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COVID-19 Developments

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, I want to write another post to bring readers up to date on how it is affecting jinja.

One important thing to be aware of is that the situation in Japan is, at present, much less critical than it is in most European countries or the USA. The total number of deaths is still under 200, the total number of confirmed infections is still under 10,000, and nowhere in the country is in lockdown. (Part of the reason for that is that Japanese law does not allow the government to require businesses to close and people to stay home; all that it can do is beg them to cooperate.)

Even so, everyone is aware that things could easily get worse, and so people are taking precautions. In Greater Tokyo, for example, department stores, cinemas, and nightclubs are closed, and restaurants, while still open, are largely doing take-out. Companies are being strongly encouraged to have people work from home, and everyone is being asked to avoid going out as much as possible. (This does not apply across the whole of Japan; some areas, particularly depopulated rural areas, still have very few cases.)

However, Jinja Honchō and Jinjashinpōsha are both based in Tokyo, and so they have been affected. Jinja Honchō is having all of its employees work from home for the time being, which has been disruptive, and Jinja Shinpō has only had four pages, rather than the normal six, for the last two weeks, as the journalists cannot go to perform interviews.

Jinja Honchō has also issued guidelines on what to do if someone at a jinja is confirmed as being infected with COVID-19. First, the jinja should cancel all events apart from regular matsuri, send anyone in close contact with the infected person home, and restrict access for people to pay their respects. Then they should contact the local health office to talk about how to disinfect the jinja and get permission to reopen. If the jinja only has one priest, and he can no longer perform the matsuri, then the prefectural Jinjachō is encouraged to make arrangements for another priest to perform them.

Jinja that do not have confirmed cases of infection are also taking steps. My local jinja, for example, has now drained the purification font, so that you cannot rinse your hands before entering the jinja. There is too much risk of cross-contamination, particularly if you rinse your mouth. (It has been some time since I have done that, though.) They also have a notice, issued by Kanagawa Jinjachō, explaining that the staff will wear masks, and they might restrict the availability of omamori or goshuin, and refuse to perform request matsuri in the prayer hall. I have also seen the stools in the prayer hall set out at social-distancing range, but that was a few days before the notice went up. I have heard of jinja closing entirely, which might be due to someone there being infected, but might also be a sensible response for popular urban jinja; the precincts there can be very crowded at normal times. As I am normally the only person in the grounds when I pay my respects at my local jinja, there is no problem maintaining social distancing outside the prayer hall there. (This is, of course, an important difference between Shinto and Christianity: one of the main activities that lay people perform at a jinja does not involve groups of people gathering.)

There is concern about what to do about traditional matsuri that normally involve large numbers of people. The traditional annual prayer for success by the Hanshin Tigers professional baseball team has already been affected: instead of all the players attending, there were only a handful of representatives from the management side. I suspect that the jinja precincts were also not full of fans (normally, the date is publicised, but this time it was rearranged, and I suspect that the new date was not made public). Other, more traditional, matsuri may have to be performed without any attendees — that is, with only the officiating priests. That, of course, may mean that traditional parts of the matsuri, such as mikoshi parades, have to be cancelled this year.

One interesting thing that is coming out of the response to the crisis is that it is clear that the orthodox, and almost certainly majority, position in the Shinto world is that the matsuri exist primarily for the kami. They should be performed for the kami no matter what, but if no-one from the community can attend, that is unfortunate, but does not remove the main point of the matsuri.

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