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The faces of death in Japanese culture
Death is attached to man, and each culture has its own representation of this threatening unity that manifests itself before disappearing forever from this world. In the Western world, death is represented as a dark figure, a harvest of souls that appears when our time has come, but in other parts of the world, death takes various forms. Today’s example comes from Japan, where death is embodied by Shinigami.
Who are they and how many types of Shinigami are there?
The word “Shinigami” consists of two other Japanese words: “shi” and “kami”, which literally means “death” and “god”. In Japanese mythology, the world is filled with kami of various kinds. Everything in the world has a spirit that governs it: there is the kami of heaven, the kami of the rivers, the kami of happiness and of course the kami of death, the Shinigami. The latter, like the figure living in our Western tradition, helps to ferry souls from the land of the living to the dead.
However, it is not always clear which kami are true Shinigami.
For example, Izanami (Goddess of Death) is sometimes referred to as the first Shinigami because she introduced death to the world. Similarly, Yama, the god of the underworld, is also considered a Shinigami, but it is not entirely clear whether these two are really spirits of death or not.
Unlike the grim reaper, shinigami is not a force to be feared. They do not hunt the living to force them into the afterlife prematurely. Nor can they be bribed to prolong someone’s life.
The role of Shinigami is to make sure that people die at the agreed time. This draws on fate, the idea that everyone has a certain path in life to follow. Instead of asking the dead to enter the afterlife, they invite the living to die. Shinigami is just one of the many ways in which life and death coexist.
The origin of Shinigami
Before the Kami idea of death came to Japan, traditional beliefs did not necessarily see death as a bad thing, but as part of the cycle of existence. The first legend to talk about Shinigami tells the story of a man who would cheat death. Tired of life, the man wants to commit suicide, but at that moment a mysterious figure appears and tells him that his time has not yet come. Shinigami also explains that every life is represented by a candle, and when the flame goes out, the person dies. This shows that Shinigami has no control over who lives and dies. But to prevent the man from committing suicide, Shinigami deceives him by revealing a simple secret to making money.
The spirit reveals to man some magical words which, if spoken on his deathbed, send a Shinigami away. The man then pretends to be a doctor and visits patients’ deathbed using magic words to banish the spirits of death.
One day, the man is called into a house to treat someone. When he enters, he sees that the Shinigami is sitting on the head of the patient’s bed, indicating a certain death. The family begs the ‘doctor’ and offers him a large sum of money. Consumed by greed, the man decides to take a risk, and as the Shinigami dozes off, he quickly changes the orientation of the patient’s bed, thus saving his life. However, this gesture ends up burning his candle faster than it should. The man dies shortly after.
Shinigami in the modern world
However, shinigami has become extremely famous all over the world thanks to anime and manga. In these modern stories, shinigami take many forms, and they often appear as protagonists, acting as servants of death, and they often carry people away before their candles are burned out. Among the most famous we certainly find Death Note. In Death Note, Shinigami are grotesque creatures who write the names of the people who are to die in a notebook. But accidentally one of these ‘Death Notes’ falls to the ground and into the hands of a human trying to rule the world with it.
Another very famous manga in this sense is Bleach, where shinigami appears as Japanese samurai. Their task is to maintain order and peace in the afterlife and to keep souls in check.
These death spirits are also featured in many modern video games. The most striking example is the game The World Ends With You. In this fantasy RPG, the shinigamis have special powers that allow them to test human souls to see if they can live again.
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