Rebuilding in Fukushima

Rebuilding in Fukushima

It is now over eight and a half years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and rebuilding is still in progress across the affected region of Japan. The longest delay has been in Fukushima Prefecture, where the accident at the nuclear reactor meant that work on rebuilding could not even start for years in some areas, and there are still areas close to the reactor that are closed due to radioactive contamination, and likely to remain so for many years yet.

However, there is progress, and an article in the August 26th issue of Jinja Shinpō described some of it. The article was written by the head of Fukushima Jinjachō, the prefectural organisation for jinja that are affiliated with Jinja Honchō, and it falls into two parts.

The first is about the rebuilding of a particular jinja, Suwa Jinja. (There are a lot of Suwa Jinja, so you may have seen the name elsewhere.) From the jinja precincts, atop a low hill, there is a view of the work to decommission the nuclear reactor, and a national memorial park, “Fukushima Prefecture Recovery Park”, is being developed at the bottom of the hill. On the day of the earthquake and tsunami, forty four local residents took refuge on the hill, burning the wood of the collapsed jinja to keep warm over night. Thus, it gained a reputation as a jinja that had saved people’s lives. When a building company offered to rebuild a jinja, this one was chosen.

However, the only way up the hill is a flight of 110 steps; there is no road. This means that it is impossible to get heavy machinery to the building site, and the only way to get the building materials there is to carry them up the steps. The first part of the article was about that. Over the course of two days in August, fifty people carried about twenty tonnes of materials up the steps. The head of the Jinjachō himself helped with the work despite, according to the article, being somewhat older than most of the volunteers. The schedule calls for the jinja to be completed by the end of October.

The second part of the article concerned the forty four jinja that are within the area that will be closed for the foreseeable future. The religious problem here is that it is still important to honour the kami, but no-one can get to the jinja, and even if the priests could get special permission, it would still be impossible for ordinary people. (The radiation levels are likely to be low enough for short visits to be safe enough in the near future; living there is a different matter.) Thus, the Jinjachō is planning to build a single hall to house all the kami, and allow them to be venerated. This is to be called the “Gōsaiden”, which means “Joint Veneration Hall”.

The plan is to perform the matsuri for the kami of all forty four jinja at the hall, and also perform the traditional dances and similar arts that were associated with the matsuri, so that they do not die out. Of course, this requires a dedicated space, and after considerable lobbying, part of the Recovery Park has been designated for traditional arts. However, as the park is nationally funded, strictly religious events cannot take place within it, as that would violate the constitution. (Japan’s constitution mandates the separation of state and religion, and the Japanese courts take this seriously.) Instead, the hall will be built in the grounds of a Hachiman Jinja that is now within the physical (but not legal) boundaries of the park, so that the religious ceremonies can take place there, while the traditional folk customs are performed in the larger space of the park itself.

This seems like an excellent plan, and I wish it every success.


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