Aso Jinja is a large and old jinja in Kumamoto Prefecture, in central Kyushu. It is the Ichi-no-Miya of Higo, one of the old provinces of Japan, and its chief priesthood is hereditary in the Aso family, who used to rule the area as well as lead the religious rituals. It is located in the caldera of an active volcano, which is less exciting than it sounds, as the caldera is enormous, and the volcano is much less active now than it was when the caldera formed.
In April 2016, the region was hit by two strong earthquakes in quick succession — just a few days apart. The first one turned out to be a foreshock, as the second one was bigger. These earthquakes did a lot of damage, as it turned out that buildings designed to survive level 7 earthquakes (the strongest level on the Japanese scale) have trouble if there is a second one so soon.
Aso Jinja itself was badly damaged. Its enormous tower gate, a national cultural property and the symbol of the jinja, collapsed, as did the prayer hall. (The image of the tower gate is still on the jinja’s homepage.) The sanctuaries were also damaged, although none of them actually collapsed. The jinja estimates that it will take at least ten years and cost at least $10 million to repair the damage, and that does not include the tower gate, which, as a national cultural property, will largely be repaired by the state.
However, the area around the jinja suffered remarkably little. Most houses remained standing and habitable, and there was only minor damage to the overwhelming majority of rice fields. This was very noticeable when I visited in April last year: there was almost no sign of earthquake damage while walking to and from the jinja.
This has led to the spontaneous appearance in a belief in Aso Jinja as a “migawari” jinja. “Migawari” literally means “body substitute”, and the wider meaning is someone who takes on a burden, illness, or punishment on behalf of someone else. That is, the people living near the jinja have come to see the jinja as having taken on the earthquake damage on their behalf, protecting them at the expense of its own buildings.
It is easy to understand where this belief might have come from, particularly if you have visited. The contrast between the apparently undamaged town and the partially devastated jinja is very striking. It will be interesting to see whether this becomes an established part of the beliefs surrounding the jinja over the next few years. The key will be whether people start going to the jinja to pray for it to do the same thing for them again.