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The famous torii at Itsukushima Shrine, a Ryobu-style torii ItsukushimaTorii7379.jpg
The famous torii at Itsukushima Shrine, a Ryōbu-style torii

A torii (Japanese: 鳥居, [to.ɾi.i] ) is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. [1]


The presence of a torii at the entrance is usually the simplest way to identify Shinto shrines, and a small torii icon represents them on Japanese road maps. [note 1]

The first appearance of torii gates in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the mid-Heian period; they are mentioned in a text written in 922. [1] The oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century and belongs to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture. The oldest existing wooden torii is a ryōbu torii (see description below) at Kubō Hachiman Shrine in Yamanashi prefecture built in 1535. [1]

Torii gates were traditionally made from wood or stone, but today they can be also made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel. Shrines of Inari typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of such torii, each bearing the donor's name. [2]


A torii at the entrance of Tatsuta Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Sango, Nara Tatsuta-taisha, torii.jpg
A torii at the entrance of Tatsuta Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Sangō, Nara

The torii, a gateway erected on the approach to every Shinto shrine, may be derived from the Indian word torana . While the Indian term denotes a gateway, the Japanese characters can be translated as "bird perch". [3]

Ancient Indian torana sacred gateway architecture has influenced gateway architecture across Asia, specially where Buddhism was transmitted from India; Chinese paifang gateways, [4] [5] Japanese torii gateways, [4] [6] Korean Hongsalmun gateways, [7] and Sao Ching Cha in Thailand [6] have been derived from the Indian torana. The functions of all are similar, but they generally differ based on their respective architectural styles. [8] [9] According to several scholars, the vast evidence shows how the torii, both etymologically and architecturally, were originally derived from the torana, a free-standing sacred ceremonial gateway which marks the entrance of a sacred enclosure, such as Hindu-Buddhist temple or shrine, or city. [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] Bernhard Scheid wonders whether torii existed in Japan before Buddhism or arrived with it from India. [17]


The function of a torii is to mark the entrance to a sacred space. For this reason, the road leading to a Shinto shrine ( sandō ) is almost always straddled by one or more torii, which are therefore the easiest way to distinguish a shrine from a Buddhist temple. If the sandō passes under multiple torii, the outer of them is called ichi no torii (一の鳥居, first torii). [18] The following ones, closer to the shrine, are usually called, in order, ni no torii (二の鳥居, second torii) and san no torii (三の鳥居, third torii). Other torii can be found farther into the shrine to represent increasing levels of holiness as one nears the inner sanctuary ( honden ), core of the shrine. [18] Also, because of the strong relationship between Shinto shrines and the Japanese Imperial family, a torii stands also in front of the tomb of each Emperor.

Buddhist goddess Benzaiten, a torii visible on her head Hogonji13s3200.jpg
Buddhist goddess Benzaiten, a torii visible on her head

In the past torii must have been used also at the entrance of Buddhist temples. [17] Even today, as prominent a temple as Osaka's Shitennō-ji, founded in 593 by Shōtoku Taishi and the oldest state-built Buddhist temple in the world (and country), has a torii straddling one of its entrances. [6] (The original wooden torii burned in 1294 and was then replaced by one in stone.) Many Buddhist temples include one or more Shinto shrines dedicated to their tutelary kami ("Chinjusha"), and in that case a torii marks the shrine's entrance. Benzaiten is a syncretic goddess derived from the Indian divinity Sarasvati, who unites elements of both Shinto and Buddhism. For this reason halls dedicated to her can be found at both temples and shrines, and in either case in front of the hall stands a torii. The goddess herself is sometimes portrayed with a torii on her head. [6] Finally, until the Meiji period (1868–1912) torii were routinely adorned with plaques carrying Buddhist sutras. [19]

Yamabushi , Japanese mountain ascetic hermits with a long tradition as mighty warriors endowed with supernatural powers, sometimes use as their symbol a torii. [6]

The torii is also sometimes used as a symbol of Japan in non-religious contexts. For example, it is the symbol of the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment and the 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and of other US forces in Japan. [20]


The origins of the torii are unknown and there are several different theories on the subject, none of which has gained universal acceptance. [18] Because the use of symbolic gates is widespread in Asia—such structures can be found for example in India, China, Thailand, Korea, and within Nicobarese and Shompen villages—historians believe they may be an imported tradition.

