This page consists of: 1) Definition; 2) Evolution; 3) Listing.
Please scroll down to the section required.

1) Definition

The definition of kami is notoriously difficult, since the term is vague and embraces many different aspects.  The concept has also changed over time, and many kami have dropped out of usage.  By and large they tend to be personifications of nature and deification of dead human beings.  In Shinto: The Kami Way, for long the definitive book in English, Sokyo Ono suggests that ‘The Japanese themselves do not have a clear idea regarding the kami.‘

In the face of this, most commentators resort to an eighteenth-century thinker called Motoori Norinaga, who wrote that ‘Kami are, first of all, deities of heaven and earth and spirits venerated at shrines, as well as the humans, birds and beasts, plants and trees, oceans and mountains that have exceptional powers and ought to be revered.  Kami include not only mysterious beings that are noble and good, but also malignant spirits that are extraordinary and deserve veneration.’  Deities, spirits and awe-inspiring phenomena – such is the complex melange of the Shinto kami.

Anything extraordinary, whether good or bad, can be made a focus of kami worship.  Rocks with a special sense of presence; mountains with a special shape; waterfalls of dramatic impact; people with superhuman achievement; the spirits of the aggrieved.  It’s the same veneration of the life-force one finds in shamanistic cultures in East Asia; Chingis Khan, for instance, despite his reputation for cruelty is venerated as a deity amongst Mongolians.

In this way kami can be understood as manifestations of the life-force flowing through the universe.  They have no substance or form, and as such can be present in different places at the same time.  Kami are often ‘divided’ and placed in a subsidiary shrine, or their essence installed in an ofuda intended for a person’s house.  It’s as if they are alight with flames taken from one single fire source.

By tradition there are ‘eight myriad’ kami (yaoyorazu), an expression that signifies that they are beyond counting.  Originally most were nature spirits, but over time imperial ancestors, clan founders and restless spirits came to predominate.  Kami can also be figures from Japanese mythology, and there are imported banshin (foreign kami) too.  The female muse Benzaiten with origins in India is a notable example.  There are also spirits associated with  items in daily life, which is why there are some surprising pacification ceremonies – for used dolls, sewing needles, knives, and shoes.  ‘Even a sardine head can be a matter of faith,’ runs a cynical proverb.

In general the kami are treated as if they are invisible but august human beings.  They are offered food and water.  They are taken on outings around their domain in annual festivals.  Performances such as horse races, gagaku court music and sumo are put on for them.

By a curious linguistic quirk the spoken word ‘kami’ can also mean ‘upper’ or ‘higher’.  The Chinese character is written differently and has different roots, but for long it was assumed the words had the same origin.  You can see why, for you always look up to the kami – literally – since care is taken to ensure that they are housed above human eye level. In more than one sense, they are higher beings. (For kami etymology, see here.)

2) Evolution

In The World of Shinto by Sonoda Minoru, the head priest of Chichibu Shrine says that the word ‘kami’ most likely originates from the ancient Japanese kumu or kuma, meaning a secret place or recess where things are concealed. Over time it evolved into kami, meaning something hidden or invisible.

Unknown and concealed from view.  Life giving and life destroying.  Neither singular nor plural, the earliest kami had no form, no name and no substance.  They were referred to by the locality in which they resided. Villagers set up sacred areas in groves to welcome them down from the hills and held special rituals and festivals.  Offerings and entertainment became a means of placating the kami and cultivating their good favour.  In a land of floods, earthquakes and other disasters, it was a matter of life and death.

