The etymology of kami

Timothy J. Vance
1983 Japanese Journal of Religious Studies  
T im othy J. VANCE M A N Y autho rs w r itin g in English on Japanese re lig io n or c u ltu re have a tte m p te d to explain the m eaning of the w ord ka m i 神 to readers in some d e ta il. The obvious reason fo r th is is th a t E nglish tra n s la tio n s such as "g od" or "d e ity " are lik e ly to be m isleading unless supplem ented by some such e xp la n a tio n . In the past it was not unusual fo r such explana tions to in clu d e in fo rm a tio n about the etym ology o f the w ord in
more » ... o f the w ord in the hope th a t th is w ould help readers understand how it came to have the meaning i t has. In the la s t few decades, how ever, e ty m o lo g ic a l explana tions have become in creasingly hard to fin d . This paper w ill ske tch the reason fo r aban doning the most popular e ty m o lo g ic a l e x p la n a tio n and tra c e the p e c u lia r path by w hich th is know ledge found its way in to W estern scholarship. As D. C . H oltom (1940) has pointed o u t, by fa r the most w id e ly a ccepted etym oloav fo r "k a m i" was th a t it derived fro m the w ord kam i 上 ,m eaning "a bo ve." C onsider the fo l lo w in g exam ple, from a p ostw ar book on Japanese re lig io n : K am i is a w ord w ith such a v a rie ty o f meanings th a t no a c c u ra te d e fin itio n o f it can be given. The lite r a l tra n s la tio n o f the c h a ra c te r by w hich it is represented is "a b o ve ," and i t is g e n erally used to im ply s u p e rio rity (Bunce 1955, pp. 99-100). The w r ite r here has confused the issue by suggesting th a t the c h a ra c te r 上 , w h ich means "a b o v e ," is used to w rite the w ord kami meaning "g o d ," but in any event it is reason I w ould lik e to th a nk my good frie n d Ito H iro ko o f Sagami 3oshi Daigaku fo r th e tim e and tro u b le she to o k to lo c a te a copy of Y am am oto's book fo r me. T his paper could not have been w r it te n w ith o u t her generous help. I w ould lik e to also no te th a t tra n s la tio n s from Japanese sources in th is paper are a ll my own w o rk .
doi:10.18874/jjrs.10.4.1983.277-288 fatcat:sqsqibdfefhghmmzzplzy3c4ta