In the last couple of weeks it has been reported, both in Jinja Shinpō and in the general media, that a jinja in Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku, Kotohiragū, has started the process of leaving Jinja Honchō. This is a big story, so I will try to briefly explain its significance.
First, Kotohiragū is an important jinja. It is the central jinja for the Konpira tradition, which has jinja across Japan, and is especially associated with travel. Originally, it was most closely associated with sea travel, as the jinja is on a sacred mountain that was used as a landmark by sailors in the Seto Inland Sea, between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. However, these days the association is much broader, and even includes space flight. The original kami of the jinja is widely believed to be a Hindu deity who was imported to Japan, but these days the kami are identified as Ōmononushi-no-Mikoto (the kami of Ōmiwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, and another name for Ōkuninushi-no-kami in some legends) and Sutoku Tennō, a twelfth-century Tennō who was exiled to the region after leading a rebellion. (How does a Tennō manage to lead a rebellion? Japanese politics managed to get really complicated in some periods.)
The jinja was, and is, a major pilgrimage site, and these days it is also an important tourist attraction on Shikoku, claiming around three million visitors a year. It is famous for, among other things, having over 1,300 steps to the inner sanctuary, and the lower few hundred of those steps are lined with shops. (I have been, and it is definitely worth a visit.) It is a large and famous jinja, and certainly appears to be wealthy, although those appearances can be misleading.
Any jinja that is affiliated with Jinja Honchō can break that affiliation at any time simply by notifying Jinja Honchō, people who visit the jinja, and the government department that registers the jinja as a religious corporation. Jinja Honchō cannot stop it, and is legally unable to take any steps against a chief priest who decides to do it.
So, why has Kotohiragū chosen to leave?
The reason given is that the special offering supplied to all jinja for the matsuri to be held on the day of the Tennō’s Daijōsai last year did not reach Kotohiragū before the day of the matsuri.
This might sound a bit trivial. In one sense, it is. A bit of online investigation turned up some of the other issues behind it, but I am not going to go into them. This event is the trigger, not the whole reason.
In another sense, it is more important than it sounds. Jinja Honchō asked the prefectural Jinjachō to distribute the offerings (between ¥1,000 and ¥5,000, depending on how much money a jinja donates to Jinja Honchō each year, it would seem), and Kagawa Jinjachō told Kotohiragū that the offerings were to be distributed to all the jinja early this year, along with the regular offerings for the Reisai (the most important annual matsuri). Obviously, that is after the matsuri, which has held in November last year. Thus, jinja were expected to put some of their own money in an envelope, say it was from Jinja Honchō at the matsuri, and wait to be reimbursed.
Symbolically, that is a problem. There is no actual offering being given to the kami. You are, in theory, supposed to go to a jinja in person to present your offering — this is why Jinja Honchō is not at all keen on the distribution of ofuda or omamori by mail order. Failing to do the distribution until after the matsuri just makes the problem even clearer.
On the other hand, there are 80,000 jinja affiliated with Jinja Honchō. (That’s an approximate number, so it hasn’t just become 79,999.) It is simply not possible to hand-deliver the offerings to all these jinja. Even restricting it to the jinja that are the primary jinja of a resident priest would put it somewhere around 15,000, or three to four hundred per Jinjachō. It would take several hours for a member of the Jinjachō staff to hand-deliver an offering to one jinja, which means that there would need to be at least one staff member who did nothing else (or several staff members who shared the task). That does not sound practical.
So, it looks as if practicality collided with symbolism, and brought other discontent to a boil.