The Lister List

Zigag Papers in Shinto shrines

Louse Yale (of the Origami List or Origami-L) reported that when she was looking at a 1980 book on Japanese architecture, she noticed a photograph of a home interior with a "sacred post". Wrapped around the post was a rope with three zigzag-shaped units that looked like folded paper. Louise checked Eric Kenneway's "Complete Origami", page 82 and wondered if these papers were Go-hei. She found that Kenneway said that these were folded only by priests and were found only inside shrines. Yet the one in Louise's book was in a private house.

I have been planning an account of Go-hei and the related O-shide for some time and have various notes in draft. However, Louise's query gives me the excuse to attempt a first explanation, although not a full account.

The zigzag papers are immediately apparent to anyone who visits Japan. They are very ancient and are thought to date from the Heian period (794-1185 AD). They probably represent the very earliest kind of paperfolding (or "quasi-paperfolding”) in Japan The zigzags form a family of related kinds of ritual symbols.  I have found indications that usage and names differ in different parts of Japan.. The main ones have the names "O-shide", “Go-hei”, and "Harai gushi". All of them begin with a rectangular piece of paper. It may be a square or a double-square, but the proportions are not rigid. The paper is cut with a series of cuts parallel to the shorter side. The cuts are made alternately from the two long sides of the rectangle, nearly to the opposite side. This results in the original paper taking the form of a zigzagged strip. However, the device is not yet finished. Where each parallel strip meets the head of the cut, the paper is folded over double. This creates a second kind of zigzag, with a "stepped" construction. Forgive me for the inadequacy of my clumsy words: a picture here would be worth a thousand words. For a single Go-hei of a reasonable length, you need a simple square and for a double Go-hei. a double square. If you want longer Go-hei, then, for a single Go-hei increase the square to a rectangle. For a double Go-hei, increase the double square to a longer rectangle. The proportions are not rigid.

O-shide are the simplest form and usually have a single zigzag. They may, however, be double, hanging in twin pairs, the zigzags reflecting each other. Go-hei are also like twin O-shide, which are joined at the top. Harai-gushi on the other hand are a whole bundle of zigzags tied to the top of a short rod. They look superficially like a cheerleader's “pompom” or "waver".

Eric Kenneway clearly distinguishes between O-shide and Go-hei, but he does not mention Harai-gushi. From my reading of many different books and articles, I believe that his distinction between O-shide and Go-hei is generally correct. But it also seems to me that to some extent the two terms are interchangeable or have been in the past. For convenience I will continue to use distinction made by Eric.

The origin of these zigzags is lost in antiquity. My first impression was that they stood for lightning, and I am certainly not the first person to have made this suggestion. However, when I was in Kyoto I asked a Buddhist priest about this and the idea had never occurred to him. Although he was a Buddhist and not a Shinto priest, if it had been an idea that was known in Japan, I am sure he would have been familiar with it. The other suggestion I have come across is that the zig-zags originated as strips of cloth and there appears to be considerable truth in this. Cloth sometimes, like paper (which, itself, may be regarded as a kind of felted cloth), was made from the mulberry plant and was an early kind of offering to the gods. Later paper came to be substituted.  The word for paper “kami” sounds the same in Japanese as the word kami” for god or spirit. Nevertheless, these are different words with different origins and represented by different kanji characters. Another suggestion is that they take the place of the bundles of fibres of hemp or rice which still decorate the Shimenawa rope. Today the material used is almost invariably pure white paper, but coloured papers are sometimes used`. The only ones I myself have seen have been made of white paper. O-shide have been found to be used by the Ainu people who occupy the far north of the Japanese islands and who are remnants of the earliest people who inhabited Japan.

The main use of O-shide is to decorate the Shimenawa or sacred rope that encircles any sacred place in Japan. This is made from rice straw. I have seen it suggested that the rope must be twisted from right to left, but I have not found any consistency about this in the illustrations that I have seen. Sometimes the rope is an ordinary thin line, but occasionally the Shimenawa can reach enormous proportions of thickness. The O-shide are threaded between the threads of the rope when it is slightly untwisted.  The usual word is "O-shide", but the "O" is an honourable prefix which may be omitted to leave the basic word "shide", which means the same. The "Shimenawa" or sacred rope is used to mark the boundary of any sacred area and is usually hung across the entrance to Shinto temples. It is said that no deity or spirit can pass across it. It may also be hung round a sacred stone or a sacred tree and it indicates the presence of the "kami" or spirit of the place. The sacred post to which Louise refers would be something of this kind. O-shide are not usually found at Buddhist temples, but in Kyoto I saw a Shimenawa rope around the trunk of a tree in the grounds of a Buddhist temple. Usually attached to the Shimenawa are small bundles of rice straw which alternate with O-shide.

O-shide are not, however, limited to trees and Shinto shrines. They are also used to decorate anything considered sacred. It must also be remembered that popular usage is not necessary as strict as the usage of Shinto priests. They appear in the small Shinto shrines, (the Kamidana or “god-shelf”) which are common in private houses. I once dined in a traditional Japanese restaurant that was decorated with rows of O-shide hanging from the ceiling. Similarly, they are used to decorate Noh and Kabuki theatres. Another use is at the dedication of the foundations of a building or on its reaching roof level. They decorate the floats in Japanese festivals, such as the Gion Festival in Kyoto. Even Sumo wrestlers decorate their belts on ceremonial occasions by hanging from them a row of O-shide.

Go-hei are quite distinct. In these a double zig-zag is attached to the top of a short rod about eighteen inches or two feet long. This stands within a Shinto Shrine, whether it is a large building or a small glass cabinet that contains the figure of the deity, such as an animal. They also decorate small way-side shrines, which are very like wayside Christian shrines in Europe. The Go-hei represents the presence of the deity in the shrine. There is only one Go-hei in each shrine and it must be made by a priest. Kenneway suggests that it is a formal offering to the deity, but it appears both to represent the deity and to be an offering.

Harai-gushi also appear in shrines and sometimes elsewhere. They are "purificators" used to wave over people in an act of purification or blessing (as over a bride and groom), in much the same way as some Christians use a small brush or sprig of a shrub to sprinkle holy water over the congregation. Harai-gushi may appear in Japanese plays. Japanese sometimes ask for their new car to be purified or blessed by asking a Shinto priest to wave a harai-gushi over it.

This does not exhaust the range of zigzagged papers. In his book in French, "Manuel pratique d'origami" (Arted of France,1988) Dominique Buisson illustrates several kinds, including an esoteric form called "Mitama", which employs complicated variant techniques of cutting, This symbolisesthe four spirits of the soul of the kami. Buisson also illustrates “Tamagushi”, where the zigzag decorates a symbolic sprig from a sacred Sakaki tree and a another quite complex form which he says is an amulet or “Gofu”.

Curiously, I have never found any comprehensive account of O-shide and their related forms in any Japanese source. I still have much to learn as I shall be grateful for any further information or corrections that anyone can let me have.

David Lister
2nd April, 2002.
Revised 30th January, 2010

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