Japanese culture focus: Understanding what a “Torii” gate is and what it isn’t

By | December 22, 2014

When learning about a foreign culture, sometimes you experience a shift of perspective where what you thought you knew was wrong, or at least incomplete. One place this is common is where your only knowledge about a foreign culture is through the biased lens of another country (probably where you were brought up). One important case of this recently came to mind to me so I thought I would dedicate a post to it.

When westerners think of Japan there is a few things that typically come up, whether it’s ‘Geisha girls’, ‘Ninja’, ‘Sumo’, ‘Sushi’, ‘Samurai’, ‘Karate’, or maybe even brands like ‘Toyota’ or ‘Honda’. I won’t claim this is a statistically accurate list (that would be an interesting survey in itself), but it gives you a general idea.

In my experience one of the strongest visual icons of Japan is that of the “Torii” gate (written in Japanese as 鳥居). You’ll see this in places like travel guide books, animated movies or shows, and especially in computer games.

This is all well and good, and is in some way communicating an important aspect of Japanese culture. However, the problem is that in many places the Torii is misused or not used in proper context, which creates a miscommunication about what it is.

Generally speaking, in present times a Torii is commonly used at the entrance or within a Shinto shrine, and is also frequently used at Buddhist temples as well. This traditional gate marks transition from the profane/worldly to the sacred. There are several different types of Torii (with varying complexity of design) and the full historical origin of these is not clear. In some cases a Torii can be seen apart from a religious area because that place was modified (moved, shrunk) after it was built.

The symbol of the Torii can also be seen on maps to indicate the presence of a Shinto shrine, can be used to signify no illegal dumping in a certain area, and is seen used at certain graves of past Japanese emperors. There are a few cases where it is used a non-religious meaning, for example as the symbol for the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment.

Probably the first place I remember the Torii used was in the classic 1984 game Karateka, where the main character passes through several of these gates within the enemy’s “fortress”. Based on what I have read about this game’s backstory (and the fact it was not created by a Japanese person), the use of random Torii gates seems inconsistent with their usage in real life. Sure, at the time I thought they were neat and they surely conveyed a sense of “orientalness”, but looking back at it now I see things with a fresh perspective.

I’ve also played more recent games where there happens to be a Torii-like structure that you pass through in the middle of a city modelled after Tokyo. While there are definitely many Torii in Tokyo, having one in the middle of nowhere with a road passing through it just isn’t realistic.

If you keep a watchout for the Torii in Western culture you’ll surely find it eventually, and very possibly out of its proper context. To give another example, In a recent trip I found a sign for a school that appeared to be closely modeled after a Torii, and I am fairly sure there was no Japanese temples or shrines nearby.

To get a good feel for this, try and imagine that you’re playing a game with a level called ‘America’, and there is random crosses all over the place, with no churchs or other religious building nearby. Regardless of your faith you’ll surely see this is a bit weird.

But after all is said and done, is this really a bad thing? I can’t speak for anyone but I would guess that a Japanese person’s response would range from mild appreciation (“well, at least they made some attempt to incorporate our culture”), to ambivalence, to outright anger.

I’m not trying to fault anyone, but just think it is best that a foreign country’s culture is portrayed in some reasonably accurate way. Regardless of what you believe, this gate is used to signify entry to a holy area, which commands a certain amount of respect.

And to be honest, I wasn’t aware of this issue until it was pointed out to me. I knew Torii were “somehow religious”, but when I happened to see them misused in several places I didn’t realize it on my own.

For those wanting to learn more about Torii, please check out the Wikipedia site for more information. For this article I used that as well as the Japanese version which has more details.





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