They may, for example, have originated in India from the torana gates in the monastery of Sanchi in central India. [1] According to this theory, the torana was adopted by Shingon Buddhism founder Kūkai, who used it to demarcate the sacred space used for the homa ceremony. [21] The hypothesis arose in the 19th and 20th centuries due to similarities in structure and name between the two gates. Linguistic and historical objections have now emerged, but no conclusion has yet been reached. [6]

In Bangkok, Thailand, a Brahmin structure called Sao Ching Cha strongly resembles a torii. Functionally, however, it is very different as it is used as a swing. [6] During ceremonies Brahmins swing, trying to grab a bag of coins placed on one of the pillars.

Other theories claim torii may be related to the pailou of China. These structures however can assume a great variety of forms, only some of which actually somewhat resemble a torii. [6] The same goes for Korea's "hongsal-mun". [22] [23] Unlike its Chinese counterpart, the hongsal-mun does not vary greatly in design and is always painted red, with "arrowsticks" located on the top of the structure (hence the name).

Various tentative etymologies of the word torii exist. According to one of them, the name derives from the term tōri-iru (通り入る, pass through and enter). [18]

Another hypothesis takes the name literally: the gate would originally have been some kind of bird perch. This is based on the religious use of bird perches in Asia, such as the Korean sotdae (솟대), which are poles with one or more wooden birds resting on their top. Commonly found in groups at the entrance of villages together with totem poles called jangseung , they are talismans which ward off evil spirits and bring the villagers good luck. "Bird perches" similar in form and function to the sotdae exist also in other shamanistic cultures in China, Mongolia and Siberia. Although they do not look like torii and serve a different function, these "bird perches" show how birds in several Asian cultures are believed to have magic or spiritual properties, and may therefore help explain the enigmatic literal meaning of the torii's name ("bird perch"). [6] [note 2]

Poles believed to have supported wooden bird figures very similar to the sotdae have been found together with wooden birds, and are believed by some historians to have somehow evolved into today's torii. [24] Intriguingly, in both Korea and Japan single poles represent deities (kami in the case of Japan) and hashira (, pole) is the counter for kami. [19]

In Japan birds have also long had a connection with the dead, this may mean it was born in connection with some prehistorical funerary rite. Ancient Japanese texts like the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki for example mention how Yamato Takeru after his death became a white bird and in that form chose a place for his own burial. [6] For this reason, his mausoleum was then called shiratori misasagi (白鳥陵, white bird grave). Many later texts also show some relationship between dead souls and white birds, a link common also in other cultures, shamanic like the Japanese. Bird motifs from the Yayoi and Kofun periods associating birds with the dead have also been found in several archeological sites. This relationship between birds and death would also explain why, in spite of their name, no visible trace of birds remains in today's torii: birds were symbols of death, which in Shinto brings defilement ( kegare ). [6]

Finally, the possibility that torii are a Japanese invention cannot be discounted. The first torii could have evolved already with their present function through the following sequence of events:

The Shinmei torii Shinmei torii.png
The Shinmei torii

The shinmei torii, whose structure agrees with the historians' reconstruction, consists of just four unbarked and unpainted logs: two vertical pillars (hashira ()) topped by a horizontal lintel (kasagi (笠木)) and kept together by a tie-beam ( nuki ()). [1] The pillars may have a slight inward inclination called uchikorobi (内転び) or just korobi (転び). Its parts are always straight.

Parts and ornamentations

Torii parts and ornamentations Torii nomenclature.svg
Torii parts and ornamentations


Structurally, the simplest is the shime torii or chūren torii (注連鳥居) (see illustration below). [note 3] Probably one of the oldest types of torii, it consists of two posts with a sacred rope called shimenawa tied between them. [28]

All other torii can be divided in two families, the shinmei family (神明系) and the myōjin family (明神系). [1] [note 4] Torii of the first have only straight parts, the second have both straight and curved parts. [1]

Shinmei family

The shinmei torii and its variants are characterized by straight upper lintels.

