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Straw Men

As it looks like Japan is heading into the second wave of COVID-19 infections, Jinja Shinpō is continuing to report the activities of various jinja. There were two interesting articles, with a common thread (straw men!) in the latest issue.

The first was about Kashima Jingū, an important jinja in Ibaraki Prefecture, a short distance to the northeast of Tokyo. The jinja displayed ten “Ōsukë” figures in its precincts in June. These are simple human figures made of straw, with fierce warrior faces drawn on rectangular pieces of paper and stuck on the head. They have bamboo “swords” at their waists, and wear jackets made of maize leaves, with wheat cakes put inside to represent their rations.

There was an old custom of making these figures and setting them up at the borders of a village during a plague. The idea was that the warriors would fight the disease kami and stop them coming into the village. (Or, at least, stop them coming in.) The custom has already died out in the area around Kashima Jingū, but if you go further north, there are still a few areas where it is preserved, and the jinja was able to get someone who has experience making them to help out.

If you go further north, fully into Tōhoku, these figures are called “Kashima-sama”, which strongly suggests a link with the jinja, but apparently this is the first time that they have been displayed in the jinja’s precincts. They will be there until the middle of August, at which point they will be burned and the ashes scattered on the river at the jinja that is used for purification, as dictated by the custom.

The second was about Sakurada Jinja in Gifu Prefecture, in central Japan. This is a much less important jinja, historically, and their action does not seem to have been based on a local tradition.

Because the main matsuri of the year had to be held with reduced numbers, the chief priest decided that he wanted to do something to assure people that the jinja was praying to ward off the disease. So, he cooperated with local people to create a pair of scarecrows to scare away the epidemic. There are two, set up in front of the prayer hall, and from the photograph they appear to be wearing the eboshi hats worn by male Shinto priests. Each scarecrow holds a bow, and a bundle of whistling arrows, with which to drive away the disease kami.

The use of a bow for these purposes has a long history in Shinto ritual, and scarecrows are, obviously, a form of warding. There is even a kami mentioned in the Kojiki as the kami of scarecrows, although I am not sure that there is a close link between that and this action.

These two articles are next to each other on the page, in a choice I imagine was quite deliberate, but the contrast is as important as the similarities. In both cases, jinja have set up straw men without a tradition of doing so at the jinja, but in one case it draws on a tradition that seems to be linked to the jinja, and in the other case it seems to be completely new. Maybe it will start a new tradition.

(The front page included a brief article about the floods that have affected (primarily) western and central Japan; I will probably write about those next week, when Jinja Shinpō has a bit more information about the impact on jinja.)

I have a Patreon, where people subscribe to receive in-depth essays on various aspects of Shinto, about once per month. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

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