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The Iwaki Thousand-Fold Ōharae

The third Monday in July is a national holiday in Japan: Umi no Hi, or Ocean Day. Seven years ago, the coastal city of Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture was still in the early stages of recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and the Shinto priests of the area were also working to rebuild. As part of this, they decided to hold a Thousand-Fold Ōharae on a small hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, on the weekend of Ocean Day. This week’s Jinja Shinpō includes an article by one of the priests involved in the project.

In Shinto, harae is a central concept, which includes not only the removal of impurity, but also the avoidance of disasters and recovery from them to a state of peace and happiness. Although harae can be entirely personal, as with the standard rite conducted before any Shinto ceremony, the Ōharae is not for an individual, but rather for a whole community, region, or country. It was traditionally performed at the death of one Tennō and the accession ceremony, the Daijōsai, of the next, and after disasters, but also every year on the last days of the sixth and twelfth months. The norito, or prayer, for this ceremony, the Ōharae Kotoba, is thought to be one of the oldest surviving Shinto norito.

A Thousand-Fold Ōharae is a ceremony in which the Ōharae Kotoba is recited one thousand times. As it takes about five minutes to recite the whole norito, this would obviously take a very long time if only one person were involved; about four days, if they went without sleep. To make the ceremony more practical, a number of people, mostly priests or priests-in-training, are gathered, and they all recite the norito together. If there are a hundred of them, each only needs to recite it ten times, which can be done in under an hour.

The Thousand-Fold Ōharae has been held every year since the disaster, and the eighth was planned for last Sunday, the day before Ocean Day. As far as I know, it took place as planned. The purpose of the ceremony has now shifted to include reminding people that recovery from the disaster is far from over, particularly in Fukushima Prefecture, where the contamination from the meltdown at the nuclear power station means that some areas are still closed to almost everyone. Given how slowly the recovery is proceeding in most areas, it will need to continue with this purpose for several more years.

I do wonder whether this will become a permanent ceremony. The initiating event was certainly significant enough, and the ceremony itself is not so closely tied to the event that it would be difficult for it to become independent. In any case, it is likely to continue as long as there are enough priests who remember the disaster, so it may well go on into the indefinite future.

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