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Worship and Purification

WE have seen that, in Old Japan, the world of the living was everywhere ruled by the world of the dead, — that the individual, at every moment of his existence, was under ghostly supervision. In his home he was watched by the spirits of his fathers; without it, he was ruled by the god of his district. All about him, and above him, and beneath him were invisible powers of life and death. In his conception of nature all things were ordered by the dead, — light and darkness, weather and season, winds and tides, mist and rain, growth and decay, sickness and health. The viewless atmosphere was a phantom-sea, an ocean of ghost; the soil that he tilled was pervaded by spirit-essence; the trees were haunted and holy; even the rocks and the stones were infused with conscious life.... How might he discharge his duty to the infinite concourse of the invisible?


Few scholars could remember the names of all the greater gods, not to speak of the lesser; and no mortal could have found time to address those greater gods by their respective names in his daily prayer. The later Shintō teachers proposed to simplify the duties of the faith by prescribing one brief daily prayer to the gods in general, and special prayers to a few gods in particular; and in thus doing they were most likely confirming a custom already established by necessity. Hirata wrote: " As the number of the gods who possess different functions is very great, it will be convenient to worship by name the most important only, and to include the rest in a general petition." He prescribed ten prayers for persons having time to repeat them, but lightened the duty for busy folk, — observing: "Persons whose daily affairs are so multitudinous that they have not time to go through all the prayers, may content themselves with adoring (1) the residence of the Emperor, (2) the domestic god-shelf, — kamidana, (3) the spirits of their ancestors, (4) their local patron-god, — Ujigami, (5) the deity of their particular calling." He advised that the following prayer should be daily repeated before the "god-shelf": —


“Reverently adoring the great god of the two palaces of Isι in the first place, — the eight hundred myriads of celestial gods, — the eight hundred myriads of terrestrial gods, — the fifteen hundred myriads of gods to whom are consecrated the great and small temples in all provinces, all islands, and all places of the Great Land of Eight Islands, — the fifteen hundred myriads of gods whom they cause to serve them, and the gods of branch-palaces and branch-temples, and Sohodo-no-Kami1 whom I have invited to the shrine set up on this divine shelf, and to whom I offer praises day by day, — I pray with awe that they will deign to correct the unwilling faults which, heard and seen by them, I have committed; and that, blessing and favouring me according to the powers which they severally wield, they will cause me to follow the divine example, and to perform good works in the Way." 2


This text is interesting as an example of what Shintō's greatest expounder thought a Shintō prayer should be; and, excepting the reference to So-ho-do-no-Kami, the substance of it is that of the morning prayer still repeated in Japanese households. But the modern prayer is very much shorter.... In Izumo, the oldest Shintō province, the customary morning worship offers perhaps the best example of the ancient rules of devotion. Immediately upon rising, the worshipper performs his ablutions; and after having washed his face and rinsed his mouth, he turns to the sun, claps his hands, and with bowed head reverently utters the simple greeting: "Hail to thee this day, August One!" In thus adoring the sun he is also fulfilling his duty as a subject, — paying obeisance to the Imperial Ancestor.... The act is performed out of doors, not kneeling, but standing; and the spectacle of this simple worship is impressive. I can now see in memory, — just as plainly as I saw with my eyes many years ago, off the wild Oki coast, — the naked figure of a young fisherman erect at the prow of his boat, clapping his hands in salutation to the rising sun, whose ruddy glow transformed him into a statue of bronze. Also I retain a vivid memory of pilgrim-figures poised upon the topmost crags of the summit of Fuji, clapping their hands in prayer, with faces to the East.... Perhaps ten thousand — twenty thousand — years ago all humanity so worshipped the Lord of Day....


After having saluted the sun, the worshipper returns to his house, to pray before the Kamidana and before the tablets of the ancestors. Kneeling, he invokes the great gods of Isι or of Izumo, the gods of the chief temples of his province, the god of his parish-temple also (Ujigami) and finally all the myriads of the deities of Shintō. These prayers are not said aloud. The ancestors are thanked for the foundation of the home; the higher deities are invoked for aid and protection.... As for the custom of bowing in the direction of the Emperor's palace, I am not able to say to what extent it survives in the remoter districts; but I have often seen the reverence performed. Once, too, I saw reverence done immediately in front of the gates of the palace in Tōkyō by country-folk on a visit to the capital. They knew me, because I had often sojourned in their village; and on reaching Tōkyō they sought me out, and found me. I took them to the palace; and before the main entrance they removed their hats, and bowed, and clapped their hands, — just as they would have done when saluting the gods or the rising sun, — and this with a simple and dignified reverence that touched me not a little.


