Shinigami (死神, "god of death" or "death spirit") are gods or supernatural spirits that invite humans toward death, and can be seen to be present or interpreted to be present in certain aspects of Japanese religion and culture.

Japanese religion

Miyazu, Kyoto Prefecture. Statue of a Yama (Enma) at Nariai-ji.

In Buddhism, there is the Mara that is concerned with death, the Mrtyu-mara.[1] It is a demon that makes humans want to die, and it is said that upon being possessed by it, in a shock, one should suddenly want to commit suicide, so it is sometimes explained to be a "shinigami".[2] Also, in the Yogacarabhumi-sastra, a writing on Yogacara, it was a demon that decided the time of people's deaths.[3] The Yama, the king of the Underworld, as well as oni like the Ox-Head and Horse-Face are also considered a type of shinigami.[4]

"Depiction of Searching in the Blue Sea by Amanonu (天瓊を以て滄海を探るの図)" by Eitaku Kobayashi. Izanami is to the left.

In Shinto and Japanese mythology, Izanami gave humans death, so Izanami is sometimes seen as a shinigami.[4][5]

However, Izanami and Yama are also thought to be different from the death gods in western mythology.[3][6] Some forms of Buddhism do not involve believing in any deities, so it is sometimes thought that the concept of a death god does not exist to begin with.[3] Even though the kijin and onryō of Japanese Buddhist faith have taken humans' lives, there is the opinion that there is no "death god" that merely leads people into the world of the dead.[6]

Ningyō jōruri

Generally the word "shinigami" does not appear to be used in Japanese classical literature, and there are not many writings about them,[7] but going into the Edo period, the word "shinigami" can be seen in Chikamatsu Monzaemon's works of ningyō jōruri and classical literature that had themes on double suicides.

In Hōei 3 (1706), in a performance of the "Shinchuu Nimai Soushi," concerning men and women who were invited towards death, it was written "the road the god of death leads towards,"[8] and in Hōei 6 (1709), in "Shinchuuha ha Koori no Sakujitsu," a woman who was about to commit double suicide with a man said, "the fleetingness of a life lured by a god of death."[9] It never became clear whether the man and woman came to commit double suicide due to the existence of a shinigami, or if a shinigami was given as an example for their situation of double suicide,[4] and there are also interpretations that the word "shinigami" is an expression for the fleetingness of life.[10]

Other than that, in Kyōhō 5 (1720), in a performance of The Love Suicides at Amijima, there was the expression, "of one possessed by a god of death." Since the character was seller of paper, the character who confronted death wrote "paper" (紙, kami) as "god" (神, kami),[11][12] but there are also interpretations that Chikamatsu himself didn't think about the existence of a shinigami.[4]

Classical literature

"Shinigami" from the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari. By Shunsensai Takehara.

In the classical literature of the Edo period, shinigami that would possess humans are mentioned. In the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari from Tenpō 12 (1841), there was a story titled "Shinigami," but in this one, the shinigami was the spirit of a deceased one and had bad intent, and acting in jointly with the malicious intent already within people who were living, those people were led on bad paths, which caused repeat incidents to occur at places where there was previously a murder incident, for example by causing the same suicide at places where people have hanged themselves before,[13] and thus these shinigami are somewhat like a possession that would cause people to want to die.[7][14] Close to this, according to the essay of the Bakumatsu period titled "Hanko no Uragaki," there were the itsuki and that made people want to commit suicide through hanging, as well as things told through folk religion such as gaki-tsuki and shichinin misaki.[3]

In the later Edo Period, the essay "Shōzan Chomon Kishū" in Kaei 3 (1850) by the essayist Miyoshi Shōzan, the one titled "upon possession by a shinigami, it becomes difficult to speak, or easier to tell lies" was a story where a prostitute possessed by a shinigami invites a man to commit double suicide,[15][16] and in the kabuki Mekuranagaya Umega Kagatobi by Kawatake Mokuami in Meiji 19 (1886), a shinigami enters into people's thoughts, making them think about bad things they have done and want to die.[17] These are, rather than gods, more like yūki (meaning ghosts and yūrei[18]), or evil spirits.[4]

In the San-yūtei Enchō of classical rakugo, there was a programme titled "Shinigami," but this was something that was not thought of independently in Japan, but rather from adaptions of the Italian opera the Crispino e la comare[19] and the Grimm Fairy Tale "Godfather Death."[20]

Folk religion

Shinigami are also spoken about in folk religion after the war. According to the mores of Miyajima, Kumamoto Prefecture, those who go out and return to attend to someone through the night must drink tea or eat a bowl of rice before sleeping, and it is said that a shinigami would visit if this was ignored.[21]