Shinmei torii

The shinmei torii (神明鳥居), which gives the name to the family, is constituted solely by a lintel (kasagi) and two pillars (hashira) united by a tie beam (nuki). [29] In its simplest form, all four elements are rounded and the pillars have no inclination. When the nuki is rectangular in section, it is called Yasukuni torii, from Tokyo's Yasukuni Jinja. [30] It is believed to be the oldest torii style. [1]

Ise torii

伊勢鳥居 (Ise torii) (see illustration above) are gates found only at the Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine at Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture. For this reason, they are also called Jingū torii, from Jingū, Ise Grand Shrine's official Japanese name. [28]

There are two variants. The most common is extremely similar to a shinmei torii, its pillars however have a slight inward inclination and its nuki is kept in place by wedges (kusabi). The kasagi is pentagonal in section (see illustration in the gallery below). The ends of the kasagi are slightly thicker, giving the impression of an upward slant. All these torii were built after the 14th century.

The second type is similar to the first, but has also a secondary, rectangular lintel (shimaki) under the pentagonal kasagi. [31]

This and the shinmei torii style started becoming more popular during the early 20th century at the time of State Shinto because they were considered the oldest and most prestigious. [6]

Kasuga torii

The Kasuga torii (春日鳥居) is a myōjin torii (see illustration above) with straight top lintels. The style takes its name from Kasuga-taisha's ichi-no-torii (一の鳥居), or main torii.

The pillars have an inclination and are slightly tapered. The nuki protrudes and is held in place by kusabi driven in on both sides. [32]

This torii was the first to be painted vermilion and to adopt a shimaki at Kasuga Taisha, the shrine from which it takes its name. [28]

Hachiman torii

Almost identical to a kasuga torii (see illustration above), but with the two upper lintels at a slant, the Hachiman torii (八幡鳥居) first appeared during the Heian period. [28] The name comes from the fact that this type of torii is often used at Hachiman shrines.

Kashima torii

The kashima torii (鹿島鳥居) (see illustration above) is a shinmei torii without korobi, with kusabi and a protruding nuki. It takes its name from Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Kuroki torii

The kuroki torii (黒木鳥居) is a shinmei torii built with unbarked wood. Because this type of torii requires replacement at three years intervals, it is becoming rare. The most notorious example is Nonomiya Shrine in Kyoto. The shrine now however uses a torii made of synthetic material which simulates the look of wood.

Shiromaruta torii

The shiromaruta torii (白丸太鳥居) or shiroki torii (白木鳥居) is a shinmei torii made with logs from which bark has been removed. This type of torii is present at the tombs of all Emperors of Japan.

Mihashira torii

The mihashira torii or Mitsubashira Torii (三柱鳥居, Three-pillar Torii, also 三角鳥居 sankaku torii) (see illustration above) is a type of torii which appears to be formed from three individual torii (see gallery). It is thought by some to have been built by early Japanese Christians to represent the Holy Trinity. [33]

Myōjin family

The Myōjin torii and its variants are characterized by curved lintels.

Myōjin torii

The myōjin torii (明神鳥居), by far the most common torii style, are characterized by curved upper lintels (kasagi and shimaki). Both curve slightly upwards. Kusabi are present. A myōjin torii can be made of wood, stone, concrete or other materials and be vermilion or unpainted.

Nakayama torii

The Nakayama torii (中山鳥居) style, which takes its name from Nakayama Jinja in Okayama Prefecture, is basically a myōjin torii, but the nuki does not protrude from the pillars and the curve made by the two top lintels is more accentuated than usual. The torii at Nakayama Shrine that gives the style its name is 9 m tall and was erected in 1791. [28]

Daiwa / Inari torii

The daiwa or Inari torii (大輪鳥居・稲荷鳥居) (see illustration above) is a myōjin torii with two rings called daiwa at the top of the two pillars. The name "Inari torii" comes from the fact that vermilion daiwa torii tend to be common at Inari shrines, but even at the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine not all torii are in this style. This style first appeared during the late Heian period.

