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Q: At the entrance to a shrine in Japan, you have to pass under a torii. What’s up with that?

A: Think of it as a gateway — a torii marks the spot where you are entering sacred space.

A shrine’s torii usually is made of wood and is painted a reddish-orange color, red being a color thought to scare away evil. Some shrines have more than one torii, denoting different levels of sacred-ness for different spaces within the shrine’s grounds. There are several thousand torii at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. That’s a whole lot of holy.

The origin of the structure and of the word for it are uncertain. Some say the shape is native to Japan, same as the Shinto religion it signifies. Others believe it may have been imported, but no one knows from where, exactly.

As for the word, the going theory is it means “bird place” — the kanji spelling matches that phrase, and birds are believed to be messengers of god in Shintoism. A Japanese legend says the sun goddess once hid herself away in a cave, but was tempted back out when a perch stocked with lots of noisy birds was set outside. The goddess emerged to investigate, and the world was saved, all thanks to that perch — the very first torii.

An alternate, but far less colorful, take is that “torii” comes from “tori-iru,” which means “pass through and enter.”

Got a question about goings-on in the Pacific? E-mail Stacy Chandler at chandlers@pstripes.osd.mil.

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