Taboo in the Heian Period of Japan

Fengshui Compass

Recently, while reading reading the Gossamer Years, I found the book contained a thorough explanation of the notion of “taboo” and “purification” in the Heian Court in Japan. I wanted to share this with others.

Aristocrats and the Heian Court had a very complex system of purification ceremonies, periods of abstention, and other rules that derived from Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism, and in particular Chinese geomancy. This system was called onmyōdō (陰陽道) in Japan. These rules and restrictions were taken very seriously by the Emperor and his court, and often helped dictate policies, or help deify angry spirits. These rules and rituals also appear regularly in works from the time such as the Pillow Book, the Gossamer Years, the Diary of Lady Murasaki, etc.

For example, one of the biggest taboos involved travel. The kami Taihakujin (太白神), also known as Hitohimeguri (一日回り), was the kami of directions. Every day, he would move to one of the 8 directions, and it was forbidden to travel in that same direction that day. Thus if Taihakujin was dwelling in the northwest, travel toward the northwest was forbidden. As stated before, the literature of the time frequently mentions travel bans and such. Also, Taihakujin would sometimes travel to the sky or the earth, and on those days, travel was free in all directions.

But, it got more complex, because there were other gods too. For example, the kami Tenichijin (天一神) also known as Nakagami (中神) stayed 5-6 days at each of the 8 directions, and travel was banned in that direction depending on the year you were born. Yet another kami, Daishōgun (大将軍), stayed in each direction for 3 years, and although small errand were fine, larger projects were considered inauspicious. And yet another kami Dokujin (土公神) would dwell in different parts of the home depending on the season (the oven in spring, the gate in summer, etc) and doing repairs where Dokujin dwelled was forbidden. So if you had a broken gate in the summer, you had to wait until fall to fix it.

But it wasn’t just the movement of the gods. Births and deaths were considered “traumatic” events, and there were bad days for cutting hair, for visiting sick people, etc. For this reason, there were many kinds of “abstinences” or monoimi (物忌み) that involved elements of Buddhism and Shinto. In the case of Shinto, these were intended to to purify oneself in a Shinto context to avoid misfortune caused by evil spirits. In a Buddhist context, these abstinences would also repay any past, bad karma, create merit, etc. Some abstinences were quite strict and one had to essentially shut themselves in a room for a day and see no one. Other abstinences were less-strict, but usually such people couldn’t receive guests or travel during such times. Pilgrimages to holy sites (Shinto and/or Buddhist) were common. Fasting and other activities were often required. Women who were having their period were automatically subject to abstinences and were not allowed to enter Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines due to the defilement of blood.

Lastly, every one night in 60 was a special night called kōshin no hi (庚申の日) where people had to stay up all night without sleep, or they risked death from certain poisons in the body. These “all-nighters” were mentioned in the Pillow Book a few times.

It’s amazing anyone got anything done back then.

When I first watched the famous Japanese film Onmyoji, a lot of it didn’t make sense to me. But once I started reading about Heian Period culture, and the beliefs back then, the film was a lot more interesting to me. Plus, I like Nomura Mansai and Sanada Hiroyuki anyway. 🙂

But in any case, the world of the Heian Court was a real world of demons and evil spirits, taboos and angry kami. Because I am a computer-engineer living in 21st century USA, it’s hard to imagine living in a world like that, but people from that era would find my world just as strange. It reminds of the Zelazny book Jack of Shadows and the dialogue about seeing reality (posted here):

“You were both correct,” said [the demon] Morningstar. “It is the same thing that you both describe, although neither of you sees it as it really is. Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it. For if it is uncontrollable, you fear it. Sometimes then, you color it incomprehensible. In your case, a machine; in theirs, a demon.”

21st century man, like the men of the Heian Period in Japan, each struggle to control reality around them, and to label the unknown.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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