Sannō torii

The sannō torii (山王鳥居) (see photo below) is myōjin torii with a gable over the two top lintels. The best example of this style is found at Hiyoshi Shrine near Lake Biwa. [28]

Miwa torii

Also called sankō torii (三光鳥居, three light torii), mitsutorii (三鳥居, triple torii) or komochi torii (子持ち鳥居, torii with children) (see illustration above), the miwa torii (三輪鳥居) is composed of three myōjin torii without inclination of the pillars. It can be found with or without doors. The most famous one is at Ōmiwa Shrine, in Nara, from which it takes its name. [28] an entrance to a temple

Ryōbu torii

Also called yotsuashi torii (四脚鳥居, four-legged torii), gongen torii (権現鳥居) or chigobashira torii (稚児柱鳥居), the ryōbu torii (両部鳥居) is a daiwa torii whose pillars are reinforced on both sides by square posts (see illustration above). [34] The name derives from its long association with Ryōbu Shintō, a current of thought within Shingon Buddhism. The famous torii rising from the water at Itsukushima is a ryōbu torii, and the shrine used to be also a Shingon Buddhist temple, so much so that it still has a pagoda. [35]

Hizen torii

The hizen torii (肥前鳥居) is an unusual type of torii with a rounded kasagi and pillars that flare downwards. The example in the gallery below is the main torii at Chiriku Hachimangū in Saga prefecture, and a city-designated Important Cultural Property.

See also


  1. Buddhist temples are represented with a swastika. They also have a symbolic gate, which is however very different. On the subject, see the articles Shichidō garan, Mon (architecture), Sōmon and Sanmmon.
  2. Torii used to be also called uefukazu-no-mikado or uefukazu-no-gomon (於上不葺御門, roofless gate). The presence of the honorific Mi- or Go- makes it likely that by then their use was already associated with shrines.
  3. The two names are simply different readings of the same characters.
  4. Other ways of classifying torii exist, based for example on the presence or absence of the shimaki. See for example the site Jinja Chishiki.
  5. This example is the main torii of Kashii Shrine, Saga prefecture
  6. At Kamakura's Zeniarai Benten Shrine

Related Research Articles

Shinto shrine Japanese shrine of the Shinto religion

A Shinto shrine is a structure whose main purpose is to house ("enshrine") one or more kami. Its most important building is used for the safekeeping of sacred objects and not for worship. Although only one word ("shrine") is used in English, in Japanese, Shinto shrines may carry any one of many different, non-equivalent names like gongen, -gū, jinja, jingū, mori, myōjin, -sha, taisha, ubusuna or yashiro.

Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto shrine near Kyoto, Japan

Fushimi Inari-taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is the head shrine of the kami Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain also named Inari which is 233 metres (764 ft) above sea level, and includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines which span 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) and take approximately 2 hours to walk up.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū (鶴岡八幡宮) is the most important Shinto shrine in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. The shrine is at the geographical and cultural center of the city of Kamakura, which has largely grown around it and its 1.8 km approach. It is the venue of many of its most important festivals, and hosts two museums.


In Shinto shrine architecture, the honden, also called shinden (神殿), or sometimes shōden (昇殿) as in Ise Shrine's case, is the most sacred building at a Shinto shrine, intended purely for the use of the enshrined kami, usually symbolized by a mirror or sometimes by a statue. The building is normally in the rear of the shrine and closed to the general public. In front of it usually stands the haiden, or oratory. The haiden is often connected to the honden by a heiden, or hall of offerings.

An Inari shrine is a type of Japanese shrine used to worship the deity Inari. Inari is a popular deity associated with foxes, rice, household wellbeing, business prosperity, and general prosperity. Inari shrines are typically constructed of white stucco walls with red-lacquered woodwork, and their entrances are marked by vermilion torii. Both Buddhist and Shinto Inari shrines are located throughout Japan.


Sumiyoshi-taisha (住吉大社), also known as Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, is a Shinto shrine in Sumiyoshi-ku, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. It is the main shrine of all the Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. However, the oldest shrine that enshrines the Sumiyoshi sanjin, the three Sumiyoshi kami, is the Sumiyoshi Shrine in Hakata.

