Represented in both traditional Japanese plays and contemporary television shows, the shinigami are multi-faceted and often terrifying gods of death that lure humans to their demise.
Some of the most interesting customs and traditions of different cultures around the world relate to death. For an event that every human being experiences, death as it is depicted varies drastically across borders, languages, and religions. And in Japan, death is sometimes personified as the “shinigami,” or gods of death.
Popularized in anime like Death Note and Bleach, shinigami are said to be beings that guide the living to their deaths. While the shinigami are often compared to the Grim Reaper, they’re generally represented in Japanese folklore more as facilitators of the natural cycle of life than as frightening figures dragging the unwilling to the Underworld.
Dive into the mysterious origins of the shinigami and how they became the modern face of death in Japan.
The Shinigami As A Relatively Modern Idea
The word “shinigami” is a composite of the word “kami,” or god, and “shi”, which means death. While the shinigami sound like ancient beings that would have long written and oral histories, their origins are actually fairly modern.
As Ancient Origins explains, the shinigami didn’t appear in Japanese folklore until the 18th or 19th centuries, around the time that ideas from Western culture started mixing with traditional Buddhist, Taoist, and Shinto beliefs in Japan.
In fact, the word “shinigami” wasn’t even used until the Edo period, with the first known instances being a number of 18th-century puppet plays, or ningyō jōruri, about men and women being compelled to their deaths by spirits of death. These works generally represent shinigami as forces that possess people and gently beckon them to their demise, often by suicide.
According to the Japanese news site Excite, the word appears in playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s early 18th-century puppet play, Suicide Heaven’s Amishima. In this piece, Monzaemon speaks of “ears possessed by the Shinigami.” Here, it’s suggested that these gods of death coax people into suicide.
However, scholars still debate whether these works depict shinigami literally, as beings capable of leading people to death, or simply as symbols to represent the characters’ internal feelings about life’s fragility and impermanence.
The Shinigami In 19th Century Literature
Over the decades, depictions of the shinigami evolved. In 1841, the book Ehon Hyaku Monogatari featured a short story labeled “Shinigami.”
In this story, History Defined reports, the shinigami are portrayed as mischievous spirits of the dead seeking to wreak havoc on people who already harbor dark thoughts by leading them down the path of suicide. Rather than possessing humans and nudging them towards death, these devilish shinigami trick mortals into harming themselves by making deals with them or offering them favors.
Still, even in this version, the shinigami are less evil beings than they are guardians of fate ensuring that people die at their appointed times.
The shinigami are also inconsistent in terms of how they’re physically described in different works. Sometimes, they are depicted as small and childlike, and other times as tall, skeletal women. Often, they are said to wear black kimonos and to have long white hair.
Despite the many faces of the shinigami and the varying accounts of their nature, Japanese folk religion points to one story in particular to explain where the legends of the shinigami may have come from.
Izanami, The Goddess Who May Have Been The First Shinigami
According to a legend from Japan’s native Shinto religion, the gods Izanami and Izanagi may be at the forefront of the creation of the shinigami.
In this legend, published in the 8th-century book Kojiki by O No Yasumaro, the creator god Izanagi travels to the Underworld to rescue his wife, the goddess Izanami, who has died after giving birth to a fire god.
Once there, Izanagi is overjoyed when he spots his wife through the castle gates. He asks her eagerly to come back with him to Earth, but she makes a tragic admission: She can not leave the Underworld, as she has already tasted the food there.
“Having once eaten the things of this land,” she says, “it is impossible for me to come back to the world.”
Izanami tells her husband that she will ask the gods of the Underworld for permission to leave. As she walks into the castle, she makes Izanagi promise to remain outside the castle walls and not to look inside.
Izanagi waits as long as he can, but as night falls, he becomes impatient and breaks into the castle. There, he comes upon a horrific sight: the mangled, rotting corpse of his wife, sleeping in a deathlike trance. Izanagi runs from the room in terror, leaving Izanami behind.
Enraged at both Izanagi’s rejection and his failure to keep his promise, Izanami chases after her husband.
“Unfaithful wretch! I’ll make him suffer, for his perfidy,” she says.
Izanagi manages to escape and places a boulder at the entrance to the Underworld, creating a divide between the land of the living and the dead.
According to legend, Izanami was so enraged at his betrayal that she promises to kill thousands of innocents as retribution. For this reason, many now see Izanami as the first shinigami.
Japan’s Grim Reapers In Popular Culture
The shinigami present a compelling personification of death, fate, and the transience of life, and in recent years, these figures have appeared in a number of notable works of pop culture that explore these topics.
Perhaps the most famous depiction of the shinigami comes from the Japanese anime series Death Note, a story about a young man who makes a deal with a god of death.
In the world of Death Note, the shinigami have the ability to extend their own lives indefinitely by bringing about the deaths of humans. To do this, they coax a human into writing names down in a titular “Death Note,” with the understanding that anyone whose name is written in the notebook is doomed to die.
These shinigami are a far cry from the spirits of Edo-period literature, who’re simply working to maintain the natural flow of life and death. However, similar to the shinigami depicted in 19th-century literature, the ones in Death Note trick or coerce humans into being the ones to cause death.
In other works of pop culture, such as the anime series Bleach, the shinigami are protectors and guardians of the dead, rather than evil forces that cause death.
And while the shinigami depicted in pop culture are generally quite different from the ones in folklore, they all reflect the same thing: a deep fascination with the fate that awaits us all.
After reading about the shinigami, dive into the story of banshees in Celtic folklore. Then, get a little spooked with seven terrifying creatures from Native American folklore.