No matter where we live or which century we live in, death is a constant that comes for all that is living, one day or the other. Since death is inescapable, every culture around the world has its mythologies or tales regarding death. The Grim Reaper, Anubis, Yamaraja, Shinigami are all personifications of death across various regions of the world. We all know about the existence of the Grim Reaper because of its popularisation in the western world, but what about the Shinigami? Have you ever heard about a Shinigami?
What is a Shinigami?
The word Shinigami translates to “death god”. It comes from two Japanese words; “shi” and “kami”. “Shi” is the Japanese word for death, while “kami” is the word used for gods and spirits. Japanese folklore presents Shinigami to be a less terrifying version of the western Grim Reaper, the “harvester of souls”. The Shinigami is not supposed to be frightening but a sign that the candle of your life has reached its end. The duty of the Shinigami is to ensure that the natural cycle of life and death remains intact. The Shinigami merely makes sure that people die when they are supposed to and escort their souls to the afterlife.
Origin of the Shinigami
The Shinigami is a latecomer in Japanese mythology. Most of the “kami” or gods in Japanese Shintoism date back thousands of years but, the Shinigami has not been present in ancient and classical Japanese writings. The earliest mention of Shinigami or even the “death spirit/god” takes place in the texts of the late Edo period, around the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most scholars conclude that the addition of the Shinigami is due to the West, as it was around this time that Christianity interacted with traditional Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs. The similarity between the Shinigami and the Grim Reaper shows how Christianity started entering the country.
Because of its late addition, the Shinigami holds an ambiguous place in Japanese writings. Some stories portray the shinigami as almost “evil spirits” who trick people into their deaths through temptation, similar to the western stories about the crossroads demons. Some stories also portray the Shinigami to be the one who whispers into the ears of a human and tempts them into committing suicide.
However, recent stories paint the Shinigami as the god of death who makes cosmic decisions regarding the life and death of a human in the realm of the dead.
Japanese God of Death
Before the Shinigami entered Japanese mythology as a “kami”, Shintoism, Buddhism, and Taoism had a few gods of death. Izanami, the Shinto goddess of Creation and Death, is one of those examples. Izanagi and Izanami are the two original deities in Japanese mythology who were responsible for creating and populating the world. When Izanami died during childbirth, she was sent to the Shinto Underworld, Yomi.
A grief-stricken Izanagi lamented her death and journeyed down to Yomi. At first, he couldn’t see her, but when he did, he was horrified that the once beautiful Izanami was now just decaying flesh filled with maggots. Unable to control his horror, he tried to flee towards the land of the living, leaving behind death and decay.
Izanami, enraged by his actions, chased after him but he had escaped and pushed a boulder at the mouth of the Yomotsuhirasaka. Izanami, who had now turned into the kami of death, screamed from behind the barricade and vowed to kill thousands of people a day and give birth to misshapen and evil kami and yokai (spirits) of death. Izanagi later performed a purification and cleansing ritual called “harai” after seeing the decaying body of his wife.
Izanami was never considered a Shinigami but was later given the title of the first Shinto Shinigami during the late Edo period, when the Shinigami was also introduced.
“Yama”, the Shinto kami of the Underworld Yomi, Shinto yokai spirits “Oni”, the Japanese Buddhist king of death “Mara”, Horse face and Ox-head, demons of death in Taoism are now all considered as Shinigami after the Edo period.
Shinigami in Popular Culture
Japanese anime and manga popularised the Shinigami multiple times. Today, most individuals who are aware of the term Shinigami have most likely heard it from popular shows and books.
One of the most famous manga and anime that utilises the tale of the Shinigami is the “Death Note”. The Shinigami is shown to be grotesque in its features but impartial in the matters of death. The story begins because of a Shinigami who loses his Death Note, a book where all the names that are written will eventually die.
Naruto, one of the most popular anime and manga, also features the Shinigami. The Shinigami is shown to be a spectral entity summoned through the usage of a certain Uzumaki clan fūinjutsu.
References of Shinigami have also appeared in shows such as Black Butler, Bleach, Soul Eater and much more.
Most of Japan is secular and the tale of the Shinigami remains just as a piece of mythology that teaches us to view death as a part of life instead of something that is to be feared.