A very important feature of Japan at the moment is rural depopulation. Japan’s population is falling overall, and most young people are moving to cities. This has led to rural communities where the average age is around seventy. This causes many problems, and in the grand scheme of things the problems it causes for jinja are probably not the most important. They are, however, the most important from the perspective of this blog. Fundamentally, jinja need a certain number of people living nearby if the matsuri are to be maintained. A lot of them no longer have those people.
Jinja Honchō has set up a committee to look into solutions to the problem, chaired by the head of Tokyo Prefectural Jinjachō. (Not, perhaps, the obvious choice — although Tokyo prefecture does have some areas that suffer from depopulation. The only prefecture that does not is Kanagawa, where I live.) This committee is overseeing the support projects that Jinja Honchō has already put in place, as well as trying to develop further responses. The November 9th issue of Jinja Shinpō reported on its most recent meeting.
This covered two topics. I have mentioned one before. The program to support jinja in depopulating areas is being revised to have two main pillars, one focusing on an individual jinja, and the other on a small region. A number of points were raised about this, of which one was particularly interesting. A member of the committee pointed out that there was a tendency for the population of city centres to drop (the doughnut phenomenon), and that “danchi”, apartment complexes built about fifty years ago, were now dominated by older people, so that there were jinja in urban areas that were also starting to face similar problems. (The thing about the danchi is that a lot of young couples moved in to start families — about fifty years ago. They are no longer young.)
The other topic was in the general area of finding successors for priests. The particular topic up for discussion this time was the establishment of a system for “matsuri assistants”. The concrete example given of this was sessions held in Shikoku to train sōdai to fold shidë, the lightning-bolt shaped white paper that decorates shimënawa and tamagushi, which suggests that a very basic level of assistance is hoped for. The committee members raised the importance of making sure that any system was appropriate to local needs, and the need to share examples of how it could be done. The importance of cultivating a “religious heart” (shinkōshin — another term that is rather hard to translate) was also emphasised.
In my opinion, this is the most important problem facing Jinja Honchō at the moment. If large numbers of rural jinja fail and disappear, then the organisation has failed in its most fundamental task: to ensure the survival of jinja after the war and into the future. They certainly agree that it is an important problem, because they have committees, and budgets, and projects. The fact that the problem just keeps getting bigger may simply reflect the scale of the underlying forces. The Japanese government has not been able to do anything about rural depopulation either.