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Yaegaki Jinja

Yaegaki Jinja is a local jinja in Miyagi Prefecture. I would most likely never have heard of it, except that it is located near the coast, and it was completely destroyed by the tsunami in 2011. Not only were all the jinja buildings swept away and almost all of its sacred forest killed, but after the tsunami the surrounding area was declared at-risk from future tsunami, and people were forbidden to live there. Thus, in one day the jinja lost all of its structures and all of its ujiko.

The jinja has become well known because of its chief priest, Fujinami Shōko. She refused to let the disaster stop her, and worked with the former ujiko to rebuild the jinja, on its original site. The jinja was the site of an early tree-planting event, organised by the Japan Foundation and Jinja Honchō in 2012, and then the Foundation and Suwa Taisha, in Nagano in central Japan, both offered to help with the rebuilding. Ultimately, the jinja chose to accept the help from the Foundation, and went on to rebuild the main sanctuary, offering hall, and prayer hall on much the same scale as before the disaster. The new buildings were dedicated in July last year.

There was an article about the rebuilding in the latest issue of Kōshitsu, a magazine published in association with Jinja Honchō that has the English title “Our Imperial Family”. It is, as you might guess, primarily about the activities of the Imperial family, but every issue includes a couple of articles on jinja, describing important matsuri or events. For example, there was a long series on the Grand Renewal at Kasuga Taisha, and the article about Yaegaki Jinja is part of a series on jinja recovering from natural disasters, which has covered earlier stages in its rebuilding as well.

The rebuilt jinja faces a somewhat uncertain future, because the area around it has nothing but a graveyard. Not even the priestly family may live near the jinja. The links between the jinja and the former ujiko are strong at the moment, but it will not be easy to maintain that over generations. People who were born after the disaster, and never lived near the jinja, are not going to naturally develop emotional ties to it. Nevertheless, the priests wanted to rebuild the jinja in the same location, because that is the sacred location where the kami dwell.

During the rebuilding process, there were several ceremonies to move the kami. The original goshintai was lost, so the kami was first called into a pillar that was set up to mark the site, then into a small, temporary shrine, then into the main sanctuary of the new jinja. However, the chief priest said, in an interview, that she felt that the kami had stayed in the top of one of the three large pine trees that survived the tsunami until the rebuilding was complete, because the kami was hardly going to keep moving just because the priests said so.

Another interesting feature of this jinja is that not only is the chief priest female, her mother was chief priest before her, and her daughter has trained as a priest to take over after her. The matsuri marking the rebuilding of the jinja was conducted entirely by women: the chief priest, her daughter, another female priest, and a miko. That is extremely unusual, but the high level of attention given to this jinja, all of it positive, suggests that contemporary Shinto does not regard it as a problem.

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