I was driving along a road near Shirakami Sanchi, the mountainous beech forests that straddle Aomori and Akita prefectures, when I happened to notice the above banner by the roadside saying ‘Believe in the kami from your heart’. I’d been thinking to myself how rich the area was in shrines and how this reflected the evident blessings of nature, so my first reaction was to marvel at a most unlikely piece of Shinto propaganda. Almost immediately, however, I realised this must refer to the Christian kami – God.
I’ve raised before the question of why Christians came up with the confusing translation of Kami for God, and remember learning that it was something to do with the Protestant Church after the post-Meiji influx. Historically, the Catholics of the sixteenth and seventeenth century tried a number of terms, which started with Dainichi (causing them to be confused with Buddhists) and moving on to the more reasonable Deus or Dios.
Given the lack of distinction between singular and plural in Japanese, it’s a most curious state of affairs to have two different types of gods/God referred to by the same word. Once a newspaper headline caught my eye saying that Japan should be a ‘kami no kuni’. Since prime minister Mori was forced to resign for using such prewar language, I wondered who had made the headlines in similar manner, only to find out it was a Christian bishop in Kobe – and he certainly wasn’t advocating prewar State Shinto!