A couple of weeks ago, Jinja Shinpō ran an editorial about the way jinja were responding to Covid-19.
The first thing mentioned was special matsuri at which priests were praying for a speedy end to the spread of the disease, and the writer noted that such prayers were the first duty of priests.
It went on to discuss miko and priests wearing face masks and using hand sanitiser, and explaining this to visitors as not only for their own sake, but also to prevent the spread of infection to others. The editorial does note that priests and miko remove the face masks while actually performing ceremonies.
Then, of course, there is the problem of restrictions on events to reduce the risk of spread. This is not a problem for normal activities at a jinja: you normally pay your respects outside, and there are not many other people around. In this respect, it is importantly different from Christian church services. However, larger events, like carrying a mikoshi around, or having lots of people gather in the precincts for a matsuri, are potentially a problem. The editorial stressed that, while cancelling those events to avoid transmission is a good idea, it was important that the “saiji”, the activities focussed specifically on honouring the kami, should go ahead.
These are normally ceremonies performed in the prayer hall of the jinja, and can be performed with no-one but the priests (and possibly miko) in attendance, so they do not pose a significant risk of disease transmission. They are, however, central to the activities of a jinja, and should not be suspended under any circumstances. Thus, it is important, from a religious perspective, that they are still performed, even if they have to be performed with far fewer people in attendance than normal.
The conclusion of the editorial was particularly interesting. It observed that quite a lot of people might object to changes, such as miko wearing face masks, on the ground that there was no precedent, or that it did not follow the ancient protocols. However, the author went on to observe, because Shinto has no founder and no sacred scriptures, the range of things left to the feelings and judgement of people alive today and facing the changes of the contemporary world is wide, and, bearing that in mind, we should try to respond appropriately. This, they said, was so that the jinja could be preserved appropriately, and the “saiji” performed without interruption.
This brings an interesting tension within the Shinto world sharply into focus. There is a strong emphasis on preserving traditions, and doing things the way that they always have been, but there is nothing that says you have to do that, so in theory there is a great deal of freedom to innovate. Most priests are conservative, but even the conservative ones often introduce new things that are particularly important for their jinja.
This flexibility is important not only for responding to Covid-19, but also for handling the major changes in the structure of Japanese society. This is, after all, how Shinto has survived to the present day.