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Tsunekiyo Tanaka, Head of Jinja Honchō

I have a subscription to Jinja Shinpō, which is effectively the house newspaper of Jinja Shinto. The priests of the 80,000 jinja affiliated to Jinja Honchō (The Association of Shinto Shrines) all have subscriptions, and almost nobody else does; most articles assume that the readers are Shinto priests. This provides an interesting window on what is important to Jinja Honchō, and a less direct view of what is important to Shinto priests in general.

In the October 17 2016 issue, there is a long interview with Tsunekiyo Tanaka. He is the effective head of Jinja Honchō (there are a couple of people who formally outrank him, but their roles are primarily ceremonial), and he has recently been reappointed for a third three-year term. It is common for people to serve two terms in this position, but three is unusual. Obviously, this is a very friendly interview, but that means we can assume that what he says in the interview is what he wants to say; no-one is tricking him into revealing secrets.

The first thing he talks about, in the part of the interview that is printed on the front page of the paper (it continues inside), is the need for Jinja Honchō to talk to priests from around the country, listen to them, and work together to create effective policies to deal with the serious problems facing many jinja, particularly in rural areas. Most notably, depopulation, and the ageing of the people who remain, means that many rural jinja are being maintained by the efforts of a handful of people over 70, and there is no-one younger to take over when they die. A significant number of rural jinja are not being maintained at all. He explicitly notes that Jinja Honchō’s previous attempts could be described as one-sided and top-down, and that although he is the chief priest of a jinja (Iwashimizu Hachimangū, arguably the second most important jinja in Japan for several centuries in the medieval period) many of the staff at Jinja Honchō are not, and thus may not understand the situation on the ground.

One very interesting point he made was a brief discussion of the new disciplinary regulations that Jinja Honchō has just introduced. Some priests worried that this was a sign that Jinja Honchō wanted to start interfering with their activities. However, Revd Tanaka’s explanation was that a number of jinja had faced internal staff problems (often part-time staff acting in ways inconsistent with the dignity of the shrine, such as by playing frisbee with the sacred mirror — although not that exactly, because those mirrors are made of metal, and heavy), but had no disciplinary regulations. However, those jinja that used the Jinja Honchō recommended regulations, which is most of them, have a clause saying that, for anything not covered separately, they use Jinja Honchō’s regulations, so the new disciplinary regulations have been written primarily for the use of local jinja. Similarly, there has been a change to the regulations about the qualifications of acting chief priests, because the old ones were being ignored wholesale. That produced a concern that a lot of acting chief priests would be fired, but, again, the intent is supposed to be to provide more realistic support for them. This is good evidence for Revd Tanaka’s claim that Jinja Honchō has been a bit top-down in the past.

In the interview, he also officially acknowledges that some priests do not see why they need to put so much effort into supporting Jingū at Ise, when it receives millions of visitors, including the G7 heads of state, and supports around 100 priests, and their jinja are barely surviving. Unfortunately, the only answer he has in the interview is that this is what Jinja Honchō was founded to do, 70 years ago. That is true, but I suspect it won’t be enough to convince those priests.

Overall, the interview suggested that he was very interested in talking to priests across the country to find out what the problems are, devise practical solutions, and then actually put them into practice, modified as appropriate for particular regions. He even said that some past efforts had failed to get beyond the stage of talking about things. I think that this is exactly right, and I’m not really surprised; I’ve formed a very good impression of Revd Tanaka over the last few years. I hope he does manage to put this into effect, because Jinja Shinto is facing a major crisis over the next decade.

I’m writing a series of in-depth essays on Shinto, supported by Patreon. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto, I invite you to have a look, and consider becoming a patron.

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