Picture of a Shinigami

Shinigami: The Grim Reaper of Japanese Folklore

The Shinigami (translated as death god or death spirit ) are supernatural figures found in Japanese folklore. The Shinigami are spirits related to death, and it may be said that the western counterpart of the Shinigami is the Grim Reaper, though, as we shall see, there are some distinct differences between the two. Additionally, the Shinigami did not exist in traditional Japanese folklore, and only came into being later on when the country came into contact with western cultures. Nevertheless, these spirits have gained a considerable amount of popularity over the centuries, as may be attested in their presence in Japanese pop culture today.

Grim Reaper

The Shinigami are said to have entered Japanese folklore around the 18 th or 19 th century. During this period of time, ideas from the West, in particular Christian ideas, interacted with the traditional Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. One of the results of this interaction was the creation of the Shinigami. Whilst the Shinigami are similar to the Grim Reaper, they are not entirely alike, and a few important differences between the two may be seen.

Illustration of the Grim Reaper.

Illustration of the Grim Reaper. ( Image source )

For a start, in western belief, the Grim Reaper is regarded as a terrifying being, and as the personification of Death itself. In Japanese folklore, on the other hand, death is seen less as an individual, and more as a part of the natural cycle of life. Thus, the Shinigami are regarded as agents who facilitate the smooth running of this cycle.

Unlike the Grim Reaper, who may be described as a ‘harvester of souls’, the Shinigami merely ensure that people die at the appointed time, and then escorted their souls into the afterlife. Additionally, whilst the Grim Reaper is depicted as singular, it is believed that there are many Shinigami, and that they usually work in pairs.

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

"Shinigami" from the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari. By Shunsensai Takehara. ( Public Domain )

Stories of the Shinigami

In one traditional tale, a man who is fed up with his life prepares to commit suicide. Before he could do so, however, he is visited by a Shinigami, who tells him that his time has not yet come. The Shinigami also explains that each life is measured on a candle, and once the flame burns out, the person dies (This shows that the Shinigami have no control over who lives and dies). To stop the man from committing suicide, the Shinigami tells him an easy way to make money.

The man is told that he could pretend to be a doctor who could cure any form of disease. By speaking some magic words, a Shinigami can be forced back into the Underworld, thus lengthening a person’s life. The man is also informed that this would only work if the Shinigami is sitting at the foot of the bed. If the Shinigami is sitting at the head of the bed, however, it means that the sick person must die. Using this new found knowledge, the man grew very rich.

One day, the man is called to a house to cure someone. When he enters, he sees that the Shinigami is sitting on the head of patient’s bed, indicating that death was certain. The family pleaded and begged, and offered him a large amount of money. Consumed by greed, the man decides to take a risk, and when the Shinigami dozes off, he quickly switches the orientation of the patient’s bed, thus saving his / her life.  

Patient's death-bed.

Patient's death-bed. ( CC BY 4.0 )

The Shinigami is obviously unhappy with what he did, and when the man reaches home, criticizes him for his disobedience. The Shinigami then changes his tone, and suggest that they go out for a drink to celebrate his earnings. The man falls for the trick, and the Shinigami brings him to a building that is filled with candles. The Shinigami then shows the man his candle, which is nearly burnt out as a result of what he had just done. The man is then offered a chance to extend his life by transferring the wick and wax of his candle to another’s. The man fails in this attempt, as he drops his candle and dies.

The Shinigami Today

The Shinigami have kept up with the times, and have often been featured in modern Japanese anime and manga. These include Death Note , Bleach, Naruto, and Soul Eater . It may be mentioned that in each of these anime / manga, the Shinigami are often given roles that are quite different from their traditional ones. Apart from their association with death, it may be said that these modern Shinigami do not have much in common with their traditional counterparts.

Top image: Picture of a Shinigami by Liger-Inuzuka. Photo source: ( CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 )

By Wu Mingren


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