Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 01, 2023, from

1. Archaic spirituality

The earliest accounts of Japan by Chinese visitors, archaeological remains of the prehistoric culture and the earliest recorded prayers and songs all suggest that Japan was originally an animistic culture with shamanistic qualities. The world was understood to be full of kami, sacred presences in the form of awe-inspiring natural objects, personal deities, ghosts and clannish guardian spirits. The ancient rituals were apparently designed for appeasing the kami so that humans might live in harmony with them and benefit from their powers. The early poems, recorded in such court-sponsored compilations as the Man’yōshū, indicate an internal relationship between humanity and nature. That is, the ancients understood humanity and nature to be parts of each other, not independently existing entities related as subject and object. The ancient myths describe the creation of Japan through the fortuitous actions of the deities. For this reason, the world is infused with kami or sacred presence.

According to the myths, natural objects such as rocks and streams were originally endowed with speech, a power taken from them because of their noisy bickering and querulous nature. Although natural things lost their voice, they did not necessarily lose their expressiveness. Human beings, if properly attuned to the natural world, could voice that expressiveness in thoughts, words and artefact. In ancient Japanese, the term for this expressive possibility was kotodama, the ‘spirit’ (dama) of ‘word’ (koto) and/or ‘thing’ (also koto).

In short, the ancient Japanese worldview understood the gods, the natural world and humanity to be an ontological continuum. It is not precise to say that rocks and trees were the dwelling place of spirits, because that would establish a bifurcation between the spiritual and material instead of a continuity. The term kami, therefore, applied to any object where a sacred presence was particularly manifest or concentrated: the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, Mount Fuji, a special tree or waterfall, the emperor or the vengeful spirit of a fallen warrior. Even the sword of that warrior might be treated as kami. This represents one enduring idea in Japanese culture, the emphasis on spiritual immanence instead of transcendence: the sacred permeates the everyday world.

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. Archaic spirituality. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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