The duties of morning worship, which include the placing of offerings before the tablets, are not the only duties of the domestic cult. In a Shinto household, where the ancestors and the higher gods are separately worshipped, the ancestral shrine may be said to correspond with the Roman lararium; while the "god-shelf," with its taima or o-nusa (symbols of those higher gods especially revered by the family), may be compared with the place accorded by Latin custom to the worship of the Penates. Both Shintō cults have their particular feast-days; and, in the case of the ancestor-cult, the feast-days are occasions of religious assembly, — when the relatives of the family should gather to celebrate the domestic rite.... The Shinōtist must also take part in the celebration of the festivals of the Ujigami, and must at least aid in the celebration of the nine great national holidays related to the national cult; these nine, out of a total eleven, being occasions of imperial ancestor-worship.


The nature of the public rites varied according to the rank of the gods. Offerings and prayers were made to all; but the greater deities were worshipped with exceeding ceremony. To-day the offerings usually consist of food and rice-wine, together with symbolic articles representing the costlier gifts of woven stuffs presented by ancient custom. The ceremonies — include processions, music, singing, and dancing. At the very small shrines there are few ceremonies, only offerings of food are presented. But at the great temples there are hierarchies of priests and priestesses (miko) — usually daughters of priests; and the ceremonies are elaborate and solemn. It is particularly at the temples of Isι (where, down to the fourteenth century the high-priestess was a daughter of emperors), or at the great temple of Izumo, that the archaic character of the ceremonial can be studied to most advantage. There, in spite of the passage of that huge wave of Buddhism, which for a period almost submerged the more ancient faith, all things remain as they were a score of centuries ago; — Time, in those haunted precincts, would seem to have slept, as in the enchanted palaces of fairy-tale. The mere shapes of the buildings, weird and tall, startle by their unfamiliarity. Within, all is severely plain and pure: there are no images, no ornaments, no symbols visible — except those strange paper-cuttings (gohei), suspended to upright rods, which are symbols of offerings and also tokens of the viewless. By the number of them in the sanctuary, you know the number of the deities to whom the place is consecrate. There is nothing imposing but the space, the silence, and the suggestion of the past. The innermost shrine is veiled: it contains, perhaps, a mirror of bronze, an ancient sword, or other object enclosed in multiple wrappings: that is all. For this faith, older than icons, needs no images: its gods are ghosts; and the void stillness of its shrines compels more awe than tangible representation could inspire. Very strange, to Western eyes at least, are the rites, the forms of the worship, the shapes of sacred objects. Not by any modern method must the sacred fire be lighted, — the fire that cooks the food of the gods: it can be kindled only in the most ancient of ways, with a wooden fire-drill. The chief priests are robed in the sacred colour, — white, — and wear headdresses of a shape no longer seen elsewhere: high caps of the kind formerly worn by lords and princes. Their assistants wear various colours, according to grade; and the faces of none are completely shaven; — some wear full beards, others the mustache only. The actions and attitudes of these hierophants are dignified, yet archaic, in a degree difficult to describe. Each movement is regulated by tradition; and to perform well the functions of a Kannushi, a long disciplinary preparation is necessary. The office is hereditary; the training begins in boyhood; and the impassive deportment eventually acquired is really a wonderful thing. Officiating, the Kannushi seems rather a statue than a man, an image moved by invisible strings; and, like the gods, he never winks. Not at least observably.... Once, during a great Shintō procession, several Japanese friends, and I myself, undertook to watch a young priest on horseback, in order to see how long he could keep from winking; and none of us were able to detect the slightest movement of eyes or eyelids, notwithstanding that the priest's horse became restive during the time that we were watching.


