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Home » 7. Concepts and Doctrines » Basic Concepts
Concepts of the Spirit (reikonkan)
The diversity of theories concerning the concept of spirit in Shinto makes it impossible to propose any single definition. From a Shintō perspective, there is no agreement on where people's spirits go after they die. These difficulties notwithstanding, if one agrees that the kami of Shinto are divine spirits, and that the foundation of Shinto is to perform rites in honor of the kami, then by necessity, there exists an inherent concept of the spirit. In order to clarify this concept it seems appropriate to analyze and interpret such primary and secondary sources as "rituals", "shrine histories", "Shinto Classics", and the "History of Shinto thought."


The spirits (mitama) of kami
       A basic Shinto rituals is the kinen-sai performed in early spring in order to entreat the kami to grant the five cereals in abundance, and the Tasting of the First Fruit Rites (shinjō-sai) in autumn to express gratitude for good harvests. These rites are performed right in front of shrines, which symbolize the site of residence of the kami. If one agrees that shrines and rituals are based on the premise of the existence of the spirits of kami, then these mitama can be placed first in the Shinto concept of the spirit. According to shrine histories and the Shinto Classics, there was a distinction between the 'gentle spirit' (nigimitama) and the 'rough spirit' (aramitama) of a kami. The former provides peace or blessings whilst the latter symbolizes bravery and aggressive action. At the Grand Shrines of Ise (Ise jingū), Amaterasu-ōmikami is enshrined in the Inner Shrine (naikū), and Toyuke ōkami is enshrined in the Outer Shrine (gekū) as the principal objects of worship. However, each of these shrines has a 'separate sanctuary' (betsugū): for the Inner Shrine there is the Ara-matsuri Sanctuary where the 'rough spirit' of Amaterasu is said to be the object of ritual, and for the Outer Shrine there is the Taga Sanctuary, dedicated to the 'rough spirit' of Toyuke. In the same fashion, the 'gentle spirits' of the three kami Sokotsutsunoo-no-mikoto, Nakatsutsunoo-no-mikoto, and Uwatsutsunoo-no-mikoto are enshrined at the Sumiyoshi Shrine (Sumiyoshi taisha) in Osaka; and at the Sumiyoshi Shrine (Sumiyoshi jinja) located in Yamaguchi Prefecture is enshrined the 'rough spirits' of these three kami. The Nihon shoki record of the regency of Consort Empress Jingū (Jingū kōgō) states that at the time of Jingū's conquest of the Korean Peninsula the 'gentle spirits' of the Sumiyoshi kami protected her life, while their 'rough spirits' guided her naval force. It must be said, however, that it is doubtful that the majority of kami worshipers today make any distinction between the gentle and rough spirit of a kami.


The spirits of human beings
       From the Shintō concept of humanity, there is the concept that a spirit (mitama) resides within human beings. It is probably acceptable to say that the ancestral rites that were dedicated to the spirits of emperors in ancient times were Shinto in character. Furthermore, the imperial 'decrees' (senmyō ) contained in the Shoku Nihongi refer to the efforts of the spirits of the imperial ancestors. However, after the sixth-century introduction of Buddhism, the Buddhist influences on these rites increased gradually and they developed differently from Shintō inspired rituals. Especially with the firm hold of the Buddhist temple registration system (danka seido) since the early modern period, up until this day, rites dedicated to the spirits of people have been seen as essentially Buddhist. On the other hand, however, the Heian period saw the development of a tradition of enshrining as kami the spirit of people, the first case being that of Sugawara no Michizane. During the early modern period and up to the present, it became a popular custom to enshrine as a kami the spirits of people who dedicated their lives in service to the state, to a fief, or to a village and other such groups of people and shrines were constructed for this purpose. Famous examples are the Tōshōgū Mausoleum dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu; the Hanitsu Shrine dedicated to Hoshina Masayuki, the ancestor of the Aizu fief; the Nogi Shrine dedicated to General Nogi; the Meiji Shrine (Meiji jingū) dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shōken and others. In these cases it is thought that the spirits of departed people act in the same way as the spirits of kami, a notion that can already be found in the works of early modern period Shinto thinkers. For example, Yoshikawa Koretari, the first Shinto thinker to deal with the concept of life and death, wrote that after death the spirit dwells forever in a place called Hi-no-wakamiya, where it assists the creation of the heavens and earth. Motoori Norinaga too judged that part of the spirit of the dead remains in this world where, like the spirit of a kami, it acts to promote the welfare of human beings. It is thus possible to extract from the belief system that surrounds Shinto ancestor worship and concepts of life and death the belief that the spirit residing in a human being has the potential to become a kami.


Spiritual substances
       The Shinto view of nature holds that a spiritual substance dwells in natural phenomena, in plants and animals, and even, in some cases, in man-made objects and tools. Ancient Japanese did not believe that human beings should control natural phenomena such as seas, mountains, rivers, plants or trees. To the contrary, they believed that each natural phenomenon was inhabited by a spirit, and they worshiped them as kami. The sun, wind, or lightning were objects of worship, for they believed them to have divine functions. They also deified those animals that were closely related to human endeavors, as well as those animals that were terrifying. Motoori Norinaga famously defined the kami as "those entities that possess superlative power not normally found in the world" and it is well-known that he considered foxes, wolves, and other animals, to be kami as well. It is possible to say that swords are tools; thus, the Kusanagi sword found in the snake Yamata-no-orochi is the main enshrined kami at Atsuta Shrine. It is debatable whether one should think that the sword itself is a kami, or whether one should conceive of the sword as the abode of a kami, but at the present point it is probably sufficient to say that the spirit that dwells in a sacred sword is a kami. From the point of view of Shintō traditions, it is possible to say that the Japanese believe that some natural phenomena, as well as man-made objects they feel to be mystical in character, are the abode of a spiritual substance.
       One can deduce from the above that what unites the realms of the kami, of human beings, and of nature, is that all share a spiritual substance (mitama) in common. According to the Shinto Classics, the will of kami is at work in the continued genesis and growth, as symbolized in the Classics by the procreation of the kami (kamiumi) and the land (kuniumi) by Izanagi and Izanami. It is often said that a prominent feature of Shinto is its notion that the kami, human beings, and nature, are one. One of the reasons for this is the belief that all were produced by kami and therefore share the kami 's essence.

—Asoya Masahiko
"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
URL http://21coe.kokugakuin.ac.jp/
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