At the beginning of every year, Jinja Shinpō publishes a number of short articles by people in the Shinto world who share that year’s Chinese zodiac animal. As there are twelve animals in the cycle, that means that the articles are written by people who will turn 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, or 84 in the coming year. (I have not yet noticed one by someone heading for 96 or 108, nor by someone about to reach 12.) A lot of them are the chief priests of jinja, but others are lower priests, or staff at Jinja Honchō or one of the prefectural Jinjachō, which is not incompatible with also being a chief priest.
Because they cover the whole country and a wide range of ages, the articles tend to be very interesting. One point in one of this year’s particularly caught my attention.
The author is a hereditary priest of a Hachiman Jinja, so hereditary that his family name is “Hachiman” (or possibly “Yawata”; the characters would be the same), and he is about to turn 60. In his article he comments that, even after deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, he really liked science, and wasn’t at all sure how he should understand Shinto. His appreciation for the significance of Shinto was deepened by service at Jingū, but he was still unsure about how to interpret Shinto when his father died and, around twelve years ago, he took over the family jinja. That presented some problems regarding his approach to promoting the jinja: what should he say about it? He concludes that he has decided that the jinja should be providing Shinto-style emotional and psychological support to the people of the area, but his conclusion strongly suggests that he still has not solved the problem of how he should interpret the religion.
The first point of interest is that this is a concrete example of an active chief priest who does not “believe in the kami” in a conventional sense, apparently because modern science suggests that the traditional beliefs cannot be right. The second point of interest is that he didn’t see any problem with writing about that in the house newspaper of the Shinto world, and that the newspaper did not see any problem with publishing it. That is, nobody seems to think that this will cause any problems for his position.
And why should it? He is quite clear about continuing the traditional ceremonies, and his deep appreciation of both the traditional and ceremonial aspects.
This is a clear example of a fundamental difference between Shinto and western religions. Western religions are what is called “orthodoxic”: they put a strong emphasis on believing the right things. Shinto is “orthopraxic”: the emphasis is on performing the right rituals in the right way. In an orthodoxic religion, it does not matter how you pray, as long as your beliefs are right. In an orthopraxic religion, it does not matter what you believe, as long as your rituals are right. It is hardly surprising that many westerners find Shinto hard to understand at the beginning.