JapanHow Is This Shintō Shrine Changing Its Purification Rituals To Combat Coronavirus?

7186 min

Coronavirus has now spread to dozens of countries around the world. Italy has had over 600 deaths per day from it, and Iran is another epicenter. Cases in the US are surging, especially in Louisiana. Japan was one of the first countries to get coronavirus, but has managed to keep the number of cases relatively low (a little bit over 1,000 on Japanese soil, and about 400 or so more on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, but keep in mind that Japan has a population of over 126 million people). Perhaps one reason for this is that the Japanese are generally hygienic; go on any train right now, and you’ll see that the majority of riders are wearing masks. The custom of everyone at the dinner table touching the same food with their chopsticks is also less common here than it is in certain other countries in the region. However, there is one Japanese custom that might worry some in the age of COVID-19, and that is the purification ritual at the front of a Shintō shrine, or jinja (神社). It is called the mizugi (禊, not to be confused with mizugi [水着] meaning “bathing suit”). In it, visitors to the shrine are expected to wash their hands with water from a common fountain (due to the Shintō belief in the ability of water to spiritually purify someone), using a ladle, and also wash out their mouths. They do this at a place called the chōzuya (手水舎), which is basically a pavilion with a basin or fountain filled with water, and a ladle that each visitor to the shrine uses, one after the other. Of course washing out one’s mouth with the same ladle and water is an issue, but the handle of the ladle could also potentially be a vector for disease. Recently, Tamamitsu Shrine in Inokashira, Mitaka, Tokyo has revised their mizugi procedures to be more hygienic. How have they done this?

Well, instead of using water and a ladle (that are all shared), they’ve introduced a bottle of hand sanitizer! There is a printed paper sign saying:
“コロナウィルス感染を予防するため、消毒液の使用を以て手水の禊と致します。 玉光神社”
Or, in English:
“To prevent coronavirus infection, we will humbly use hand sanitizer to purify our hands. Tamamitsu Shrine”

How hygienic! However, unfortunately, this doesn’t work on the mouth. If only there were a different type of alcohol that someone could put into one’s mouth instead of one’s hands… Oh, wait, there is! As one netizen wrote: “This feels like an idea off the tradition that sake can also be a spiritual purifier.” Anyhow, even prior to COVID-19, many people already skipped the mouth-washing part of the mizugi ritual.

It might also be a good idea to use hand sanitizer on the way out. After all, many people touch the cord of the bell, in order to ring it. They also touch the same box to get their omikuji (御神籤), or fortunes, etc.

Reactions from netizens were as follows:
“I bet a lot of other shrines are going to start doing the same thing.”
“I really like their attitude about this.”
“I think even the gods are smiling about this.”
“I wish the sanitizer was streaming out of the dragon’s mouth.”
“Wonderful! Religion should always be this open-minded.”