In the shadows of the jinja precincts, the chief priest’s brother lies in wait, katana gripped in his hand. The rage and resentment that has festered ever since he was forced to resign almost boils over, and he glances at his wife, the woman he met in the city’s pleasure quarter. Her katana catches the light for a moment.
The chief priest arrives, and the two of them leap from the shadows. In moments, the priest lies bleeding to death on the ground. The assassin kills his wife, and then turns his katana on himself.
The next day, his will is delivered to the jinja.
“If you do not appoint my son as high priest, I will curse you for eternity.”
While this might sound like something from a kabuki play, it actually happened at Tomioka Hachimangū in Tokyo, in December last year. I’m not even cherry-picking to make it sound more dramatic.
The Shinto world is not devoid of scandals, although most of them are a lot less spectacular than this one. At larger jinja, tensions over who should become chief priest are not uncommon, and when Jinja Honchō, which has the right to appoint the chief priest, disagrees with the local ujiko these disputes can lead to court cases; a handful of jinja have left Jinja Honchō over them. Jinja hold land, so there have been a number of scandals over the treatment of that land, whether that is building apartments in places that seem inappropriate, or questions over who has benefited from the sale. Again, a handful of jinja have left Jinja Honchō over these issues as well.
While these scandals are very important to the jinja at which they happen, they are of limited significance for Shinto as a whole. Jinja are largely independent from one another, and so bitter conflicts at one can leave even neighbouring jinja unmoved. That does not stop some people from trying to see larger patterns in them.
I recently read a book entitled Jinja Downfall (神社崩壊), which was inspired by the Tomioka incident, and tried to develop this into an argument for a systemic problem in the Shinto world as a whole. The argument of the book is that Jinja Honchō’s focus on Jingū is a problem in itself, and prevents Jinja Honchō from responding effectively to other major problems facing jinja as a whole.
I have some sympathy with that position, but the data are mixed. As the book points out, Jinja Honchō is failing dismally in its attempts to get more people to make offerings for sacred plaques from Jingū. On the other hand, the number of people actually visiting Jingū has been at historically high levels for the last five years (around 8 million people per year, with a peak over 10 million just after the Grand Renewal), and many jinja are seeing a genuine boom in visitors, many of whom are younger people. Indeed, it is now standard for priests to remark on how much better mannered young people are than the elderly, at least when they visit jinja.
It is, therefore, difficult to argue that jinja as a whole are on the verge of collapsing. It is easier to argue that they are on the verge of a renaissance. Jinja Honchō is aware of the problems and the opportunities, and is taking steps to try to fix one and take advantage of the other. Were it up to me, I would take a less conservative approach, because I think that society has changed too much for minor adjustments to the way things were done in the 1920s to fix contemporary issues. On the other hand, the people at Jinja Honchō have more experience of running jinja than I do, so really it would be safer to trust them.
Overall, then, I do not write much about the scandals because I do not think they reveal systemic problems, and I do not write too much about the systemic problems because I am not sure I know enough to make a useful contribution. This makes most of what I write about Shinto positive, which is not necessarily a bad thing.