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January 10, 2004

Torii: Sacred Bird Gate

A torii is a gate with two overhead cross bars or lintels. Torii are found in front of almost every shrine in Japan. Their function is to mark the boundary between the sacred world of the shrine and the profane world outside. Shrines vary in size and design, some being over 25 metres tall and stretching over roadways. Others being just big enough to pass underneath. Indeed,. one theory to explain the etymology of the name suggests that it is related to the Japanese pass into "toori-iru."

There are several theories to explain the origin of the torii...

In front of the towers in India where the Buddha's relics are kept there is a gate resembling a torii called a Traana (sic). Since the word and the object both resemble the twin lintelled gate in Japan there is a theory that this Buddhist gate is the origin of the Shinto torii.

In front of Chinese palaces and tombs there are "kahyou" (japanese reading) which resemble torii. The Kanji for Kahyou are sometimes read as "torii" in Japan, and the same Kanji are used to describe the Japanese torii in China.

The Japanese had a long tradition of hanging shimenawa or rice straw rope between two poles. There is a theory that these "shime columns" were the origin of the torii.

When Amaterasu hid herself in the heavenly cave (ama no iwato) the other spirits arranged for the "eternal long crowing birds" (cockerels) to crow, which is one of the ways in which Amaterasu was convinced that dawn had arrived without her (that there was "another goddess as beautiful" as her). When she opened the door to the cave a little she was shown a mirror (which she presumably took for another god, but later she refers to it as herself, or her avatar on earth). Ceasing this opportunity, Amaterasu was dragged out of the cave to the relief of the assembled spirits. The place where the cockers perched may have been the origin of the torii. The use of cockerels crowing to fool supernatural things into thinking it is dawn is a theme common to other Japanese traditions.

Whether or not the torii relates to the above incident in the myth or not, since the characters used to represent torii are those of "a bird" and "to be," many interpret torii to mean a place where it is easy for birds to be and there is considerable evidence that torii have something to do with birds.

On at least two occasions in the Japanese creation (Kojiki) myth birds are messengers between the spirits and humans. In one episode a bird or bird-woman is sent by Amaterasu from heaven to Japan as a messenger. She ends up being shot through the heart with an arrow. In another, when the proto-samurai, warrior hero, Yamatotakeru dies his spirit is taken to heaven by doves. The function of birds as emissaries between spirits and humans suggests it is appropriate that they should "be" at the boundary between the sacred world of the shrine and the
profane world outside.

There is further evidence in that there are drawings in ancient Japanese tombs showing birds perched on torii-like structures, and there are wooden bird shaped items that were found at the ancient Oosaka prefectural government offices (Oosaka Fu) and at the top of and surrounding ancient tombs in Nara.

The Aka tribe of Northern Thailand have a tradition of erecting gates resembling Torii at the entrance to their villages, upon the lintels of which are placed wooden effigies of birds. The birds are said to watch out to prevent the entrance of evil spirits into the village.

Posted by timtak at January 10, 2004 01:07 PM

I find your article very interesting. I am currently preparing series of drawings about

I lived in Japan for three years, that was ten years ago, and each time I make a drawing, everything I saw in Japn comes back to me in an instant.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Jorge Arias

Posted by: Jorge Arias at March 10, 2004 12:02 AM

Very interesting. I'm doing fact checking for a United Airlines Hemispheres magazine article on Kansai destinations. Your clarification is indispensable.

Posted by: Barron YoungSmith at July 16, 2004 01:59 AM

Glad to be of service Mr. YoungSmith


Posted by: Timothy Takemoto at July 16, 2004 01:24 PM

am making a lamp for my japanese sister in law.
am using torii gates to support the wooden latice shade. is this appropriate.
it will define the base structure which is modeled after yonaguni under water discovery.
thanks for any help you can give.

Posted by: steve blake at November 26, 2005 04:05 AM


Posted by: martin at July 21, 2010 07:39 PM

I wonder what you and Martin are using torii gates for.

I have been getting loads of spam lately so I may turn off comments very soon.

Posted by: Tim at August 19, 2011 03:44 PM