Ōharaikotoba — Shinto Texts Course

Yesterday we had the fourth of this year’s Shinto lectures at Kokugakuin. The lecturer was Professor Okada, and the theme was the ÅŒharaikotoba. The ÅŒharaikotoba is a purification prayer, and one of the most important norito (ritual prayer) in Shinto. Indeed, it is almost certainly the most important single norito, which is why it earned a whole lecture to itself on the course. It’s about 900 characters long, so probably around 500 words in English. If it’s recited at a stately pace, it takes about ten minutes, which is why it isn’t a standard part of Shinto ceremonies, although purification certainly is.

“Kotoba” just means “words”, although with the kanji used in this case it means “specially composed words”. “Harai” is purification, and the “ÅŒ” prefix indicates a public and official purification. The norito was originally used at the twice-yearly ÅŒharai in the capital, where all the government officials and palace staff would gather outside the main gate, the Suzaku gate, of the imperial palace to be purified of everything that had built up over the past half year. The prayer was read out by a member of the Nakatomi family, so it is also known as the Nakatomi Harai. The earliest ÅŒharai referred to in historical records was in 676. (There are earlier ones, but they are said to have happened under emperors who didn’t actually exist, and so the records are not believed to be trustworthy.) This was an exceptional one, held in the eighth month, as opposed to the ones that later became standard, in the sixth and twelfth months. The first reference to those is in 702, when the record states that the ÅŒharai was not held in the capital, although the corresponding regional ceremonies were. Since it only makes sense to say that something was not held if there was an expectation that it would be, the regular system must have been set up before that. A new set of Chinese-style laws was introduced in Japan in 701, so it is thought that the ÅŒharai was instituted at the same time.

In the past it was quite common for Japanese people to know the ÅŒharaikotoba by heart, but that’s much less common today. Professor Okada commented that all the students in the Department of Shinto Studies knew it by heart by their third or fourth year, but they didn’t understand it. That is hardly surprising; it’s in archaic Japanese, and as he went through Professor Okada commented on some points for which the interpretation is still unclear.

The norito starts by telling the story of the descent of Ninigi (the ancestor of the imperial line) to earth. At the beginning it mentions the male and female ancestor kami of the imperial line, but it does not say, specifically, which kami it means. The most common interpretation seems to be Takamimusubi and Amaterasu, respectively, and that fits pretty well with the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. However, some people apparently replace Amaterasu with Kamumusubi. The norito also talks about gathering kami from across Japan, thus emphasising that Japan and Takamagahara, the High Plain of Heaven, are not separated. It then describes Ninigi’s descent, and the construction of an imperial palace.

Next, there is a list of the things that cause pollution. This is split into two groups, the Ama tsu Tsumi, or “Crimes of Heaven”, and the Kuni tsu Tsumi, or “Crimes of Earth”. As the norito is used today, the crimes are not explicitly listed, although they were in the original version. Professor Okada’s explanation for this was that it is inappropriate to say such things in a shrine; they are words that should be avoided. Originally, the norito was not read in a shrine, so it was fine, but the situation changed.

All of the Ama tsu Tsumi are connected to rice agriculture. They include breaking down the banks between fields, filling in irrigation ditches, sowing extra seeds, and something to do with excrement. If you look at the legend of Susano-o in Takamagahara, the Ama tsu Tsumi are basically all the things he is reported to have done, which suggests that the last one, written with two characters, for “excrement” and “door” or “village” in the Japanese, refers to desecrating ritual sites with excrement.

The Kuni tsu Tsumi are much more varied, falling into five categories. The first two concern wounding people, either so that they die, or so that they don’t. The next two are illnesses. Being white is apparently a Kuni tsu Tsumi; in Japanese, it’s written as “white person”. However, it means a skin disease, like leprosy in the Bible. Then there is a group concerning sexual behaviour. Incest and bestiality apparently cause impurity. The next group concern disasters happening to you: attacks by insects, lightning strikes, and problems with birds. The possibility of birds and insects destroying the rice crop are, I take it, obvious. The last one is a form of sorcery.

“Tsumi” is normally translated “sin” or “crime”, but the reason I’ve been avoiding that should be obvious; having a disease or being struck by lightning is hardly a sin. They are, however, things that disrupt the community, and therefore need to be purified so that the community can rebuild. The emphasis of the norito is on these impurities being washed away and destroyed, and the way in which that can be done, not on punishing the people responsible. Indeed, punishment is not mentioned at all.

The reference to “washing away” is not metaphorical. People would transfer their impurity to a small, stylised doll, wooden and first, but paper by the twelfth century, and the doll would then be cast into a river to flow away to the sea. (This custom has had to be abandoned in many places now, because there are enough dolls to damage the environment.) The last section of the norito describes four kami who are responsible for this purification. The first, Seoritsuhime, is a female kami who dwells in the swift current of rivers. The second, Hayaakitsume, is another female kami, who dwells in the mouths of rivers, where they enter the sea. The third, Ibukitonushi, is a male kami who lives out to sea, and the fourth, Hayasasurahime, is another female kami, who dwells in the underworld. These kami are not mentioned in any other classical sources, but the association of rivers and the sea with purification is a very widespread motif in Shinto.

There were quite a few points in the norito that Professor Okada did not have time to go into, and as interpretation of the ÅŒharaikotoba was extremely popular in the middle ages, several books could be written about its position in the history of Shinto. However, a 90 minute lecture can still give a useful introduction.

Posted in Kokugakuin.

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