In the earlliest writings, such as Kojiki (712) and Nihon shoki (720), mythological ancestral kami are referred to while nature deities are still named after their locality.  Then in the tenth century, according to the Kokugakuin encyclopedia of Shinto, dramatic changes began:

“From around the tenth century, however, kami evolved into deities possessing concrete functions and jurisdictions beyond their earlier characteristics, leading to cults of so-called hayarigami—-deities believed to have some miraculous power and which became the focus of ardent popularity for brief periods of time—and to the propitiatory worship of “vengeful spirits” known as onryōshin. At the same time, kami that had earlier been known only by reference to a place name or the name of a shrine began to be referred to by the names of prominent kami appearing in the classic myths, and to take on more anthropomorphic features. Such kami typically were given honorific suffixes such as “mikoto, hiko (male), hime (female), and nushi (master). These kami were frequently treated as ancestral tutelaries (sojin) and given concrete characteristics and functions. Such factors were taken into consideration when selecting the most suitable tutelary to be enshrined in a given locale, with the result that kami of powerful shrines in the politically central region of Kyoto were frequently apportioned and installed at small local shrines, resulting in the dissemination of kami from central to outlying areas.

This trend grew stronger with the advance of Shinto classical studies in the medieval and early modern periods. Particularly following the Meiji Restoration (1867), the kami at shrines throughout the country were newly surveyed and designated; deities of powerful central shrines were installed as the main objects of worship in some cases, while in others, their worship was merely merged with that of earlier kami. Various methods are used to classify objects of worship; one of the most common categorization schemes is presented below, together with examples of kami included in the various categories. Further, some kami may fall into multiple categories, depending on their origin and character.”

3) Listing

For authoritative information about particular kami, see the Kokugakuin Shinto encyclopedia.  (Their list of kami covers 9 pages!)

Wikipedia too has a useful article on kami, with links to the major kami…

For those looking for a longer list, see this page of Wikipedia….

Original kami before conquest by current Japanese Dynasty

  • Futsu-nushi-no-kami or Iwai-nushi-no-kami (経津主尊, 斎主尊) reportedly called “Futsu”. Almost all the oldest Shinto shrines such as “Isonokami Jingu” (the only “Jingu”, the shrine only for the highest deity, in Japan before the sixth century), Oomiwa shrine and already existed long before the conquest war of Emperor Jinmu who is the founder of the current Japanese Dynasty. Almost all the oldest Shinto shrines’ deities are the same as “Futsu”, “Futsushi” and “Furu”.
  • Susanoo-no-Mikoto (須佐之男尊) Alternately romanized as Susano-o, Susa-no-o, and Susanowo. Reportedly called “Futsushi”. He is the god of storms as well as in some cases the god of the sea. He is also somewhat of a trickster god, as Japanese mythology extensively documents the “sibling rivalry” between him and Amaterasu. Susanoo also was responsible for the slaying of the monster Yamata no Orochi and the subsequent discovery of the sacred sword Kusanagi.
  • Ame-no-naemasu-no-Mikoto (天苗加尊) reportedly called “Futsushi” and said a son or elder brother of “Futsu”.
  • Nigihayahi-no-mikoto (饒速日尊, 天照国照彦天火明櫛玉饒速日尊) reportedly called “Furu” and said a sone of “Futsushi”. Only Nigihayahi (Furu) has the name of “Amateru (天照)” among Japanese deities. It is clearly described that Nigihayahi was ruling Yamato (ancient name of the capital and the center of Japan) before conquest war of emperor Jinmu in the two oldest official history books of Japan, “Kojiki” (712) or “Nihon Shoki” (720).

