Shinigami : the Japanese god of death

shinigami

Death obsesses us all. It is the great mystery of life. A mystery that every people, human being has tried to solve. In Japanese mythology death is often represented by the figure of Shinigami.

The word Shinigami is composed of: "shi," meaning death, and "Kami," which refers to divine or spiritual creatures in Japanese mythology. The Shinigami thus represents a spirit of death or a god who has this one for domain.

In this article you will discover:

  • The domain of the Shinigami
  • His origins
  • His influence in the manga world

Guide to Jaapanese Souls

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In stories and myths, the Shinigami guides men to death and their souls to the afterlife. He is not a personification of death like the Great Reaper in Western culture. Japanese cosmology views death as a natural phenomenon belonging to the cycle of life. The Shinigami is then merely a mediator between souls who come to the end of their earthly existence and their final destination.

Shinigami

The figure of the Shinigami is often associated with several characters in Japanese folklore who were attributed influence over the realm of death. The goddess Izanami, can be considered the first Shinigami. After her death giving birth to the first kami, she ended up in the realm of the dead (Yomi). When Izanagi, who came to look for her, runs away after realizing her ugliness, she swears to bring 1000 souls to hell every day.

The title is also attributed to her son Susano who was brought by Izanagi to join her in the Yomi. He is usually associated with the kami Yama or Emma-o, the king of hell, who judges and condemns the dead. The Onis, at the command of Yama are also identified as part of a category of Shinigami.

Origin of the Shinigami

The Shinigami although a mythical figure is a fairly modern concept that does not appear in classical Japanese literature. The word emerges from the Edo period, around the 18th and 19th centuries. It appears for the first time in a play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon entitled "The Love Suicides at Amijima". Then a second time in the book "Picture book of a Hundred stories" (Picture book of a Hundred stories) by Shunsensai Takehara as the title of a story in which a ghost torments the living by giving them suicidal thoughts

Before Japan's contact with the West, there were already divine beings presiding over death in the Shinto, Buddhist and Taoist religions. Izanami was goddess of death from the Yomi, the world of the dead. Buddhists believed attributed death to the demon Mirtyu-mara. But the arrival of Westerners, during the Meiji era, introduced new ideas that influenced beliefs. The figure of the Shinigami is then in fact only a Japanese adaptation of the Great Reaper.

The Japanese Great Reaper has served as an inspiration to manga artists who have often drawn on Japanese myth and beliefs to fuel their creativity. There are several works that have been influenced by and made use of the concept of the Shinigami.

Shinigami Bleach

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In the Bleach manga by Tite Kubo the shinigami are part of an organization called Soul Society and from another world. They are the guardians of the souls that pass through the transmigration circle and have the mission to purify the Hollows, evil spirits from the world of the living and pass them into the afterlife.

Appearance

Most of them have a human appearance. There are, however, more eccentric traits in some of them. This is the case with the character of Yachiru Kusajishi who is barely one meter tall while Sajin Komamura has the appearance of a wolf measuring about 3 meters tall. Their style of dress consists of a black kimono on a white underside. But then again, there are more personalized clothing styles among some characters such as scarves or shortened sleeves.

Abilities

Shinigami possess uncommon spiritual energy. This exceptional character gives them a number of supernatural abilities.

They are distinguished from mere mortals by their longevity. Shinigami age slower than humans and thus live longer. Some like Retsu Unohana and Genryusai Shigekuni Yamamoto have lived to be thousands of years old.

They are also known as shinigami.

Shinigamis also enjoy great endurance and can survive injuries normally fatal to a human being. They are not immortal that said. A shinigami will not survive decapitation.

Because of their spiritual energies which vary depending on the individual, They possess superhuman speed and reflexes. A shinigami's spiritual energy remains present as long as the heart continues to beat.

All shinigami possess a Zanpakuto, a sword forged from the shinigami's soul and the physical manifestation of its power. Its shape and appearance varies depending on the individual.

Soul Society

Within the Soul Society, shinigami take on several missions and roles. They accompany the souls of the deceased to hell or heaven depending on their deeds (Good or bad). They purify evil spirits (Hollows) by neutralizing them with their zanpakuto and rebirth them into the world of humans. That said if the spirit was already evil while alive it is sent to hell. The shinigami also provide a balance between the world of the dead and the world of the living

Death Note Shinigami

ryuk

The manga Death Note (2003-2006) by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata is one of the mangas that presents the Shinigami in the most remarkable way. The story begins when Light Yagami, the main character, encounters Ryuk, a Shinigami, by discovering a mysterious black notebook.

