Compare and Contrast Kami and Shen, the Japanese and Chinese Words for God

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Compare and Contrast Kami and Shen, the Japanese and Chinese Words for God

The words kami in Japanese and shen in Chinese both are translated into English as the word god. Although they both refer to somewhat similar supernatural elements, they are by no means identical to each other. Chinese shen is an abstract term referring to spirits and relating to abstract thoughts such as the heavens and the afterlife. In contrast, kami are very often related directly to a person or actual object and are worshiped in a hope for more day-to-day help or this worldly benefits. In order to help explain the relationship between kami and shen, I will first explore the similarities between the two terms, then discuss the unique characteristics which define both shen and kami.

Motori Norinaga, an eighteenth century Japanese intellectual, said that the meanings of shen and kami "coincide seventy or eight per cent of cases… Ever since ancient times, their meanings have both been expressed in a single character… with no difference being paid to the difference between the two" (qtd. in Xiaolin 1). When the Japanese first borrowed the Chinese writing system to use as their own, they used the Chinese character for shen to express both kami and shin (another Japanese word for spirits, more closely associated with shen.) In all of the Chinese texts that the Japanese imported, shen was translated as either kami or shin, using kami when the spirit was well defined and shin when it was more of an abstract thought. It was not until the Japanese later differentiated their writing from Chinese that the characters for shen and kami became different. The non-differentiation between the two words helps to show their close similarity to each other.


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Tanabe, George J. Jr. "Introduction: Japan." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 591-612.

Teeuwen, Mark. "Motoori Norinaga on the Two Shrines at Ise." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 678-693.

Teiser, Stephen F. "Introduction: Chinese Religion." Religions of Asia in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. 295-329.

Xiaolin, Wang. "Cultural Differentiation: On shen and Xin in Chinese and Japanese." Trans. Robert Neather. City Univ. of Hong Kong. 17 Apr. 2003. <>.

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