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Right-Wing Priests

The November 9th issue of Jinja Shinpō had an interview with the chief priest of Hokkaidō Jingū, who has just been appointed a Chōrō. This appointment is a pure honour, given to priests who have made an important contribution to Jinja Shinto over the course of several decades. They receive a staff with a small statue of a pigeon on top — this is historically significant, but I am not sure of the exact significance. Chōrō is the highest honour that a priest can receive within Jinja Honchō.

Anyway, this priest, Revd Yoshida, was being interviewed. He said that, the other day, someone visiting the jinja said to him “Shinto priests are right-wing, aren’t they”. He reflected on the encounter.

“That was an ordinary woman, from the general public. I really felt just how far the mass media is pushing society to the left. It’s as if Japan isn’t Japan anymore.”

One may feel that the woman had a point.

And, in fact, Shinto priests really do tend to be right-wing, although there are, naturally, numerous exceptions. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, Shinto is inherently small-c conservative. It is all about preserving the matsuri performed in the past and passing them on to the future. It doesn’t have a tradition of social revolution or reform. If you are dedicated to preserving traditions in your job, you are likely to be conservative in your wider outlook as well.

Second, there was a power struggle in the immediate post-war period between people who wanted Shinto to become a global religion, or a set of folk customs across Japan, and those who wanted to keep it centred on the Tennō and the priorities of the pre-war Japanese state. The latter faction won. This has meant that, if you want to advance in Jinja Honchō, you need to at least appear to be a right-wing conservative, and I am sure that most, if not all, are quite sincere. If you disagree, you stay out of the central bodies, or keep quiet about it until you leave to work at your family jinja. Thus, all the material coming out of the centre is very right-wing.

The first reason is not going to change. The second, however, may change as Jinja Honchō experiences generational shifts. It will be interesting to see what happens — I should be around for the next one, at least.

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7 thoughts on “Right-Wing Priests”

  1. I think there is also an issue of how “left” and “right” wing are defined. A deep interest in traditional Japanese culture is generally considered a “right-wing” thing by the public, but many cultural practitioners here have very moderate or even “left-wing” type political ideals, even while being concerned about the continuing modernization (ie: Westernization) that occurs. So I am wondering if people just assume any person dedicated to “Japanese culture” (like Shinto priests) is right wing, without understanding the complexity of their different views.
    Also, since hills American right-wingers are ready to die on are a non-issue in Japan (and vise versa of course), it becomes necessary to define whether one is talking about American right/left-wing or a Japanese right/left-wing, because they care about significantly different issues. It always seems peculiar to me that interest in Shinto is “right-wing” in Japan, but then “left-wing” in the US.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think you are absolutely right about the problems in defining “left” and “right” wing, and about the opinions of many cultural practitioners here. Indeed, even people who self-identify as right-wing sometimes have political ideals that I would describe as quite left-wing. So, I think you are right about some people’s assumptions. However, I think there is also a genuine tendency for (Jinja) Shinto priests to hold specific views that most Japanese people would describe as “right-wing”; it is not entirely an illusion.

      Your point about the US/Japan difference in right and left wing positions is also important. There are few US conservatives who would choose “separate surnames for married couples” as their hill to die on. I think a commitment to traditional Japanese culture is, in and of itself, a right-wing position in Japan, for historical reasons. As far as I can see, since the Meiji Revolution the Japanese left wing has been consistently committed to throwing out large chunks of Japanese culture and replacing it with western imports. The right wing has been inconsistent on this, but the people supporting Japanese culture against Western culture have always been right wing, even if the right wing has not always supported Japanese culture. (What am I using as my base here? The left wing is in favour of equality and liberty, while the right wing is in favour of hierarchy and authority.) Thus, being in favour of traditional Japanese culture marks you as right wing in Japan in the same way as wearing a face mask marks you as left wing in the contemporary USA.

      I think this is unfortunate, but it does seem to be the way things are.

      I really take your point about the political associations of interest in Shinto. Someone actually left a comment on my Japanese blog a few years back (back when I still updated it) saying “how can someone as liberal and left-wing as you be interested in Shinto?”. Still, it isn’t that simple: if you didn’t know better, you would think that US progressive leftists would be really enthusiastic about a jinja dedicated to goddess-worshipping pagans of colour who gave their lives in the struggle against white supremacy and imperialism.

  2. I have a question, I don’t know where I can get the right information about the Types of Shinto.

    What is the Difference between Jinja Shinto (Shrine Shinto) to State Shinto ?

    Im confused, is it the same ? Or different?

    1. They are different. “State Shinto” is the term for the system that existed between the late nineteenth century and 1945, when most jinja were closely managed by the state. “Jinja Shinto” is the term for Shinto as practised at the majority of jinja across Japan, as distinct from sect Shinto (groups such as Konkyoko), Imperial Shinto (the rites of the Tennō), and sometimes folk Shinto (Shinto practices that are not closely connected to jinja). These days, Jinja Shinto is normally practised in line with the recommendations of Jinja Honchō, which took over a lot of elements from State Shinto, so the differences are not clear. One large and clear difference is that State Shinto did not allow female priests, while Jinja Shinto does, and has since immediately after the war.

      1. Thank you so much for the reply.

        Is the State Shinto still considered as a part of the division in Shinto ? Or is it already abolished or banned?
        (From what I have read online.)

        Do you have a full article/essay about this ?

        1. State Shinto no longer exists; the Americans abolished it after the war, and now almost nobody, even within Shinto, really wants to re-establish it.

          I don’t have a full essay about this topic at the moment, but the history section and Shinto establishment section of my book talk about the changes.

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