Apr 202017

The Japanese academic year ends in March, and every year, in April, Jinja Shinpō publishes an article about the new graduates from the full-time training courses for priests. There are two universities that provide this training: Kokugakuin University, in Shibuya, Tokyo, and Kōgakkan University in Ise. There are also much, much smaller training centres attached to important jinja around the country. The six smaller centres had, in total, 18 graduates this year, while Kokugakuin had 179 and Kōgakkan had 73.

Of these newly qualified priests, 60 are women, about 22%. 28 of them, including 6 women, went to work at their family jinja, while 156, including 18 women, became full-time priests at other jinja. Eighteen, including 4 women, started working both as priests and in other fields. This is generally common, but it seems to be less common among people who train full-time at these institutions, rather than taking short courses. Another 18, including 15 women, went to work as miko, or in jinja offices.

Kōgakkan reported that all its female graduates who wanted to work at a jinja were able to do so, but that includes four women who were qualified as priests, but have jobs, such as miko, that do not require that qualification. Indeed, Kōgakkan was able to place all of its graduates. Kokugakuin was not; 76% got jobs at jinja, as they wanted. Even so, Kokugakuin was only able to fill 39% of the vacancies that jinja offered; there were 294 vacancies for 179 students. Kōgakkan had a similar problem, with 181 vacancies for 73 students.

These numbers make the problem that Jinja Shinto faces in recruiting new priests very obvious. The report from Kokugakuin suggests that a number of jinja are still trying to restrict recruitment to 22-year-old men from jinja families, and, reading between the lines, is telling jinja outside the Tokyo area that they can forget it; if they want to recruit a new priest, they will need to relax at least one of those requirements, and ideally all three. This is because a lot of the priests who train in Tokyo want to stay in that general area, near their families and near almost everything that happens in Japan.

It will be interesting to see how recruitment patterns change over the next few years. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kokugakuin is able to place all of its students in the near future, as well, as the sheer need for new priests overrides traditional ways of thinking about suitable recruits. However, without a surge in the number of people taking the courses, that will still leave a lot of unfilled posts; the problem of recruiting new priests does not have an easy and obvious solution.

If the problem is going to be solved, it will probably need to take account of the attitudes of most Japanese people towards Shinto, which is the topic of the next essay on my Patreon. If you are interested, please take a look.

Apr 152017

At the weekend, I went to visit Aso Jinja, in Kumamoto Prefecture, in Kyushu. Aso Jinja is the Ichinomiya for the old Higo Province, and one of the oldest jinja in Japan. The family of the chief priests goes back over a thousand years, as does the jinja itself. There are twelve main kami enshrined at the jinja, who form a family, and the family of the chief priests is said to be descended from the oldest of these kami. These days, its main benefit is said to be safe travel, but it is also associated with water, due to vigorous springs in the area, and agriculture, because just about every jinja is associated with agriculture. The jinja is located within the caldera of volcano; technically, within the caldera of an active volcano, although most of the caldera, which is about 25 km across, is not active these days. The central peak within the caldera is, however, still active.

In the rain, with cherry blossoms to the right, and one wall of a large, white, temporary building visible to the left.

The remains of the tower gate are inside the white building to the left.

The jinja was famous for its enormous tower gate, one of the three largest in Japan, but I wasn’t able to see that. The reason I went was that the jinja was struck by the earthquakes that hit that area of Kumamoto Prefecture last year, and the tower gate, and prayer hall, collapsed. I was thus visiting to support the jinja and its rebuilding.

The earthquake has made it slightly more difficult to get there than it used to be, as both the railway and some of the roads were blocked, and have not yet reopened. I went by train, by Shinkansen to Kyushu, and then changing to local trains, because I don’t like flying, and because it is necessary to go the long way around, it took about nine hours. Thus, I stayed overnight near the jinja, in an extremely nice, and not ridiculously expensive, ryokan called Aso no Shiki (The Four Seasons of Aso).

The following morning, it was raining, so as I walked to the jinja, I could only barely make out the mountain wall of the caldera through the clouds and mist. At the jinja itself, I went to the office, and filled in the form to ask for a kigansai, to pray for the recovery of the area.

An open area, with visible foundations. A jinja sanctuary is visible at the left of the image.

The site of the prayer hall, with one of the sanctuaries visible at the left.

