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Women and Matsuri

Jinja Shinpō has a weekly slot called “Komorebi”, which means “dappled sunlight falling through leaves”. About half a dozen people connected to Shinto in some way take turns to write it, and the whole set of writers is changed every two years. One writer in the current set is Kumiko Hanyū, a woman and an officer of the national Ujiko youth association. (The official definition of “youth” is, I think, “under fifty”, or “under forty” if they are being strict.) She is from Niigata Prefecture, and associated with Yahiko Jinja, a very important jinja with a long history.

Her articles have basically been about her struggles to be included in the matsuri at the jinja, because traditionally only men were allowed to do it. She wanted to push one of the floats during a parade, and to sing the matsuri songs (“kiyari uta”), and after a considerable amount of persuasion, practice, persistence, and assistance from depopulation reducing the number of men, she was allowed to participate.

This week’s column covers a particularly interesting episode.

About fifteen years ago, Yahiko Jinja undertook a large-scale repair and maintenance project, and there were a lot of associated events, such as pulling tree trunks to the jinja for use in rebuilding, or lantern parades. Among these were, it seems, the standard matsuri for new buildings, because the event reported took place after the Ridgepole Raising Matsuri (Jōtōsai). The ujiko group had performed the kiyari-uta, but at this ceremony it was only the men. She was there, I think, because she was in charge of the children’s group (she doesn’t say explicitly).

The matsuri had finished, and most of the tidying up had finished, when the head of the ujiko association called for everyone to go up onto the stage set on top of the new prayer hall. Ms Hanyū wasn’t sure that she was included, but the association head did seem to be including her, so she headed up with the children. However, when she started to climb the ladder, one of the carpenters interrupted.

“Hey, women can’t really go up here.”

She wasn’t really surprised, but she was disappointed. And then the head of the association spoke out behind her.

“Don’t see any women here.”

She was as surprised as the carpenter. The association head repeated himself, but the carpenter was not easily convinced. Things were getting tense, and the head of the jinja’s matsuri department, noticing the problem, hurried over to see what was going on.

The association head repeated his explanation to the priest.

“There are no women here.”

The priest laughed a bit, and persuaded the carpenter. “There are some people who want an adventure, and others who want to let them have it. That’s not really a problem, is it?”

Thanks to that intervention, both Ms Hanyū and the girls in the children’s group were able to go up on the stage, be in the group photo, and then perform the kiyari-uta.

Apart from sounding a bit like a Monty Python sketch, I think this incident illustrates two important things about contemporary Shinto.

First, there’s still quite a bit of systemic sexism, of the blatant “women can’t do that” variety. This incident was fifteen years ago, and things are changing, but they haven’t changed completely.

Second, it matters a great deal whether people know you. The carpenter almost certainly did not know Ms Hanyū, but the association head and the head of the matsuri department surely did. The carpenter was just excluding women; they were saying that she, in particular, should be allowed to go up.

I hope that the second point will overcome the first.

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