Writing this has been a long time coming; almost from the moment I decided that since my Honor’s Path series takes place in a Feudal Japan-like setting that I should use largely Japanese religious traditions and ideas within the story. A quick disclaimer, I am not a follower of Shinto and cannot claim to be an expert on the religion. I have, at best, a lay understanding of the material. With that addressed, let us continue.
Anyone who looks into Shinto will run into the concept of kami very quickly. They are a source of worship in the Shinto religion. If you’ve read the appendix of my book, you’ve likely seen that the word “kami” is often translated several different ways in English (Spirit, Ghost, and God), but that none of these are quite correct because of connotations that may or may not apply to any given kami. In a way, the uncertainty behind what kami means is necessary, as kami themselves are rather ambiguous by nature. While it’s true that many notable kami (such as Amaterasu) could be considered Gods in the Greek understanding of the word, there are problems with doing so.
This is because kami are, essentially, mystic phenomena. It is entirely possible for a kami to be something that would be recognized as a god (again, see Amaterasu), but they might also be the spirits of a venerated individual, an element of the local geography, forces of nature, or even an ancient tree. To further clarify how treating a kami as a ghost, spirit, or god may not be correct, kami aren’t required to be either sentient or sapient.
What does this mean?
Lets take a step back to the root of what kami are: mystical phenomena. You will notice that I used the word “Mystical” and not “Supernatural.” This is deliberate. According to Shinto, kami are a part of nature. As best I can explain it, they are the embodiment of something, be that something easily identified like a mountain or a more abstract concept like honor. They are, in a sense, something given form (although it should be noted that a kami may well not have a physical form at all!). Because they are the quintessential existence of something, they possess all of its characteristics; positive and negative, good and evil (although labels such as good or evil may not apply, as that tends to imply motivation). Because of this, it is entirely possible a kami may not even have a will as such. A fire cannot decide to not burn something exposed to its flame and spread to flammable materials, thus a fire kami cannot either as those are intrinsic characteristics of a fire.
So if kami are entirely natural (if mystical) phenomena which may not even have the capacity to appreciate being worshiped, why does Shinto show them such respect?
One key aspect to understand about kami is that they are hidden from the world we live in, inhabiting a complementary existence that mirrors our own (the world of the kami). Again, notice I used the word “hidden” from our world instead of “separated”. Although they live in a complementary existence, their world is not separate from ours. They are, in a sense, the same world and we just happen to inhabit different aspects of it. Thus, actions we take can have an impact on the realm the kami inhabit. By the same token, they have an effect on our world.
The goal of revering a kami is not necessarily to have it intercede on our behalf, but to avoid unnatural strife by existing in harmony with the inherent natural energy of the universe. Worshiping a volcano kami will not prevent the volcano from erupting because erupting is what volcanoes do. The kami can’t prevent an eruption any more than a human can stop breathing. However, disrespecting the volcano kami and acting without regard for it will cause discord between our realm and the one the kami inhabit which will unavoidably lead to even worse disasters and hardship, often far beyond what may be expected although the end result will inevitably appear only natural.
Let’s use this to frame a modern issue, Global Warming, through a lens Shinto might use. In this case, it might be said that the carbon-dioxide released year after year by our addiction to fossil fuels has been slowly but steadily poisoning the delicate balance maintained in our air and that we are destined to suffer horrible disasters unless we can bring ourselves to begin acting in harmony with the realm of the kami once more. Granted, we have natural explanations for what is happening and terrible predictions, but even so have been caught by surprise by how swiftly glaciers appear to be melting and the unusually hot summers experienced this year.