One of the major social problems facing Japan at the moment is the depopulation of rural areas. In fact, the underlying problem is the depopulation of anywhere that isn’t greater Tokyo, but it is not yet a crisis for regional cities. In rural areas, however, there are villages where the average age is over seventy, and the youngest people are in their fifties. The general consensus is that almost all of those communities will vanish in the next couple of decades.
This creates a particular problem for the Shinto world, because a lot of these settlements have jinja, and those jinja have their own traditional matsuri. The kami at those jinja need to be venerated, and ideally the matsuri would be preserved. The best solution, clearly, is to solve the underlying problem, so that the communities do not disappear. That, however, is beyond the power of the Shinto establishment, and so they have established a committee that oversees a project to revitalise jinja in depopulating areas. This project has been running for a few years now, and the committee has just had a change of term and membership; last week, Jinja Shinpō reported on the first meeting of the new committee.
One thing mentioned at the meeting was that some people apparently think that the project is about reversing depopulation, and it is not — it is specifically about the jinja. Of course, if the matsuri at the jinja are active and appealing, that might well help to revitalise the area, but that is not the primary goal. The project is focussed on issues that the Shinto establishment might be able to solve.
The second phase of the project will shift from designating areas to designating individual jinja for special attention (which probably means that the area focus did not work very well in the first phase). Beyond that, there seem to be two parallel emphases.
The first is on making sure that the matsuri actually happen. This may involve priests from across an area working together, or licensing local lay people to assist with the matsuri, or setting up a system for despatching priests to jinja that need them. (These are all approaches that will be investigated.) The second is on the economic and legal viability of jinja. This may involve merging the legal corporations of two or more jinja, while maintaining them on separate sites, so that the legal conditions for a religious corporation are maintained, and there is enough money for legal paperwork and a chief priest.
This is a very important problem for the Shinto world. Although jinja were almost always founded near a village (they are places for people to venerate the kami, so they are rarely established a long way from people), depopulation means that some of them are now quite distant from the nearest substantial settlement, and certainly cannot support a resident priest. Theologically, it is bad to stop venerating the kami, but practically there are real problems. Most of Japan is mountainous, so even if a priest were given responsibility for the jinja in a relatively compact area, the distance between jinja by road can be very large.
Unlike some other problems, this one is being seriously tackled. The impression I get is that the establishment, and local organisations, are making real efforts to solve the problem, but it is simply a very hard problem to solve as long as the depopulation continues.