Female Shinto Priests

Female Shinto Priests

A couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with a professor of Shinto Studies at Kokugakuin University, and the subject of female priests came up. His speciality is the period 1868 to 1945 (a clearly distinct period of Japanese history), and what he had to say was interesting.

Apparently, in the late nineteenth century, there were female priests at some jinja. This happened because, with the separation of Shinto and Buddhism, many Buddhist clergy who had managed jinja through their temples reverted to being lay people, and became Shinto priests to look after the jinja. Most of these were Buddhist monks, but some of them were Buddhist nuns, and they became female priests.

However, with the government decision to make all jinja into government agencies and staff them all with civil servants, this created a problem, because civil servants had to be male. (Overt sexism in the nineteenth century should not really be a surprise.) There was, I believe, no strong action taken against the existing female priests, but women could no longer become priests. Thus, female priests naturally disappeared.

There was a significant movement within Shinto that opposed this, and campaigned for the government to allow female priests. Indeed, the fortunes (omikuji) found at most jinja and temples in Japan were popularised in their current form by an organisation that campaigned for the recognition of female priests; they sold the fortunes to jinja and temples to raise funds for their campaigning. The government had still not been persuaded when the war ended, and Shinto was abruptly cut loose from the state.

Almost immediately, the newly established Jinja Honchō recognised female priests. At its foundation in 1946, the regulations did say that priests had to be male, but that was interpreted as only applying to chief priests; the first record of a female priest in the modern era is from September 1946. In 1949, the regulations were formally changed to allow women to become chief priests as well. There are no records of serious controversy over this change, which suggests that it was not, in fact, controversial.

Today, around 40% of people training for the Shinto priesthood at university are female, and the number of active female priests is climbing, although it is still around 10%. It is important to remember that the average career of a Shinto priest is somewhere around 60 years; it takes a long time for things to change. Indeed, Shinto would appear to be a good example of just how long it can take. There is no fundamental opposition to female priests, and no evidence that there ever has been. However, the simple fact that priests were almost all male has meant that now, 70 years after women were allowed to become priests, they still only make up 10%.

I do hope to see the first female president of Jinja Honchō in my lifetime, but I am not confident. I am not aware of anyone in my generation in a position to be a serious candidate for the position, and since presidents of Jinja Honchō tend to be over 65, I will have to stay healthy if I am to be around to see it. Still, my knowledge of female priests is not encyclopaedic, so I might be lucky.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that a practice explicitly devoted to preserving traditions as they have been handed down is slow to change, even when the practitioners have no objection to the content of the change. It is, however, something to bear in mind when hoping for transformation within Shinto.

3 thoughts on “Female Shinto Priests

  1. Something that I have come interested about is the role of the female Shaman in prehistoric and early Japan. I read a book by Carmen Blacker about the subject and it was really fascinating. But the developing role of female shinto priests is certainly interesting in its own right,

  2. I find that Japan has a history of being somewhat progressive when it comes to allowing women into roles such as these. There were the female samurai and the female priests both of which occurred long before anything like it occurred in countries in the West, and although these women were not treated as equal to their male counterparts in most cases they were still presented with opportunity and that is what is key here. I find this of particular importance and interest when considering Japanese history, culture, and – in the case of these articles – the Shinto religion.

    1. I’m really not sure about using the word “progressive” here. Japanese society is, on average, much more sexist than the US or UK. Many medical universities were recently caught systematically marking female applicants down because they quit when they have babies, leaving too few doctors to run the hospitals — which indicates serious sexism on just about every possible level.

      However, the oldest streams of Japanese culture seem to have had important roles for women, and to have been quite relaxed about individual women taking on men’s roles, and individual men taking on women’s roles. Thus, Shinto has always accepted that you can have female priests in principle, and their numbers have largely depended on attitudes in the rest of society. Naturally, their numbers are increasing at the moment, and the number of female chief priests, in particular, seems to be rising. I am not aware of any women in positions of authority in Jinja Honchō, which is unfortunate, but that is only a matter of time. I am fairly sure that I will see a female member of the board of Jinja Honchō, if there hasn’t been one already. (I can think of at least one female priest who is now dead, but who would have been a candidate while she was alive.)

      Japanese society is, still, very different from western society, and one must be cautious when interpreting problems in western terms. That applies particularly strongly to Shinto, and the role of women is a very good example.

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