Death is a fascinating phenomenon, not the least because every culture treats it differently. If you’re from Ghana, your coffin may take the form of an airplane, a Porsche, a Coca-Cola bottle, an animal, or even a giant cigarette packet.
Outside of the shape and design of the coffins, however, there are many other differences in rituals surrounding death in different cultures. For example, in the Hindu, it is preferable to die at home, surrounded by family. The soul is believed to go on, according to one’s karma. Bodies are cremated quickly, usually within 24 hours, to liberate the soul.
From the Hindu tradition, it is evident that rituals surrounding death and grief usually reside in religion. So, too, is the case in Japanese culture. Indeed, the Japanese have a rich tradition of myths and religion, with many fascinating gods and goddesses. Amongst them are ancient gods of death called Shinigami.
The Japanese Grim Reaper
Shinigami are a relatively new phenomenon in Japanese mythology. The story of the Shinigami is only two to three centuries old, initiated in either the 18th or 19th century.
They’re a result of the increased interactions between Eastern and Western cultures. Regarding the gods of death, this was in particular the idea of the Grim Reaper. So the Shinigami are the Japanese Grim Reaper.
Where the Name Shinigami Comes From
The myth is so new that even the word Shinigami did not exist until fairly recently. It is a composite of two Japanese words, shi and kami. Shi stands for ‘death,’ while kami stands for god or spirit.
READ MORE: Japanese Gods and Goddesses
Still, there have been some similar names in classic Japanese mythology. This might indicate that the name Shinigami originally derives from these other names of classical Japanese literature.
Or, rather, titles from that literature. The two stories on which the name is supposedly based were entrenched in death and suicide and called Shinchuu Nimai Soushi and Shinchuuha ha Koori no Sakujitsu.
Shinigami in Japanese Mythology
In the Western world, the Grim Reaper is known as a lone figure, usually only made up of bones, often shrouded in a dark, hooded robe and carrying a scythe to “reap” human souls. However, the Shinigami are a bit different. Their supposed function isn’t fully translatable from the Western conception of the Grim Reaper, just as their appearance.
Indeed, Japanese culture has its own interpretation of the phenomenon of the Grim Reaper. That is to say, in Japanese Mythology, the Shinigami have been described as monsters, helpers, and creatures of darkness.
Accessibility of the Shinigami
Although being described as monsters, the death gods from Japan seem a little more accessible. They ditched the dull Western style of fashion and chose a little more diversity. That is to say, every Shinigami can have a different set of clothing on its body – or whatever is left of it.
The Shinigami are also different from your usual Grim Reaper in their actions. They don’t just abduct souls into the underworld. They rather invite people to join them, allowing the Shinigami to live another day. What sweet guys, those Japanese gods of death feeding on the souls of other humans.
The Start of The Japanese God of Death
The story of the contemporary Japanese gods of death is, thus, influenced by Western narratives. However, the Shinigami are not just based on the history and myths of one single culture. The story came together during the Edo period in the 18th or 19th century, a period that changed the perception of death in Japan.
There was a rich history before the Shinigami saw the day of light, rooted in Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism stories. These other religions set the proverbial stage for the Shinigami to grow into the myth they are now.
Izanami and Izanagi: the Story of the First Death God
The Shinto religion might have the claim of being the most influential to the current myth surrounding the Shinigami. The story revolves around the Japanese god of darkness and destruction. It begins with Izanagi, who undertook a journey to the underworld.
His wife is now known as the death god and was named Izanami. Or rather, death goddess. According to Izanagi, she was unjustly taken after her death and demanded that she would come back to earth. However, because Izanami already ate the fruits found in the underworld, Izanagi was too late. If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, this may sound similar to the story of the goddess Persephone.
READ MORE: Greek Mythology: Stories, Characters, Gods, and Culture
Together in the Underworld
Still, Izanagi refused to leave his wife in the underworld, or Yomi; the name the Japanese people gave to the underworld. So, Izanagi plotted to rescue Izanami from Yomi. However, it was not just that Izanami was obliged to stay in the underworld but she liked it there and wanted to reside there.
As expected, Izanagi wasn’t so fond of spending the rest of his life in the underworld. While Izanami was sleeping, Izanagi put a comb he brought with him on fire, using it like a torch. While before he couldn’t exactly see very well in the darkness of the underworld, his torch allowed him to do so.
It wasn’t very pleasant, however. With the new burst of light, Izanami saw the horrid form of the woman that he fell in love with. She was rotting and had a myriad of maggots and cockroaches running all over her body.
Izanagi was scared, running away from the half-deceased body. His wife woke up out of her sleep since Izanagi was screaming a bit too loud whilst running. She chased him, demanding he stay in Yomi with her. However, the scared deity had other plans, bursting out of the entrance of Yomi and pushing a boulder in front of it.
This separation is believed to be the separation between life and death. Izanami is, of course, the goddess of death in this story. She was so upset that she promised her husband she’d kill a thousand innocent residents if he left her. Izanagi responded that he would give life to 1500 more.
From Izanami to Shinigami
Izanami can be seen as the first Shinigami. The most important link between the original Japanese god of death, Izanami, and the evil spirits that eventually became known as Shinigami is this latter promise to kill many people. Quite sinister, sure, but essential to the story.
