Seen in these photographs are Shinto border ropes, shimenawa, which mark “the boundaries of an area that has been sanctified or purified, or an area to which the Kami might descend” (Nelson, 264). Shimenawa are frequently found either suspended horizontally from the torii to a shrine or ritual location, or wrapped around the base of a tree or stone. It is a symbol that has existed within the Japanese religious imagination since, as some interpreters suggest, the time of the Kojiki. The shimenawa’s presence in the Kojiki is believed to be represented as the rope which prevented Ama-terasu-opo-mi-kami from returning to the cave she hid herself inside of in chapter seventeen.
Traditionally, shimenawa were made in the home by farmers who used excess straw from rice harvest to produce the rope. Twisting rice straw, braiding it together and then securing it with string creates the body of the shimenawa. Afterwards, a wood or wire insert can be applied to ensure the shimenawa maintains its shape. Shimenawa are typically adorned with zig-zag shaped paper streamers called “shide,” which emphasize the demarcation of a boundary and create a rustling sound in movement, believed to awaken the kami.
The term shimenawa is based on the commonly held conception of rope (nawa) as an instrument of marking. “In ancient times shimenawa were used as signs of ownership or exclusive possession, and frequently written with the character 標 indicating a ‘marker’” (Encyclopedia of Shinto). In addition, shimenawa often mark a champion sumō wrestler, who may be seen wearing a decorative shimenawa draped with shide during the entrance ceremony of a sumō event. Primarily, however, shimenawa designate and demarcate spaces or objects that “somehow manifest the presence of kami more explicitly than do other sites [and thus contain] the concentrated power connecting people with the kami…” (Kasulis, 23). For example, trees are often marked by shimenawa as kami, sacred either by virtue of age, shape, or plantation by an emperor or empress (Kasulis, 20). Shimenawa may also be stretched across the road at the entrance of a village, symbolizing a border crossing and deity protection from disaster (Yasuyuki Yagi, 139). The same logic sometimes places shimenawa above household doorways. Shimenawa thus serve to bridge connection between humans and kami, fostering a tangible intimacy between worlds. By singling out objects and marking borders, shimenawa pull the religious imagination back toward the path of Shinto.
Shimenawa are not meant to dichotomize, say, powerful trees and powerless trees but are meant to rather remind one that “because of the omnipresence of kami, the tree was always spiritualized” (Kasulis, 18). Shimenawa are meant to strengthen and enforce the notion of interconnectivity, while at once embodying interconnectivity in and of themselves. Made from hundreds of small strands of straw twisted and woven together as one, a shimenawa rope simultaneously expresses borders and oneness, divide and interconnectivity.
~guest blogger, Natasha Chettiar