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Further Dissension

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an article published in Jinja Shinpō that was indirectly critical of the Shinto establishment, and wondered whether there would be any follow-up. There was. A couple of weeks ago, Jinja Shinpō carried two articles that were explicitly responding to that one.

One of them was from a retired priest in his eighties, who lives in Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan. His main argument was that Shinto priests today weren’t as good as they were in the old days. There has, he claims, been a clear decline in quality, specifically in the moral qualities of priests. He doesn’t seem to be talking about getting drunk or embezzling money, although I am sure he would disapprove of at least the second of those, but rather about more abstract and general things. He lists the principles that he was taught in his (hereditary priestly) family: things like not forgetting your blessings, thanking the kami for good things that happen, helping each other while reflecting on your behaviour, and doing things the way the kami have taught without thinking for yourself. (Or possibly without adding anything that isn’t relevant, but that probably comes to much the same thing. The dictionary’s sample sentences for the word he uses are all from a 1300-year-old poetry collection.)

He does note that, if the current generation have lost these principles, then his generation have to take some of the responsibility, because it was their job to educate younger priests, and they seem not to have done a very good job.

This author does get a bit more specific about his criticisms. He thinks that there is too much tendency to just leave things to the central Jinja Honchō. He argues that prefectural Jinjachō should be actively investigating their local situation, and actively making proposals to Jinja Honchō. Further, the Oversight Committee, which is supposed to be the highest decision-making organ in Jinja Honchō, should actually debate the proposals that come from the board of directors. If, he says, these are just being pushed through by the centre, then the committees are not functioning as they should. Finally, he notes that weekly magazines (the Japanese scandal sheets) have carried articles that he can’t see being written if someone hadn’t come from the Shinto establishment to tell their side of a story (and only their side) to a journalist. He concludes by saying that he sees the decline of the Shinto priesthood in many places, and while he does not want Jinja Shinpō to turn into a scandal sheet, he would like to see it fulfilling its role, and its duty, more boldly.

The other article is written by the chief priest of a jinja in Fukuoka, northern Kyushu. He sees himself as an ordinary priest in a rural area, although he is also a leader of the Jinja Online Network League, which makes him a bit less ordinary. His main focus is the scandal that has been swirling about the sale of an old employees’ apartment block by Jinja Honchō. (I have been avoiding writing about this, because the public details have been a bit scarce. The summary is that the land and building were sold to a company with links (friendship rather than ownership) to directors of Jinja Honchō. That company then immediately sold it on to a property developer, for substantially more money. A senior employee of Jinja Honchō raised this as a potential problem, possibly in slightly intemperate language, and was fired. He (and another employee who was demoted) are now suing Jinja Honchō for unfair dismissal. The court’s decision is expected soon. All very spiritual…) He thinks that this is an important issue that all priests should pay attention to, and he says that it has seriously shaken his faith in Jinja Honchō. In fact, he thinks that Jinja Honchō should effectively be abolished, with the prefectural Jinjachō serving as the supervisory religious corporations, and then forming a loose federation at the national level.

Personally, I think this discussion is very promising, even if I have doubts about the specific proposals. Jinja Honchō was set up as an emergency measure immediately after World War II, and it has never really sorted out what it is for. An open debate, involving a lot of priests, is, in my opinion, the right way to go about reforming Honchō for the Reiwa era.

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2 thoughts on “Further Dissension”

  1. Thanks for the update. Was quite interested in the original story, with these developments even more so.

    Not sure about the morality of modern priests, but the first elderly gentleman’s observations regarding talking to tabloids is spot on, at least in my view. My experience is that, even with the most well respected publications, you can often be putting either yourself or your organization in harms way by engaging with questions or requests for comment. This is why you see so many ‘XYZ has not responded to our requests for comment’ on news articles.

    Sometimes, as the retired priest points out, publications are entirely reliant on you responding in order for their story to work at all. What I think is a good rule of thumb is to always treat journalists with a healthy dose of suspicion (but don’t be needlessly mean! Getting juicy stories at the end of the day is their job!).

    As for the second article, it sounds like we’re only a few months away from a disgruntled priest nailing 95 complaints to the front of Jinja Honcho’s HQ! In all seriousness though, scandals like what you have described have shaken faiths to their very core, and with such an open system of beliefs like Shinto, I could see factional infighting taking hold if relations between local jinja and national orgs sour.

    That being said, I’m unfamiliar with the internal workings of Shinto politics, so your perspective on such a potential schism(s) would be of great interest.

    Again, thanks for the update.

    1. The front of Jinja Honchō’s HQ is mostly glass, steel, and concrete, so nailing 95 complaints to it would be tricky.

      OK, maybe not quite the perspective you were looking for. I don’t think things have gone quite that far; my impression is that, while there might well be enough support for major changes at Jinja Honchō, there is no group that is ready to leave in an organised way and set up in opposition. Individual jinja will no doubt continue to leave, and some may also rejoin, but a “schism” in any real sense in the next year or so would surprise me.

      On the other hand, I would not be at all surprised if pressure forced Jinja Honchō to bring forward some substantial reforms on that sort of timescale.

      Ultimately, I think Jinja Honchō does provide enough useful services to individual jinja that it would be difficult to get a substantial constituency for abolition, but that there are enough problems to make it easier to get support for significant changes.

      I am also interested to see what happens.

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