Major kami

  • Ame-no-Uzume (天宇受売命 or 天鈿女命) Commonly called Uzume, she is the goddess of dawn and revelry, instrumental to the “missing sun motif” in Shinto. She is also known as The Great Persuader and The Heavenly Alarming Female.
  • Amaterasu-Ō-Mi-Kami (天照大神 or 天照大御神) Commonly called Amaterasu, she is the goddess of the sun as well as the purported ancestress of the Imperial Household of Japan. Her full name means “Great Goddess” or “Great Spirit Who Shines in the Heavens”; she may also be referred to as Ōhiru-menomuchi-no-kami (大日孁貴神). Due to her ties to the Imperial family, she is often considered (though not official) to be the “primary god” of Shinto.
  • Ame-no-Koyane (天児屋命 or 天児屋根命) A male deity, he is considered the “First in Charge of Divine Affairs”, as well as the aide to the first Emperor of Japan [1]. He is also considered to be the ancestor of the Fujiwara family.
  • Fūjin (風神) Also known as Kami-no-Kaze, he is the Japanese god of the wind and one of the eldest Shinto gods, said to be present at the creation of the world. He is often depicted as an oni with a bag slung over his back.
  • Hachiman (八幡神) Also known as Hachiman-shin or Yawata no Kami, he is the god of war and the divine protector of Japan and its people. Originally an agricultural deity, he later became the guardian of the Minamoto clan. His symbolic animal and messenger is the dove.
  • Inari (稲荷) The god or goddess of rice and fertility. His/her messengers and symbolic animal are foxes. He/she is often identified with the Buddhist deity Dakiniten.
  • Izanagi (伊弊諾 or 伊邪那岐) The forefather of the gods, he is the first male as well as the god of creation and life. He and his wife, Izanami, were responsible for the birth of the islands of Japan and many kami, though she died in childbirth. Later, after his failed attempt to retrieve her from the underworld, he sired Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukuyomi.
  • Izanami (伊弉冉 or 伊邪那美) Izanagi’s wife and sister, she is the first female as well as the goddess of creation and death. She died shortly after the birth of Kagu-tsuchi, and Izanagi followed her to the underworld, but failed to bring her back to the living world. A marital spat between the pair caused the cycle of life and death for all living beings.
  • Ninigi-no-Mikoto (瓊瓊杵尊) Commonly called Ninigi, he was the grandson of Amaterasu. His great-grandson was Kamuyamato Iwarebiko, later to be known as Emperor Jimmu, first emperor of Japan.
  • Omoikane  (思兼) The deity of wisdom and intelligence, who is always called upon to “ponder” and give good counsel in the deliberations of the heavenly deities.
  • Raijin (雷神) Commonly called Raiden (雷電), he is the god of thunder and lightning, and is often paired with Fūjin. As with the latter, Raijin is usually depicted as an oni.
  • Ryūjin (龍神) Also known as Ōwatatsumi, he is a dragon, as well as god of the sea. He resides in Ryūgū-jō, his palace under the sea built out of red and white coral, from where he controlled the tides with magical tide jewels. His great-grandson would become Emperor Jimmu.
  • Suijin (水神) The God of Water.
  • Sukuna-Biko-Na (少名毘古那) A small deity of medicine and rain, who created and solidified the land with Ōkuninushi.
  • Tenjin (天神) The god of scholarship, he is the deified Sugawara no Michizane (845–c903), who was elevated to his position after dying in exile and subsequent disasters in Heiankyo were attributed to his angered spirit.
  • Toyotama-hime (豊玉姫) Also known as Otohime (乙姫), she was the daughter of Ryūjin and the grandmother of Jimmu. It is said that after she gave birth to her son, she turned into a dragon and disappeared.
  • Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (月読の命 or 月夜見の尊) Also known as Tsukiyomi, Tsuki no Kami, Tsukiyomino Mikoto, and Tsukiyumi no Mikoto, he is the god of the moon. He killed the goddess of food, Uke Mochi, out of disgust and anger in the way she had prepared a meal. This caused Amaterasu to never face him again, causing the sun and moon to be in different parts of the sky.

Other kami

  • Amatsu-Mikaboshi (天津甕星), the kami of all evil and stars who existed before the Kotoamatsukami.
  • Konohanasakuya-hime (木花之開耶姫), the wife of Ninigi and daughter of Ohoyamatsumi, and great-grandmother of Jimmu. She is also known as the goddess of Mount Fuji. She is also known by the name Sengen.
  • Ōhoyamatsumi (大山積命), an elder brother of Amaterasu, and an important god who rules mountain, sea, and war, as well as the father of Konohanasakuya-hime.
  • Sarutahiko Ōkami (猿田毘古神), a kami of the Earth that guided Ninigi to the Japanese islands.
  • Uke Mochi (保食神), sometimes called Ogetsu-hime-no-Kami, a goddess of food. After she had spat a fish, vomited or defecated game and coughed rice, she had been killed by a disgusted Tsukuyomi, or in some other versions, Susanoo.

