As regular readers of this blog will know, Jinja Shinpō has recently carried a lot of articles about jinja that have adapted their matsuri to COVID-19, with details about how they have done it. A couple of weeks ago, they published one that struck me as a particularly practical and interesting idea.
The jinja in question, Nishinë Jinja in Fukushima City, seems to be fairly large (although I had never heard of it before — with 80,000 jinja in Japan, I suspect that I will continue hearing about new ones for some time), and they did many of the normal things, such as restricting attendance at matsuri, or checking people’s temperatures. For one popular annual event, they held the shinji, the rites for the kami, on the usual day, but postponed the event part until the government had relaxed the limits on group events more generally. (It was held in August.) That, however, was not what grabbed my attention.
The jinja publicised this event as “Kasa-sashi Sanpai”, which means “visiting a jinja to pay your respects with your umbrella up”. No matter what the weather (although in the end, it was actually raining on the day), they wanted people to put umbrellas up when they came to the jinja. Why? Because it is an easy way to enforce social distance.
If you have an open umbrella, you cannot get very close to someone else with an open umbrella, or your umbrellas will hit each other. Now, that distance by itself is not enough to seriously reduce viral transmission, although if everyone is wearing masks (which can be taken for granted here) it might be almost enough. However, most people allow a bit more space than that when they have their umbrellas up, and certainly avoid gathering in dense crowds. This means that it is very likely to be effective. Further, everyone already has an umbrella, so the jinja does not need to provide anything, and there is no need for staff to continually ask people to keep their distance.
However, you might wonder whether it is proper to pay your respects with an umbrella up. Obviously, you have to put it down while actually offering reverence, because you can’t clap while holding an umbrella in one hand (and clapping with one hand is Zen, not Shinto). But what about the rest of the time? The fact that the priests are asking people to do this shows that they do not see a problem with it, and in fact the use of umbrellas during outdoor rituals is a standard part of Shinto practice. An umbrella may be held over particularly important participants in a ritual, and there are particular styles of umbrella that are held over the Tennō when he is processing to and from important rites. However, if it is raining all the priests in a procession may carry Japanese-style umbrellas, for the entirely practical purpose of not getting wet. This means, of course, that if you are visiting a jinja in the rain, you should feel entirely free to use an umbrella while you are walking up the sacred path.