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Focused Dissent and Deep Dissent

Jinja Shinpō is continuing to publish articles from individual priests criticising, or at least questioning, Jinja Honchō’s recent actions. At the end of September, they published two more.

One, from a chief priest in Okayama Prefecture in western Japan, is focused on the recent problems over the sale of employee accommodation. He gives a summary of what he has picked up about the events, but notes that there has been no substantive statement from Jinja Honchō, and even Jinja Shinpō has been short on details. He argues that Jinja Honchō has a duty to explain things to priests, but that, as an involved party, they cannot be expected to give a neutral account. Instead, he asks for an independent investigative committee to be established, and for its report to be published in Jinja Shinpō, even if it is critical of Jinja Honchō. He calls on the writers at Jinja Shinpō to live up to their duty and pride as journalists. Finally, he notes that jinja are facing a wide range of problems, and that Jinja Honchō needs to pull itself together.

I imagine that Jinja Shinpō rather liked this opinion, which may be why it was chosen for publication. Personally, I am not sure that a full third-party enquiry is necessary, but I do think a lot more openness is called for. If Jinja Honchō states its position, and the people who were fired state theirs, that might be enough for priests to make their own judgements. A full enquiry would be expensive and time-consuming, and I am not sure that Jinja Honchō should really prioritise that, given the other problems jinja are facing.

The other article was from Revd Sano, the priest who started the whole thing going. In his first article, he was deliberately vague about his criticisms of Jinja Honchō, but this time he was much more specific, and his concerns go far beyond the current court case. He has experience of working at Jinja Honchō, and he reports that, in his day, there were many formal and informal opportunities for people working at different levels in different departments, including the department heads, to get together and discuss what they were doing. This meant that everyone was on the same page, and major projects only went forward when everyone was on board. He thinks that the latest scandal is proof that these mechanisms are no longer working, since the employee who was fired was the head of a department. This consensus style of management is very typical of Japan; it tends towards conservatism, and Jinja Honchō is not the only place where it is practised less today than in the past.

He also had a very fundamental question: What is Jinja Honchō for? He feels that Jinja Honchō has lost sight of its true purpose, and has got caught up in securing Jinja Honchō’s authority over jinja and within the Shinto world more generally. They are, he claims, focused on the legal requirements of religious corporations, and prioritise those over the real purpose of jinja. He believes that Jinja Honchō needs an “ecclesiology” to define its purpose, so that it can get back to working on its real job.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I agree with Revd Sano about the fundamental problem. I am, however, not entirely sure about the specifics. It is very important that jinja follow the legal guidelines for religious corporations, because otherwise they can be fined, and lose their property. In the worst case, a hostile government could use violations to close jinja down and take their land. Most priest are not legal experts, and so Jinja Honchō should be telling jinja what they need to do, and making sure that they are operating legally.

On the other hand, when he points out that Jinja Honchō seems to be interested in asserting its own authority, I think he has a point. Many people have observed this phenomenon, across a wide range of organisations, and it has even been argued to be universal and inevitable. If an organisation is set up to achieve a goal, then the organisation needs influence in the world if it is to achieve anything. Members of the organisation want influence in the organisation so that they can have it take actions they believe to be effective. Because these kinds of influence are necessary before real progress can be made towards the goal, people naturally start to focus on those, rather than on the goal. Perhaps the clearest example is the focus of democratic politicians on winning elections, rather than on effective policies.

This does not happen because people are corrupt or self-interested, but because of the structure of organisations and the conditions that are needed to achieve a goal. It still means that it is very easy for organisations to lose touch with the original reasons for their existence. In the case of Jinja Honchō, I also suspect that the original reasons for its existence no longer apply. (I think that it was originally intended to be a placeholder until the end of the Occupation, at which point jinja would go back under state control — that obviously didn’t happen.) So, I think it would be a very good idea for people involved in Shinto, both inside and outside Jinja Honchō, to think about what it should be for, and what it should be doing to achieve those goals.

But that will be a very big, and potentially divisive, discussion.

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