What is a Shinigami? Why does this character appear in different physical forms? What role does he play in Japanese mythology? Is he the grim reaper of Japan?
Young Death Personifications fanatic , welcome to the Skull World! Today we will delve into one of the deadliest topics in the history of Asian popular culture together. That of the Japanese Soul Reapers.
Shinigami is the Japanese god of death. He is also called « Japanese Grim Reaper », which refers to the Grim Reaper of Death. The Japanese term for this is « 死神 ». He transports people from the land of the living to the land of the dead.
There has not been a single culture in human history that has not spent significant time studying death. So it is not surprising that we attribute the mysterious process of death to supernatural forces. In western culture we have the angels of death and the great grim reaper : figures who escort souls to the afterlife. Japan has the Shinigami, and that’s our topic for today! 🉐
Who are the Shinigami?
The word « shinigami » is made up of two other Japanese words: « shi » and « kami ». Literally translated, these mean « death » and « God ». In Japanese mythology, the world is full of kamis of various types. Everything in the world has a spirit that governs it. There are the Kamis of Heaven, the Kamis of Rivers, the Kamis of Happiness and of course the Kamis of Death. They are the shinigami.
The death spirit’s job is to ask mortals to die, which sounds a lot more polite than having their souls mowed down by a large, robed skeleton. However, it is not always easy to discern which shinigami are the true kami. For example, Izanami is sometimes referred to as the first Shinigami because she brought death into the world. Likewise, Yama, the god of the underworld, is also believed to be a shinigami, but it’s not entirely clear whether the two are really spirits of death or not.
Japanese mythology draws heavily on animism, meaning everything has a spirit, from people to places to things. Rivers have a kami, heaven has a kami, and even death has a kami. The kami of death are shinigami. The task of the death gods is to ask people to die . Although this seems elegantly put, this spirit takes many forms. In ancient Japanese literature, these spirits did not even take physical form.
Appearance of a Shinigami
What does a Shinigami look like? This question is surprisingly difficult to answer since the spirits of death are invisible to all humans except a few who have some sort of connection to death or are close to death themselves. Also, it seems that even when you see them, shinigami never have the same appearance or shape . This means that if you see one of them, you won’t necessarily recognize them.
The Grim Reaper has a very elegant appearance. This figure is described as a skeleton in a large hooded robe. She carries a scythe with which she strikes down her victims and into the land of the deadsends. In Japan, the shinigami don’t take a specific shape. They are invisible to all humans except those who have a direct connection to death or are close to death as mentioned earlier. For example, people who experience a near-death incident may claim to know what these spirits look like. 🙏
So they look very different depending on the imagination of those who draw or interpret them. Their bodies are often built in ways that seem totally different from earthly norms. And although some shinigami do not appear to have limbs capable of holding objects (like hands, feet, etc.), all shinigami are capable of holding and writing to use their respective notebooks. Shinigami are also often able to fly and use wings for transportation, especially in the human world. When not in use, their wings retract, much like a bird.
Shinigami can be male or female. They cannot and must not have sexual relationships with people or with each other. They also cannot reproduce. Despite this, they can still be carriers of emotions related to the opposite sex. Also, people cannot readily tell which of them are men and which are women, even though they inherently know each other’s gender.
Mission of a Shinigami
Unlike the Grim Reaper, Shinigamis are not a force to be feared. They do not hunt the living to force them into the afterlife before their time. They also do not take bribes to prolong someone’s life. The task of the shinigami is to ensure that people die at the appointed time . They are inspired by destiny, by the idea that every person has a specific path in life that they must follow. Instead of demanding that the dead go to the afterlife, they demand that the living die. Shinigamis are just one of many ways life and death coexist. 💭
As with traditional Shinto funerals, there is no fear of death. It comes at a specific time for everyone, so there is no need to dwell on it. When you encounter the Shinigami, it’s nothing to fear. These spirits are there to invite you to a dignified death.
Origin of the Shinigami
Although Shinigamis come from the Shinto religious tradition, they are actually a relatively modern invention. It wasn’t until Japan came into contact with the West that the idea of a god or death spirit like the Shinigami really entered the collective imagination. It’s entirely possible that the Western folk tales of the Grim Reaper served as the original inspiration for these Japanese death spirits . ☠️
When exactly did the idea of death spirits come about? No one is really sure, but it appears to be from the 18th or 19th century. Before the idea of death kamicame to Japan, traditional beliefs did not necessarily view death as a bad thing, but as a normal part of the cycle of existence.