The principal incidents of the festival ceremonies within the great temples are the presentation of the offerings, the repetition of the ritual, and the dancing of the priestesses. Each of these performances retains a special character rigidly fixed by tradition. The food-offerings are served upon archaic vessels of unglazed pottery (red earthenware mostly): boiled rice pressed into cones of the form of a sugar-loaf, various preparations of fish and of edible sea-weed, fruits and fowls, rice-wine presented in jars of immemorial shape. These offerings are carried into the temple upon white wooden trays of curious form, and laid upon white wooden tables of equally curious form; — the faces of the bearers being covered, below the eyes, with sheets of white paper, in order that their breath may not contaminate the food of the gods; and the trays, for like reason, must be borne at arms’ length.... In ancient times the offerings would seem to have included things much more costly than food, — if we may credit the testimony of what are probably the oldest documents extant in the Japanese tongue, the Shintō rituals, or norito.3 The following excerpt from Satow's translation of the ritual prayer to the Wind-gods of Tatsuta is interesting, not only as a fine example of the language of the norito, but also as indicating the character of the great ceremonies in early ages, and the nature of the offerings: —


"As the great offerings set up for the Youth-god, I set up various sorts of offerings: for Clothes, bright cloth, glittering cloth, soft cloth, and coarse cloth, — and the five kinds of things, a mantlet, a spear, a horse furnished with a saddle; — for the Maiden-god I set up various sorts of offerings — providing Clothes, a golden thread-box, a golden tatari, a golden skein-holder, bright cloth, glittering cloth, soft cloth, and coarse cloth, and the five kinds of things, a horse furnished with a saddle; — as to Liquor, I raise high the beer-jars, fill and range-in-a-row the bellies of the beer-jars; soft grain and coarse grain; — as to things which dwell in the hills, things soft of hair and things coarse of hair; — as to things which grow in the great field-plain, sweet herbs and bitter herbs; — as to things which dwell in the blue sea-plain, things broad of fin and things narrow of fin — down to the weeds of the offing and weeds of the shore. And if the sovran gods will take these great offerings which I set up, — piling them up like a range of hills, — peacefully in their hearts, as peaceful offerings and satisfactory offerings; and if the sovran gods, deigning not to visit the things produced by the great People of the region under heaven with bad winds and rough waters, will ripen and bless them, — I will at the autumn service set up the first fruits, raising high the beer-jars, filling and ranging-in-rows the bellies of the beer-jars, — and drawing them hither in juice and in ear, in many hundred rice-plants and a thousand rice-plants. And for this purpose the princes and councillors and all the functionaries, the servants of the six farms of the country of Yamato — even to the males and females of them — have all come and assembled in the fourth month of this year, and, plunging down the root of the neck cormorant-wise in the presence of the sovran gods, fulfil their praise as the Sun of to-day rises in glory.”...


The offerings are no longer piled up "like a range of hills," nor do they include "all things dwelling in the mountains and in the sea"; but the imposing ritual remains, and the ceremony is always impressive. Not the least interesting part of it is the sacred dance. While the gods are supposed to be partaking of the food and wine set out before their shrines, the girl-priestesses, robed in crimson and white, move gracefully to the sound of drums and flutes, — waving fans, or shaking bunches of tiny bells as they circle about the sanctuary. According to our Western notions, the performance of the miko could scarcely be called dancing; but it is a graceful spectacle, and very curious, — for every step and attitude is regulated by traditions of unknown antiquity. As for the plaintive music, no Western ear can discern in it anything resembling a real melody; but the gods should find delight in it, because it is certainly performed for them to-day exactly as it used to be performed twenty centuries ago.

I speak of the ceremonies especially as I have witnessed them in Izumo: they vary somewhat according to cult and province. At the shrines of Isι, Kasuga, Kompira, and several others which I visited, the ordinary priestesses are children; and when they have reached the nubile age, they retire from the service. At Kitzuki the priestesses are grown-up women: their office is hereditary; and they are permitted to retain it even after marriage.


Formerly the Miko was more than a mere officiant: the songs which she is still obliged to learn indicate that she was originally offered to the gods as a bride. Even yet her touch is holy; the grain sown by her hand is blessed. At some time in the past she seems to have been also a pythoness: the spirits of the gods possessed her and spoke through her lips. All the poetry of this most ancient of religions centres in the figure of its little Vestal, child-bride of ghosts, as she flutters, like some wonderful white-and-crimson butterfly, before the shrine of the Invisible. Even in these years of change, when she must go to the public school, she continues to represent all that is delightful in Japanese girlhood; for her special home-training keeps her reverent, innocent, dainty in all her little ways, and worthy to remain the pet of the gods.