Features

In Death Note, Shinigami are otherworldly creatures who take the lives of humans to lengthen their own. Their appearance varies from individual to individual, some more frightening than others. They can be male or female. However, all of them seem to have a pair of wings and are able to fly. In fact, this is how they get around, especially in the human world.

The Shinigami also possess personalities and intellectual abilities that differ from one Shinigami to another. Each Shinigami has, for example, its own form of writing. Some can additionally speak, read, and write in human language.

Supernatural powers

All Shinigami possess a Death Note, a notebook with supernatural powers that causes the death of anyone whose name it contains. Thanks to it they can extend their life span by taking the life of any human they wish. All they have to do is write the name of their victim on it. Thus, Shinigamis live forever as long as they fill the pages of their Death Note.

It may happen that an uncaring Shinigami misplaces his Death Note and it is found by a human, as was the case for Ryuk and Yagami. The latter then gets the power to make anyone he or she wants die as long as they know the name of their victim.

They are usually invisible to humans and are only visible to those who have touched a Death Note. They can walk through walls or even physically interact with the human world. This makes it difficult to harm a Shinigami.

Shinigami do not need to eat or drink (Although Ryuk does enjoy apples from the human world). They also do not need sleep or rest.

Laws/Principles

The shinigami in Death Note obey a hierarchy at the top of which is the King of Death. And while they are free to take the life of whomever they wish they must abide by certain rules that govern their world.

For a Shinigami, attaching himself to a human whose life he must take has grave consequences. For if the shinigami fails to do so, he dies reduced to dust. The time he had left, converted into years of human life, is added to the life of the human he was supposed to take.

Shinigami cannot reproduce, either with another shinigami or with a human, on pain of severe punishment. Obata speaks of 9 degrees of punishment, the first 3 of which are enough to kill a Shinigami.

Soul Eater Shinigami

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In this manga by Atsushi Ohkubo, Maka Albarn and her companion Soul Eater Evans, who has the ability to transform into a scythe, must together find 99 evil souls and a witch's soul, the prerequisite for the weapon to reach the rank of Death-Scythe. They are part of the shibusen school founded and led by the Master Shinigami.

Appearance

Shinigami has a rather peculiar and cartoonish appearance. He is a black figure wearing a mask that resembles a death skull with empty holes for eyes and nose. His arms are tiny but have huge phalanges on them that are reminiscent of gloves with their white color and appear and disappear at his will. His body ends at the bottom with a misshapen limb that he can stand on and that almost makes him look like the genie in Aladdin's lamp.

Personality

If there is one thing that can be said with certainty about shinigami's attitude it is that it is far from being worthy of a "God/Lord of Death". The character is often comical and relaxed with his students. Benevolent and understanding he worries for them when they have to face powerful characters.

However, he knows how to become serious when the situation demands it and retains authority. He doesn't hesitate to hand out slaps to his own Death-scythe when she upsets him or gets distracted.

Before founding Shibusen he was more sinister and gloomy. He then looked more like the image one would have of a god of death. But the children of Shibusen changed him little by little. He wore a mask made of a real death skull, but as it made him scary to the children, he changed it.

Shinigami's powers

Master Shinigami is the most powerful meister in Shibusen and Death-City, the city surrounding the school. He possesses almost godlike abilities. Only characters like the Great Devourer manage to compete with him.

Shinigami can use any human weapon that has reached the level of Death-Scythe. While most Meisters are limited to a single weapon they have an affinity with, others have two.

The Meisters are not limited to one weapon.

But he remains formidable even unarmed. As evidenced by his confrontation with the Great Devourer Asura. The latter had been freed from a powerful seal that Shinigami had placed upon him by imprisoning him in the city, thus binding his own soul to Death-city. This had rendered him unable to pursue Asura beyond the city limits

During this fight some of Shinigami's abilities were also discovered such as flying, causing powerful shockwaves and forming resistant shields against certain attacks.

Shinigami was once the head of the group of 8 Great Elders. With them he enforced order and fought evil and, in particular, witches. Asura was also part of the group but he went mad and devoured the souls of 3 members of the 8 Great Elders. Shinigami then had to defeat him and lock him up in Death-city, in a prison made from his own skin. Then since he had also bound his soul to the city he founded the Shibusen school to prevent the resurgence of another Great Devourer.

What do you need to remember about the Shinigami ?

Then we retain that in Japanese mythology, there were gods of death but they were not identified as Shinigami. It is an allegorical figure of death born under the influence of Western ideas and beliefs.

It is also remembered that the Manga community has been largely inspired by it to produce some successful works. Although it undergoes certain adaptations, becoming comical, fond of apples or having human forms, it continues to keep a fairly close link with the souls of the living.

If you want to learn more about the famous Japanese gods, we recommend you to discover the history of the Japanese sun goddess...

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