Epidemics have been a repeated feature of Japanese history, and so there are many traditional ways of responding to them. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them are being dusted off and brought out at the moment, and in this blog post I want to talk about one that is particularly widespread, and that has developed beyond its initial association with epidemics. This custom involves a ring woven of reeds, a “chi no wa”.
The custom is normally traced back to a legend recorded in the fudoki for Bingo Province (yes, “Bingo” was its name. Oh). The fudoki itself was written in the eighth century, but has been lost, and this story is now preserved on a commentary on the Nihonshoki written in the thirteenth century.
Susano’o was travelling under the name of Mutō when night fell and he needed lodging. In that place, there were two brothers named Somin Shōrai; the elder was poor, but the younger was rich. Susano’o asked the younger for lodging, but was turned rudely away. So he went to the elder, and was welcomed in, given a feast of the poor food in the house. A year later, Susano’o returned from his journey, and stopped at Somin Shōrai’s house.
“I will now reward the way I was treated. Do you have any descendants in your brother’s house?”
“My daughter is there,” Somin replied.
“Tell her to put a ring of reeds around her waist.” That night, Susano’o killed everyone in the house apart from Somin’s daughter. He returned to Somin.
“I am Susano’o. In the future, if there is an epidemic, those people who declare themselves your descendants and bear the ring of reeds will be spared.”
The custom, then, is to have a ring of reeds with a label on saying “Somin Shōrai’s Descendant” as an amulet to ward off disease. Note that Susano’o does not say that people have to actually be Somin Shōrai’s descendants; they just have to say that they are. (Lying to the kami: a Shinto tradition for 1300 years.) Such amulets are still available at a number of jinja, and one of the most famous is Yasaka Jinja in Kyoto, where the primary kami is Susano’o and the largest matsuri, the Kyoto Gion Matsuri, was started to pray for the end of an epidemic.
However, the rings of reeds are found much more broadly than that these days. The most common use is a very large ring, about two metres in diameter, that is set up in the grounds of a jinja around the end of June, in connection with the Ōharaë, the grand purification of summer. These rings are set up on the main sacred path leading to the jinja sanctuary, sometimes secured to a torii, and sometimes in their own frame.
These rings are used in a purification ritual. You stand in front of the ring, facing the sanctuary, and bow slightly. Then you step through the ring and turn left, going back round to the front of the ring. Bow again, step through, and turn right, to go back to the front. Bow again, step through, and turn left to go back to the front once more. Bow again, step through, and go up to the sanctuary to pay your respects to the kami. While you are doing this, you should recite a purification prayer; the simplest is “Haraë tamai, kiyomë tamaë” — “Purify and cleanse [me]”. People performing this ritual walk a figure-eight, and at some jinja a procession is led through the ring, so that there is an actual figure-eight of people in the precincts.
Yasaka Jinja normally sets these rings of reeds up twice per year: once at the main jinja for the Ōharaë at the end of June, and one for the summer festival, on July 31st, of one of the subsidiary jinja, which enshrines Somin Shōrai. However, in response to COVID-19 they have set up two rings now, one in an open space to the west of the main sanctuary, and one in the torii in front of Somin Shōrai’s jinja. The last time the jinja did this was during a cholera epidemic in 1877. One of the advantages of this custom is that it is quite possible to follow it while maintaining social distancing.