Kami

Spiritual content ahead.  I won’t make it a habit, but I want to take this blog where my linguistic and cultural explorations take me, and I found this fascinating.

A few days ago, while I was reading up on Shinto, I learned something very interesting.

See, Japanese nouns have no concept of singular or plural.  It’s something that’s simply not encoded into the language.  I mean, you can use the “tachi” suffix to specify plurality, but in general, when a noun is specified, you don’t know whether it’s singular or plural.  It could be one or the other, or conceivably even both.

That last one may seem nonsensical, except there is one situation where that question is completely germane.

The Japanese word for “God” is “kami”.  “Kami” is a noun.  Nouns are neither singular nor plural.

We in the west (at least we Christians in the west) have a concept called the “trinity” where God is three in one.

This is a concept that would be utterly uncontroversial to the Japanese, at least based upon their linguistic structure.  Kami can be many, or one, or even both, and the word makes no attempt whatsoever to make that dinstinction.

This makes me wonder if part of the struggle we have with the concept of the trinity in the west is that we have one word, “God”, and it can only be singular.  If you attempt to add a plural aspect to it, it becomes “Gods”, and the idea that “Gods” could then be singular is nonsensical.  I could, however, easily see the Japanese saying “meh”, and just moving on with it, not necessarily accepting it but having no real reason to reject it either.  Essentially, the ambiguity is built into their language where it is a complete impossibility in ours.

If the trinity were true, of course, it’s no less of a contradiction when expressed in Japanese than in English, but this seems one of a few places where the vagueness and contextuality of Japanese seems to offer a way to see the world that we in the west perhaps have not considered.  It’s certainly making me rethink how I see God, or Kami.  As with Japanese nouns, perhaps he is singular or plural depending on how you look at him.

One thought on “Kami

  1. Pingback: In the Beginning – Gaijin Learning Japanese

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