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Rice and Rites

The season of taue matsuri has begun. These are festivals marking the beginning of planting rice plants out in the paddy fields, and are an important part of many jinjas’ ritual years. Indeed, the cycle of rice agriculture shapes the annual matsuri of most jinja, with the kinensai asking for a good harvest in February, and the niinamësai giving thanks for it in November, with matsuri asking that the weather not damage the crops in between. Indeed, at most jinja the important matsuri are tied to the rice crop in one way or another.

This is a problem when under 5% of the population is directly involved in rice agriculture, or even particularly close to it. Specifically, the problem is that most people cannot see how these rituals are relevant to their lives. Even if they have all the supernatural power claimed, they are for the rice harvest. It would, indeed, be inconvenient for most Japanese people if the rice harvest failed. It would not, however, be as inconvenient as it would be if the electricity grid, for example, failed. Obviously, things were very different even a hundred years ago, and for the fifteen hundred years before that. For most of the history of Shinto, the rice harvest was a life-and-death matter to everyone connected with a jinja.

It is hard to avoid seeing this as part of the reason why people are less involved with their local jinja than they used to be. This is particularly true in urban areas with little farming, where most people live: there may be no rice agriculture at all taking place within the area protected by a particular jinja.

Once again, this is a problem that does not have a conservative solution. Barring extremely unexpected changes in Japanese society, no more than a small minority are going to be involved in rice agriculture for my lifetime, or, quite possibly, ever again. Indeed, the scale of changes needed to return most of the population of Japan to the land is so large that there is no guarantee that any part of Japanese culture would survive them. It is possible, and worthwhile, to encourage people to participate in rice agriculture, to understand a fundamental part of Japanese culture, but that is just playing at farming, and will not make jinja matsuri feel like part of everyday life.

The “powerspot boom”, in which people visit jinja to get benefits for their daily life, is one way in which jinja can be made relevant to people today, but it is entirely individual. Most Shinto priests see the rituals at jinja as being fundamentally for the local community, not for individuals, and they are very reluctant to change that. Of course, they are also very reluctant to change the traditional rituals, but as those matsuri are all about the rice harvest, they are no longer for the local community. They are for the small subset of the community that is still engaged in such agriculture.

Some priests are trying new and different approaches, and the best way forward is for one of those to work, and spread, probably in the face of strong opposition from many other Shinto priests. The traditional version of Shinto, however, is no longer available. The community no longer cares about the topic of the traditional matsuri.

2 thoughts on “Rice and Rites”

  1. Could this be linked to the efforts to make sure people know where their food comes from? Only someone who does not eat any food derived from a rice plant is really lacking any link to the success of the rice harvest, it is more a case that many fail to see the link. I am thinking of the efforts being made here to encourage urban school children to plant vegetable seeds and tend the plants, and even the efforts of people like me to expose the unpleasant side of farm animals’ lives. I appreciate that neither of those examples fits comfortably with the idea of reawakening the link between individuals and the success of rice cultivation, but I think they do show that there is a much wider need to link people to the source of the food they pick up off a supermarket shelf than you set out here, so there may be a way forward for the jinjas.

    1. Jinja and related organisations do run such events, getting school children or university students out to rice fields to help with planting and harvesting, and then offer “their” rice to the kami. I think that is a good thing (and wish my daughter’s response to the suggestion that we participate had been less decidedly negative), but it won’t solve the matsuri problem by itself.

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