Shinto is a term unknown to many people of the West. Those people who are aware that Shinto is a religion may not be aware of how closely tied it is to Japanese society. Many people also do not realize how unique Shinto is. This religion was not founded by any specific person. There are, however, many people who have contributed to the evolution of the faith. The fact that there is no real founder makes some “say that Shinto’s true founder is nature herself” (Yamakage 38). Additionally, there are no doctrines, commandments, idols, or organization (Yamakage 39-51). This may seem like it would weaken Shinto as a belief system, but it does the opposite. There are no outsiders to this faith. Someone can practice Christianity or Buddhism at the same time that they are practicing Shinto. The looseness of Shinto allows all levels faith to participate in the practices and rituals that have been passed down through generations. Of all of these rituals, misogi is the most important. It is the Japanese practice of purification through the use of water. Misogi is the most important aspect of Shinto due to its deep history in the faith, its mythical origins, and its key place in Shinto practice. Though Shinto beliefs are not very concrete, the practice of misogi is essential to all those who practice Shinto due to its deep roots.
The practice of misogi originated in the ancient practices of the Chinese. “[T]he ancient Chinese worshiped their gods or Kami after having bathed themselves” (Yamakage 89). This old practice is very similar to the current Shinto practice. It is very interesting to see how old the misogi practice is because it arrived in Japan with the arrival of the Japanese. These people originated in China and colonized Japan because they were an ocean tribe (Yamakage 91). Therefore, “the original misogi was probably practiced at the ocean” (Yamakage 91). This inference makes sense because the Japanese prayed to the ocean and believed it was holy. The position of misogi in early Japanese life was key in its religious significance but also in its practicality. Rinsing oneself in water for purification will not only appease the gods or God, but it will keep the populous clean. As the Japanese faith evolved, misogi’s sacred place was affirmed through mythical stories.
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In one Japanese creation myth, misogi plays a prominent role. This is the story of Izanagi and Izanami. These were two divine creatures, though they were not quite deities. “They came down from their heaven to the oily mass by a bridge, generally accepted to have been a rainbow” (Piggott 13). They married, had children, and eventually Izanami, the wife, died and went to the Underworld. Upset and distressed, Izanagi followed her into the deep. Furious, “[s]he chased him.. in order to punish him for pursuing her, but he just managed to escape…” (Piggott 15). After returning from the Underworld, Izanagi needed to cleanse himself. Therefore, the practice of misogi was conducted. The fact that this mythical ritual continues to be practiced today validates the importance of misogi to some extent. However, what is more important about the misogi ritual is that the bases for other Shinto beliefs were founded in Izanagi’s misogi ceremony. New Kami were born each time Izanagi threw off one of his garments (Yamakage 95). This event carries significance because of the importance of Kami in the Shinto faith. Kami is the Japanese word for a spirit of some sort and sometimes even a god. The fact that gods were born through the process of misogi is a clear indication of the ritual’s importance. In total, fifteen Kami were born during this misogi. Their release allowed Izanagi to be “completely refreshed, his nakedness symbolizing release. Afterwards, he underwent a spiritual cleansing, and through the mystery of musubi… he bore three noble children” (Yamakage 98). These children were all Kami as well. This mass creation of Kami fortified misogi’s place in the Shinto. Whenever believers referenced the Kami spirits that surrounded them, they would think of the Kami’s source, the purification ritual still practiced today.
This practice, though it has evolved somewhat from its origins, remains an important practice in every Shinto ritual. Misogi a practice where the physical body is washed, but the “heart and mind are purified at the same time” (Yamakage 94). The purification of heart and mind is why practitioners of Shinto must wash their hands before worshiping at a shrine (Yamakage 94). The fact that misogi is required for entrance to shrines makes it key to the faith. Without misogi, there would be no way to make man pure enough to worship in a shrine. The purification allows those who practice Shinto to connect with the Kami spirits because a “clean, bright, right, and straight” mind is needed to forge a connection with the spiritual (Yamakage 95). Therefore, Shinto would not be possible without the practices of misogi before every ritual or practice. There would be no sense of purity of the gods, which would cause there to be no distinction between man and the spiritual, the pure. Another practice of misogi occurs in a river, by the ocean, or under a waterfall. In the waterfall ritual, “a believer may stand beneath a waterfall, letting its force hit the shoulders and carry impurities and tensions away” (Fisher 206). To stress the importance of purity, before this purity ritual takes place, a participant must go through “preliminary purification practices because the waterfall itself is kami” (Fisher 206). These practices have lasted through many centuries, and that survival is an indication of the ritual’s importance. Though some may claim that other aspects of Shinto are more important, these aspects would not exists or be worshipped without the existence of misogi. The purification was key to Shinto since the settling of Japan, and it remains important to this day.
The continued importance of misogi is the reason why it is the most important aspect of Shinto. Misogi is an ancient and holy practice, which has been practiced for many centuries in one form or another. The fact that a specific practice has lasted without much adulteration for so many years is a testament to its importance. The mythical background of misogi is also important because it causes other aspects of Shinto, such as Kami, to rely heavily on the existence of misogi as a ritual of purification. In addition to this background, the widespread practice of misogi by Shinto followers who do not have a specific doctrine or set of rules illustrates how a practice can be important to the people even if it is not required. In conclusion, misogi is the most important aspect of Shinto because it is the source of Shinto and many of the secondary aspects of Shinto. Additionally, the widespread and revered practice of misogi indicates its importance to Shinto and Japan.
Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions: Eastern Traditions. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2003.
Piggott, Juliet. Japanese Mythology. New York: Hamlyn, 1969.
Yamakage, Motohisa. The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart. Ed. Paul de Leeuw and Aidan Rankin. Trans. Mineko S. Gillespie, Gerald L. Gillespie, and Yoshitsugu Komuro. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2006.