Shinigami: The Grim Reaper and God of Death in Japanese Folklore
Shinigami are Japanese death gods or death spirits. They are akin to the Grim Reaper in many ways, however these supernatural beings may be somewhat less frightening and they arrived later on the folklore scene. Shinigami have also transformed their unique role in Japanese culture over the centuries.
Shinigami did not exist in traditional Japanese folklore and only came into being later on. “Shinigami” is a composite of the Japanese words “shi”, meaning death, and “kami”, which stands for god or spirit.
Shinigami as a Grim Reaper for Japan
Although Japanese myth has long been filled with different types of kami as spirits of nature, Shinigami only entered Japanese folklore around the 18th or 19th century. Shinigami isn’t even a word in classical Japanese literature; the first known instances of the term appear in the Edo Period, when it was used in a type of Japanese puppet theater and literature with a connection to evil spirits of the dead, spirits possessing the living, and double suicides.
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It was around that time when ideas from the West, in particular Christian ideas, began to interact and mix with the traditional Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs. Shinto and Japanese mythology already had a goddess of death named Izanami, for example. And Buddhism had a demon called Mrtyu-mara who incited people to death as well. But once Eastern culture met Western culture and the notion of a Grim Reaper, a whole new death god appeared - the Shinigami.
While the Shinigami are similar to the Grim Reaper, they are not entirely alike, and a few important differences exist between the two.
Illustration of the Grim Reaper. (Image source)
To start, in Western belief, the Grim Reaper is regarded as a terrifying being and is 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 escort their souls into the afterlife. They could even be said to be less frightening than the Grim Reaper because they politely invite people into death instead of creeping up on them and dragging them to the afterlife, or using a more aggressive means to reap them.
Additionally, whilst the Grim Reaper is depicted as singular and is traditionally depicted as a skeleton garbed in a black cloak and bearing a scythe, it is believed that there are many Shinigami of unknown appearances which usually work in pairs.
"Shinigami" from the Ehon Hyaku Monogatari. By Shunsensai Takehara. (Public Domain)
A Shinigami Story
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.
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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. (CC BY 4.0)
The Shinigami is obviously unhappy with what he did, and when the man reaches home, it 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.
Shinigami in Pop Culture
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. In each of these anime or manga, the Shinigami are often given roles that are quite different from their traditional ones. Apart from their association with death, these modern Shinigami do not have much in common with their more traditional counterparts.
Top image: Picture of a Shinigami by Liger-Inuzuka. Source: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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