Saga prefecture is a rural area on the island of Kyushu, a long way from Tokyo. As a result, it is losing population, both to natural decline (Japan’s population is falling overall), and to the cities (Tokyo’s population is rising). This, obviously, has a profound effect on society, and part of that effect touches the jinja. One manifestation of this is the problem of “inactive jinja”.
This is actually a translation of a technical legal term, and means that a jinja that has the legal status of a religious corporation is not fulfilling the practical conditions for retaining that status. Three are particularly important: the religious corporation must have a site for religious activities, must actually carry out religious activities there, and must have someone who serves as the legal head of the corporation. In the case of jinja, the last role is filled by the chief priest. The most common cause of inactive jinja is the absence of a chief priest, which can often lead to problems with other two.
Not always, however. This week’s issue of Jinja Shinpō includes an article reporting on a survey of inactive jinja in Saga prefecture, in which people actually went out to look at the jinja. (They have addresses, because there is a list of all the jinja that are legal corporations and under the supervision of Jinja Honchō, and they know which don’t have chief priests.) In some cases, the jinja really did seem to be inactive: a small stone structure by the side of the road with no sign of recent veneration. In other cases, however, talking to local people revealed that ceremonies were performed there, and that the locals kept the jinja tidy, changing the sakaki and so on.
The really interesting cases, however, were ones where the investigation found that the matsuri at the jinja were being performed by the resident priest of a local Buddhist temple. Officially, this does not happen anymore; it was abolished in 1868. However, the local people do not seem to have thought that anything was strange, and they were, according to the report, quite resistant to the idea that there was any problem with the jinja, and certainly to the idea that it was inactive. You can see their point of view: the matsuri are happening, and in some cases they even rebuilt the jinja buildings with the assistance of the Buddhist priest.
Legally, of course, the Buddhist priest is not the legal head of the jinja’s religious corporation, so the jinja is legally inactive, which is a problem, because inactive religious corporations are supposed be wound up. The relevant ministry has been leaning on the jinja world for several years, telling them to get the problem sorted out before the ministry has to go around forcibly closing jinja, and the problem is now being taken very seriously. Genuinely inactive jinja can be merged with active ones, which is a relatively straightforward legal procedure. (Actually winding them up is, apparently, rather more complex.)
For active jinja without a chief priest, the only solution is to appoint a chief priest. This is a problem when the local people are happy with the Buddhist priest performing the matsuri, because they don’t want a Shinto priest imposed on them from outside. Jinja Honchō does have a system for making special appointments of chief priests in exceptional circumstances, but I think they would be reluctant to appoint a Buddhist priest to the position, regardless of the existence of a thousand years of historical precedent.
That said, it is possible that we will see a return to historic patterns of ritual at some smaller jinja, where matsuri are led either by Buddhist priests or by local lay people, out of sheer necessity. Jinja Shinto is at a significant historical turning point, however it resolves the tensions, and I have no idea how the future will turn out.