The Kami

In Old Tokyo

In New Tokyo

In a Texas Mall

In a Big Box

In a New Village

In Japan

Japanese gods and nature spirits, called kami, inhabit or attach to striking natural locations (a large rock, a waterfall) and to institutions (a village, a company, a family). Originally their presence was signified by a rope surrounding an object, marking a sacred space. Now they have shrines, which can be as small as a box the size of a bird house nailed to a tree by a waterfall, or as large as a huge complex of buildings. They are given offerings of rice and other foods, and people ask them for help with seasonal fertility, and with mundane issues such as high school examinations and marital problems. The kami are arranged in a hierarchy depending on the importance of their location or institution. Every neighborhood in Tokyo, or village in the countryside, has its own shrine, and there are big regional and national shrines.

Koto-ku, Tokyo

When the local spirit at a neighborhood shrine appeared to me she said that she was a little tired of having to look out at the dull architecture of the surrounding buildings, so couldn't I do something to spruce them up. I said that as a foreigner I didn't think I would have much leverage. She said that the native inhabitants were so busy asking for favors when they came by that she never had a chance to get a word in about the architectural quality of her neighborhood.

"You have no idea what it's like to have to spend your time worrying about traffic tickets and high school examinations -- every day fifteen more examinations, and as the neighborhood gentrifies the new people keep bringing more requests about their cars." "It's not easy," she said, "when you were brought up to be concerned about crops and fishing, and when they didn't bother you much except for the festival days." "On the other hand," she admitted, "I suppose that without the examinations and the traffic accidents I'd have nothing to do but sit and look at those dreadful concrete buildings. You should have seen this place when it was a seaside village: waves, grasses waving in the wind, children playing around the midden, boats with shining sails out in the bay where there is all that ugly landfill now. We nature deities are not really suited to a hectic urban life."

I pointed out that the inhabitants of the fishing village originally on this spot had not lived as long or healthily as their modern descendants. "Look around you," she said, "is this living? Packing into that subway or getting stalled on that hideous highway on stilts? And where are the natural rhythms and cycles of life in this city that never sleeps? We fertility gods know a lot about natural cycles."

You're missing my point, I replied, which is that it is important for people to get beyond natural cycles and become more self-aware.

"Sure," she scoffed, "modern self-development and self-assertion. Where does it get you? Rushing around, no community ties -- even here they are weaker than they were -- profit and greed."

Modern self-development can get you, I argued, to a place where natural cycles are still honored but no longer dominate, a place where community can reconstruct itself to be fairer and easier, but still supportive.

"And can you show me that place?" she asked?

No, but we're working on it, I replied.

"That's just the point," she said, "some of you are working on it, but a lot of my people are just suffering from the current state of things around here. And even if you achieved what you are trying to do, would they be part of it? What would they have to do? Move to the suburbs?"


The kami in the shrine at the big downtown Tokyo redevelopment called Ebisu Garden Place told me that he didn't get much attention now that the new development had surrounded his shrine. "Tourists and shoppers may drop by," he said, "but their requests are usually aimed at other localities, so I pass them up the hierarchy. Life is pretty quiet here now."

He did receive visits from a few office workers and shop personnel, whose requests were mostly about office politics. Those he could look into on his own. "Their problems are like the difficulties the agricultural laborers around here used to have with their village co-workers or authorities, so I feel at home dealing with those requests."

I said something about social grammars reproducing themselves even as they alter, and he agreed that he found those continuities comforting. "Still," he added, "they have rather messed up the environment around here." He didn't particularly like the new buildings.

"Imagine," he said, "your shrine has been rooted to the earth for centuries, so first they build subways to shake you up, then they lift your shrine on top of these gloomy levels of parking and surround you with office towers. It's not as bad for me as for the kami of the shrines they put on top of tall buildings, but it's unsettling."

I said that maybe he should adapt to the mobility and linkage of the contemporary world. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked, "become a tourist?"

In America

The Spirit in the Mall

"Didn't I meet you once at a village shrine in northern Japan?"

"I remember your visit; not many foreigners came up there."

"Then what are you doing in America, in a fountain at a Texas mall?"

"At our meeting last fall some of us rural kami decided to send representatives to do research in America."


"Things are changing -- there's now suburban sprawl, Japanese style -- it's a new scene for those of us who haven't spent the last few centuries in big cities -- actually it's beyond what the city kami know, too, but they haven't quite realized it yet. So several of us rural spirits of place came over to look for ideas about how to deal with the situation."

"So that's why you're at this mall?"

"Yes; the fountain here collects coins and wishes, so it's a bit like the shrine at home, and I get to watch your people at close range."

"Have you granted any wishes over here?"

"It's not my territory. Also, except for the usual sex and money items, wishes here seem hard to figure out. What is a stock option?"

"Another word for money and sex. Has your research led to any conclusions so far?"

