In some of the myths of Japanese lore I have found references to a non-specific 神様.

I'm no expert in neither the language nor the lore (I'm a simple student as of now), yet it seems to me that this references arise mainly in "imported" lore rather than indigenous lore: for example, the lore of Japan creation as found in the Kojiki actually names many on the divinities that are present; whereas lores such as the 12 zodiac animals or the Tanabata lore present such a non-descript 神様.

It seems to me that these references go back to China, so that I think that 神様 may be identified with the Jade Emperor (yet this is eventually a question to be asked in the Chinese Stack Exchange); yet in Japanese lore with whom may we identify this divinity?

  • 2
    Hi, welcome to Japanese SE. I don't think this is a question about the Japanese language though.
    – Eddie Kal
    Jan 12, 2021 at 20:06
  • 2
    It seems to me that question actually posed isn't actually about the Japanese language, but could easily be edited to fit that criterion...!
    – henreetee
    Jan 12, 2021 at 21:11
  • 1
    It can just as easily mean 'the gods' as one specific deity
    – Angelos
    Jan 12, 2021 at 21:50
  • 2
    What sources do you have? A quick look at the 神様 entry in Kotobank suggests that this first appears in the early 1800s, far too late to be terribly relevant to your question. The suffix 様 (-sama) as an honorific for people or deities only appears from the Muromachi period, which seems to reinforce the irrelevance of this possibly going back to China. Jan 12, 2021 at 23:06
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi I have no specific source. It was only due to lores reported by texts used in my class (the texts are copyrighted to The Japan Foundation, but I don't know the exact source).
    – Markio
    Jan 13, 2021 at 19:10

1 Answer 1


After reading your question, I thought "I don't know, but does it have to be identified?"

In modernized folklore Japanese children hear today, it is true that there are many references to "non-descript" 神様. For example, most Japanese people know the story regarding why cats were not chosen as part of 十二支, where unidentified 神様 determines the 12 zodiac animals.

I think it was intentionally made "non-descript". There are very few people who are interested in associating it with traditional deities in specific legends or religions. As a native Japanese speaker, I personally have never wondered which religion or country those 神様 belong to, either. Japanese people today are perfectly fine with the idea of 神様 that belongs to no particular religion. FWIW, I have never heard of Jade Emperor.

When Japanese people use the word 神様 today, it perhaps refers to Christian God if they are attending a Christian-style wedding, and shinto gods if they are visiting a shinto shrine. Otherwise, it has no relationship to a particular god in traditional lore or religions. People sometimes say something like どうなるかは神様にしか分からない ("Only God knows what will happen"), in a hospital for example, but if you ask "Which God are you referring to?", you'll probably get a blank stare.

If you're interested in the serious history of 十二支 or 七夕 in China, please ask about them elsewhere. I can only explain how the word 神様 is perceived by ordinary Japanese people. Of course there are well-known legends that are unequivocally tied to shinto gods, but they are generally not popular with kids.

Maybe related: Japan: The Most Religious Atheist Country

EDIT: Looks like the one called 神様 in so-called the "Tanabata story" can be traced back to 王母娘娘. I believe very few Japanese people know this. As for 十二支, some sources suggest this 神様 is お釈迦様, but the history of 十二支 is longer than the history of Buddhism itself...

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .