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COVID-19 and the Future

Last week’s Jinja Shinpō contained an editorial about COVID-19 and the response to it, which had some very interesting content.

In Japanese, people are asked to avoid “fuyōfukyū” trips out. This means trips that are not necessary and urgent: that is, things that you do not need to do right now. So, the editorial asks whether paying one’s respects at a jinja is “fuyōfukyū”. As you might expect, given that this is an editorial in the Shinto newspaper, the conclusion is “not necessarily”.

The reasons given are sensible. People are still encouraged to go out and walk to maintain their health, as long as they maintain distance from other people, and it is perfectly possible to pay your respects at a local jinja while doing that. Thus, individuals or families paying their respects outside the prayer hall of their local jinja are not contributing to the epidemic. However, the editorial points out that other activities, even if they are religious activities, need to be restricted to avoid spreading the disease, and that jinja need to think hard about what to do.

This is where it gets really interesting.

Obviously, the regular matsuri at a jinja should still be performed, but most people should not be allowed to attend. However, the author says, these days it is easy to make a video of the ceremony available online, so that people who were not able to attend can see what happened. It is true, they say, that the Shinto world has tended to tar anything involving the internet with the brush of “virtual respects”, and treat them as taboo, but now that the necessary infrastructure to see a matsuri is in place, shouldn’t jinja consider doing this not just during emergencies, but after things are back to normal as well?

Further, it is now difficult to hand over omamori and ofuda directly, because people might get infected during the process. Thus, jinja have to look into sending them through the mail, and accepting bank transfers for the donation. This also, they suggest, might be a good time to look into accepting various forms of electronic money.

They suggest that this is a good opportunity for jinja to think calmly about what is really urgent, and what is really necessary, and to reform practice for the future.

Both of these latter suggestions are really revolutionary. I have suggested to Jinja Honchō that people living outside Japan should be able to get ofuda sent through the mail, but the response was not positive. (Not “how dare you!”, but “that would be very difficult”.) Similarly, I haven’t even suggested making videos of important matsuri available, because the author of the editorial is right: this is a taboo. Given that Jinja Shinpō is effectively part of the Shinto establishment, I am quite surprised to see the editorial making these suggestions. I hope that the one about distributing omamori and ofuda by mail, at least, will get taken forward, because that would be very useful for people trying to practise Shinto outside Japan. Naturally, I will keep an eye on developments.

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