Why are Torii Shrine Gates Red? The Reason Why, and More on the Significance of Torii in Japan

A great example I found in my area of a natural non-painted torii gate with a vermillion torii gate behind it.

Torii gates serve as both the entrance and importance symbol of Shinto shrines in Japan. Symbolizing the doorway between the outside material world, and the world of the spirits found within, passing through a torii gate symbolizes the transfer between these two worlds. Something that I have noticed living in the Japan for the past 7 years is that even most local Japanese people only know the basics concerning design principles and the reasoning behind many things found at Japanese shrines, so I thought I would go over one of my most commonly requested topics: Why are torii gates red?

Why are torii gates red?

A view of the Itsukushima Shrine, probably the most famous torii gate in Japan, and a great example of the shimmering red vermillion paint job torii gates are so synonymous with.

Actually, torii gates aren’t always painted red. Often, torii gates left unpainted. However, red (more specifically, vermillion) is definitely the most common color for torii gates in Japan. Why? Vermillion represents the power of the sun, thought to have the power of warding off evil spirits, bring about luck, and call upon the gods to watch over the area. Historically Japan’s royal family was thought to be one continuous lineage descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. Ever since Japan has been worshipping the sun, which is the origin of this vermillion color being used not only for the painting of Japan’s torii gates, but many of Japan’s Shinto elements.

Perhaps comparable to the Christian dichotomy of heaven and hell, Shinto beliefs are often centered around the balance of light and shadow throughout the Japanese lands, with the lands of yomi (the areas of darkness) never being fully illuminated by the divine light of Amaterasu-Omikami. This motif can be seen across countless Japanese forms of media and popular fiction, and even popular game series like The Legend of Zelda, with the goal often being the restoration of prominent religious sites to illuminate shadow areas and dispel evil. This is why the vermillion red color of torii gates in Japan does not only symbolize the protection of the divine sun, but also as a marker for the protection of the divine. Just as there are areas of light, there will always remain areas of shadow. In Japanese folklore, some areas of sacred, and others are not. There is an association with this vermillion color serving as a beacon for the holy and divine protection of the spirit world in Japanese culture, and a clear association that the color vermillion or red is synonymous with the image of the sun.

As such, the red torii has become a symbol of Japan even when taken outside of this context, with the prevalence of red torii gates across not only Japan’s countryside, but even mega-metropolises such as Tokyo a constant site. In fact, one recent initiative leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was to rebrand Japans major maps nationwide. The manji would be replaced by the red torii gate as the symbol for shrines across Japan. As we can see, cultural significance is being preserved, but there is also an undeniable sense of branding associated with the red torii gate as well. When people see the red torii gate, they think of Japan, and the Japanese government is well aware of this.

In conclusion

One thing to keep in mind with Japan is that it is a nation steeped with history, and is also a nation of great peace, great information suppression (depending on the daimyo of the time), and nearly endless civil war. Many of the historical manuscripts from the country are lost to time, meaning that many of the questions we ask don’t have any clear answers. While the exact origins of the torii gate are still unknown, their divine significance within the context of Japanese history is well established, let-alone the international branding and cultural significance the red torii has for modern Japan in an international sense today. Culture can be complicated, but in the absolute most simple terms humanly possible, red is a lucky color in Japan.

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the Japanese culture, Japanese language, or some of my experiences living in Japan over the past 7 years, why not check out one of the articles below?

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