A few weeks ago (July 22nd — I am a bit behind at the moment), Jinja Shinpō devoted its entire back page to female priests. The main article was a round-table discussion between five young women training at Kokugakuin University to be priests, with another article interviewing a fairly recent graduate (seven years ago) who is now the chief priest of a jinja in Saga Prefecture. (Saga Prefecture and other parts of northern Kyushu suffered from record-breaking rain as I was writing this earlier in the week. It seems, from the jinja’s Facebook page, that the jinja itself is fine, but the area it serves was the hardest hit by the flooding.) A very short article quickly introduces Professor Suzuki, the first full-time female professor at Kokugakuin’s Shinto department, and the moderator of the round-table discussion.
The first point of interest is the existence of the special feature. The university and the newspaper clearly want to draw attention to the existence of young female priests, and emphasise their contribution. The second point of interest is that every single one of the women introduced on the page is from a jinja family; most of them talk about their fathers working as priests, although the chief priest (Revd Satō) says that she took over from her grandmother, which suggests that a generation was skipped. I know that there are female students at Kokugakuin who are not from jinja families, so that was a deliberate choice. In this case, I’m not actually sure what the motivation was. Maybe to emphasise that it is going to be impossible to maintain priestly lines without accepting a higher proportion of female priests?
The content of the round-table discussion throws up a few common features. All of the students are talking about succeeding their parents, and none of them have brothers. One of them does have older sisters, but she says that she is getting licensed as a priest because they have not decided who will take over the jinja. The others seem to be oldest daughters or only children. This rather suggests that sons are still prioritised over daughters as successors. (The one with older sisters is the youngest of four daughters, which could indicate a couple trying for a son; it’s a large family for contemporary Japan.)
Second, when asked about their ideal image of a priest, most of them talk about connections to the local community, and only one of the five explicitly mentions the kami of her family’s jinja. This is not strange; the kami are not explicitly spoken about very much when priests talk about what they do and why. The idea of “kotoagësezu”, not speaking about things, is very much still a part of Shinto culture.
Revd Satō is the chief priest of Fukumo Hachimangū, and apparently the youngest female chief priest in Saga Prefecture. Looking at her photograph, she is probably around thirty (if she graduated at 22 seven years ago, that would be about right). The jinja is in a area affected by an ageing and declining population, and she is trying to help revive the neighbourhood. She has led a rebuilding of the jinja office, which is now being used to host events for the community, and she has designed unique omamori and goshuin, which are helping to attract visitors from further away in Japan. Right now, of course, recovery from the flooding is the priority.
“Fukumo” means “Fortunate Mother”; she interprets the name of her jinja as “The Jinja of the Mother of Fortune”, and sees it as a jinja that protects mothers and children. It is a Hachiman Jinja, but when she lists the kami in the interview, she starts with Jingū Kōgō (Okinagatarashihimë), the female kami and the mother, while it is more normal to start with Ōjin Tennō, Okinagatarashihimë’s son. Given the name of the jinja, however, it does seem sensible to change the order in this case. (The third kami in this case is Chūai Tennō, Ōjin Tennō’s father, so the kami are parents and their child.)
Professor Suzuki comments that, although there may be an impression that female priests are not yet fully accepted in Shinto, she thinks that there is a lot of potential for them to do useful work, particularly outside Tokyo. Revd Satō’s experience would seem to bear this out, although that is, obviously, only one case. It is impossible to say how much Prof Suzuki is describing the current situation, and how much she is trying to make it true by saying it, but either way I fully support her efforts.
I find that women tend to be rejected in religious institutions when they should be welcomed as devout and intelligent members of the community. This article was enlightening and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I think that Japan is a bit more accepting of women as valuable members of society and as leaders, but this is based on my own historical knowledge and mostly based on old tradition (samurai culture which has long since fallen). I only hope that traditional values and thinking still hold true in this way as women can be invaluable as religious leaders, as Revd Sato has proved.