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Home » 2. Kami (Deities) » Concepts of Kami
"Divine servant," usually an animal identified as the servant or familiar of a kami. Also called kami no tsukai or tsukawashime. Tales of special animals acting on behalf of kami to transmit the divine will, or to bear oracles are seen as early as Kojiki and Nihongi; in the latter, a huge snake is identified as the "servant of the rough kami" in an episode from Great King Keikō. An episode from the reign of Great King Kōgyoku likewise records that the cries of monkeys were taken as omens of good and ill fortune, since they were considered "servants of the great kami of Ise."

With time, animal familiars took on fixed identities in shrine lore as beings possessing special relationships of some kind to the objects of worship (saijin) at their respective shrines, and it became customary to protect and feed those animals when found within the shrine's precincts. In such cases, each kami was ordinarily limited to one animal familiar, but cases of kami with multiple familiars are also seen on exceptional occasions. Examples of shinshi include deer at Kasuga, Kashima, and Itsukushima; monkeys at Hiyoshi, and Kasuga; crows at Kumano, Sumiyoshi, Suwa, Haguro, and Hiyoshi; doves at Hachiman shrines; bees at Futarasan and Hiyoshi; and eels at Mishima (in Izu). Animal familiars are also possessed by some of the "seven gods of fortune" (shichi fukujin), for example Daikokuten (mouse), and Benzaiten (snake).

In later ages, a kami's animal familiar might be popularly worshiped as a representation of the kami itself, as seen in the case of the fox at Inari shrines. This phenomenon likely arose not only because the fox or snake had a particular relationship with the specific kami, but more broadly due to the perception of such animals as unusual spiritual beings.

-Suzuki Kentarō
A lantern depicting a crow as the messenger of the Kami (Morooka Kumano Jinja)

Kanagawa Prefecture, 2006

©Matsueda Tomomi

A figure of a monkey as the messenger of the Kami (Hie Jinja in Chiyoda Ward)

Tokyo, 2006

©Matsueda Tomomi

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