Because the prayer hall was destroyed in the earthquake, the jinja has built a temporary prayer hall. It has a gravel floor, and untreated wooden pillars, giving it a very pure atmosphere; it feels very appropriate for a prayer hall. The ceremony followed the normal pattern, with kagura. Normally, kagura refers to sacred dance, but strictly speaking it refers to music offered to the kami, and that is what it meant in this case: the presiding priest played two drums, in a way much more lively than the stately gagaku music that is normally played at jinja.

After the ceremony, I had the chance to talk to one of the priests. Actually, he came to talk to me, because he recognised my name. According to him, they expect it to take four or five years to rebuild the prayer hall. The tower gate was an Important Cultural Property, however, which means that it has to be rebuilt very carefully. At the moment, it is covered by a temporary white building, and I believe that, inside, it is being carefully taken apart, so that it can be rebuilt as close as possible to the original, with as much of the original material as possible. The priest said that it might take as long as ten years to rebuild the gate.

I would like to go back to the jinja, to see how the rebuilding is progressing, and also to see the scenery in Kyushu again; what I could see through the rain was beautiful.

If you are interested in knowing a bit more about the religious background to this jinja, I am writing a series of essays about Shinto, supported on Patreon. I hope they are of interest.

Apr 042017

I have a short article in the latest Jinja Shinpō. (It’s on page 5 of the April 3rd issue, if you happen to have access to it.)

The article is about foreign tourists at jinja, a topic that has been receiving quite a bit of discussion in the pages of the paper recently. Since I have been a foreign tourist at a jinja, I wrote a bit about it from that perspective.

I think that there is a problem. I think most foreign tourists see jinja as a collection of traditional Japanese buildings, possibly with a nice woodland or garden attached. That, however, is a complete misunderstanding of what a jinja is. The buildings are unnecessary, even if they are National Treasures in some cases; the point of a jinja is that it is a place to pay one’s respects to the kami.

Thus, it would be appropriate if foreign tourists had the opportunity to do that. A simple formal omairi, where the priest performs harae and then the visitors offer tamagushi, is quite sufficient; it takes about five minutes, so only the busiest jinja would have a problem with meeting the demand. This would be a short experience of what jinja were really about, as well as an interesting experience of Japanese culture for the tourists. It’s also the sort of thing that might inspire an interest in Shinto that doesn’t start with the architecture.

Of course, everything would need to be explained. There would need to be explanations of how to receive harae and offer a tamagushi, and explanations of what the various elements meant would also be helpful. In addition, the explanation would need to suggest how much to offer, because foreign tourists have no idea. Most jinja could not produce an English explanation themselves, and certainly would have trouble with Chinese or Korean. However, the rituals are the same in almost all Jinja Honchō affiliated jinja, which means that a leaflet could be produced once, and then distributed.

There are a couple of things I suggested that the jinja need to consider. One is that most tourists do not bring formal clothes with them, and in summer they might well be wearing t-shirts and shorts. In general, you are not supposed to do a formal ceremony dressed like that. However, the point of making this opportunity available to tourists is to enable the ones who know nothing about Shinto to experience it a bit, so turning them away because they didn’t put the right clothes on does not strike me as the right approach.

The other thing concerns the items that are given to people after a formal visit. This often includes an o-fuda, and sometimes a bottle of sake. Those are not easy for tourists to carry around, so the jinja should think about small and light alternatives.

I have no idea whether anyone will read the article and get ideas, but I hope it does move the discussion in a positive direction.

Talking of explanations of harae, the new essay for my Patreon is on that topic, and should be out to patrons in the next couple of days. If you haven’t already become a patron, you can get back numbers; there are instructions on the right.

Mar 142017

Jinja Shinpō has a weekly column called “Thoughts in the Forest”, written by a small group who take turns. Last week’s was by “Sunami Tomoto” (possibly), which I believe is a pseudonym. (Some of the authors have photographs, and others don’t, and my understanding is that the ones without photographs are pseudonymous. That understanding may, however, be wrong.) The title of the piece was “Looks Foreign”.

In the column, he reports that he was asked by some part of the mass media how many foreign Shinto priests there were, and wonders whether they would ask the same question about Catholic priests. He points out that Jinja Honchō does not ask about nationality when licensing priests, and and that if the person in question had taken Japanese citizenship, then they would be Japanese even if they didn’t look it, so it’s not actually a question he could answer. The final point of the column is that he hopes that Japanese society will stop thinking that people “look foreign”.

