The Importance of Purification in Shintoism

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For any religion that uses the act of purification in their rituals, no other element is quite as important and we can see this in the Shinto faith. Western writings which deal with the past or present religions of Japan emphasize the importance of cleanliness and purification in Shinto belief and ritual.

Within Shinto religion, the ritual of purification allows, in part, the acknowledgement of the wonder of Great Nature. Purification and cleansing rites are a fundamental part of shrine ceremonies incorporating traditions ostensibly of Japanese origin. The acts of purification are performed by priests who act as mediators when they are purified, conversing with the kami (spirits or deities) on behalf of people they will in turn ceremonially purify.

Purification was essential before worship and was achieved by various methods; these included exorcism (harai), cleansing (misogi), and abstention (imi). This last method of purification is the most interesting; it is a method of obtaining a positive purity by evasion of the causes of contamination. It was consequently the responsibility of priests rather than of ordinary men to perform the necessary restraints, which concerned primarily of the adherence of certain exclusions.

Priests would avoid contact with sickness, death and mourning. They were required to eat only certain foods, and these were to be cooked over a ‘pure’ fire. Clothes were to be specially purified and priests were required not to go outdoors, to refrain from noise, dancing and singing. On top of this, scrupulous care had to be taken to avoid contamination of the sanctuary, the offerings and the utensils.

One of the chief Shinto priests, Yamamoto Guji, pointed out that “since the waterfall … is a kami, there is need for purification before entering [the water].” Hence, “the practice opens with a purification ceremony [wherein]the limitations on [human]development are lifted and restoration can take place” (Boyd & Williams, p.49). Yamamoto explained: “the reason [why harmonious relations do not always happen]is that man often makes mistakes that lead to his becoming impure. When people become impure in this sense, they stray from themselves and they have to find themselves again…. The manner by which that purity is restored is purification, or oharai” (Boyd & Williams, p.57).

Menstruation, childbirth, and death are the foremost causes of contamination. During menses women are considered as impure and are obliged to avoid contact with Shinto deities for fear of contaminating or insulting them with their impure company. A woman during her menses may not follow her usual tradition of making daily or irregular food offerings before the several shrines to household gods within the abode. To a degree for fear of broadening the impurity to other household members and partly for more practical reasons, a woman must not take a bath in the household bath whilst menstruating. In some homes, pinches of purifying salt are placed on all house-hold shrines during this and any other periods of kegare (impurity).

There are many ways in which purification acts can be carried out. One particular purification ritual, named ‘henbai’(which has similarities to the Chinese Taoist ritual of ‘uho’, which allows one to purify the area of demons and evil spirits. The raising and subsequent stamping of the legs on the dohyo by sumo wrestlers in preparation for a bout is purportedly a legacy of henbai – it is a way of purifying the ring. Other ways in which to purify yourself, or others, include a miko (a priestess) sprinkles boiling water from a cauldron over herself and those standing nearby as a means of purification.

We might say that purity, then, is the brief disbanding of self, a form of living in the present. In one scholar’s words, it has the “passion of the absence of individuality,” or, as Yamamoto Guji asserted, “purification … means becoming nothing…. This nothingness will create something out of nothing, and new spiritual ki, or energy, will emerge” (Boyd & Williams, p.46).

In the Great Purification Ceremony (Oharai), for example, corrupt circumstances (tsumi) particularly mean a diverse array of situations and behaviours; destroying agricultural works, causing injuries or death, the spreading of excrement, taking part in random sexual relationships, bestiality, leprosy, the falling of lightning, damage done by harmful birds, and the use of magic (Boyd & Williams, p.36).

Today, in a scholarly environment where earlier held beliefs for native Japanese philosophies and traditions are being examined and the origins of shrine purification rituals are being re-questioned. The beliefs and customs of kegare (impurity) and imi (purification or taboo) are still present, however, in comparatively intricate structure in many rural communities and their influence, at least, remains among people of urban areas.


Boyd, James W. & Williams, Ron G. (2005) An Interpretation of a Priestly Perspective, Philosophy East and West, University of Hawai’i Press.

Lancashire, Terence (2001 – 2002) “Kagura” – A “Shinto” Dance? Or Perhaps Not, Asian Music, University of Texas Press.


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