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Updating Matsuri

Jinja Honchō has specific projects to help jinja in rural areas of Japan, where the population is declining and all the young people are moving away. These projects encourage those jinja to build on their existing matsuri and events to revitalise the area, and get more people visiting the jinja.

A recent issue of Jinja Shinpō reported on some of these efforts, including one at a jinja, Shirasawa Jinja, in Iwatë Prefecture, in northeastern Japan. This jinja had a traditional event, called the “Otameshi Shinji”, which was held every year on January 7th. This event has two parts, both of which take forms that are found at a number of jinja across Japan.

The first is divination of the harvest for the year. To do this, a big bowl of rice and water is prepared, and a number of bamboo tubes are put in it. The mix is boiled for a fixed length of time, and the tubes are removed. The number of grains of rice stuck inside each tube is the basis for the divination.

The second is a kind of kagura, sacred dance, in which the steps of rice agriculture, from planting to harvest, are acted out while traditional music is played and songs are sung. It appears that this is done outside at Shirasawa Jinja, but there are other jinja where everything is done inside the prayer hall.

The immediate goal of the activities mentioned in the report was to ensure that this event continued, and to get more people to attend it. To this end, they made a couple of changes.

First, the date of the event was changed from the 7th to the second Saturday in January. (Judging from the photograph, the matsuri is held at night, which is probably the reason for choosing Saturday rather than Sunday.) Second, the target of the divination was altered. The traditional targets included silkworms, tobacco, and hemp, but no-one in the area actually raises those anymore. Thus, they were changed to apples, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The first change is intended to make it easier for people to attend, and the second to make the matsuri more relevant to their concerns.

Although these changes are fairly minor, I think it is quite significant that they happened. There is often strong resistance to any change, and so the fact that the local ujiko (people who live near the jinja) seem to have agreed on these is important. In particular, the changes to the content of the matsuri are notable. It is generally true that the traditional matsuri at many jinja do not tie in closely with the lives that people nearby live today, but changes to the content to make the ties closer are, as far as I can tell, rare.

In this case, the changes appear to have been a success, at least for this year. The event happened, and there were far more people in attendance than they normally see. I hope that the success continues in future years.

2 thoughts on “Updating Matsuri”

  1. Does current day Shinto deploy divination for anything actionable? For example for deciding a change in matsuri at a jinja or even which Kami would like to be enshrined in a newly established jinja? I gather that in the past visionary, almost prophet-like folks would often be involved in things like that, but I get the impression there’s not many of those around anymore, outside of Shinto-derived NRMs.

    1. The answer is “yes”, but the examples I know of are all within a traditional framework. For example, the locations of the sacred rice fields where the rice for the Daijōsai is grown are determined by divination, and there is an annual matsuri at Ōmiwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture where divination is used to determine whether the wholesale price for sōmen will be low, medium, or high that year. I really don’t know how widespread divination might be at a more personal level. There could easily be jinja that use divination to determine many features of their matsuri.

      I do have the same impression as you, that visionaries are not found in mainstream Jinja Shinto very much, but part of that is official disapproval (because the Meiji government didn’t approve of them), and so any who were attached to a Jinja Honchō jinja would keep quiet about it. They do seem to have been much more common pre-Meiji, but that isn’t something I have researched in detail, and they definitely still exist in the NRMs, and as independent practitioners, but that’s also something I haven’t looked into in detail.

      Thanks for the comment!

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