The history of the higher forms of ancestor-worship in other countries would lead us to suppose that the public ceremonies of the Shintō-cult must include some rite of purification. As a matter of fact, the most important of all Shintō ceremonies is the ceremony of purification, o-harai, as it is called, which term signifies the casting-out or expulsion of evils.... In ancient Athens a corresponding ceremony took place every year; in Rome, every four years. The o-harai is performed twice every year, in the sixth month and the twelfth month by the ancient calendar. It used to be not less obligatory than the Roman lustration; and the idea behind the obligation was the same as that which inspired the Roman laws on the subject.... So long as men believe that the welfare of the living depends upon the will of the dead, — that all happenings in the world are ordered by spirits of different characters, evil as well as good, — that every bad action lends additional power to the viewless forces of destruction, and therefore endangers the public prosperity, — so long will the necessity of a public purification remain an article of common faith. The presence in any community of even one person who has offended the gods, consciously or unwillingly, is a public misfortune, a public peril. Yet it is not possible for all men to live so well as never to vex the gods by thought, word, or deed, — through passion or ignorance or carelessness. "Every one," declares Hirata, "is certain to commit accidental offences, however careful he may be.... Evil acts and words are of two kinds: those of which we are conscious, and those of which we are not conscious.... It is better to assume that we have committed such unconscious offences." Now it should be remembered that for the man of Old Japan, — as for the Greek or the Roman citizen of early times, — religion consisted chiefly in the exact observance of multitudinous custom; and that it was therefore difficult to know whether, in performing the duties of the several cults, one had not inadvertently displeased the Unseen. As a means of maintaining and assuring the religious purity of the people, periodical lustration was consequently deemed indispensable.

From the earliest period Shintō exacted scrupulous cleanliness indeed, we might say that it regarded physical impurity as identical with moral impurity, and intolerable to the gods. It has always been, and still remains, a religion of ablutions. The Japanese love of cleanliness — indicated by the universal practice of daily bathing, and by the irreproachable condition of their homes — has been maintained, and was probably initiated, by their religion. Spotless cleanliness being required by the rites of ancestor-worship, — in the temple, in the person of the officiant, and in the home, — this rule of purity was naturally extended by degrees to all the conditions of existence. And besides the great periodical ceremonies of purification, a multitude of minor lustrations were exacted by the cult. This was the case also, it will be remembered, in the early Greek and Roman civilizations: the citizen had to submit to purification upon almost every important occasion of existence. There were lustrations indispensable at birth, marriage, and death; lustrations on the eve of battle; lustrations, at regular periods, of the dwelling, estate, district, or city. And, as in Japan, no one could approach a temple without a preliminary washing of hands. But ancient Shintō exacted more than the Greek or the Roman cult: it required the erection of special houses for birth, — "parturition-houses"; special houses for the consummation of marriage, — "nuptial huts"; and special buildings for the dead, — "mourning-houses." Formerly women were obliged during the period of menstruation, as well as during the time of confinement, to live apart. These harsher archaic customs have almost disappeared, except in one or two remote districts, and in the case of certain priestly families; but the general rules as to purification, and as to the times and circumstances forbidding approach to holy places, are still everywhere obeyed. Purity of heart is not less insisted upon than physical purity; and the great rite of lustration, performed every six months, is of course a moral purification. It is performed not only at the great temples, and at all the Ujigami, but likewise in every home.4


The modern domestic form of the harai is very simple. Each Shintō parish-temple furnishes to all its Ujiko, or parishioners, small paper-cuttings called hitogata ("mankind-shapes"), representing figures of men, women, and children as in silhouette, — only that the paper is white, and folded curiously. Each household receives a number of hitogata corresponding to the number of its members, "men-shapes" for the men and boys, "women-shapes” for the women and girls. Each person in the house touches his head, face, limbs, and body with one of these hitogata; repeating the while a Shintō invocation, and praying that any misfortune or sickness incurred by reason of offences involuntarily committed against the gods (for in Shintō belief sickness and misfortune are divine punishments) may be mercifully taken away. Upon each hitogata is then written the age and sex (not the name) of the person for whom it was furnished; and when this has been done, all are returned to the parish-temple, and there burnt, with rites of purification. Thus the community is "lustrated" every six months.

