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Assessing Online Matsuri

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a set of links to online videos of matsuri. In the August 3rd issue of Jinja Shinpō there was a report of an extensive, and interesting, discussion of a range of issues concerning the pandemic, including considerable discussion of this point. I’d like to pick that up here.

Although the discussion took place online, all three people were from the area around Tokyo. Imai Itaru is a director of Tokyo Jinjachō, and chief priest of a jinja in Tokyo, while Takeda Atsushi is an employee of Saitama Jinjachō. Fujimoto Yorio is an assistant professor at Kokugakuin University.

Revd Imai started by making the point that, although jinja had been told, by Jinja Honchō, to make every effort to carry out the essential parts of matsuri despite the restrictions, it was not necessarily clear to priests what the essential parts of a matsuri were. For the annual reisai, it was natural to think of the presentation of the offerings from Jinja Honchō, the norito prayers, and the offerings of tamagushi. However, as he noted, Jinja Honchō sends an offering because it is the reisai, rather than it being the reisai because Jinja Honchō sends the offering, so that cannot, in fact, be essential. He said that the ideal would be for each jinja to decide based on that jinja’s theology, but that wasn’t always easy, so the Jinjachō need to give advice that, while based on Jinja Honchō’s instructions, takes account of the conditions of local jinja and their opinions.

He then moved on to talk about the use of the internet. His jinja, it seems, streamed its reisai live on Facebook for the benefit of the people who were unable to be there in person due to the attendance restrictions. He made clear that he thought this was basically valuable, but noted that this could be confused with “virtual sanpai”, something that the Shinto world has been clearly against for a long time. He felt that it was not a good idea to have a set up where anyone could go online to pray at the jinja at any time, but that if access was limited to the ujiko, and to live streams so that the petitioner could offer distant reverence (“yōhai”, a standard practice in Shinto) at the appropriate moment, then the relationship between the jinja and the petitioner could be maintained, and that might be acceptable under pandemic conditions.

In response, Prof. Fujimoto emphasised the importance of understanding the fundamentals of the matsuri in theological, ecclesiological, and historical terms in order to make a judgement. Further, it is important to know exactly what you have in mind when you talk about a webcast or a virtual sanpai. Only then will priests be able to make their own positions clear in terms of Jinja Shinto, and without that it will be impossible to stop practice from sliding into habits that are not good.

Revd Takeda said that the Jinjachō had received a lot of enquiries from priests, and that there was a wide range of opinions about the use of the web, and about sending ofuda, omamori, and goshuin by post. He was concerned that, without clear standards, things would be permitted bit by bit, on a slippery slope to everything being permitted. He felt that the groundedness of a jinja in a particular location was very important, and in danger of being lost. On the other hand, he also emphasised that it was important to know what was going on in particular cases, because activities that looked similar could be very different.

This is interesting because it is a lot more positive than I think a similar discussion would have been a year ago; the necessities of the pandemic have forced some movement. On the other hand, there is obviously still a lot of caution about the use of the internet.

The aspect of this of most relevance to readers of this blog is: will this make a difference for people overseas? It is impossible to say, but it might. Ten thousand kilometres of distance is as good a reason for not visiting a jinja in person as a risk of coronavirus infection, so the space created for using the web in this case may also be usable in the international context.

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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