The Seven Lucky Gods

Main article: Seven Lucky Gods
  • Benzaiten (弁才天 or 弁財天) Also known as Benten, she is the goddess of everything that flows: words (and knowledge, by extension), speech, eloquence, and music. Said to be the third daughter of the dragon-king of Munetsuchi, over the course of years she has gone from being a protective deity of Japan to one who bestows good fortune upon the state and its people. Derived from Saraswati, the equivalent Hindu goddess.[citation needed].
  • Bishamonten (毘沙門天) Also called Bishamon or Tamonten, he is the god of fortunate warriors and guards, as well as the punisher of criminals. Said to live halfway down the side of Mount Sumeru, the small pagoda he carries symbolizes the divine treasure house that he both guards and gives away its contents.
  • Daikokuten (大黒天) Often shortened to simply Daikoku, he is variously considered to be the god of wealth (more specifically, the harvest), or of the household (particularly the kitchen). He is recognised by his wide face, smile, and flat black hat. He is often portrayed holding a golden mallet, seated on bales of rice, with mice nearby (which signify plentiful food).
  • Ebisu (恵比須, 恵比寿, 夷 or 戎) The sole member of the gods believed to have originated in Japan, he was originally known as Hiruko (蛭子), the first child of Izanagi and Izanami. Said to be born without bones, he eventually overcame his handicaps to become the mirthful and auspicious Ebisu (hence one of his titles, “The Laughing God”). He is often depicted holding a rod and a large red bream or sea bass.[disambiguation needed ] Jellyfish are also associated with this god and the fugu restaurants of Japan will often incorporate Yebisu in their motif.
  • Fukurokuju (福禄寿) Often confused with Jurōjin, he is the god of wisdom and longevity and said to be an incarnation of the Southern Polestar. He is accompanied by a crane and a turtle, which are considered to be symbols of longevity, and also sometimes accompanied by a black deer. The sacred book tied to his staff is said to contain the lifespan of every person on Earth.
  • Hotei (布袋) Best known in the Western world as the Laughing Buddha, Hotei is likely the most popular of the gods. His image graces many temples, restaurants, and amulets. Originally based on a Chinese Chan monk, Hotei has become a deity of contentment and abundance.
  • Jurōjin (寿老人) Also known as Gama, he represents longevity. He is often seen with a fan and a stave, and accompanied by a black deer.
  • Kichijōten (吉祥天) Also known as Kisshōten or Kudokuten, she is the eighth member of the Seven Gods of Fortune, a Taoist deity often combined with the traditional members. She is considered to be the goddess of happiness, fertility, and beauty.

Officially the most prestigious kami is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.  Ama means heaven and terasu is shining: she is, literally, the Heaven Shining one.  Since Meiji times she has been championed as ancestress of the imperial line, but before that she was popular as a folk deity.  Traditionally, the first thing Japanese did after getting up in the Land of the Rising Sun was to give thanks to her for bestowing her life-giving beneficence.  Some still do.  The dread of her failing to appear is reflected in the Rock-Cave Myth, and gratitude for her daily presence is one of the key elements in Shinto.  Her shrine is at Ise Jingu, Japan’s premier shrine, where she is represented by a mirror that in 2013 will be moved to a new shrine in accord with the twenty-year rebuilding schedule.

Yet in terms of the number of shrines in which they are worshipped, you would have to say that Hachiman, Inari and Tenjin are the three big kami in Japan.  Numbers vary widely, and the disparity may arise from confusion about what exactly is being counted (main shrines, subshrines, hokora, etc.), but the number of shrines dedicated to them across the country numbers in the tens of thousands.

Finally, here is a list drawn up by the owner of a website called Virtual Illusions.  The information contained however cannot be considered authoritative, so a degree of caution is advised….