Noragami: A Crash Course in Shintoism

This post is an adaptation of my panel “Noragami: A Crash Course in Shintoism” which covers the aspects of Shinto seen in the anime Noragami.

This post is only going to be covering Noragami’s anime adaptations. I won’t be covering the manga or discussing major spoilers (like Yato’s identity). I don’t think reading this will ruin the series for anyone who hasn’t seen it but just to be safe…

Spoiler Warning for Noragami, Noragami Aragoto and various Japanese myths!

What is Shinto?

A basic rundown.

Shinto is Japan’s native religion. It’s the amalgamation of local folk religions that eventually came to share uniform practices over time. Archaeological evidence of Shinto dates back as far as 300 B.C.E. The religion has no known founder and no single text as it’s basis. This means there is no equivalent to Jesus or the Bible in Shinto.

However, there are texts about Shinto that are used as references to Shinto’s mythology and practices. The oldest surviving being the Kojiki from 712 C.E. and the Nihon Shoki from 720 C.E. These texts are not scriptures, but record books about history and important people of the time. They recount myths (as history) and describe Shinto practices.

One reason Shinto is a particularly unique religion is because it has remained contained within Japan. Many neighboring religions have traveled to Japan and influenced Shinto including Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and most notably, Buddhism. In fact many Shinto gods are borrowed from Buddhism. Yet, Shinto has never really spread outside of Japan.

Almost everyone in Japan takes part in Shinto rituals. Even if a person is not religious they likely still visit shrines (in particular on New Year’s) and take part in Shinto festivals. (Almost everyone in Japan also takes part in Buddhist rituals but due to the scope of this post I won’t be covering Buddhism.)

So Shinto is easier to think of as a set of nationwide traditions rather than a religion in the western sense, as it lacks monotheistic worship as well as a system of specific morals.

It’s also important to note State Shinto. From the Meiji Era to WWII, Shinto became Japan’s official religion and at this time many practices, such as how to pray at shrines, became standardized across the country. State Shinto was used to rally nationalism and even after its fall, Shinto is still somewhat associated with Japan’s right wing politics.

Kami

(Gods/Spirits)

A very important part of Shinto is kami. According to the Kojiki a kami is “any being whatsoever that possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary and is awe-inspiring”.

Kami are gods or spirits that usually rule over local geographic formations (like mountains or rivers). They can also take the form of ancestral ghosts. But effectively anything can have a kami. The chair I’m sitting in can have a kami. The computer I’m typing on can have a kami. The anime conventions I’ve presented this at can have their own kami. And so kami can add up after a while and this is why the Shinto gods collectively are refereed to as “Yaoyorozu no Kami” or the eight million gods, which is meant to imply that are an infinite amount of gods.

And with so many gods it is no wonder that some are forgotten. This is what brings us to the premise of Noragami, which means stray god.

But despite Shinto having so many gods, it does have a primary mythology and primary gods.

Shinto Gods

and their myths

Izanagi and Izanami

Izanagi (male) and Izanami (female) were given a jeweled spear with which they stirred the ocean with. When the spear was pulled out of the water and the drops off the tip splashed in the water, the main island of Japan was created. The two then went to the island, got married and had lots of children. Izanami would give birth to many gods as well as the other islands of Japan.

This is essentially Japan’s creation myth. This myth was taught as history until WWII.

The myth continues on to describe Izanami eventually giving birth to the fire god, Kagutsuchi. She suffered horrible burns during childbirth and died from the injuries. She then went to reside in a place called Yomi. Yomi is underground, it’s dark and lots of monsters live there. Izanagi misses his wife and decides to get her back from Yomi. He goes and finds her in the dark depths but she says she can’t leave because she’s already eaten the food of Yomi. (Those are the rules, if you eat the food then you can’t leave.) Izanami says she’ll talk to who’s in charge and see if she can work something out, but on the one condition that Izanagi will not look at her. So what does Izanagi do? He lights a fire, and looks to see that his wife is a rotting corpse. And so he high tails it out of there. Izanami gives chase after him, but he beats her to the entrance of Yomi and seals it with a giant boulder. Furious, Izanami proclaims from behind the boulder that because of Izanagi’s actions she will kill 1,000 people a day. Izanagi retorts that he will have 1,500 people born a day.

This myth is meant to explain the cycle of life and death, but it also establishes that Kami are not perfect, glorious, ethereal beings. They are instead very human-like. They have emotions and react to things the way humans do. They can also be injured and even die.

Yomi, or at least its entrance is a real place in Japan that you can visit a see the boulder that Izanagi supposedly placed.

In Noragami, the characters visit Yomi and the real life location was used as reference for the version in the anime.

The characters also get to meet Izanami while in Yomi. She is very lonely and wants her guests to eat the food she offers them so that they will be stuck down there the way she is.

She also commands an army of shikome (hags of the underworld). In some versions of the myth she sent shikome to chase after Izanagi (but he still outran them).

Noragami’s Izanami also has long black hair that moves around and tries to grab things. This is not an ability associated with Izanami herself, but supernatural hair is closely affiliated with female ghosts in Japan. So Izanami’s hair has special abilities, effectively because she is a dead woman.

Amateratsu and the Cave

After leaving Yomi, Izanagi had to cleanse himself. During his ablution, when he cleansed his left eye, Amateratsu the sun goddess was born. When he cleansed his right, Tsukiyomi the moon god was born. And when he cleansed his nose, Susanoo the storm god was born.

Amateratsu and Susanoo had an intense sibling rivalry. And when Susanoo would throw fits, being a storm god, things would get messy. So after Susanoo had finished throwing one of his fits and messed up a bunch of Amateratsu’s stuff, she had had it. She decided to go into a cave, take the sun with her and that she wasn’t coming back out, thus leaving the world in darkness. The other gods realized that having a world with no sun wasn’t great, so they devised a plan to lure Amateratsu out of the cave. They threw a loud party and made it sound like they were having a lot of fun. Amateratsu heard the noise and got curious. When she peaked out of the cave to see what all the commotion was about, a mirror was placed in front of her face. Amateratsu, being a beautiful sun goddess, was entranced by her own beauty and was lured out of the cave using her own reflection. The other gods then sealed the cave so she couldn’t go back in and thus ensuring sunlight to the world.

Amateratsu would go on to become the highest ranking deity in Shinto. Her shrines are some of the largest and best maintained in Japan. And when she says someone is going to be emperor, that person becomes emperor. She was believed to be the ultimate ancestress of the Imperial line until Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity in 1946.

Amateratsu herself is not portrayed in Noragami, but the place she resides is. Takamagahara, is the realm of the gods. It is up in the sky and is connected to earth by a bridge (which some interpret to be a rainbow). Takamagahara is where the gods live and gather for meetings.

In the anime, Takamagahara is the location of Bishomon’s giant estate as well as Yato’s tiny piece of land.

Takamagahara is usually portrayed as a place with golden clouds and traditional Japanese architecture. Noragami’s version carries on these motifs in its own capacity.

The Three Talismans of Sovereignty

After Amateratsu choose the first emperor of Japan, he was given three talismans by the gods in order to prove his sovereignty over the land: the sacred mirror used to lure Amateratsu out of the cave, a magic sword Susanoo found after slaying a giant serpent, and a fertility jewel called magatama that Susanoo used in a baby making contest against Amateratsu. (Remember, it was an intense sibling rivalry.)

The real life items are referred to as the Imperial Regalia.

Above is not a picture of the Imperial Regalia. Above is an artist’s rendition of what they might look like. There are no photos of these items. There are no drawings of these items. The only people allowed to see them are the emperor and his top ranked Shinto priests. So many artists have created their own version of what they think they look like. The most popular hands down being the version from Sailor Moon.

But as for Noragami, regalia are the dead souls of humans that have the ability to turn into a tool (usually a weapon) for a God’s use. The word for regalia in the Japanese version of the anime is “shinki” which is a word that can mean treasure, a newly crafted item, or it can be used to refer to the Imperial Regalia. So regalia in Noragami is basically a pun off the idea of items that are important to the gods but also give dead souls a newly crafted life.

Many of the Shinto gods wield regalia in Noragami.

Ebisu

Ebisu is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. He is the only one derived from Japanese mythology. The rest are derived from Buddhism and Hinduism.

Originally named Hiruko, he was first child of Izanami and Izanagi but was born without bones so he was cast away. He grew his bones back (as one does) and became the kami of fishermen and merchants and was renamed Ebisu. Noragami’s version of Ebisu doesn’t share many visual traits with traditional portrayals, but his personality matches. He is clumsy, honest and difficult to anger. His regalia are his coat and gloves and they help him with his mobility because of the whole not having bones thing.

Bishamonten

Bishamonten (or in Noragami, Bishamon for short) is another one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. He is the kami of warriors and is derived from Vaisravana, one of Buddhism’s Four Heavenly Kings. The biggest change Noragami made to its version is that Bishamon is a woman. In traditional versions Bishamonten is a man.

But the two are still similar in personality. Bishamon is a fierce fighter in addition to being dignified and holding herself to the high standard of always triumphing over evil (to the point of it causes problems when she decides that Yato is evil). And much like the traditional version of Bishamonten who has a hoard of treasures from his various adventures, Bishamon also has a huge supply of regalia to use at her will.

