June 9, 2017 (
How many Kami in Japan? Literally eight million,
in reality an awesome incalculable number
One of the first Japanese expressions anyone with a more than passing interest in Shintō will come across is Yaoyorozu no kami. This translates literally as eight million kami, but is better interpreted as myriads of kami. The kami can be everywhere and in everything, in the forces of creation, in mountains and rivers and other natural phenomenon, they can be historic figures, forces for good and for evil, they can be seen as a bonding force holding the world together.
One of the most widely quoted and succinct definitions of kami was given by the famous 17th century Nativist (Kokugaku lit. National Learning) scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801): "...any being whatsoever which possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary, and is awe-inspiring, is called Kami.”
Kokugaku was a 17C-18C school of thought stressing the study of ancient Japanese tradition and classics, particularly in opposition to Confucianism and Buddhism, and its spirit is kept alive in the 132 year-old Kokugakuin University located in Tōkyō’s Shibuya-ku. Along with Motoori its most famous proponents were Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), Kadano Azumamaro (1669-1736) and Kamo no Mabuchi (1697-1769). It is perhaps only fitting that Motoori himself has become a kami: he is enshrined at the eponymous Motoorinorinaga-no-miya in Matsuzaka city, Mie Prefecture. Using Motoori’s definition the number of kami is probably uncountable, so I will therefore confine myself to giving a numerical estimate of specifically named kami.The table to the left below shows the standard genealogy for the gods of the Kiki. If my addition is correct there are a total of 661 kami from the first one mentioned in the Kojiki, Ame-no-minaka-nushi, to the last one, the Emperor Nintoku. The latter is the 16th in the list of Japanese emperors said to have begun with Jimmu in 660 B.C. The present Emperor, Akihito, is the 125th in the line so if we count from the 17th in the line there are a further 108 to add to the number of Kiki kami, bringing the total to 769. I am not sure how many historical figures such as Motoori have been kamified (jinbutsukami): unfortunately the Shinto Dai Jiten has no entries under this category while Masuda lists just 18. On its Japanese Web site Wikipedia gives a list of 304, the Japanese dictionary website Weblio lists 157). Using the Wikipedia number brings the total for kami to 1,073. Where I shall stop for now.