In Japanese folklore, a shinigami is a spirit that collects the souls of the dead. Translated as "Death God"
(sometimes referred to as "angels of death"), a shinigami
is essentially the personification of death.
Death has been portrayed as a tangible being throughout many different cultures. Almost every ancient civilisation has a form of death god, such as the Egyptians' Anubis or Thanatos from Greek mythology. The only difference to shinigami being that it was not a term referred to in ancient Japan, only first being noted in the Meiji era. According to literary critic Masao Azuma, Japanese perspectives on Death originate from those of the Chinese. "There was originally no Death worship in Japan. In China, there are characters similar to the shinigami, called Somujo or Koshinin, whose job was to take spirits to Meifu (The Land of Death).
The fact that these shinigami are not mentioned in
Shintoism, and the numerous ideas conjured out of the
simple words "death god", lead to an abundance of differing
interpretations of the deity. Commonly appearing in a wide range of works of fiction - from plays, books, manga/anime to even video games - the shinigami tends to be crafted depending on its author tastes. However shinigami are most generally presented as a psychopomp figure.
For instance, in the anime Bleach the role of shinigamis is to route the saved human souls into the Soul Society while handling the menace of the Hollows (evil soulless ghosts). The term shinigami is given to the group of human-appearing rulers that are either born into the job or have attended "Shinigami School". Additionally in Death
Note, an anime primarily concerned with life/death and
good/evil, shinigamis also play a large role. Within their
own world, the Shinigami Realm, the death gods look upon
Earth and write down names of humans intended to die in
their notebooks. They are portrayed in these examples as
having complete control over human life and knowledge of
Just like the Grim Reaper is often given human
qualities, so too are the mystical Japanese equivalent. A very popular light to cast the shinigami in is one of bearing the same emotions and desires of a human being. No matter how different they are described or drawn, the gods of death can seem strangely familiar in their emotional responses or their need to reason. In the Japanese novel "The Accuracy of Death", by Kotaro Isaka, the shinigami, as Death, is portrayed as a charming character that is kind at heart. Sent to survey people who have a week left until death, he is much happier sampling music at a record store than pursuing his "job". Similarly, Ryuk, the Earth-bound shinigami from Death Note, cares little for the rules and procedures in his realm and seeks mischief and adventure on Earth to cure his boredom.
Also appearing as a recurring character in the video game series Castlevania and the title and subject of a rakugo play, it is quite evident the extent in which the idea of the shinigami is appreciated. Due to its simple translation, it appears that the title is even considered appropriate being applied to mortal beings as a form of compliment. In the manga Zombie Powder the main protagonist is referred to as the "black-armed shinigami" not because of any power bestowed upon him to take life, but because of his feared killing ability.
Interestingly enough there exists an urban legend in Japan suggesting that the Shirogane Tunnel in Tokyo is a gateway that shinigami use as a path between the lands of the living and the dead. There have even been reports of screaming faces set into the silhouettes or the tunnel's pillars.