I’m not entirely sure why she’s dress like a sexy cop. But if you look at the picture above you may notice Bishamonten is stepping on his enemies. I think the creator took that idea of stepping on people and just ran with it when they were designing Noragami’s version.

The Seven Gods of Fortune

Besides Ebisu and Bishamonten, the other Gods of Fortune only make small cameos in Noragami’s anime.

(from left to right)

  • Daikokuten – god of commerce
  • Ebisu – god of fishing and merchants
  • Benten – goddess of music and art
  • Bishamonten – god of warriors
  • Fukurokuju – god of wisdom and wealth
  • Hotei –  god of health and happiness (Known in the west as the “Laughing Buddha”.)
  • Jurojin – god of longevity

Noragami’s version of Daikokuten kind of looks like your shady uncle who’s running a festival booth.

I’m not sure why. Maybe because those booths are associated with making money? But more notably he’s seen holding a rabbit. This is because Daikokuten is also known as Okuninushi. There’s a myth about Okuninushi helping a rabbit and in exchange the rabbit gave him some good fortune. So Noragami’s version of Daikokuten really likes rabbits.

As for the rest of the gang, they look pretty similar to their traditional portrayals. (Benten has a treble clef tattoo, Hotei has hair but that’s about it.) Except for Fukurokuju, who is dressed in a fancy suit since he’s a god of wealth. But do not be fooled by his big fancy top hat. It is not there to show off how wealthy he is. It’s there to cover up his giant forehead. His giant forehead is so giant that it is how you recognize him in traditional artwork.

So there you have the Seven Gods of Fortune. And as the story goes they all get together around New Year’s time in a big flying boat and hand out presents to all the good little children.

I have no idea how this works because kids in Japan don’t get presents for New Year’s, they get cold hard cash from their family but that’s the story. Whatever, floats your flying boat I guess?

Binbougami

Next up is Kofuku. She is not a specific mythological figure. She is a binbougami, (an unspecific) god of poverty. Binbougami are not worshiped. They posses people and houses and bring bad luck. They are traditionally depicted as a dirty old man with nothing to his name except an old hand fan. This is why Kofuku’s regalia is a fan.

In Noragami, Kofuku goes by the name Kofuku (little fortune) Ebisu (the same as the previously mentioned god of fortune) so that people might mistake her for a god of fortune instead of misfortune and won’t try to run her off.

Tenjin

Tejin’s traditional depiction and Noragami’s look very similar because Tenjin was an actual historical figure. He was named Sugawara no Michizane (845-903 C.E.). He was scholar, poet and politician. After he fell victim to some dirty politics he was fired, exiled and then died in exiled. Soon after his death a huge storm devastated the capital, destroying the homes of and even killing some of his political rivals. In order to placate his spirit the Imperial court restored the offices of his family, burned his order of exile and deified him. His name was changed to Tenjin and now he is the kami of learning. He is one of the most popular gods in Japan. Students frequent his shrines in order to pray for good grades. In Noragami, he’s very wise but isn’t the least bit humble about his importance and popularity.

Tenjin’s Flying Plum Tree

When Michizane was exiled he composed a poem about how much he would miss a beloved plum tree growing at his home in Kyoto. Legend says that the tree also missed its master, so much that it uprooted itself and flew to be with Michizane again. And of course, you can go and visit the tree designated as the Flying Plum Tree.

In Noragami, the character Tsuyu might dress as a miko and stand among Tenjin’s regalia but she’s actually the spirit of said plum tree and has her own powers different from that of a regalia. She has a mark in the shape of plum blossom in the middle of her forehead to designate her from the rest of Tenjin’s company.

Death and the Afterlife

So Tenjin got off pretty awesome in the afterlife. But what happens to everyone else according to Shinto? Descriptions of the afterlife are very vague if even present in texts about the religion.  In Shinto, since anything awe-inspiring can be considered a kami, when you die, your soul is effectively a kami and the thing you are the kami of is your descendants. Shinto has ancestor worship. Many homes in Japan have a kamidana, which is a small shrine on a high self near the ceiling.

A kamidana is a shrine to the kami of your home and your ancestors and small offerings are placed on it.

Shinto also has funeral rites, however, they weren’t properly documented until the 1800s and considering how long Shinto’s been around for it goes to show how little emphasis the religion places on death.

Something common to most Japanese funerals is that the dead are dressed in a white robe with the right side over the left. To wear traditional Japanese clothing (like a kimono or yukata) you should always have the left side over the right, because right over left is reserved for the dead. From this we know that characters in Noragami like Yukine and Nora are dead as soon as they appear on screen because of how they are dressed.

