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Matsuri Strategy

The slogan in Japan these days is “with corona” (wizu korona), which suggests adapting the way you do things so that you can get on with something as close as possible to normal life before COVID-19 has gone away. Jinja are also doing this, in an attempt to maintain both the traditions and their financial basis. The October 5th issue of Jinja Shinpō included a report from the chief priest of a jinja in Tokyo, Ōtori Jinja (probably — the reading for the kanji is not given, and jinja are sometimes eccentric in that) on how they had adapted their main matsuri so that it could go ahead, and even have food stands.

The matsuri normally includes a mikoshi and dashi (floats), but those did have to be cancelled. (Mikoshi really are a nightmare for transmission — lots of people squashed shoulder to shoulder while shouting. Those will not be coming back until the virus is properly under control, alas.) As with many other jinja, they performed the normal ceremonies at the main sanctuary, and at the location where the mikoshi normally pause on their progress round the area.

On the other hand, they wanted to maintain the lively atmosphere at the jinja, as they felt that that was an important part of the matsuri. This is why they wanted to keep the food stands. Naturally, they set up hand sanitising stations and measured temperatures at the entrance, and had sheets of plastic hanging up to block droplets, but apparently the measure that took the most effort was the control of the flow of people.

The jinja precincts are outside, which makes things better, but if the visitors got jammed into stationary crowds, there would still be a serious risk of infection. They made a map of the precincts, traced out routes, tried them on the ground, and repeated and refined until they had something that seemed as though it would work. This involved a one-way system taking people to the prayer hall, and then splitting off to go either to the exit, or to the area with food stands. The goshuin and omikuji fortunes are popular, so the jinja split the places where you get them, to reduce crowding.

They held back on advertising the matsuri, only putting up posters within the jinja and on the local chōnaikai (something like a residents’ association) noticeboard, and the posters just gave the dates, said that the mikoshi was cancelled, and asked people to wear masks.

On the day, things apparently went smoothly, with everyone cooperating. In the conclusion of the article, the priest observed that jinja were having to do a lot of extra work to adapt to the pandemic, but that, even though they were not formally asked to do so by the government, it was something that they ought to do. He hoped that his experiences would be useful for other jinja.

I suspect that they will, because I suspect that a lot of jinja will need to implement a one-way system for hatsumōdë, at least in urban areas.

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