The diversity of water rituals
in Japan is phenomenal. The ways in which water is used, and the ends sought,
are numerous. One can find somewhere in Japan a water ritual to provide the
relief or the assurance desired for almost any event in one's life. An easy
birth, a healthy baby, recovery from illness, success in an examination or in
a new job, a propitious outcome to moving house, more money, good eyesight,
longevity, peace, wisdom and revelation -- each can be had by the proper use
Ritual water works in two ways
-- it gives and it takes away. It gives health, wealth and wisdom because of
its sacred origins or its blessed condition. It takes away evil, back luck
or the spiritual grime of daily life by virtue of its purity or its simple
How water became so central a
part of religious practices in Japan is open to some doubt. Several
explanations can be offered, but all stem from one undeniable fact of Japan's
history -- the extraordinary oneness with nature that seems always to have
been a facet of the Japanese psyche. The gods of ancient Japan were nature
gods. The trees, the earth, the sky, the rivers were the homes of the gods
or were themselves gods. Immersing oneself in a river was perhaps the most
intimate contact one could have with a diety, and this symbolic consummation
of the man-god relationship may be the origin of the earliest water rituals.
Shrines were built in places of natural beauty, where most often there was a
river, a spring or a waterfall. Water may have become associated with the
religious performances within the shrine simply because it was there.
Whatever the reasons, the use of water in purification rituals has been an
essential part of Shinto since before recorded history.
Shinto priests lead followers in prayer
in an icy pool at Tokyo's Teppozu Shrine. The bathers believe the winter ritual helps
keep them fit and demonstrates perseverance.
Not far inside the gate of
every shrine is a tsukubai
-- a stone basin of water used by worshipers to cleanse their mouths and
hands before entering the inner precincts of the shrine.
Legend has it that long ago,
Tsurugashima, Japan's pond snake, slithered away, taking the rain with it.
A severe drought ensued and there was much suffering. Now every four years citizens
build a dragon of straw and bamboo and pray for rain.
On the 15th of January each
year, about two million Japanese young men and women come of age; that is,
during the previous 12 months they have reached the age of 20. A public
holiday signifies the importance of this day, and throughout Japan there are
coming-of-age ceremonies and celebrations. Pretty girls parade in lollypop
kimono, all pink and aqua blue, and young men strut somewhat, full of
bonhomie and the obligation to prove something.
In the small fishing village
of Hiruga, on the Japan Sea Coast, the 15th of January is a double festival.
It is Hiruga's once-a-year day,
and the whole village turns out to watch the annual tug-of-war. In
theory, two teams plunge into the freezing water of the canal that leads into
the sea and, in a demonstration of strength, break a rope of plaited rice
stalks, which has been stretched from bank to bank and floats on the surface
of the water. The ritual breaking of the rope ensures a good harvest
from the fields and the sea.
There are other less dramatic
but equally important uses for water. The character for water is often
painted or carved on the roof of a house to protect it from fire since
traditional Japanese believe a roof with water on it will not burn.
Another folk belief is that the water god, Suijin-sama,
supervises the birth of babies. To ensure an easy delivery, expectant
mothers and their families make an offering at shrines dedicated to him.
And as water has it ritual uses before birth, so too after death, when, to
honor the departed, families and friends visiting the cemetery wash down the
tombstones of their beloved with water.