Entering a shrine, visiting a sacred site, even by simply entering a village you will undoubtedly come across a shimenawa. In their most basic function, shimenawa are a collection of straws twisted into a rope that marks a sacred space. Often shimenawa will be decorated with white pieces of zigzag shaped paper called shide (sometimes gohei) (Egenter 202). The actual Japanese orthography of the word itself, shimenawa, is both interesting and confusing. Shimenawa is often written as 注連縄, 標縄, or 締縄. Alternatively, numerical characters can be used as a reference to the number of straw threads in the rope braid (Motosawa 2005). However, for the purpose of this entry, we will just look at the three given examples and how they each give insight into the functions of the shimenawa.
In 注連縄, as in the other cases, the 縄 (nawa) means “rope”. Therefore our concern deals with the characters: 注 and 連. 注 has both the meaning of “pouring” or “flow” and “to note”; 連 means “to lead” or “to connect”. Together they imply a meaning of marking of the connections between two things. There are many cases in which shimenawa are used to connect two things. The most famous being the Meoto Iwa (or the Husband and Wife/Wedded Rocks) found off the coast of Futami, Mie. The two rocks, which are said to be representative of Izanagi (the large one) and Izanami (the small one), are connected by a gigantic shimenawa, representing their marriage or union (Japan Travel Guide).
The meaning of 標縄 alludes to the marking function of the shimenawa, something which most of us are more familiar with. This is most commonly expressed in the shimenawa being located within several areas within a shrine complex, not to mention home shrines, to mark sacred space. Moreover, as Yagi has noted, shimenawa have been used throughout Japanese history to mark the traditional boundaries of a village. Most often the shimenawa was located near the entrance or road leading to the village (Yagi 138). They served the purpose of either preventing a calamity from entering the village or to drive away one that already occurred. Yagi points out two ceremonies associated with this: the michi-kiri-nawa and the kanjou-kake. While both ceremonies differ, they share both a similar function; a shimenawa is hung across the road to the village in order to protect the village. Even though many shimenawa have been relocated to the area of the ujigami shrines (tutelary deities), the ones that remain have gone unmoved despite the building of houses outside the traditional boundaries (Yagi 139). At once it marks not only the traditional boundaries of the village but also the sacred space within the village.
The final orthography of shimenawa, 締縄, indicates a nature of binding or tying around. There are several examples of this occurring within the Shinto traditions, whether it be the artificial tree-forms discussed by Egenter, actual trees, scared stones or even barrels of sake (Egenter 202; Todd 13). By being tied around the sacred object or by having several shimenawa set around the perimeter of the object, the object can be marked as a temporary residence of a kami (Egenter 202). The shimenawa not only marks the area as sacred but also surrounds the area; creating a boundary that seemingly binds the sacred within. That is not to say the kami are bound but the point of contact between the human and kami is controlled or negotiated.Shimenawa can take upon various meanings as well as usages. Though I have only shown examples that highlight the various meanings that are derived from its various orthographies, it should be noted that in a singular situation we can understand the function of the shimenawa on various levels: as simultaneously connecting, marking and binding.