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Priests of Many Jinja

I have mentioned before (in the book if not on this blog) that most Shinto priests are responsible for multiple jinja. Simple arithmetic makes this clear: there are about 80,000 jinja, and about 20,000 priests. However, things are worse than that makes it sound, because large jinja in cities may have over a dozen priests, leaving even fewer priests to serve multiple jinja in rural areas. I read something that referred to a man who was chief priest of over a hundred jinja, but I’m not sure how reliable that was — the author seemed to be reporting something he had heard. It isn’t impossible though, as it is not uncommon for rural priests to be the chief priests of a couple of dozen jinja.

In this situation, one jinja is called the “honmusha”, or “main duty jinja”, while the others are “kenmusha”, or “simultaneous additional duty jinja”. A priest’s honmusha can change over time, and a jinja can change from being their honmusha to being one of their kenmusha, and then back to being their honmusha. (That seems to be uncommon, but not so uncommon as to be remarkable, based on the careers listed in obituaries in Jinja Shinpō.) There are several things going on here.

One is that, to follow the law and the rules of Jinja Honchō, every jinja that is a religious corporation affiliated to Jinja Honchō must have a licensed priest as its legal head. Even if all the work is done by the local residents, a licensed priest needs to be in charge on paper, or the religious corporation risks being shut down as illegal. This means that some priests are the chief priests of jinja that they cannot find. (Probably; admittedly, I read about that in an article that covered groups of young priests heading into the mountains to track such jinja down, so maybe they have all been found now. No, they don’t hide. They are just away from roads and the location records are not very good. And, as no-one visits them, the wild has largely reclaimed them, meaning they are hard to simply spot. The priests know roughly where they are, but finding the precise site on the side of the mountain is hard.)

The second is more religiously significant. Jinja Honchō is clear that some parts of the rites at jinja must be performed by licensed priests, so every jinja needs a priest for those purposes. The priest does not need to have a permanent affiliation to the jinja to perform the rites, but as such an affiliation is, as I have just said, legally necessary, most priests with this sort of responsibility for a jinja are also its chief priest (I believe).

The third is connected to the massive difference in income between jinja in depopulated rural areas and those in large cities. It is not at all uncommon for the children of rural priests to train as priests themselves, and then work in urban jinja until they take over the family jinja. In this case, the young priest is, I believe, normally officially affiliated to both their home jinja, and to the one where they are actually working, although in many cases they are the chief priest at neither. I am not sure which is normally the honmusha — I would have guessed “the one where they are actually working” (the urban one), but the article in Jinja Shinpō that inspired this post made me wonder.

The article was mainly about a purification procession that was held by a jinja in Tokyo (Tenso Jinja in Toshima City) to replace the normal mikoshi and dashi (float) procession, which apparently has 33 stations. This procession was inspired by the ceremony held to send the disease kami out to sea at Ieshima Jinja, which I wrote about here a few months ago. The connection is that the Ieshima Jinja is the honmusha of the chief priest of Tenso Jinja, and he returned to Ieshima to purify the gohei that absorbed the disease kami in Tokyo, and send them out to sea there.

Tenso Jinja and Ieshima Jinja are several hundred kilometres apart, and this priest is the chief priest of both of them. (So he is not just a young priest earning money away from home.) This is the first time I have come across this sort of situation; normally, the honmusha and kenmusha are fairly close together. I assume that Tenso Jinja makes money, which enables the chief priest to look after Ieshima Jinja as well, but I am sure there must be more to the story than that. Without talking to the priest in question, however, I am unlikely to find out what.

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2 thoughts on “Priests of Many Jinja”

  1. I think the practice of ritualists serving at more than one jinja is not only a modern phenomena. I recall reading that there was some controversy in the Edo period about true priests (verses those practicing inshi jakyo) and one side basically defined true priests as those who had a single home shrine, as opposed to travelling and conducting rituals just for the people/communities who asked them to.

    1. Oh, it’s certainly not only a modern phenomenon. The organisational structure of Shinto practice was very different before the Meiji Revolution, and there were jinja where the priest was a local resident on a rota system, or, it seems, where the priest came from Ise once a year or so. The current version is based on post-war laws, so it is not clear (to me) whether there is any continuity from earlier versions, or rather just surface similarities in fundamentally different phenomena.

      Thanks for the comment!

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