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When Disaster Strikes

Most jinja are located in Japan which is, as readers of this blog surely know, prone to natural disasters of many kinds. Because there are jinja all across Japan, almost every natural disaster affects at least one of them. Sometimes, they do a lot of damage. Much of the damage done to jinja is no different from the damage done to any other building, albeit often more expensive to repair than a typical family home. However, there is a unique problem.

The kami at most jinja is thought to be housed in a sacred object, the goshintai, which is in turn housed within the main sanctuary of the jinja. Nobody is supposed to see it, or even enter the main sanctuary without extensive purification.

So what happens when the main sanctuary collapses?

The answer is almost certainly “it depends on the jinja”, but a couple of weeks ago there was an article in Jinja Shinpō describing exactly what one jinja did. I’ve not seen such a detailed account before, so I will talk about it here.

The jinja in question is Tenman Jinja in Saga city, in Kyushu. In August, the area was struck with record-breaking rains, and the main sanctuary of the jinja was completely destroyed by a landslide from the hill behind it. In this case, the goshintai can be expected to still be inside the wreckage. It took some time for the jinja to decide, with the agreement of its supporters, on how to proceed, but the final decision was to move the goshintai to a temporary location, and rebuild. The first step, then, was getting the goshintai out of the ruins.

The chief priest of the jinja, with the support of a couple of other local priests, performed a matsuri in front of the wreckage. It was purified with an ōnusa and by scattering small pieces of hemp cloth, and then everyone paid reverence to the collapsed sanctuary. Next, they started carefully removing the rubble, both by hand and using a crane, avoiding any further collapse. After about an hour, the priests could see the shape of the chest that held the goshintai.

Once it was visible, the chief priests put on gauze masks (the kind you wear to prevent colds) and gloves, and took white cloth to where the chest was. They then wrapped the chest in a white cloth, and carried it like that to the temporary jinja. Once it was in place, the chief priest read a norito before it, and everyone offered tamagushi.

At this point, the kami was out of the main sanctuary, and other people went to work on removing the other sacred treasures. Many of them were recovered, but not all, as part of the main sanctuary was completely filled with earth and rocks from the landslide.

The chief priest made a very interesting comment at the end of the day. He said that, although the main goshintai had been recovered, and seemed largely undamaged, there was no sign of the other goshintai that the jinja tradition said were inside the main sanctuary; he assumed that they were buried in the rubble. The interesting thing is that he had to rely on jinja tradition, which suggests that he, personally, had never actually seen these other goshintai. This is not, in fact, that uncommon; main sanctuaries are entered rarely, and then only for specific purposes. It is quite possible for things to be in there that nobody knows about.

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