References to ritual purity can be found in Japan’s most ancient texts. Yet, the political value of purity was clearly articulated in the late seventh century when rules of abstention were formulated for court officials. Several special Ōharae (Great Purifications) during the Nara period, however, were occasioned by serious political crises. By the 850s, the emphasis had shifted from abstention for ceremonial reasons to an obsession with a world teaming with pollution ranging from epidemics to ghosts and unlucky days that had to be held at bay. Reversely, these practices redundantly signified the court and capital as normatively pure, although incessantly beleaguered with pollutants. Against this background, some state institutions devolved, ultimately localizing impurity in new social sites.
Herman Ooms is professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He studied Philosophy, Anthropology, and Japanese History, receiving his PhD at the University of Chicago. In his research and teaching, he combines anthropological approaches, intellectual history, and critical theory. Among his numerous writings, one book on the intellectual history of the Tokugawa period (Tokugawa Ideology: Early Constructs, 1570-1680; Princeton University Press, 1985), and one on the ideologies of early Japanese state formation (Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800; University of Hawai'i Press, 2009) have become particularly influential.