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Japanese culture facts: Kegare, impurity and contamination in Japan

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Today we are back to some ancient topic. I know, it seems a little “recurring”, but I think it’s a very interesting topic, and one that you can better appreciate if you read about it different times… So, I’d say, let’s get into business, and see (once more), what is kegare, and why is so importante in Japan (but also elsewhere…)

Japan and cultural anthropology

Border, order and transformation

If you follow me since a few moments, you may remember that I already wrote a “short” article about kegare, in which I proposed some interesting approaches that begin wit ethimology.

I will not repeat myself, and I urge you to go have a look at the previous writing, but I would like here to point to something else; the connection between kegare, order and transformation.

As we saw previously, in the ancient times the human being perceived the increbile power of nature with a mixed feeling of awe and fright; sacred and kegare are not clearly separated but rather they represent two faces of the same powerful source.

With the deterioration of the original indistinct animism, we assist to an increasingly specific differentiation among the various elements of nature, which are clearly accorded different values leading to a clear separation between nature, human being and beasts. In this interpretation, kegare is represented by all the confused elements lying in the liminal territories, difficult to define with certainty, which endanger the given order.

Japanese culture facts: Kegare, impurity and Mary Douglas

We can see in this interpretation a clear reference to Mary Douglas and her renowned work Purity and Danger: in this work, the author focuses mainly on the demarcation between purity and impurity, their connection with the conceptual dualism sacred / profane and the social implications entailed in these concepts. Douglas points out clearly that while considering this specific terminology, we should keep in mind that it implies a significant difference between our western (and modern) concept of purity, which is almost a synonymous of cleanliness, and the significance bestowed upon it in different cultural backgrounds

Our idea of dirt is compounded of two things, care for hygiene and respectfor conventions

M. Douglas

Since often in our cultural dimension the two concept of impure and dirt overlap, it is necessary to identify the specific structure of a different culture.

Sacred rules are thus merely rules hedging divinity off, and uncleanness is the two-way danger of contact with divinity

M. Douglas

She interprets the form of classifications of pure and impure as socio-cultural phenomena separate from the conformity to hygienic rules. They are a means by which we can interpret the difference between order and disorder, life and death: disorder is represented by everything that, within a society is considered evil, dangerous, deadly. It is the exemplification of what threatens the social order of a given community, and therefore is an element that needs to be avoided and excluded with the use of various taboos.

Impurity is the power that gathers at the fringes. As Van Gennep suggests, society is nothing but a house with different rooms, and the passages from one to the other put men in a dangerous position

Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable

A. Van Gennep

Impurity, and kegare in this context, represents this very impossibility for a definition, this confusion, and more over, the power linked to this status; it is the power of the margin that threat the internal, institutional power, and that has to be controlled and pushed away in order to avoid its destructiveness.

Clearly, this fear for the transition and the confusion che also be interpreted as a way to impose discrimination over minorities. Kegare is the element that creates the need for exclusion and opposition, and this dynamic creates political power and social relationships (and consequently discrimination).

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