Shintoism as a way of life is characterized as an essential element in The Tale Of Genji. It undergirds the individual stories in Murasaki Shikibu's epic novel. As a spiritual practice, Shintoism is not a religion with a deity or specific scriptures. In Japan, it exists in harmony with Buddhism. As in the story, Shintoism concerns itself with pragmatic concerns within an earthly structure; it does not account for the possibility of a transcendental other world. As such, humanity is not thought of as 'fallen' in the sense of 'original sin.' Instead, adherents of this way of life rely on a set of ethical principles to navigate their way through the vicissitudes of life, as in The Tale Of Genji.
A deep respect for kami or interested spirits is central to Shintoism. Kami are not gods or omnipotent creatures. They may even be flawed, and some are unquestionably evil. In short, kami are just higher manifestations of the life energy; if applied to, they may help humans in time of need, as illustrated in Genji's visit to the Shinto shrine at Sumiyoshi, where he thanks the kami in residence for conferred blessings and protection. Kami may be spirits which inhabit humans, a natural force in storms or earthquakes and even certain landscape features such as mountains. To adherents, shrine rituals are necessary in aiding the development of a working relationship with kami for the purposes of requesting protection, good health, and specific solutions to earthly conundrums.
An important Shinto ritual in The Tale Of Genji is the purification rite. These purification rites are intended to cleanse the mind and body of sin, pollutions, or the influence of evil spirits. Some Shinto purification rituals involve water and others, salt. Basically, both salt and water are used as spiritually cleansing mediums. In the story, Lady Rokujo, the longtime mistress of Genji, believes that evil spirits within her are attacking Genji's wife; she even has dreams about it. Her fears that the living spirit/kami within her, 'preoccupied with personal desires and attachments' are responsible for the suffering of Genji's wife leads her to resort to purification rituals and healing rites.
Indeed, Genji himself orders exorcism rituals (prayers and rites) for his wife in order to chase away the malignant and obsessive kami tormenting her.
There are also purification rituals for priestesses. In the story, Lady Rokujo's daughter, Akikonomu, has to endure lustrations (purification rituals) in her initiation as an Ise High Priestess. During her daughter's purification rituals, Lady Rokujo places branches of the sacred sakaki tree in corners and at the gates. The sakaki branches designate any area as sacred space; with its evergreen appearance, the sakaki also represents continued prosperity and thriving success.
There are also purification rituals after childbirth; these rituals are to be performed during a period of confinement for the baby immediately after it is born. In the story, the Akashi Princess and her baby boy are moved to the Southeast residence of the palace so that the little boy would be formally confined in a grand residence for his purification rituals. Today, the Hatsumiyamairi marks a newborn's first visit to the shrine to honor his personal kami.
There are many more examples of Shinto rituals in The Tale Of Genji; the importance of rituals in the story is center to the tale itself and worth studying within the context of its influence on the thoughts and actions of its characters.
Shinto purification and exorcism rituals serve to mitigate physical and spiritual suffering in The Tale of Genji. Afflictions occasioned by malignant attacks from evil spirits serve as a foil to highlight the often negative attributes of specific characters such as Lady Rokujo. In the story, she fears that her obsessive jealousy against Genji's wife, Lady Aoi, is the catalyst for Aoi's physical possession by evil kami.
Indeed, the ceremonial exorcisms performed by ritual exorcists plays a major part in the story. Every act of exorcism becomes not only a struggle for preeminence between conflicted parties, it is in itself a statement of community values. In The Tale Of Genji, each ritual ends with the calling out of the evil kami/spirit and the expelling of such spirits from the distressed individual, usually a woman. After the woman has obtained relief from her suffering, the community is satisfied, and societal equilibrium is restored until the next seizure or physical manifestation. Festering conflicts and issues are never directly addressed, whether it is jealousy, anger, malice, or lust.
Instead, these rituals represent the general belief (during Murasaki Shikibu's time) that successful exorcisms are the only way to restore equilibrium to any imbalances between unseen forces and humanity. The rituals represent a way to reclaim power and to assert a degree of control over invisible elements in the world that are beyond human influence. These beliefs lie at the heart of The Tale Of Genji.