The hunger for death is evident in the fact that the Shinigami have to eat a dead body every twenty hours to stay ‘alive,’ whatever that may mean. Indeed, the souls of the incited people allowed the Shinigami to live another day.
Maybe it can rather be described as enabling them to dwell around in the underworld. After all, you can’t see it as being ‘alive’ if you’re a spirit and spend most of your time playing with the afterlife outside the actual world.
The Shinigami death spirits would kill people not just by simply slitting their throats, but they would enter the bodies of people who were already on a bad path in their life. The Shinigami then politely ‘asked’ them to commit suicide. They’d do so by leading people to places where there had previously been a murder incident.
In this sense, Shinigami are more so a ‘possession’ of a person, making them want to commit suicide. This is also why calling them the ‘death gods of Japan’ is a bit odd. The Shinigami are rather spirits, the death spirits, or evil spirits from Japan.
The Shinigami in Practice
It is now clear that we are talking about Japanese death spirits, multiple in number, and very much different from the average Grim Reaper of Western culture. The history of how the Shinigami came about should also be relatively clear by now. However, how does the Shinigami function in practice? How do the Shinigami interfere with human life? Or, more importantly, how do the Shinigami know that someone is ready to leave the human world?
The Candle of the Shinigami
According to Japanese folklore, every life is measured on a candle. Once the flame burns out, the person dies. The death spirits are, therefore, not able to control who lives and who dies, they just let the people know.
The Shinigami were more messengers, leading the ones whose flame burned out to death. But, if your flame is still burning, the spirits will show you different ways of getting on with life. This, too, is reflected in a popular myth about a man who was preparing for his own death.
A Tale of Japanese Folklore
This might be best shown through an example of a traditional tale from Japanese folklore. In that 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 offered him the support of the death spirits.
The man was told that he could pretend to be a doctor who could cure any form of the disease. The Shinigami that visited him taught him some magic words. With these words, you would be able to send any death spirit back to the underworld.
Because of this, the man was able to become a doctor and cure any form of the disease. As soon as a Shinigami would visit one of his patients, he would just say the magic words, allowing the person to live another day.
Why the Position of the Shinigami Matters
There is a twist, however. The magic words can only be spoken if the Shinigami show themselves at the foot of the bed of diseased humans. If the man would see the Shinigami at the head, it should be clear that it was a sign to invite humans to die and enter the underworld.
One day, the excellent doctor was called to a house to cure someone. He arrived at the appointed time and sees the Shinigami sitting on the head of the patient’s bed. Indeed, indicating that death was certain. The family pleaded, begged, and offered him a large amount of money to extend the person’s life.
From Western culture to Japanese culture, money is very charming. Also, in this case, the doctor got consumed by greed. He takes the risk, waving off the Shinigami, extending the person’s life. While saving his client from death, he very much upset the Shinigami.
Making the Shinigami Angry
After breaking the rules by saying the magic words while not allowed, the doctor made the Shinigami quite angry. As soon as he reached his home, supernatural beings entered his house and criticized him for his disobedience. But, the Shinigami changed his tone, suggesting to go out for a drink and celebrate the money he made.
Of course, grotesque creatures like the Shinigami don’t just forgive and forget like that. The doctor fell for the trick, and the Shinigami brought him to a building filled with candles. He was shown his own candle, which was nearly burnt out because of the greed he just showed.
The doctor was well aware that the nearly burnt-out candle was meaning death. But, the Shinigami made him an offer to revive his wax and flame. He was offered to extend his life by transferring the wick and polish of his candle to another’s. The man fails in this attempt, as he drops his candle while moving it. Naturally, the excellent doctor died in the accident.
Shinigami in Pop Culture
The Shinigami are not just of relevance in traditional Japanese folklore. The death gods are also relevant in wider Japanese culture. More specifically, they make their appearances in many Manga series, covering topics surrounding the Japanese samurai and the afterlife in general.
The most relevant manga show that shows the relevance of the Shinigami in Japanese culture might be their appearance in Death Note. Death Note is a manga series that uses Shinigami in almost the same way as described in the mythology.
In the Death Note series, they are a whole race of spirits. Not residing in heaven, but more so in charge of the afterlife of any person in existence. However, they are not responsible for every death that occurs. The people would die regardless of the influence of the Shinigami. But, as also seen in the myth, Shinigami can end the lives of humans sooner than intended.
There are about thirteen Shinigami in Death Note, but certainly, more of them exist. As long as they let people die, their own souls or spirits will continue to exist.
The Kind Death Gods of Japanese Culture
Outside the Shinigami in Death Note, they make many more appearances in other manga shows. While it is fun and interesting to describe all the different appearances of the Shinigami, they’re mostly the same. That is to say, the function of the Shinigami is always something surrounding the invitation to the afterlife.
It’s interesting to think about the meaning behind the multiple spirits that make up the Shinigami. Not for the least, because they represent something that makes death way more accessible. What is our role in death and passing on? Is it always better to live than to be dead? These are just some of the questions that the story of the Shinigami raises.