the Central Land of the Reed Plains, any of the race of mortal men (aokusa-hito) fall into painful straits and suffer in anguish, then do you save them also." In the Nihon shoki one finds the following concerning Susanoo: "This kami was of a wicked nature, and was always fond of wailing and wrath. Many of the people (aokusa-hito) of the land died, and the green mountains withered." In both cases it should be understood that human beings were born after the land, mountains and rivers, plants and trees had been produced, also as offspring of the kami. This notion is based on the belief that the kami, human beings, and the natural world are related by blood, and in essence are bound in the realm of life.


Kami and human beings
       This does not mean that human beings are therefore kami. There are several kinds of kami: those that are invisible and possess a pure spirit; those [also called kami, but written with two characters] which occur frequently in the realm of nature and often are anthropomorphic; and also those that have a theriomorphic character. Human beings are called kami only after death and a process of purification that transforms them into ancestral spirits. Apart from this, humans can become kami only in rare cases. Examples of this include all emperors since Emperor Kōtoku, who have been called manifest kami (akitsu-mikami) and also the Shimadzu-kami, who was head of the Ezo bandits in the reign of Emperor Keikō. Nonetheless, humans have the possibility of becoming kami as they only humans have the same kind of spirit (tamashii) as kami. The spirit of animals is called mono (spiritual substance), although some very powerful animals were revered as kami. A further distinction between human beings and kami is the fact that human life and death are in the hands of the kami, as is transmitted in some myths. There are several views concerning death. The first, as mentioned above and written in the Nihon shoki, is due to the misdeeds of Susanoo. The second in the Kojiki mentions the origin of death in the passage detailing the separation of Izanagi from Izanami, when Izanami vows "to kill daily one thousand people in your land." Concerning birth and the impossibility of rebirth, there are two examples in the myths: first, in the case of the ocular taboo broken by Hohodemi when he spied on Toyotamabime as she was giving birth in a parturition hut; and second, when Izanagi broke an ocular taboo when peeping into the hall where Izanami was in concealment. In the case of the 'human emperors' section of the Kojiki, the record of Emperor Ōjin narrates a conflict between two imperial princes over a potential spouse. Since the elder brother had not kept his word, his mother said to him: "In this world, our actions should conform to the divine pattern; but is it because he has conformed to the world of mortal men (utsushiki aohitokusa) that he does not pay what he owes?." This indicates how, in both the Kojiki and the Nihon shoki, distinctions were made between human beings and kami. Shinto is based on the belief that Japan is the offspring of kami as described in the myths, and not on a belief in the creation of the world or humankind, but it is important to note that while the Kojiki uses generic terms such as hitokusa or aohitokusa to refer to human beings, and while the Nihon shoki uses terms such as aokusa ['mortals,' written with different characters], dozoku (locals), or sejin (common folks), both documents make mention of humans using the words jinmin (people) or kokumin. Differing from the Genisis of the bible, with its emphasis on individual independence and distinction from nature, Japanese mythology emphasizes the living community that gave birth to the birth of Japan. In the senmyō (edicts) of the Shoku Nihongi or the Man'yōshū one finds the terms "radiant, pure, upright, correct disposition of heart and mind," and one finds that in Emperor Tenmu's social ranking the terms "diligence, service, development, progress" were associated with the former. These terms indicate the virtues required to serve the emperor as well as a personal ideal. It is possible to say the same of the 'Constitution' in Seventeen Articles of Shōtoku Taishi in the distant past, or of the Imperial Rescript on Education issued in the Meiji period in more recent times. It is, of course, possible to universalize these virtues, be it in the case of the imperial system or of a wider cultural context.


Transgression and purification
       As mentioned above, there is no notion of a fundamental difference of nature between the kami and human beings. The spirit is neutral, and as far as the assessment of its good or evil workings is concerned, judgment must be reached on the basis of the positive or negative results on life. Depending on its activities, a spirit is characterized as a 'gentle spirit' (nigimitama) or a 'rough spirit' (aramitama); furthermore, the 'peaceful spirit' itself has two types of functions, one called the 'propitious spirit' (sakimitama), and another called the 'wondrous spirit' (kushimitama). Shinto believes that human beings are, literally, children of the kami, and therefore not fundamentally evil, with the exception of someone who can only think or act selfishly. Motoori Norinaga was not mistaken when he wrote that "a heart-mind that is moved by spirits is beautiful,' and when he used this notion as a basis for understanding humanity. It may be advanced that this is proved by the fact that the kami have not revealed "commandments." The Incantation for the Great Rite of Purification (Ō-harae no kotoba) lists two types of transgressions: the Transgressions against Heaven and the Transgressions against the Earth (ama-tsu-tsumi and kuni-tsu-tsumi), which were singled out because they interfered with the conduct of ritual: murder, infanticide, incest, bestiality, black magic using poison, and even natural disasters caused by birds, insects, or lightning: all are related to the welfare of communities. Transgressions were dealt with on the basis of the penal codes, but they were also subjected to purification rituals. Since there was no Shinto notion equivalent to the original sin or to the Buddhist view of passions and suffering, it was believed that purification rituals enabled a kami to remove the pollution of transgression and make it disappear. This does not imply that human beings have no responsibility; it means that the first duty is to perform purification rituals (misogi-harae) to remove the stains of transgression, to diligently perform rites in honor of the kami, and to do one's absolute best for the world and others.

—Ueda Kenji
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
4-10-28 Higashi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-8440, Japan
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