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Non-Hereditary Priestess

Every issue of Jinja Shinpō includes a column in a series called “Komorëbi”, which means “Sunlight through Leaves”. Around a dozen people are asked to write these for two years, taking turns so that each individual writes about eight columns. They normally try to recruit a range of people with Shinto connections, and priests are normally a minority of the authors.

A new cycle is just starting, and a couple of weeks ago one of the authors published her first column. She is the newly-appointed chief priest of ten jinja in southern Shikoku, and she is not from a jinja family. (Although she may be from Shikoku.) This is unusual. In particular, it is unusual for women, whatever their background, to be appointed chief priest of a jinja that has not been in their family for generations, and it is unusual for people, whatever their gender, who are not from a jinja family to be appointed to a rural jinja. Come to that, it is unusual for young priests to want to work in rural jinja. I suspect that this is why she has been asked to write these columns; this promises to be a particularly interesting series.

Her first column was about how she came to be a priest. She says that her first encounter with Shinto was in fifth grade, when she learned the names of kami and thought that they were beautiful. Around that time, she saw a television program and discovered that there were female Shinto priests. That, she says, is when she decided that she wanted to become one.

At junior high, one of her friends’ fathers was a priest, and so she was able to work as a miko at weddings several times a year. This experience just made her more sure that she wanted to become a priest.

At high school, she had to decide what to do at university. The priest told her that the best option was to go to a Shinto university to qualify as a priest. However, her teachers and her friends said, “Ordinary people can’t become Shinto priests. Wanting to do that is weird”. (One would hope that the teachers put it rather more sensitively than her friends…) She was shocked by this reaction, and started to wonder what she should do. If everyone was set against it, should she choose something else?

She was just about to abandon her plan when her brother was in a traffic accident, and it was touch-and-go whether he would even survive. She went to her local jinja that evening, and said to the kami, “If my brother survives, I will dedicate my life to the service of the kami, as a priest”.

He did survive, so she entered Kōgakukan University, in Isë, and qualified as a priest.

Her reflections on this are not stereotypically Japanese. She says that she had unconsciously thought that she couldn’t pursue a career without the support of the people around her. Even though she really wanted to be a priest, she had felt that she couldn’t do that if the people around her didn’t think it was a good idea. Her heart was sulking, but this was shattered by a bolt from the blue, courtesy of her brother and the kami. Even without the support of the people around her, she could go on to be a priest.

As I say, this promises to be a particularly interesting series.

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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