- Pronunciation: shin-ee-ga-me
- Origin: Japan
- Race: Minor god or spirit
- Powers: Ushers the dying into the afterlife
There has not been a single culture in the history of humankind that has not spent a significant amount of time thinking about death. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we also attribute the mysterious process of death to supernatural forces. In Western culture we have angels of death and the Grim Reaper: beings that usher souls from the mortal coil into the afterlife. In Japan they have the Shinigami, but as with so much in Japan, there are many unique twists to the stories of these creatures.
Who Are the Shinigami?
The word “Shinigami” is made from two other Japanese words: “shi” and “kami”. These literally mean “death” and “god”.
In Japanese mythology, the world is filled with kami of various sorts. Everything in the world has a spirit that governs it. There are kami of the sky, kami of the rivers, kami of luck and, of course, kami of death. These are the Shinigami.
The death spirit’s job is to invite mortal humans to death, which sounds much more polite than having your soul reaped by a tall skeleton in a robe. However, just which kami are true Shinigami is not always clear.
For example, Izanami is sometimes referred to as the first Shinigami because she introduced death to the world. Likewise, Yama the god of the underworld is also thought of as a Shinigami, but it’s not entirely clear whether these two truly are death spirits or not.
What do the Shinigami look like? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, since death spirits are invisible to everyone except a rare few who have some sort of connection to death or who are close to dying themselves.
On top of this, it seems that even when Shinigami are seen, they never have the same look or shape. This means you won’t necessarily recognize one if you should see it.
Very little is known about the parentage of the death spirits. Presumably they must share the same mother and father as all kami. Specifically, they must originate from Izanami and Izanagi. However, for reasons that will be explained below, they are never mentioned in the original creation tales and so we are left with nothing more than educated guesses.
Origin and History
Although Shinigami are kami like any other in Shinto religious lore, they are actually a relatively modern invention. It was not until Japan came into contact with the West that the idea of a death god or spirit such as the Shinigami really entered the collective imagination. It may very well be that the Western folk tales of a Grim Reaper served as the original inspiration for these Japanese death spirits.
When exactly did this idea of death spirits come about? Well, no one is really sure, but it seems like it may have been as recently as the 18th or 19th century.
Before the idea of death kami came to Japan, traditional beliefs did not necessarily see death as a bad thing, but as a normal part of the cycle of existence. Death spirits are therefore no scarier than garbage collectors or other public servants in a way.
According to legend, death spirits work in pairs and appear when it is a person’s pre-ordained time to die, at which point they invite him or her over the threshold between life and death.
We know this fact about these death spirits from an old traditional tale. A man who is about to commit suicide comes face to face with a Shinigami who reveals itself. The death spirit tells the man that it is not his time to die, because lives are measured as candles that burn down. Since his has not burnt down yet, he should live on. The Shinigami then tells him a secret that can help him make money. He reveals to the man magic words that will send a death spirit away. Pretending to be a doctor, the man visits the deathbeds of patients and uses the magic words to banish the death spirits.
However, he may only do this if the death spirit is sitting at the foot of the bed. If it sits at the head, it means the person’s candle is burned up and must die.
This little trick allows the man to become extremely rich, but eventually it all goes wrong. One day, the Shinigami is sitting at the head of the bed. The family of the dying patient offer the fake doctor an obscene amount of money to save their loved one, and he tries to trick the death spirit by turning the bed round.
When he tries to banish the Shinigami, however, he instead burns up the rest of his own candle and dies.
In Modern Times
Many Japanese people who belong to the Shinto religion still very much believe in Shinigami, as they do in other kami.
Of course, modern Japan is a very secular nation so most people do not literally believe in the existence of Shinigami. That being said, the Japanese love to honor their traditions, so Shinigami are still very much a part of Japanese culture, just as the Grim Reaper is in the Western world.
Shinigami have appeared in several very popular television series from Japan. Two notable titles are Death Note and Bleach.
In Death Note, the Shinigami are grotesque creatures that write the names of mortals who are to die in a notebook. One of these “death notes” falls to earth and into the hands of a human, who tries to rule the world with it.
In Bleach, the Shinigami are actually a society of Japanese Samurai whose job it is to keep law and order in the afterlife. They usher souls to the beyond and keep lost and unruly souls in check.
Stories about Shinigami have been popular throughout history, and it seems likely to remain that way.