In English we translate kami as God, but I learned the limitations of translation during my two years as a Mormon missionary in Japan. As Christians, we were explaining a religion where the word God refers to a singular entity. The problem was there was no Japanese word for the concept of a monotheistic God.
(I sometimes wonder if all fundamentalists are monolingual. To think the English Bible is the exact word of God is to fundamentally miss the nature of language, as so much is lost, muddled, or misdirected as we move between translations.)
In Japanese, kami means “that which is beyond man’s understanding.” It is the transcendent, the sublime, the thing that is more. If the Japanese call the Emperor a God, they say the Emperor is kami. He is not a God in the Western sense, but his power, his majesty, and the unbroken reign of his Imperial household over thousands of years is seen as being of “divine” origin. We have a somewhat similar concept in the West when we say the divine right of Kings.
In a culture rising from animistic Shintoism, kami can be anywhere. Mount Fuji, rising so dramatically from the sea and recognizably symmetrical on every side, is kami. The beautifully twisted pine that leans out majestically over the the craggy seaside cliff is kami. The standing stones in your family’s forest may be kami. One way to recognize kami in Japanese pictures is the white banners strung from the tree or stones. White is the color of the divine and sacred, and those garlands indicate the sanctity of that natural beauty.
Strangely, Americans best know the concept of kami from war, as it is used in the compound word kamikaze. In 1281 Kublai Khan launched an invasion fleet against Japan of 4,400 ships and over 140,000 men. This massive attack threatened to conquer island Japan for the first time in its entire history, assimilating it into a Mongol empire that stretched from China to the borders of Poland. It seemed the Mongol invasion was inevitable given the size of their fleet and their power of their armies, but just as the Mongol fleet got within sight of the Japanese coast a typhoon arose, completely destroying the Mongols and saving Japan. The word is kami, meaning divine + kaze, meaning wind.
The only other time Japan was truly threatened with invasion was from the Americans in World War II. In an attempt to stop the American fleets, kamikaze suicide pilots were seen as a last ditch hope to stop the American threat, like the divine wind that stopped the Mongols. Fortunately for all of us, this second kamikaze was not as successful as the first.
My life is full of feelings, experiences, realizations and realities that leave me in awe at the wonders of life and the universe. I like this word kami, and I wish we had an equivalent in our American vocabulary. Sometimes we need a clear way to respectfully say that it is something so beautiful or profound or transcendent that it is beyond human understanding.
(Japan photo by Preston. WWII photo from the US Navy: the USS Enterprise after being hit by a kamikaze pilot in May of 1945.)