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Matsuri Under COVID-19

In this week’s Jinja Shinpō, there are a lot of articles about jinja and Shinto groups that have taken various steps to make sure that they can still hold a matsuri, while minimising the chances of spreading COVID-19.

In some cases, it was very simple. Miyagiken Gogokoku Jinja simply reduced the number of people attending its annual memorial matsuri by 90%. (This is one of the regional jinja to the war dead, and thus holds a matsuri on August 15th, the day the war ended according to Japan, every year.)

The Young Priests’ Association for Tokyo Prefecture also has an annual ceremony at the prefectural monument to the people who died in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the Tokyo air raids of 1945. (This monument is to the civilian casualties.) This year, they cancelled all of the associated events, did not invite anyone from other groups to attend, and even made contingency plans to conduct the ceremony elsewhere if they were not permitted to access the monument itself. In the end, they were able to perform a small-scale matsuri within the monument. (It’s a memorial hall, rather than a column or similar.)

One article is about Osaka Tenmangū. I have already mentioned that they livestreamed their matsuri on YouTube for people who could not attend, but there is also an important part of that matsuri that takes place on boats on the river. Normally, it involves processions with local elementary schoolchildren and decorated boats, but all those were cancelled, and the chief priest’s son (who is in high school) took on the role normally played by younger children. In addition, the jinja kept the timing of the ceremony secret, so that people would not be able to plan to go to see it. The ceremony itself wasn’t secret, because it was performed in a boat out on the river, but there was no time for a crowd to gather before it was over.

Two groups in western Japan normally hold a ceremony on the top of a mountain on the border between Shimanë and Tottori prefectures to commemorate Susano’o’s descent from the heavens and defeat of the great serpent. Responsibility alternates between the Shimanë and Tottori sides of the mountain. This year, however, they held the ceremony in a hall on the Shimanë side, with only ten people in attendance.

A columnist mentioned their local jinja, where there is normally a procession, with kagura. That was cancelled, but the items that are normally carried in the procession were, instead, displayed in front of the kami during the matsuri, as a substitute.

Finally, a jinja in a depopulating area had been training up new people, including some younger people, to perform the traditional kagura for the matsuri. This normally attracted visitors from outside the community, and so was part of the plans to revitalise the area. However, those plans obviously had to be scaled back — no visitors this year. Until almost the last minute, the plan was to cancel the kagura, but finally they decided to do it, with just the ujiko. Despite the fact that most of them had been unable to practise together, the kagura was successfully offered, and the tradition secured for one more year.

There is a wide range of approaches to the problem, but as time passes, more and more jinja are working out ways to live with the pandemic.

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