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Summer Purification

Today, June 30th, is the day of “Nagoshi no Ōharai”, a purification ceremony held all over Japan, with roots going back well over a thousand years. On Sunday, Shin’yūsha, an organisation run by Princess Akiko of Mikasa, ran an online seminar on the subject, which I attended, and that reminded me that I should probably blog about it.

The origins of this ritual are not quite as clear as they might be. There were annual purifications held at the Imperial palace, to purify all the Tennō’s ministers and the population of the country, and these were held on the last days of the sixth and twelfth months (on the old lunar calendar; this year, the last day of the sixth month is August 18th). The Ōharaëkotoba, the most important purification prayer in Shinto, was recited at these ceremonies, and it seems to have been originally devised for these ceremonies. Thus, there seems to be an obvious connection here.

However, there are also old records, mostly in poetry, of popular practices of haraë that took place at rivers in the sixth month. The imperial palace ritual took place at the palace, in front of the civil service offices, and was not something that ordinary people were really involved in. There is a poem, recorded in an Imperial collection from about a thousand years ago, that means “Those who perform the Nagoshi haraë in the sixth month are said to live for a thousand years”. Because it is recorded as having an unknown author, it was probably a folk tradition, and thus at least somewhat older than the collection that preserves it. Even today, people often recite this poem while passing through the rings of reeds set up in the precincts of jinja across Japan. Rivers, rings of reed, and the poem are all traditions separate from the Imperial ritual.

The rituals do, however, share a purpose. The belief is that people build up “kegarë”, which might be “impurity” or “weakness”, over the course of their normal life, and it needs to be removed. Individual purification rituals take place over the course of the year, before matsuri, for example, but the Ōharai, or “Great Purification”, was for purifying everyone in the country.

Although “nagoshi” is written, today, with characters meaning “end of summer”, there are reasons to believe that it was originally written with different characters, and was a name for a kind of purification, rather than one held at a particular time: the poem refers to the nagoshi haraë in the sixth month, which would be redundant if “nagoshi” referred to the time. (On the other hand, the redundancy scans, which could also be the explanation.) As noted in an earlier blog post, the ring of reeds is derived from a legend about Susano’o and avoiding pandemics.

So, it looks as though there may have been a folk tradition of purification, and an Imperial tradition, and it is possible that the Imperial tradition influenced the folk tradition, so that they ended up with the same timing, but different forms. (The Imperial ritual is performed today, in the Imperial palace.)

As with many Shinto rituals, there are different versions across Japan. It is very common to use small paper “dolls”, which you blow on to transfer your kegarë to the doll, before throwing them in a river. Other places burn things with a similar meaning. There are even special sweets associated with the purification in some regions of Japan.

If you want to participate in the ritual, the poem, written phonetically, is:

Minazuki no
Nagoshi no haraë
Suru hito wa
Chitosë no inochi
Nobu to iu nari

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