Obviously, on a personal level, it’s nice to see another affirmation that I am Japanese. I also suspect that most of the Shinto priests who read the column will nod in agreement, along the lines of “Yes, we really should stop doing that”.

I’ve been Japanese for almost a year now, and everyone assumes that I’m a foreigner. However, I have yet to encounter any resistance when I tell people that I am actually Japanese. They are often a bit surprised, but no-one has given me the sense that there was some sort of problem with the idea. I think that the “typical Japanese” appearance is a strong part of the stereotype of “Japanese”, but, at least for Japanese people, not part of the norms. In other words, you expect Japanese people to look like that, and expect people who don’t look like that not to be Japanese, but it’s not a problem when you discover that someone who looks different is Japanese; that’s unusual, not wrong. It’s like the stereotype that you go up steps to reach the entrance to a jinja. That is almost always the case, but a jinja like Ichi-no-Miya Nukisaki Jinja, in Gunma Prefecture, where you go down steps to the main sanctuary, is not wrong, it’s just very unusual, to the point that almost every time it gets mentioned, the fact that you go down the steps is also mentioned.

It’s very good that the Shinto world is aware of this issue. I suspect, however, that as long as foreign tourists outnumber foreign-looking Japanese by about a hundred to one, it’s going to be difficult to stop people thinking that I look foreign.

I am writing a series of essays about Shinto, funded through Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about the topic, please take a look.

Feb 152017

One of the associations that is very closely linked to Jinja Honchō is the Shinto Seiji Renmei. Its Japanese name means “Shinto Politics Association”, but the official English name is the “Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership”. The Shinto Seiji Renmei’s political position could be described as the conservative edge of the mainstream; it is a mainstream political group, but any group that is significantly more conservative or right-wing is on the fringes. Politically, I disagree fundamentally with a lot of their positions, and disagree about the importance they attach to most of the others.

The Shinto Seiji Renmei has affiliated associations for elected representatives at all levels, from local councils to the national Diet. The Diet Members’ association has 305 members, which is about 40% of the Diet. Most of its members come from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but not all (although I suspect that it has no Communist members).

One of the more important jinja in Tokyo is Hië Jinja, a branch jinja of Hiyoshi Taisha in Shiga Prefecture. (The kanji read as “yoshi” in “Hiyoshi Taisha” was, historically, also read “e”, although Hië Jinja now uses a different kanji.) Thanks to its location, it was the tutelary jinja for Edo Castle, the seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and its Grand Festival was one of the largest matsuri in Edo. When the Tennō moved to Edo, renaming it Tokyo, he moved into Edo Castle, and so Hië Jinja became the tutelary jinja for the Imperial Palace, thus ensuring its continued importance. The National Diet Building and Diet Members’ Offices were built within its “ujikokuiki”, the area that it is responsible for, and thus it is also the tutelary jinja for the National Diet.

Among its other regular matsuri, Hië Jinja holds matsuri on the 1st and 15th of each month. These include sacred dance (kagura), and the food offerings are formally placed before the kami by a number of priests working together. The chief priest of the jinja reads the norito, and everyone in attendance offers a tamagushi at the end. Anyone may attend, and there is no need to book in advance. If you turn up by about 8:45am on the appropriate day, dressed smartly and with at least ¥1,000 for an offering, you may participate. (Speaking Japanese would be a big help, but I suspect that it is not strictly necessary.)

I discovered these matsuri a few years ago, when I was working within Hië Jinja’s area, and thus it was, in a sense, one of my tutelary jinja. I attended them fairly often then, but now that I am not working there I can only go when I have time to get over to Nagatachō in the morning. My schedule meant that I was able to go today.

The Shinto Seiji Renmei Diet Members’ Association also attends those matsuri twice a year; a group of them (I think it depends on who has time) attend one of the matsuri soon after a session of the Diet begins. (This is usually reported in Jinja Shinpō.) The current Diet session began on January 20th, and the Diet Members’ Association attended today’s matsuri.

This is, in my opinion, an extremely appropriate thing for them to do. Hië Jinja is, after all, the tutelary jinja of the Diet, so attending matsuri there is something that Diet Members who officially affiliate themselves with Shinto almost should do. It is the sort of tradition that one might think dates back to the creation of the Diet in the Meiji Period, or at least to the foundation of the Shinto Seiji Renmei in 1969. However, it only goes back a couple of years.

