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On the translation of the word kami


19th century English writers

Maybe kami means "genie". [1][2][3]

Maybe kami means "saint".[4][5]

19th century Japanese writers

All quotations from Susan Burns, Before the Nation

Kami as untainted kokoro

Note: Kokoro is a word in Japanese that means "heart-mind". But of course kokoro, like kami, is not generally visible on one's person. As used here, they exist as the intuition behind a feeling.

"When I do something that is wrong, such as being argumentative or speaking ill of someone behind his back or pocketing someone's belongings, I feel that I know completely what I am doing, but afterwards there is a sense of unease. I call this sense of unease Public Mind (ma-gokoro). I call the mind that is selfish and thinks only of its own rewards Private Mind (hitoe-gokoro) . . . Far beneath this Private Mind, there is another 'mind' that feels ill at ease when the Private Mind is allowed to act without restraint. This is the Public Mind. But hidden far beneath this Public Mind, there is that which moves the Public Mind. This is what is called Kami." --Fujitani Mitsue, Kadou hiyui shou (Burns 2003:135)

Kami as untainted ancient polity

"As for how the emperor ruled in the first period, there is in the ancient language the phrase 'to rule the world following the kami.' This means that the emperor took the will of Amaterasu as his own will and all things followed exactly the pattern that was established in the Kamiyo; and in relation to all things, the emperor did not rely on his own judgment." --Motoori Norinaga, Tamakushige (Burns 2003:91)

Note that Norinaga does not say that the emperor followed the instructions of present and personal gods, or that the emperor was himself a kami. Rather, Norinaga sees the Kami Age as the perfect period of Japanese history, which was corrupted afterwards (ibid).

Kami as ancient heroes

The word mi-koto (from koto-ba) means that in the Kamiyo, kami "expressed what they thought in words and that everyone followed these words." --Ueda Akinari, Kamiyo monogatari (Burns 2003:129)

Kami as unseen force

"Ame and yomi are two names that both exist with kami, and they are not outside of the [apparent] world. ... Prosperity and decline, happiness and misfortune, reward and punishment all come from this kami that cannot be seen, so it is the most august of all things but also the most fearful." --Tachibana Moribe, Itsu no chiwake (Burns 2003:176)

"Kami refers to things we cannot see or sense. ... All one can do is avoid the places and acts that may attract it or invite it." --Tachibana Moribe, Taimon zakki (Burns 2003:180-181)


"A Wikipedia where this sort of historical overview is likely to get deleted... a shameful Wikipedia." --Me

20th century Japanese writers

"Although the word kami continues to be used in the national cult, it has in no way the meaning of a supernatural being, which you give to it. It connotes only illustrious men, benefactors of their country. Consequently all Japanese, no matter what their religion, can pay them honour without doing violence to their conscience." [6]

How to translate it today?

Translating kami as "god" is





In Japanese, God can be translated as 主 (lord), 天 (Heaven), 神様 (Lord Kami) and so forth. When you translate 神 into God this specificity is lost. Additionally, a "kami" that may have been nothing more than the purest person in the area takes on implicit attributes of supernaturalness, omniscience, omnipotence, and so forth.

I recommend the following programme:

  1. Leave "kami" as "kami" when your viewers are familiar with the word: e.g., doujinshi and fansub translations.
  2. Translate "kami" as "hero" when referring to the figures of the Kojiki (e.g. in Hotsuma Tsutae).
  3. Translate "kami" as "spirit" when referring to modern incarnations or appearances.

Further reading


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