In the old Greek and Latin cities lustration was accompanied with registration. The attendance of every citizen at the ceremony was held to be so necessary that one who wilfully failed to attend might be whipped and sold as a slave. Non-attendance involved loss of civic rights. It would seem that in Old Japan also every member of a community was obliged to be present at the rite; but I have not been able to learn whether any registration was made upon such occasions. Probably it would have been superfluous: the Japanese individual was not officially recognized; the family-group alone was responsible, and the attendance of the several members would have been assured by the responsibility of the group. The use of the hitogata, on which the name is not written, but only the sex and age of the worshipper, is probably modern, and of Chinese origin. Official registration existed, even in early times; but it appears to have had no particular relation to the o-harai; and the registers were kept, it seems, not by the Shinto, but by the Buddhist parish-priests.... In concluding these remarks about the o-harai, I need scarcely add that special rites were performed in cases of accidental religious defilement, and that any person judged to have sinned against the rules of the public cult had to submit to ceremonial purification.


Closely related by origin to the rites of purification are sundry ascetic practices of Shintō. It is not an essentially ascetic religion: it offers flesh and wine to its gods; and it prescribes only such forms of self-denial as ancient custom and decency require. Nevertheless, some of its votaries perform extraordinary austerities on special occasions, — austerities which always include much cold-water bathing. It is not uncommon for the very fervent worshipper to invoke the gods as he stands naked under the ice-cold rush of a cataract in midwinter.... But the most curious phase of this Shintō asceticism is represented by a custom still prevalent in remote districts. According to this custom a community yearly appoints one of its citizens to devote himself wholly to the gods on behalf of the rest. During the term of his consecration, this communal representative must separate from his family, must not approach women, must avoid all places of amusement, must eat only food cooked with sacred fire, must abstain from wine, must bathe in fresh cold water several times a day, must repeat particular prayers at certain hours, and must keep vigil upon certain nights. When he has performed these duties of abstinence and purification for the specified time, he becomes religiously free; and another man is then elected to take his place. The prosperity of the settlement is supposed to depend upon the exact observance by its representative of the duties prescribed: should any public misfortune occur, he would be suspected of having broken his vows. Anciently, in the case of a common misfortune, the representative was put to death. In the little town of Mionosιki, where I first learned of this custom, the communal representative is called ichi-nen-gannushi ("one-year god-master"); and his full term of vicarious atonement is twelve months. I was told that elders are usually appointed for this duty, — young men very seldom. In ancient times such a communal representative was called by a name signifying "abstainer.” References to the custom have been found in Chinese notices of Japan dating from a time before the beginning of Japanese authentic history.


Every persistent form of ancestor-worship has its system or systems of divination; and Shintō exemplifies the general law. Whether divination ever obtained in ancient Japan the official importance which it assumed among the Greeks and the Romans is at present doubtful. But long before the introduction of Chinese astrology, magic, and fortune-telling, the Japanese practised various kinds of divination, as is proved by their ancient poetry, their records, and their rituals. We find mention also of official diviners, attached to the great cults. There was divination by bones, by birds, by rice, by barley-gruel, by footprints, by rods planted in the ground, and by listening in public ways to the speech of people passing by. Nearly all — probably all — of these old methods of divination are still in popular use. But the earliest form of official divination was performed by scorching the shoulder-blade of a deer, or other animal, and observing the cracks produced by the heat.5 Tortoise-shells were afterwards used for the same purpose. Diviners were especially attached, it appears, to the imperial palace; and Motowori, writing in the latter half of the eighteenth century, speaks of divination as still being, in that epoch, a part of the imperial function. "To the end of time," he said, "the Mikado is the child of the Sun-goddess. His mind is in perfect harmony of thought and feeling with hers. He does not seek out new inventions; but he rules in accordance with precedents which date from the Age of the Gods; and if he is ever in doubt, he has recourse to divination, which reveals to him the mind of the great goddess."

