In the Ainu language, the word kamuy is used to refer to the spiritual entities that are interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. Though often translated as “spirits” or “gods,” kamuy is a particularly nuanced term. It can be used to describe powerful, named deities like the hearth god Apehuci Kamuy, the sea god Repun Kamuy, and the god of the land Kotan-kor Kamuy among others. However, because the Ainu traditionally believed everything—be it a powerful deity or an everyday object—is imbued with a spirit (ramat), countless tangible and intangible things can also contain an associated kamuy, including animals, plants, geological features, and natural phenomena, among others.1 Given that kamuy are thought to be connected to nearly every aspect of life and society, they demand particular consideration to ensure the safety and success of the individual and community. Therefore, kamuy rites and rituals have always been an integral part of everyday life, and range from formal ceremonies to private offerings of thanks.2 Yet, while there are strict rules and cultural protocols when it comes to showing respect to the kamuy, the physical-metaphysical relationship between humans and the kamuy is seen as mutual and demands consideration from both parties. For example, kamuy are generally seen as responsible for safeguarding human activities and settlements, though retaining the right to compensation for their services. Conversely, humans are entitled to kamuy protection and assistance as long as they reciprocate these favors with gifts and ceremonies. And historically, while misfortunes and bad luck were often attributed to improper observances, it was also not uncommon for people to criticize the kamuy for “letting them down,” further stressing this reciprocal relationship.3
1.) Hisakazu Fujimura, “Kamuy: Gods You Can Argue With,” in Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, 193.
2.) Ibid., 195-196.
3.) Shigeru Kayano and Shunʼichi Iijima, The Ainu: A Story of Japan's Original People (Boston, M.A.: Tuttle Publishing, 2004): 31.