"My conclusions? It looks like sprawl and technology are going to push us out of our steady posts. Like everyone, we're going to have to be on the move."

"How do you mean, you spirits of place have to be on the move?"

"If you watch folk going by this mall fountain, and listen to their wishes, you learn that their lives don't circle around any single central place. Their homes, maybe, but they change houses pretty often, certainly more than our clients back in Japan, and their homes really exist as several connected areas: the house, day care place, that gym there, and so on. People here set up networks and connections and treat them as extended places. As that becomes more frequent in Japan we're going to have get on the move ourselves if we expect to keep up."

"If they don't circle around a central place where you spirits could reside, maybe today's people don't need spirits for their places any more."

"We think they do, but we are going to have to be flexible and keep moving."

"How will that work?"

"In the past I had my territory, my neighbor had another. The borders were fuzzy but we got along. Then there were the smaller spirits, and of course the higher-ups with rights in all the areas, but by and large we worked territories that centered around some monument or some natural feature. I remember my first waterfall. . ."

"It's quite a come down to be in this fountain?"

"But I've had it with waterfalls. Boring. Rabbits and birds, the occasional pilgrim and maybe a dinky little yearly festival. There's more going on here all the time. Technology gives us more freedom, too."

"What happens to nature, rootedness, places of transcendence and centering, and all those things you spirits of place were supposed to provide?"

"Look, you've read your Buddhism -- we had to -- so you know that the center is everywhere. Some Greek said that, too."

"But we humans have bodies; we need architectural occasions and reminders, constructions where we can feel centered and collected. Your shrines and their temples have worked pretty well that way."

"You're exaggerating. I've looked into the hearts of people coming by my shrine for centuries. Not much centered living there; mostly raging desires. And our festivals are a bit more de-centered than yours."

"But I still maintain that we won't feel right if there aren't places where we can come together. Places that speak openness, places that affirm our central values."

"What 'we,' white man?"

"Well, yes. But imagine nothing but miles of porches, and endless malls."

"Your complaints about those malls and suburbs misses the point; from the outside they look all the same, but they're not. We spirits are good at looking into hearts. There's a whole geography of desire, ideals, habits, norms laid over those miles of porches and malls. There's all sorts of networks and they make connections across those miles. 'Home' is extended, and maybe consists of six separated but linked areas. the 'center' is dispersed but there's still items that are key nodes. It's hard for us spirits of place to get used to that invisible geography; it was easier when we could sit in the central shrines and see everything wheeling around us. We're just one stop on the metro network now. So we have to be on the move, but we don't wander aimlessly."

"You're traveling here in America now; don't you feel more cosmopolitan than when you were in Japan?"

"It's stressful for us insular spirits. But we have to get used to the way places get into nets. They don't respect the old borders."

"So you could end up working over here?"

"There aren't many job openings here in the spirit of place business."

"No more spirits of place here, I suppose?"

"You haven't been listening. There are still spirits of places, but the places and the spirits have gone mobile and dispersed. The jobs get done by fewer spirits. Talk to the Facebook spirit."

"So what's going to change from when you worked as the spirits of your territories in Japan?"

"We're working out how to be present in divided places. You remember those Seven-Eleven stores all over Japan?"

"That company has done very well over there"

"Well, they have a Spirit of the Chain, and he's figured out how to be present in many places at once. Sort of the opposite of your bit about angels dancing on the head of a pin. More like how many different pins can an angel dance on at the same time."

"But if you have to be spread out, how can you still be the spirit of a place?"

"It's the places that get spread out."

"Even if I grant that there are indeed new dispersed and mobile places, wouldn't you also say that architects and planners need to create new central nodes?"

"It would be relaxing. But it's more important to make some signs and traces of those networks visible along those miles of suburbs and malls. A big Central node could end up pretending it wasn't on the net. You should get your architects to figure out how to gather and link at the same time. We spirits are working it out."

"What's the secret?"

"There's no secret. It's a matter of awareness. You have to mirror the far in the near, and see how the near depends on the far. My Buddhist colleagues have been doing that for a long time: connection, interdependence."

"Like those temples that include miniatures of famous pilgrimage routes?"

"Doctrines, too. We Shinto kami have never travelled well. But when the Buddhist spirits showed up in Japan they had already become quite cosmopolitan. They'd done the 'network' thing over in China: Indra's net, 'the whole world reflected in a drop of water,' that sort of thing."

"No sense of rootedness, then?"

"We kami go way back before agriculture. People were on the move. Routes, not roots."

"Bad pun, but it shows you've been studying English."

"It's serious. Your new society looks more like hunter-gatherers than agriculture. That's something we kami have to work out, but we've had experience. Rice farming came late to Japan, and before that we had some pretty well-off hunter-gatherers. Productive forests, lots of rain, good fishing."

"Sure, but you still were tied to natural markers."