There is no single clear origin of the Shinigami. It is something that has been passed down from generation to generation in folklore and mythology . For the ancient Japanese, it was a way of finding meaning in life and death. Knowing that loved ones are not alone in death brings great relief and also encourages people to live life to the fullest.
History of the Japanese God of Death
According to legend, the spirits of death work in pairs and appear when a person’s death arrives at a predetermined time. At this point the dead person is asked to cross the threshold between life and death . We know this fact about these death spirits from an old traditional fairy tale:
A man about to commit suicide confronts a Shinigami who reveals himself to him. The death spirit tells him that since lives are measured by burning candles, it is not his time to die. 🕯 Since his own hasn’t burned down yet, he has to live on. The Shinigami then tells him a secret that can help him make money. He tells him magic words, which he can use to banish a spirit of death… Posing as a doctor, the man goes to patients’ deathbeds and uses the magic words to banish the spirits of death.
However, he can only do this when the dead spirit is sitting at the foot of the bed. If he sits at the headboard, it means that the person’s candle has burned out and they must die.
This little trick makes the man extremely rich, but the story has a bad ending. One day the Shinigami is sitting at the head of a bed. The dying patient’s family offers the fake doctor an obscene sum of money to save their loved one, and he tries to fool the spirit of death by turning the bed. However, when he tries to banish the Shinigami, he burns the rest of his own candle and dies. 💀
The Notebook of Death (Death Note)
The most common feature that all shinigami have in common is the Death Note . This supernatural notebook allows them to end people’s lives by adding the human’s remaining lifetime to their own. This allows a shinigami to extend their lifespan indefinitely. To this end, he can use his eyes to see people’s names and remaining lifetimes by looking into the faces of his victims. 👀
If they manage to find a second one, it must be given to the Shinigami King . When a Notebook of Death is placed in the human world, the person who picks up the notebook can use it to kill other humans.
Shinigami can materialize and dematerialize their bodies at will and are able to walk through walls and other objects. The only people who see this phenomenon are those who have touched a Death Note. Physical attacks are useless against a Shinigami. Even if you get to shoot them, their wounds heal almost instantly, leaving no obvious effects.
Shinigami Legend Today
Many Japanese who belong to the Shinto religion still believe in shinigami very strongly, as they do in other kamis. Of course, modern Japan is a very secular nation, so most people don’t literally believe in the existence of the shinigami . That being said, the Japanese like to honor their traditions, and so the Shinigami is still an integral part of Japanese culture, just like the Grim Reaper is in the western world. 😈
The Shinigami have appeared in several popular Japanese television series. In Death Note, for example, the shinigami are grotesque creatures who write in a notebook the names of mortals who must die. One of these « death notebooks » falls to the ground and into the hands of a human trying to use it to rule the world.
Or in Bleach, the Shinigamis are actually a society of Japanese samurai tasked with maintaining order in the afterlife. They guide souls to the afterlife and keep lost and undisciplined souls in check. The stories about the Shinigami have always been popular throughout history and it seems likely that they will remain so for a long time to come.
Shinigamis in popular culture
The Shinigami is very popular in Japanese culture. He’s also traveled the world to show up in unexpected places, be it a reinvented sinister grim reaper or something completely different.
anime and manga
The most popular place to find the Shinigami is in animes and manga. In these modern tales, the Shinigami take many different forms. They often appear as main characters, acting as servants of death , taking people before their time is up. There are many popular examples of this genre:
- In Bleach, the Shinigamis appear as Japanese samurai. Their job is to ensure order and peace in the afterlife by keeping souls under control.
- In the Death Note series, shinigami are grotesque creatures who write in a notebook the names of mortals who are about to die.
- The Black Butler: One of the main characters in Black Butler is the son of death.
- Naruto: The God of Death is an entity summed up in Naruto through a special samurai technique.
These death spirits can also be found in many modern video games. The most common example is the game « The World Ends With You ». In this fantasy RPG, shinigami are resurrected with special abilities. Your role in the game is to test people’s souls to see if they can be revived. 👾
Shinigamis in Western Culture
Not surprisingly, many examples of shinigami can be found in Western culture as well. The legend of the Grim Reaper is common in western television and films, but is sometimes substituted to include Japanese folklore.
An example of this can be found in the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television show. One of the characters in this show is called Shinigami. One of his special abilities is to bring evildoers to justice. ⚖️
Keep the Shinigami at bay by wearing a Great Grim Reaper t-shirt .
To learn more about the most famous death gods, you can visit the article on Dullahan, the Headless Horseman .