Nora also has a triangle shaped headband. No one is actually sure what this is for. There are theories that it was placed on the dead to ward off evil spirits but all we really know is that they were popular in the Heian period and in particular showed up in a lot of art of ghosts from that time. So Nora’s character design not only tells us that she’s dead but also that she’s probably been dead for a very long time.

Tokoyo

“Tokoyo” literally means eternalness. It’s the name of a distant land across the sea where the dead reside. The English version of Noragami refers to it as “The Far Shore”. This is where corrupted souls dwell and become phantoms.

Masks and Phantoms

In addition to a plethora of gods, Noragami also features supernatural beings called phantoms. In the Japanese version phantoms are called “ayakashi” which is a word with three different meanings. Ayakashi refers to a type of ghostly monster (yokai). It can also be used to refer to any kind of supernatural phenomena related to the sea. And it is also a type of mask from Noh, a traditional type of Japanese theater where actors wear masks while performing. An ayakashi is specifically the mask used to represent a male ghost or wrathful god. Masks in general are frequently used in Shinto rituals and celebrations. So the concept of ayakashi in Noragami is playing with all these ideas. Phantoms in Noragami are wrathful spirits from the far shore (so they’re related to the sea) and they can be controlled by masks.

Rituals and Practices

Shrines

Shrines are where you can go to pray for good luck and ask for wishes to be granted.

But before you can go up to a shrine you will first have to pass through a torii.

Torii are arches meant to be sacred gateways into the terrain of kami. They come in many shapes and sizes. Some are big and bright red, others are small and natural colored. Yato, of course wants a great big one.

Sometimes you will see white zigzag shaped pieces of paper hanging off a torii.

These are called shide, and they are meant to mark the presence of a kami.

So once you’ve passed through the torii, you still cannot yet approach the shrine. Before you can approach a shrine you must first cleanse yourself. Every shrine has some sort of fountain or tough with wooden ladles that you are suppose to use to wash your hands and mouth.

Cleansing with water is a common step in many Shinto rituals. In Noragami, we see Yato cleanse his blight with water from a shrine.

Once you are cleansed you can finally approach the shrine. But before praying at the shrine, its suitable to give an offering. Kami are thought to be responsible for the forces of nature and fate of people, so they’re placated with offerings and bribed to grant wishes. Offerings are usually food, alcohol or money. The traditional offering is a 5 yen coin. 5 yen is about 5 cents. It’s a very small amount of money. But 5 yen in Japanese, “go yen” is a homophone of the word for fate “go en”. So when you offer a kami a 5 yen coin, it means you are trusting them with your fate. This is why receiving 5 yen coins makes Yato so happy.

It symbolizes that people are willing to trust him with their fate so what Yato’s actually happy about is not receiving the coin, but receiving the respect it represents.

So after you have thrown your offering into the offering box, it’s time to pray.

There’s usually a bell with a rope hanging by the offering box. First you ring it to get the kami’s attention. Then you bow twice, clap twice, pray and then bow again. This procedure of prayer was standardized during State Shinto but it can still vary depending on local customs.

It’s important to note that shrines are not just big buildings. For instance the kamidana as described earlier. There is also the mikoshi, which is a portable shrine used during festivals.

Shrines can come in many shapes and sizes.

There are also many things you might see at a shrine. You would probably see a shimenawa, which is a rope used to enclose sacred spaces and protect them. These are usually wrapped around trees. In Noragami, there is a shimenawa wrapped around Robos’s tree.

When visiting a shrine you could also see miko, shrine maidens.

Miko help to keep the shrine clean, help out with odd jobs and help perform certain rituals like the kagura dance.

But Miko are not actually in charge of the shrine. The Kannushi, Shinto priests, are the ones running the shrine and leading the rituals.

They very rarely show up in anime, presumably because they are not cute girls.

Lucky Charms, Talismans, and Fortunes

Before leaving a shrine you might want to buy a omamori, lucky charm. An omamori is a small pouch you purchase from the shrine and keep with you for good luck. Many omamori are specialized for things like work, health or love.

Another way to boost the chances of your wishes coming true is to write them on an ema, talisman. An ema is a wooden block that you hang at the shrine so the kami will hopefully see your wish and grant it. You can basically write or draw whatever you want.

There are also shrines that can provide you with official anime ema.

 You can also get a fortune, especially if it’s New Year’s. If you pull a bad fortune you can tie it to a tree or wire fence so that you don’t take the bad luck with you.

More Shinto in Anime and Japanese Media

My recommendations for if you want to see more things that have a focus on Shintoism:

  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Kamisama Kiss
  • Persona 4 (The game! Not the anime.)
  • Inari Kon Kon
  • Matoi the Sacred Slayer

Further Readings

Thanks for reading!

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