One of my English students is a member of the Diet, and an officer of the Shinto Seiji Renmei Diet Members’ Association (I think he is currently the secretary, but I am not absolutely sure). After I had attended a few of the matsuri, I mentioned them to him, and asked whether he would be interested in attending. It took a while for him to find a day that was possible, but eventually he was able to attend one of them with me. According to him, he thought that it was a very good matsuri, and very appropriate for members of the association, so he suggested, to the association, that they formally attend. They also, it seems, thought that it was a good idea, and so they have now been doing it for a couple of years.

Thus, when I attended this morning, my student introduced me to all the other Diet Members present as a Japanese follower of Shinto, and the original stimulus for the Diet Members’ visits.

Matsuri are one of the topics I have already covered in my Patreon essays about Shinto, and tutelary jinja, and the Shinto Seiji Renmei, are likely to be covered in the future. If you are interested in reading more about Shinto, please take a look.

Feb 072017

The Hina dolls: a princess and prince on the top shelf, with three female attendants on the shelf below, and an ox-drawn carriage, palanquin, and treasure box on the bottom shelf. All the dolls are dressed for the Heian period.Today, we put up Mayuki’s Hina Matsuri dolls. These dolls are traditionally given to Japanese girls by their maternal grandmothers, and are displayed for the Hina Matsuri every year. The matsuri itself is on March 3rd, but you are supposed to put the dolls away on or around that date, so we put them up about a month in advance. We (with the help of Mayuki’s grandmother) bought them soon after Mayuki was born, and we have put them up every year, so that this was the tenth time.

Mayuki helped me to put them up, but when I told her that it was the tenth time, she drew her breath in sharply.

“That means there’s a curse! On the tenth, twentieth, and so on times that the dolls are displayed, they curse you.”

I have no idea where that idea comes from, but I had a solution. We would perform an oharai, a ritual purification, on the dolls. We borrowed a gohei (a wooden stick with two shidë, pieces of paper folded into lightning shapes) from the kamidana, and I recited the standard oharai norito while Mayuki waved the gohei to purify the dolls. She was satisfied that this would be sufficient to avert any curse.

“I wonder what it would have been?”

This is particularly interesting because the hina dolls have their origin in purification rituals. Originally, the owner’s ritual impurity was transferred to the dolls, and then the dolls were floated down a river or buried to take the impurity away. Although they are far too beautiful, and expensive, to throw away now, they are still believed to protect the girl in some way, and putting them away late is supposed to indicate that she will not get married early. (I don’t believe that sort of superstition, but still, there’s no hurry to tidy them up.)

I think I might well write an essay about purification rituals for the next essay on my Patreon. I have just released an essay about the Japanese Emperor, the Tennō, and his place in Shinto, so I need to think of the next theme.

Jan 282017

Hatsumōdë is the first visit to a jinja (or Buddhist temple, but normally jinja) of the New Year. In one use, it simply refers to a person’s first visit in a year, no matter when it happens. The most common use these days, however, is to refer to the custom of visiting a jinja in the first three days of the New Year (or maybe a few days later if you are away). This is an extremely popular custom; the estimates I have seen are that about 80% of Japanese people do it, and I find that plausible, or maybe even a bit low. A lot of people perform their hatsumōdë during the night, and even at small jinja people start queueing half an hour or so before midnight. It is common for jinja to mark midnight by striking a taiko (Japanese drum), and to open the prayer hall at that point so that people can pay their respects.

Meiji Jingū in Tokyo gets the highest number of visitors of any single institution, and this year it reported 3,180,000 visitors in the first three days of the year. The report in Jinja Shinpō also commented that the number of foreign visitors to Meiji Jingū has significantly increased in recent years, and that, at hatsumōdë this year, the number of foreigners wearing kimono was striking.

On the other hand Jingū, in Ise, reported 490,000 visitors. That may not sound so impressive, given that it is said to be the most important jinja in Japan; why does Meiji Jingū get so many more? The answer is that Meiji Jingū is in the centre of Tokyo, where 35 million people have easy access by public transport; there is a railway and metro station just outside the entrance. On the other hand, the total population of Ise city was, according to the city’s website, 128,800. Thus, while 10% of the population of Tokyo went to Meiji Jingū, which is impressive, the visitors to Jingū numbered four times the population of the city. The nearest large city, Nagoya, is over an hour by express train, so people who visited Jingū for hatsumōdë were making a real effort.

