From the beginning of this month, there has been serious flooding across a wide area in Japan. Kyushu, in the southwest, has been the hardest hit, but there has been serious flooding as far east and north as Nagano Prefecture, not too far from Tokyo. This was caused by the rainy season front, not a typhoon, and so the rain continued for about a week, from the 3rd to the 10th. Over the course of that week, some places had over 1 metre of rain, while in certain areas of Kumamoto Prefecture, 50 cm of that rain fell within two days. Over 70 people lost their lives, and many homes were badly damaged or destroyed.
Jinja were not exempt from the damage, and because the flooding affected mainly mountainous, rural areas, many smaller jinja have yet to be checked by their chief priests, and the full extent of the disaster is not yet known.
One of the most badly affected areas was Kuma-mura, in Kumamoto Prefecture, and jinja there have also been damaged. One, Watari Aso Jinja, was completely washed away, leaving just the foundations, while another, Kamisë Sumiyoshi Jinja, was undermined so that the buildings are leaning. Also in Kumamoto Prefecture, in Hitoyoshi City, Aoi Aso Jinja was badly flooded. The prayer hall, which is a National Treasure, was flooded, and water actually got into the building, as was the jinja office. The bridge leading over the river to the jinja was also badly damaged, with the railings swept away, although the bridge itself survived. Five other jinja served by the same priests were also flooded.
The damage to jinja has not been limited to buildings. Shinmei Jinja, in Mizunami in Gifu Prefecture, central Japan, was particularly notable for its shinboku, or sacred tree, a cedar 40 metres tall estimated to be about 1,200 years old. As a result of the flooding, the tree fell over, apparently crushing the jinja’s purification font and mikoshi, and badly damaging the roof of the house next to the jinja. Jinja Shinpō quotes a resident from the area as saying that it is more upsetting than if their own home had been destroyed.
Recovery from the flooding is, of course, being hampered by COVID-19. Most areas are not accepting volunteers from other prefectures, to avoid bringing infection into areas where people are still in temporary accommodation. The prefectural groups of young Shinto priests have been organising volunteer assistance in cleaning up for badly affected jinja, but it will take a long time. The damage to infrastructure in Kumamoto is estimated to be as extensive as that from the earthquakes four years ago, which means that it is still hard to get to the places that need assistance.
While there is no way to replace a 1200-year-old sacred tree (not, at least, for another thousand years), people will work to restore the other damage. However, most of the affected areas also have an ageing and falling population, which will slow things down. It is possible that some of the jinja will not be restored, with the kami moved to a different jinja. Only time will tell.
Have the Japanese ever viewed these kinds of events as the Kami have “abandoned” the jinja or other Kami causing this as a form of conflict? I’m referencing this in relation to the old Chinese Imperial belief by people that when the rivers flooded, it meant the Emperor had lost Heaven’s Mandate (of course this was mostly due to corrupt or decadent dynasties where money was not used to maintain dams and dykes), or the Greek views of the gods fighting or punishing people via natural disasters.
I’m sure that some Japanese people have thought that at some point, but it never seems to have been the mainstream view. Normally, the response seems to have been to think that the kami is upset and needs more matsuri. I am not aware of any examples where people have responded to a disaster by thinking that the kami has abandoned the jinja. Even after the Great East Japan Earthquake, people were very reluctant to move the jinja, even if the whole community around it was being moved to higher ground.