The National Association of Young Priests (for priests under 40, or maybe 45 — “Youngish” might be better) conducted a survey of its members to discover the impact of the pandemic on individual jinja. The survey was conducted from April 24th to 30th, so the results are a bit out of date now, but they had 740 responses with a good coverage of the whole country, so they are probably representative for that period.
75% of the priests reported a reduction in the number of personal matsuri being requested. For 28%, this was an 80% or greater fall, and more than half reported a fall of at least 50% (including the 28% with a fall of 80% or more). No jinja reported an increase.
The impact on matsuri conducted outside the jinja is somewhat smaller; 1% even reported an increase. Nevertheless, 62% did report that numbers had fallen, although the fall was 50% or more for only 36%.
One thing missing from these numbers is the level that the fall was from. The survey covered areas suffering from depopulation, so there may well be some jinja that were performing zero personal matsuri before the pandemic, and are still performing none now, for no change.
The survey also asked about steps that jinja were taking to reduce the risk of infection. 83% had cancelled naorai, the communal meals held after a matsuri. 56% had removed the ladles from the purification font. Only 13% had closed the juyosho, where omamori and ofuda are distributed, and only 1% had closed the jinja altogether.
Individual jinja also reported interesting measures. These ranged from the clearly religious, such as making paper anti-pandemic amulets (possibly with Amabië on) available to visitors, to the impressively practical. One jinja had split the staff into two groups, who staffed the jinja in turn without any personal contact between the groups. That way, if someone in one group becomes infected, they do not need to close the jinja, because only one group needs to go into quarantine. This is clearly quite a large jinja.
Only 19% were taking special steps to get omamori to people who couldn’t come to the jinja, or to help them offer prayers. Some jinja were sending omamori by mail, or accepting online requests for prayers. Another jinja reported sending a small oharaë (purification) tool by mail, along with the jinja newsletter.
Most places were also taking steps concerning larger matsuri. The attendees at 32% were the priests only, while a further 61% were the priests and the main lay supporters only, which means that 93% of jinja were seriously restricting attendance. For matsuri later in the year, 40% were planning to decide whether to cancel or downsize at the end of May. Some jinja did mention that they could not ask for donations for the matsuri, which is a problem, as that is a major source of income.
Indeed, income seems to be a common concern. The sharp reduction in people coming to pray and have personal matsuri leads to a loss of income, and some jinja mentioned concerns about Shichigosan season and new year; those two can easily be central to a jinja’s annual budget, so if they are disrupted, a lot of places will have problems. It is not surprising that some jinja are saying that they need to think about reducing staff.
There are also longer term concerns. In some cases, matsuri at jinja that a priest visits from their main jinja have been cancelled by the ujiko without consulting the priest (which is bad from a religious perspective; they should be performed without attendees in the worst case). In other cases, because the area is depopulated, the priests are worried that matsuri cancelled due to the pandemic will not be restarted afterwards.
On the other hand, most priests reaffirmed that prayer was their primary duty, and reported performing matsuri to pray for the end of the pandemic “every day, without fail”.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic is a major blow to jinja, as it is to just about everything. Prayer seems like an extremely appropriate response on the part of the priests.