Shinto Concept Of Sin

This article covers the Shinto concept of sin.

In Shinto, there is no concept of original sin or karma. But ancient Japanese considered all unhappy or unfortunate incidents, such as diseases or natural hazards, as sins. Yet, they were not the cause in the individual, but in external factors. And they considered a sin to be something adhered to by people externally. So, people might be purified at shrines according to rituals known as oharai. The mechanism is expressed in the saying. “Hate the sin, but not the sinner.”

In Japanese mythology, there is an episode featuring the male kami, Izanagi. When his spouse, Izanami, died, he missed her so much that he went down to the other world of the dead. As a result, he himself became impure. Understanding this, he purified himself on returning to this world using water in order to revitalize himself. Izanagi thus became pure, and remarkably felicitous happenings occurred as result of this act of purification, namely the birth of three major deities of Japan, Amaterasu-ômikami (Sun kami), Tsukuyomino-Mikoto (Moon kami) and Susano-no-Mikoto.

This episode implies that the act of purification is the source of energy and productivity, and is essential not only for the salvation of the individual but of the nation. This is the reason for the Shinto emphasis on purification.

See also: Ancestral Sin

Shinto rituals begin with a process of purification, often involving the washing of the hands and mouth at the temizu basin; this example is at Itsukushima Jinja.

Shinto rituals begin with a process of purification, often involving the washing of the hands and mouth at the temizu basin; this example is at Itsukushima Jinja.


Tsumi () is a Japanese word that indicates the violation of legal, social or religious rules. It is most often used in the religious and moral sense. Originally, the word indicated a divine punishment due to the violation of a divine taboo through evil deeds, defilement (kegare) or disasters. When translated in English as “sin“, the term covers therefore only one of the three meanings of the Japanese word.


Inari Kami Japan Deity Fuchs Statue Stone Figure

Inari Kami Japan Deity

The term evolved to its present form as a contraction of tsutsumu (障む・恙む to hinder, be hindered, to have an accident, to have some trouble), a verb which very generally indicated the occurrence of a negative event. In ancient Japan the word thus indicated not only crimes and other forbidden human actions, but also diseases, disasters, pollution, ugliness and any other unpleasant object or fact.

The Engishiki, a 927 AD Japanese book of laws and regulations, for example, distinguishes two kinds of tsumi, the Amatsutsumi (天津罪 heaven tsumi) and the kunitsutsumi (国津罪 land tsumi). The first category deals with infractions against property, the second mainly with infractions against people. Some of the tsumi have to do with disease and natural disasters, and are not therefore sins in the modern sense, but order perturbations (kegare) which had to be dealt with and solved by the person or persons concerned in certain ways, for example through purification rites called harae.


Kegare (穢れ・汚れ, uncleanness, defilement) is the Japanese term for a state of pollution and defilement, important particularly in Shinto as a religious term. Typical causes of kegare are the contact with any form of death, childbirth (for both parents), disease and menstruation, and acts such as rape. In Shinto, kegare is a form of tsumi (taboo violation), which needs to be somehow remedied by the person responsible. This condition can be remedied through purification rites called misogi and haraeKegare can have an adverse impact not only on the person directly affected, but also to the community he or she belongs to.

Kegare is not a form of moral judgment, but rather a spontaneous reaction to amoral natural forces. Whether the defiling was caused by a deliberate act, as for example in the case of a crime, or by an external event, such as illness or death, is secondary. It is therefore not an equivalent of sin.

Death as a source of kegare

The concept of kegare from death still has considerable force within Japanese society, even during Buddhist funerals. Death and everything having to do with it are seen as a primary source of defilement.

This is why, after the death of one of its members, a family will not send to friends and relatives the usual postcards with seasonal greetings during summer and winter, replacing them with letters of excuses. Those who attend a Buddhist funeral receive a small bag of salt to purify themselves before they return to their homes, in order to avoid bringing kegare to their families.

The family’s kami must be protected as much as possible from contact with death, blood, and disease. A still common consequence of this is the habit to give up the traditional New Year visit (hatsumōde) to a Shinto shrine if a death in the family has occurred within the last year.

Shinto priests (the kannushi) are expected to pay particular attention to avoid this kind of kegare, and must be careful to deal correctly with death and disease. Given how important dealing with death is in religion, this strong death taboo cannot have been part of kami worship from the beginning. The exclusion of death from religious rites became for the first time possible when another religion, Buddhism, could take charge of it.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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