In the Hamamatsu area, Shizuoka Prefecture, a shinigami would possess people and lead them to mountains, seas, and railroads where people have died. In those places, the dead would have a "death turn" (shiniban), and as long as there is nobody to die there next, they shall never ascend even if they were given a service, and it was said that people who were alive would be invited by the dead to come next.[15] Also, it is ordinary to visit graves for the sake of Higan during noon or when the sun sets, but in the Okayama Prefecture, but visiting the grave for Higan during sunrise would result in being possessed by a shinigami. Also, once one has visited the grave in sunset, it would be necessary to visit the grave also during sunrise, and doing only one would result in being possessed by a shinigami.[15] With this background of folk belief, it is also thought that sometimes people would consider the bourei of the deceased, who have nobody to deify them, to be seeking companions and inviting people to join them.[15]

Modern popular culture

After the war, the western notion of a death god entered Japan, and shinigami started to become mentioned as an existence with a human nature,[3] and is a subject in many works of fiction. As the first, in the Shōwa period, it is known that shinigami appears in the manga work GeGeGe no Kitarou by Shigeru Mizuki, and in the 1979 television drama, "Nippon Meisaku Kaidan Gekijou," the kabuki actor Ganjirō Nakamura performed as a shinigami.[14] In the Heisei period and afterwards, in works of tokusatsu, manga, anime, and novels such as Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, Digimon, Pokemon, Death Note, Shaman King, Full Moon o Sagashite, Bleach, Yami no Matsuei, Black Butler, YuYu Hakusho, Inukami!, Ballad of a Shinigami, Kyōkai no Rinne and Soul Eater, they are also sometimes the theme of the work itself,[22] and they also frequently appear in games such as Shin Megami Tensei, and the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series.[22] Komachi Onozuka is a shinigami appearing in Touhou. In the anime & manga Naruto & Naruto Shippuden a jutsu is named The Dead Demon Consuming Seal, which calls the shinigami to seal away the souls of both the caster and the one intended to be sealed. It also features in the 2014 movie Flight 7500. In the fourth season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a new recurring character with dark magical abilities is named Shinigami.

See also


  1. 中村元 (2001). 広説佛教語大辞典. 中巻. 東京書籍. p. 720. ISBN 978-4-487-73177-0.
  2. 大栗道栄 (1997). 図説「理趣経」入門 密教の核心. 鈴木出版. p. 101. ISBN 978-4-7902-1074-0.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 多田 1997, pp. 127–128
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 七会 2009, pp. 168–193
  5. 河野信子編 (1995). 女と男の時空. 1. 藤原書店. p. 115. ISBN 978-4-89434-022-0.
  6. 1 2 木村 2007, p. 141
  7. 1 2 村上 2005, pp. 166–167
  8. 鳥越他訳 1998, p. 76.
  9. 鳥越他訳 1998, p. 266.
  10. スズキトモユ (2005-07-04). "日刊! ニュースな本棚". エキサイト. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
  11. 鳥越他訳 1998, p. 424.
  12. "近松の世話浄瑠璃". 文化デジタルライブラリー. 日本芸術文化振興会. 2010. Retrieved 2012-09-22. External link in |work= (help)
  13. 桃山人 (2006). 桃山人夜話 絵本百物語. 角川ソフィア文庫. 角川書店. p. 131. ISBN 978-4-04-383001-5.
  14. 1 2 村上 2000, p. 69
  15. 1 2 3 4 大藤他 1986, p. 100
  16. 三好想山 (1970). "想山著聞奇集". In 谷川健一 他編. 日本庶民生活史料集成. 第16巻. 三一書房. pp. 81–83. NCID BN02048386.
  17. 河竹黙阿弥 (1970). 河竹黙阿弥集. 名作歌舞伎全集. 第12巻. 戸板康二 他監修. 東京創元新社. p. 218. ISBN 978-4-488-02512-0.
  18. 松村明 編 (2006). 大辞林 (第3版 ed.). 三省堂. p. 2579. ISBN 978-4-385-13905-0.
  19. 永井啓夫 (2011). 三遊亭円朝. 青蛙選書 (新装版 ed.). 青蛙房. pp. 271–272. ISBN 978-4-7905-0875-5.
  20. 北村正裕 (2000-8). "死神のメルヘン グリム童話と日本の落語". 駿台フォーラム. 駿台予備学校 (第18号): 54–68. NCID AN10084875. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  21. 八木三二 (1933-7). "熊本県宮地町地方". 旅と伝説. 三元社 (第6年7月号): 178. NCID AN00139777. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  22. 1 2 七会 2009, p. 3


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