Nezu Shrine

Nezu Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in the Bunkyō ward of Tokyo, Japan.

Wakamiya Ōji

Wakamiya Ōji (若宮大路) is a 1.8 km street in Kamakura, a city in Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan, unusual because it is at the same time the city's main avenue and the approach of its largest Shinto shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū. Over the centuries Wakamiya Ōji has gone thorough an extreme change. A heavily trafficked road today, it used to be, to the contrary, off limits to most people as a sacred space. At the time of the Kamakura shogunate it was an essential part of the city's religious life, and as such it hosted many ceremonies and was rich with symbolism. Since its construction Wakamiya Ōji has been the backbone of the city's street planning and the center of its cultural life. The street has been declared a Historic Site and was chosen as one of the best 100 streets in Japan.

Shinto architecture

Shinto architecture is the architecture of Japanese Shinto shrines.


Sumiyoshi-zukuri (住吉造) is an ancient Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style which takes its name from Sumiyoshi Taisha's honden in Ōsaka. As in the case of the taisha-zukuri and shinmei-zukuri styles, its birth predates the arrival of Buddhism in Japan.

Hakozaki Shrine

Hakozaki Shrine is a Shintō shrine in Fukuoka.


Katsuogi or Kasoegi (斗木) are short, decorative logs found on Japanese and Shinto architecture. They are placed at a right angle along the ridge of roofs, and are usually featured in religious or imperial architecture. Katsuogi predate Buddhist influence and is an architectural element endemic to Japan. They are often placed on the roof with chigi, a forked ornamentation used on Shinto shrines. Today, katsuogi and chigi are used exclusively on Shinto buildings and can be used to distinguish them from other religious structures, such as Buddhist temples in Japan.

<i>Mihashira Torii</i>

Mihashira Torii or Mitsubashira Torii are a type of torii gate found in Shinto architecture. Like its name implies, it is a triangular structure that appears to be formed from three individual torii. It is thought by some to have been built by early Japanese Christians to represent the Holy Trinity.


Taisha-zukuri or Ōyashiro-zukuri (大社造) is an ancient Japanese architectural style and the oldest Shinto shrine architectural style. Named after Izumo Taisha's honden (sanctuary), like Ise Grand Shrine's shinmei-zukuri style it features a bark roof decorated with poles called chigi and katsuogi, plus archaic features like gable-end pillars and a single central pillar. The honden's floor is raised above the ground through the use of stilts . Like the shinmei-zukuri and sumiyoshi-zukuri styles, it predates the arrival of Buddhism in Japan.


The hachiman-zukuri (八幡造) is a traditional Japanese architectural style used at Hachiman shrines in which two parallel structures with gabled roofs are interconnected on the non-gabled side, forming one building which, when seen from the side, gives the impression of two. The front structure is called gaiden, the rear one naiden, and together they form the honden. The honden itself is completely surrounded by a cloister-like covered corridor called kairō' (回廊). Access is made possible by a gate called rōmon (楼門).

<i>Mon</i> (architecture)

Mon is a generic Japanese term for gate often used, either alone or as a suffix, in referring to the many gates used by Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and traditional-style buildings and castles.


Kairō, bu (廡), sōrō or horō (歩廊) is the Japanese version of a cloister, a covered corridor originally built around the most sacred area of a Buddhist temple, a zone which contained the kondō and the . Nowadays it can be found also at Shinto shrines and at shinden-zukuri aristocratic residences.


In Japan, a chinjusha is a Shinto shrine which enshrines a tutelary kami; that is, a patron spirit that protects a given area, village, building or a Buddhist temple. The Imperial Palace has its own tutelary shrine dedicated to the 21 guardian gods of Ise Shrine. Tutelary shrines are usually very small, but there is a range in size, and the great Hiyoshi Taisha for example is Enryaku-ji's tutelary shrine. The tutelary shrine of a temple or the complex the two together form are sometimes called a temple-shrine. If a tutelary shrine is called chinju-dō, it is the tutelary shrine of a Buddhist temple. Even in that case, however, the shrine retains its distinctive architecture.


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