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Hatsumōdë by Setsubun

My local jinja has just put a sign up on the front of the prayer hall saying “Hatsumōdë by Setsubun”.

Hatsumōdë is the first jinja visit of the new year. Traditionally, it is supposed to be done in the first three days of the year, which means that those three days have been extremely busy at most jinja; Meiji Jingū in Tokyo normally gets about three million visitors in that time. Most people just go to the jinja and pay their respects in front of the prayer hall, but quite a lot of people ask for a formal ceremony. As this is normally just a standard prayer for good fortune in the new year, many jinja do several families together, packing them all into the prayer hall, so that everyone who wants to have one can do it in those few days.

Obviously, none of that seems like a good idea to anybody this winter.

On the other hand, as I have mentioned before, the income from hatsumōdë is absolutely essential to most jinja; I believe that as much as half a jinja’s annual income can come in during that period. Large, famous jinja would be able to cope without it, although it would be painful for them. For local jinja, however, the loss of that income would be catastrophic. Unlike most businesses, jinja cannot even think about asking for government assistance — it would be clearly unconstitutional.

So, jinja cannot afford to suggest ways to pay your respects to the kami that do not involve going to the jinja and making an offering, even if that were religiously acceptable. (That is an interesting question that I would like to tackle at some point, but not here.) That means that they are all looking for ways to reduce the infection risk while still having people come to the jinja, make offerings, and have ceremonies performed.

Setsubun is a traditional festival in which oni (mythological creatures like ogres or demons) are driven out by throwing beans at them. It happens the day before the first day of spring on the old Chinese solar calendar, which is also close to the lunar new year. Because the current calendar is a solar calendar, but a slightly different one, setsubun is normally the 2nd or 3rd of February. (It was the 3rd this year, and will be the 2nd next.) It might actually be guaranteed to be one or the other, but I am not sure that it can’t, under the right circumstances, move a day further in one direction or the other.

Thus, setsubun is a traditional festival associated with new year that happens about a month after the current new year. If that is set as the deadline for hatsumōdë, it gives people about ten times as long to do it, which should spread things out a bit, but still maintains the associations with new year and tradition that make people want to do it in the first place. I think this is a good part of a strategy for jinja to get through the season without risking their own, or their visitors’, survival.

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