Torii at Itsuku Island, Japan.
Learn more about torii with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A is a traditional Japanese gate commonly found at the entry to a Shinto shrine, although it can be found at Buddhist temples as well. It has two upright supports and two crossbars on the top, and is frequently painted vermilion. Some torii have tablets with writing mounted between the crossbars. Traditionally, torii are made of wood or stone. In recent times, makers have started to use steel and even stainless steel. Torii mark the transition from the sacred (the shrine) to the profane (the normal world) (see Sacred-profane dichotomy).
The origin of the word "torii" is not known. One theory is that it was designed for birds to rest, as hinted by the kanji, which may be derived from 鶏居 meaning 'chicken perch'. This is because in Shinto, birds are considered messengers of the gods. A second theory is that it is derived from the term tōri-iru (通り入る: pass through and enter).
Torii mark the entrance to sacred space in Japan. Passing underneath a torii on the way to visit a shrine is, along with washing one's hands and mouth with water, an act of sanctification and purification before approaching the kami to pray.
For this reason, people who are in a state of uncleanliness are not permitted to approach a Shinto shrine for prayer as their uncleanliness would defile the grounds. Examples of uncleanliness in the Shinto tradition include a woman who is menstruating or anybody who has lost a relative in the past year. When a Japanese person suffers a death in the family, he or she will go to Buddhist temples instead of a Shinto shrine to offer prayers for 1 year, including for the essential first visit of the new year, Hatsumoude.
The torii is sometimes considered a symbol of Japan. For example, it is the symbol of the American 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and other US forces in Japan.
With the strong relationship between Shinto shrine and Imperial family, a torii is built in front of the tombs of each Emperor.