By Avi Landau
When I spotted the small vermillion torii (gate) up ahead by the side of the mountain road, I tried to catch a glimpse of the shrine or sacred stone behind it as the car I was in rolled by. Curiously, there seemed to be nothing. I was more surprised when we soon drove by another little torii which seemed to lead to nowhere as well. We then passed another.
Toriis are the symbol of Japan’s native religion, now referred to as Shinto. They are the easily recognizable entranceways to shrines, gates which are always open, leading into or demarcating the presence of sacred space. Sometimes small torii are placed in front of objects considered sacred: an ancient tree, a mysterious mountain, an unusual stone.
What were these toriis doing by the roadside if they did not indicate the presence of a shrine or sacred object? This question led us to stopping the car and getting out for a closer look. Writing on the back of the unusually thin gate told us that what we had found were GOMI YOKE TORII, or garbage preventing torii, set up by the owner of the roadside forest to discourage littering! These most familiar signs of the sacred, along with Jizo statues(popular Buddhist images), are becoming more and more frequently used to discourage littering and public urination.
Though most Japanese you talk to will probably deny that they are religious, in actuallity most seem to still have respect for (or more likely fear of !) the Gods and Buddhas. When rolling down the car window to chuck out an empy can or wrapper , the sight of a torii or jizo would almost surely make the typical Japanese hold on to their trash. Few would want to risk the wrath of retribution (in Japanese, BACHI GA ATARU) and for most Japanese it is just plain common sense not to pollute a shrine or a temple. On the internet I have found several discussions of why toriis and Jizo are used (effectively) in this way. The usual responses are: “Are you a Japanese? If you are Japanese you surely understand why people wouldn’t litter around a torii!”
It is also possible to buy stencil sheets for painting small torii gates on walls or the sides of buildings. These are usually effective in keeping these structures urine free.
Check out this ad for GOMI YOKE TORII:
I have made lots of calls to determine who exactly pays for and sets up these litter-stoppers. I have found out that it is case by case. Private landowners, local and prefectural governments and NPOs are all ordering them. In Tsukuba, The Gomi No Kai (garbage society) pays for and sets up Jizos with the aim of preventing littering (if you check, the sponsor’s name is usually indicated on the back). At one location where the Gomi No Kai had set up a jizo I found that though the area near the Jizo was certainly clean, the situation was very different JUST ACROSS THE STREET. It seems that we need a few MORE toriis and Jizos!