November 25, 2021 5 min read
Japanese mythology is known for its extraordinary creatures that rule over the world. Death inspires many legends in various cultures and appears under different faces. While in Europe it takes the form of the Grim Reaper, in the Land of the Rising Sun death is embodied by the shinigami demons.
Shinigami are the Japanese gods of death or psychopomps who guide souls into the afterlife.
Who are they? What are the legends that surround these creatures and what place do they occupy in popular culture? Learn more about these demons, stars of manga that haunt the minds of Japanese people and otaku.
Death manifests itself in different entities in all mythologies: Whether it is the God Anubis in Egypt, the psychopomp Charon in Greek mythology or a three-legged horse in Scandinavian folklore... it is preferable not to cross their path 😉. In Japan, shinigami are the ones who rule death.
Shinigami are deities from Japanese mythology who invite and guide the deceased to the realm of the dead. Their name literally means "kami of death" and their mission is to judge mortals while ensuring that their time has come.
As true masters of destiny, shinigami are effectively a personification of death in the Japanese culture. They have no real physical representation, but often appear in humanoid form.
The concept of shinigami in Japan is relatively recent as it is assumed to have arrived around the 18th or 19th century along with Western legends about the grim reaper. However, the concept was already present in Buddhism in the guise of the tempting demon Mâra, who was known to take the souls of humans without the ability to awaken.
1 : Yama à Nariai-ji. Source : Wikipedia / 2 : Izanami and Izanagi. Credits : Eitaku Kobayashi
The creator deity Izanami whose name means "the one who invites" is sometimes considered as a shinigami. The same goes for Yama, god of death and the underworld in Buddhism.
However, even though these deities are related to death, they are much more than just shinigami.
Many tales refer to the gods of death in the archipelago.
A famous legend tells the story of a man who met a shinigami when he wanted to end his life. The shinigami explained to him that his time had not yet come and that he had to have consumed all his candles before dying, but this was not his case. The man, helped by the shinigami became a rich doctor after.
One day, a wealthy family came to ask him to heal a relative in exchange for a large sum of money. However, the shinigami had to take the soul of the patient who could not be healed. The man, greedy of money wanted to mislead the shinigami to transgress the destiny. That's how his last candle burned and he passed away.
Shinigami, monogatari Ehon Hyaku. Source: Wikipedia
Other myths of scary shinigami are also widely known in Japan. On the island of Kyushu, it is said that eating rice or drinking a cup of tea before going to bed will keep the shinigami away. In Okayama province, during the Haru no Higan and Aki no Higan festivals, it is said that one can be possessed by a shinigami when visiting the graves of ancestors at sunrise. In Tokyo, beware of the Shirogane tunnel because it is said that there is the passage of the shinigami which links the world of the living to that of the dead. Lastly, in Shizuoka prefecture, some people claim that humans are possessed by a shinimagi who condemns them to wander in cursed places. All of this is pretty terrifying!
In the twentieth century, from the end of World War II onwards, the gods of death have come to the fore in fiction. The grim reaper, angels of death and other personifications appear in books and on screens.
In Japan, shinigami are regularly represented in manga and Japanese animation. They can be either evil or benevolent depending on the situation.
Here are some examples of shinigami in popular culture.
In Tsugumi Oba's shonen manga, a high school student, revolted by society, accidentally finds a notebook belonging to a shinigami. The object voluntarily dropped on Earth by a god of death and has real powers: whoever has their name written in the notebook, dies. The young man then uses it to make his own justice.
In the manga conceived by tite Kubo, the shinigami are samurai souls who protect mortals from demons and take the deceased to their kingdom called "Soul Society". Their preferred weapon? The zanpakuto, a soul-slicing sword.
Shinigami are the servants of Hell, employed by the king and leader of Purgatory Enma (inspired by the Hindu deity Yama). They appease the souls of the deceased and take them to their world, Hell or Heaven.
In the famous manga by Masashi Kishimoto, shinigami are ghosts with disheveled white hair, dressed in kimono. They have two red horns, purple skin and often hold a katana in their mouth. These supernatural beings are summoned during a forbidden fighting technique "Imprisonment of the Dead".
Credits: ToNDWOo on Deviantart.com
In Yana Toboso's manga, shinigami are the spirits of the suicides condemned to recover the souls of mortals according to a predefined list. Their job is to check on the memories to see if the dying person should leave the world of the living or not. When a person is mowed down by a shinigami, the shinigami retrieves a movie lantern, which they store in a library.
In the Fairy Tail manga, Shinigami Eligoal is a character from the Eisen Wald guild. He is known for only accepting deadly missions...
Credits : AngelLeila on Deviantart.com
In Arina Tanemura's shojo, humans who have committed suicide become shinigami as a result. As a punishment, they must perform good deeds. Their memory is erased and the shinigami are not allowed to try to remember their previous life.
Like the grim reaper skeleton in Western culture, the figure of death has been popularized in Japan through manga and anime, in the form of shinimagi. The conception of death is a true source of inspiration for many cultures.
Credits cover photo: YunaXD on Deviantart.com
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