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Signs of Environmental Awareness

The editorial in the August 12th issue of Jinja Shinpō (I’m catching up, slowly) was about “Oceanic Pollution and the Role of Jinja People”. That’s a direct translation of the title. The content started from the G20 Osaka Summit, at which one of the main topics was plastic pollution in the ocean, and how it should be reduced. The editorial outlined the problem, accurately, and the necessary actions, while also noting why plastics were so widely used. It wrapped this up by saying that Japanese people were, in general, insufficiently aware of the problem, but that “jinja people” (priests, sōdai, ujiko, and sūkeisha) must not be indifferent to environmental problems. The short final paragraph said that they should start by reducing the plastic rubbish produced by jinja activities, such as the meals after matsuri, and should encourage other practical measures in their area. This, it says, is because the problems connect to the blessings of seas, rivers, mountains, and plains (a standard phrase in Shinto, normally referring to the food from each environment), and also to the importance of misogiharai (purification) in Shinto.

I think this is the first time I have seen an article in Jinja Shinpō saying straight out that the religious commitments of Shinto mean that jinja people should be involved in solving environmental problems. I certainly don’t remember any other editorials about it.

I also think that this is a very good thing. In fact, the editorial was published just a few weeks after I submitted a proposal to Jinja Honchō suggesting that they really ought to be a lot more active on environmental issues, along with some practical suggestions. I hope that the editorial is a sign that the Shinto establishment might be somewhat receptive to those suggestions, and that we might see some action.

The editorial is not very specific on steps to take, in part because the author could not assume that readers understood the problem, and had largely run out of space by the time he had explained it. Another obstacle, however, is the fact that it is not clear what jinja people, in particular, can do about this problem. Jinja do not tend to produce much plastic waste; they almost always use paper bags, and omamori and the like are almost never made of plastic. The same is true of the climate crisis; a typical jinja is probably responsible for no more greenhouse gas emissions than a typical home — often less, as the jinja just sits there, unheated and uncooled, and sometimes unlit. Awareness is important here, and the influence of the jinja on the local area may also be important, but immediate practical steps are limited.

On the other hand, jinja have an obvious way to contribute to biodiversity preservation within Japan. The chinju no mori, or sacred woodlands, are areas of woodland that are supposed to be natural environments. Some older and larger jinja have primeval woodlands serving in this role. An approach to the sacred woodlands that explicitly aims at safeguarding and increasing biodiversity could have a real impact on biodiversity in Japan.

I am far from the first person to make that observation, and it has also been made by people within Shinto. I hope that this editorial is a sign that the establishment is moving towards a more proactive stance on these issues.

3 thoughts on “Signs of Environmental Awareness”

  1. This is great! I’m glad you are covering this and urging the Shinto community to be more active on environmental issues. Please keep us posted on further developments.

  2. Shinto as a religion is entwined with nature and its essence, so it is unsurprising that the issue has been taken up by those who head the religion. I am concerned, however, by the fact that the people who are choosing to take on this issue really have no viable options when it comes to taking on this environmental problem on a large scale seeing as Shinto isn’t a very – for lack of a better term or phrase – “pushy” religion and leaders of the religion do not have much sway over large communities, but instead might have rather friendly relationships with small, local communities around their shrine.
    This raises the question of whether or not there are any steps that these people can take not only as Shinto leaders, but as Japanese people who are modern leaders in industry and the world despite their traditions. These ties to nature that are inherent to the religion might be able to help in political settings when the jinja argue on an international stage as leaders in the Japanese community. Japan isn’t some little island nation; it’s an international leader with a lot of sway. Using a national identity can help the jinja to take on the issue despite the fact that they themselves really have no means to do much on their own.
    This is just a thought.

    1. Well, the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Political Association) includes a lot of members of the ruling LDP, including the prime minister. That would be their obvious channel for putting pressure on politicians to be more environmentally aware on larger scale issues.

      However, in this case I would not underestimate the importance of local activity. As well as the direct impact on biodiversity, it would make local people more aware of environmental issues, and the leaders of local communities are very often closely involved with the jinja. That could have a knock-on effect.

      Still, there is clearly a lot more that could be done about this issue.

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