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Dubious Symbolism

There are some famous jinja ceremonies that involve tall poles. The most famous is Suwa Taisha, in Nagano Prefecture, where four tree trunks are set up at the sanctuaries in a matsuri held once every six years. Naturally, some people have suggested that this is phallic symbolism.

I was reading a book on a different topic the other day, and it suggested that jinja as a whole were symbolic of the female reproductive organs. The torii is the vulva, the sacred path is the vagina (both are called “sandō” in Japanese, which obviously clinches it), and the sanctuary is the womb.


It is very common for a jinja to have multiple torii, typically passed through one after another as you approach the sanctuaries.

It is also common for jinja to have multiple sacred paths, approaching the sanctuaries from different directions. These paths also bend at many jinja, and it is not that uncommon for the sanctuaries to be off to one side, although Kashima Jingū, where the sanctuary is to the right of the sacred path soon after you pass through the torii, and the path keeps going, is an extreme case.

Finally, a substantial number of jinja have multiple sanctuaries; two at Shimogamo Jinja, for example, and four at Kasuga Taisha.

Basically, this symbolism might seem plausible if you only looked at the “standard jinja” diagrams in basic books about Shinto, but it fails completely if you look at actual jinja.

Besides, if jinja want to put images of sexual organs in the precincts, they just put images of sexual organs in the precincts.

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5 thoughts on “Dubious Symbolism”

  1. “These paths also bend at many jinja, and it is not that uncommon for the sanctuaries to be off to one side”

    Strange. I remember reading that sando are always straight, running from the torii to the honden. I guess not.

    1. No, certainly not. Jingū in Isë, Meiji Jingū, Kashima Jingū, Hiyoshi Taisha and Kasuga Taisha are all examples that I have visited personally where that is not the case. The default is straight, and the smaller the precincts, the more likely that is to be the actual situation. Even so, Yushima Tenjin in Tokyo, for example, has three sandō, one of which goes straight up to the front of the haiden, one of which arrives from the left (from the kami’s perspective) some distance in front of the sanctuaries, and one of which comes in from the back and then curves around the sanctuaries to get to the front.

      If you are drawing a “default jinja” example, you should draw it with a straight sandō going from the torii to the sanctuaries, but it is a simplification.

      1. There’s so much misinformation out there in English about Shinto. Thank you for your hard work.

  2. Liudmila Karukina

    Well, maybe those people are just not used to the idea that some religions don’t have problems with images of sexual organs? So they look for hidden meanings – because having such things out in the open is kinda unthinkable?

    1. Maybe, but the book I was reading was Japanese. I should say that the jinja in Kawasaki is rather exceptional — most jinja do not have such obvious sexual symbolism, at least not these days. However, historically the sexual symbolism really was obvious when it was present, so I tend to doubt claims for subtle symbolism of that sort.

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