"OK, but now what happens? People do still relate to fixtures, central nodes, but they aren't always geographical. They're in nets, too. So we have to attach ourselves to those. We look for where people hang their dreams and wishes."

"Places where people hang their wishes and dreams? So it's malls?"

"Malls, but also schools, parks -- that's like the old days -- and then some web sites and virtual locales -- I've met the Facebook spirit; he visits the mall too -- and there are even a few TV shows that people take as their true homes. The spirits of those shows tell me that it's a strange experience, to be the spirit of a TV show and look out at people facing the machine just as they would face a shrine, with all their wishes and dreams."

"But isn't that the 'death of place' we hear about."

"Mutation, not death. If we spirits can adapt, so can you."

"I still think people need some place on earth that they can feel rooted in and confirmed by."

"But why does that have to be confined to one piece of space?"

"How can you feel rooted and settled and oriented if there's not one piece of land with its familiar trees and buildings and light . . . "

"Don't tell me about trees; I'm a nature spirit; I know that scene really well. Not great conversationalists, trees."

"You don't want conversation, you want locatedness, depth, roots."

"Roots they have. But you do want conversation. Don't confuse your personal desire for some locale that makes you feel good and calms you down -- maybe it resonates with your childhood -- with real places that gather together and affirm your values and social roles."

"Places that can gather and affirm us still exist?"

"Of course. Even this chintzy mall. Your problem isn't that you don't have places, it's that you find them too thin in what they affirm. But you have to look around; there's lots of thicker places but they are often dispersed on the nets. Even this mall thickens up when you experience it in all its relations and connections. You call them superficial places but often they're places experienced superficially."

"You've got to admit that our culture and economy encourage that superficial experience."

"True, but back in medieval Japan we spent a lot of energy trying to keep the people from seeing the real power connections behind the shrine business."

"It all seems a lot worse now."

"It's more international now, and the tools of persuasion and obfuscation are more sophisticated. So we spirits get out and look around. You should too."

The Spirit of the Big Box

"Who are you, dragging those big boxes behind you?"

"I am the Spirit of Wal-Marts Yet To Come."

"You must be busy."

"I bring big boxes full of little things. I look for spaces and I redirect cash flows."

"I can't quite see the shape of those boxes."

"They are yet to come, in new styles, bigger and better, and online too."

"Your holiday compatriot scared the Dickens into Scrooge."

"He was gloomy, graveyards and all that, but I bring expansion, on and on, no end."

"There's got to be an end sometime."

"The Hudson Bay Company is still doing business after several centuries."

"Sure, but competition moved more slowly for most of that time, and the Bay isn't such a big deal now. Lots of young upstarts are trying to overtake you."

"Let them try. I have Momentum. I have Brand Recognition. I have Mindshare and I Attract Business."

"You have a lot of enemies, too."

"No publicity is bad publicity."

"You are making everywhere be the same."

"I glory in it. Serving and redirecting local needs, that's what I bring."

"And those cash flows, that's what you take?"

"Sure. Making America safe for mobility. Always the lower price leader."

"Have you ever read about Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City?"

"Wright paints a pretty picture of distributed retail along with his ideas for scattered housing, but he didn't understand Economies of Scale. I'll do all the general merchandise -- clothing, housewares, food and such -- and leave boutiques to those local craftspeople Wright liked to write about. Let them look after the place's local identity. I've got Business to do."

The Spirit of the Suburb

"This is a surprise; I didn't expect to find a resident spirit in an artificial lake in a New Urbanist suburban development. It doesn't seem right, somehow."

"But I'm really busy. This place advertises itself as bringing back old time roots and community, right? So it's got to have a spirit of the place. That's me."

"What do you do?"

"Not just lounge around in this lake, that's for sure. I have to hover over block parties, I try keep school committee meetings civil, I check out children's play groups, and on top of all that, I have to spend way too much time in the real estate sales office."

"That doesn't seem very spiritual."

"Real estate is where it's at! Go look at all those pictures, and watch the sales film. They are full of heavy duty spirit of the place stuff. I have to lend an aura -- the place isn't all built up yet, so it's up to me to get the clientele feeling the vibes."

"Is it hard work?"

"Compared to the old days, a lot harder. Then you could sit back and let the landscape do most of the work."

"The landscape is the same here as in those other developments down the road. They have lakes too. So what's the difference?"

"They have no spirits. To get one of us you have to apply to a central bureau in Miami and meet strict requirements. We don't go just anywhere."

"Who sets the standards for what place gets a spirit?"

"The Miami office has a whole list of requirements. Then once we're on duty we have to monitor compliance with the standards. It's not easy watching over street widths and porch railings."

"Does the Miami office get applications from places that try to lure one of you in on false pretenses?"

"All the time. But we spirits depart quickly if the place doesn't measure up. We're pretty mobile when we have to be."

"That's a change from the old days?"

"Well, truth to tell, the old days may have been smoother but they could be a little boring. Of course we didn't really notice that until things began to speed up."