Within historic times at least, divination would not seem to have been much used in warfare, certainly not to the extent that it was used by the Greek and Roman armies. The greatest Japanese captains, — such as Hidιyoshi and Nobunaga — were decidedly irreverent as to omens. Probably the Japanese, at an early period of their long military history, learned by experience that the general who conducts his campaign according to omens must always be at a hopeless disadvantage in dealing with a skilful enemy who cares nothing about omens.

Among the ancient popular forms of divination which still survive, the most commonly practised in households is divination by dry rice. For the public, Chinese divination is still in great favour; but it is interesting to observe that the Japanese fortune-teller invariably invokes the Shintō gods before consulting his Chinese books, and maintains a Shintō shrine in his reception-room.

We have seen that the developments of ancestor-worship in Japan present remarkable analogies with the developments of ancestor-worship in ancient Europe,— especially in regard to the public cult, with its obligatory rites of purification.

But Shintō seems nevertheless to represent conditions of ancestor-worship less developed than those which we are accustomed to associate with early Greek and Roman life; and the coercion which it exercised appears to have been proportionally more rigid. The existence of the individual worshipper was ordered not merely in relation to the family and the community, but even in relation to inanimate things. Whatever his occupation might be, some god presided over it; whatever tools he might use, they had to be used in such manner as tradition prescribed for all admitted to the craft-cult. It was necessary that the carpenter should so perform his work as to honour the deity of carpenters, that the smith should fulfil his daily task so as to honour the god of the bellows, — that the farmer should never fail in respect to the earth-god, and the food-god, and the scare-crow god, and the spirits of the trees about his habitation. Even the domestic utensils were sacred: the servant could not dare to forget the presence of the deities of the cooking-range, the hearth, the cauldron, the brazier, — or the supreme necessity of keeping the fire pure. The professions, not less than the trades, were under divine patronage: the physician, the teacher, the artist — each had his religious duties to observe, his special traditions to obey. The scholar, for example, could not dare to treat his writing-implements with disrespect, or put written paper to vulgar uses: such conduct would offend the god of calligraphy. Nor were women ruled less religiously than men in their various occupations: the spinners and weaving-maidens were bound to revere the Weaving-goddess and the Goddess of Silkworms; the sewing-girl was taught to respect her needles; and in all homes there was observed a certain holiday upon which offerings were made to the Spirits of Needles. In Samurai families the warrior was commanded to consider his armour and his weapons as holy things: to keep them in beautiful order was an obligation of which the neglect might bring misfortune in the time of combat; and on certain days offerings were set before the bows and spears, arrows and swords, and other war-implements, in the alcove of the family guest-room. Gardens, too, were holy; and there were rules to be observed in their management, lest offence should be given to the gods of trees and flowers. Carefulness, cleanliness, dustlessness, were everywhere enforced as religious obligations.

...It has often been remarked in these latter days that the Japanese do not keep their public offices, their railway stations, their new factory-buildings, thus scrupulously clean. But edifices built in foreign style, with foreign material, under foreign supervision, and contrary to every local tradition, must seem to old-fashioned thinking God-forsaken places; and servants amid such unhallowed surroundings do not feel the invisible about them, the weight of pious custom, the silent claim of beautiful and simple things to human respect.


1 Sohodo-no-Kami is the god of scarecrows, — protector of the fields.

2 Translated by Satow.

3 Several have been translated by Satow, whose opinion of their antiquity is here cited; and translations have also been made into German.

4 On the kamidana, "or god-shelf,” there is usually placed a kind of oblong paper-box containing fragments of the wands used by the priests of Isι at the great national purification-ceremony, or o-harai. This box is commonly called by the name of the ceremony, o-harai, or "august purification,” and is inscribed with the names of the great gods of Isι. The presence of this object is supposed to protect the home; but it should be replaced by a new o-harai at the expiration of six months; for the virtue of the charm is supposed to last only during the interval between two official purifications. This distribution to thousands of homes of fragments of the wands, used to "drive away evils” at the time of the Isι lustration, represents of course the supposed extension of the high-priest's protection to those homes until the time of the next o-harai.

5 Concerning this form of divination, Satow remarks that it was practised by the Mongols in the time of Genghis Khan, and is still practised by the Khirghiz Tartars, — facts of strong interest in view of the probable origin of the early Japanese tribes.

For instances of ancient official divination see Aston’s translation of the Nihongi, Vol. I, pp. 157, 189, 127, 229, 237.

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