The custom of hatsumōdë has roots going back almost a thousand years, to a New Year jinja visit performed by the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo. It has, however, only become really popular in living memory. The older priests at my local jinja can remember when the night of New Year was very quiet, and now they have to hire security people to manage the crowds. As almost all the visitors make at least a small offering, and many make offerings for omamori or hamaya (lucky arrows), the hatumōdë visits have become very important to the financial stability of many jinja. I suspect that a lot of priests pray for good weather over the New Year.

Dec 272016

A commenter on my Japanese blog sent me a link to an interview with Florian Wiltschko, an Austrian-born Shinto priest (link is to the English translation). I’ve actually been mistaken for Revd Wiltschko, despite being a lot older, not blond, and not a Shinto priest. I agree with a lot of what he says in the interview, although in the end I come down on the side of thinking that it is more helpful to describe Shinto as a religion.

Revd Wiltschko is (to the best of my knowledge) unique in being a foreign Shinto priest who has been trained and authorised by The Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchō). There are a number of others, but they were all trained and licensed by different Shinto groups. Strictly speaking, there are other foreigners who have been licensed, but they are all of Japanese descent and running jinja in Hawai’i, and I think they were born Japanese, in Japan. (The specific examples I know of were, but I haven’t done a systematic survey.)

One interesting comment in the interview is the revelation that more senior priests said that it would be “very un-Japanese” to not allow foreigners to become priests. That fits with the attitudes that I’ve encountered, although I’ve never heard it expressed in so many words.

Dec 142016

Your Name is a Japanese animated feature film written and directed by Makoto Shinkai that is currently doing extremely well in Japan. It was released in August, and when I went to see it with my nine-year-old daughter on Sunday, the cinema was full. It is, apparently, the second-highest-grossing Japanese animation in Japan, behind Spirited Away, and as it is still showing it is possible that it could become top. It was shown briefly in Los Angeles earlier this month, in order to qualify for the Oscars, and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Animated Film.

So, the first reason for mentioning it is that both I and my daughter really enjoyed it, and it will have a US release next year, so you should go to see it.

The reason for mentioning it here is that Shinto themes are quite important in the film. One of the central characters, Mitsuha Miyamizu, is the heir to the line of hereditary priests at a jinja, Miyamizu Jinja, and her service as a miko at the jinja, while only occupying a fairly small part of the film, is very important to the plot. Although the film is a fantasy, it is one in which there are a few elements of fantasy in a realistically drawn contemporary Japan (indeed, the windows of the office where I used to work appear briefly in one scene), and the portrayal of Mitsuha’s life in her hometown gives a good idea of how Shinto and jinja fit into normal Japanese society.

Another interesting point from my perspective is that there is an extended explanation of “musubi” as a central idea of Shinto, and of the film. “Musubi” is a term going back to the earliest recorded forms of Shinto, although it is thought that it was originally pronounced “musuhi”. It was the term for the power of creation and growth, and appears as an element in the names of several kami, including two of the first three kami to appear in the creation myth given in the Kojiki, the oldest account of Japanese myth. However, because it is homophonous with the word for “knot”, it is also used to refer to strong relationships between people; as I discussed in my Patreon essay about matsuri, “enmusubi” matsuri, at which people pray for good romantic relationships, are very popular these days.

Although I had heard of the film when my daughter said she wanted to see it, I wasn’t aware of the Shinto elements in advance, so that was a pleasant surprise. In addition, the animation and design are beautiful, the characters are interesting, and while the plot will not radically overturn the expectations you form from the trailer, it is solid and not completely predictable. As I said before, I highly recommend it.

Dec 072016

My Patreon has properly started: today, I sent the first paid essay, about the matsuri that are performed at jinja, to all my patrons. The topic was chosen by the higher-level patrons, because they were interested in hearing more about the practical things that priests did at jinja. Since matsuri are the main religious activity, that’s what I wrote about.

I’m currently talking to the higher-level patrons about what to do next, so if you are interested in joining that discussion and getting the resulting essay, please head over to my Patreon, and sign up to support it. Thank you!

%d bloggers like this: