Hatsumōdë Under COVID

In normal years, hatsumōdë mainly happens in the first three days of the year, and they are over, so we are starting to hear how that period was different this year. And it was different.

To start with the least surprising one, reports say that Meiji Jingū in Tokyo has had about 20% of its normal visitors. It normally has about three million, so that’s still a lot, but the jinja is also pretty big. I hear from someone who was there that the precincts felt empty on the first.

Other jinja have also seen a substantial reduction in the number of visitors over those days, to somewhere between 20% and 40% of normal. At my local jinja, the midnight visits were apparently over by 12:30, when they normally go on to about 2 am, and when I visited, there were far fewer people than normal. The queue of people waiting to pay their respects was much shorter than normal, not even reaching out of the jinja precincts, despite the people in the queue being rather more spaced out than normal. According to one of the priests, there was also a notable absence of older people, which makes sense; they might feel vulnerable in crowds.

On the other hand, some jinja around Tokyo have been reporting more visitors than normal. They assume that this is because people have not been able to go back to their hometowns and visit their parents for the New Year holidays, so they are still in the Tokyo area, and visiting their local jinja for hatsumōdë. There are hints, in fact, that people might have been generally visiting their local jinja, rather than large famous ones, so that smaller jinja have suffered less from the reduction in visits overall. If true, that is good, as smaller jinja would generally find it harder to cope with a one-off drop in income.

Still, with everyone staying in the cities, there is an obvious concern about jinja in the hometowns that they would have visited. I haven’t heard anything systematic about those yet, but I have heard that at least one rural jinja had the same number of visitors as every year — it is always a small number, and always the same people, so the pandemic made no difference. That makes sense for very rural areas, where there may be no cases of COVID locally and no risk of the jinja becoming crowded, even if everyone in the village goes at once. I am concerned about jinja in smaller urban areas in the Japanese regions, but I have no evidence yet.

One odd thing is that there has been a substantial rise in jinja visits at the end of the year, on the 30th or 31st of December. Normally, these days are really, really quiet, because most people are waiting for the new year. Obviously, you cannot do your first jinja visit of the new year before the new year has started. This time, however, some jinja were advertising what they called “saisaki”, (which I assume is 歳先, although there are other possible kanji, and I haven’t seen this written yetwhich is written “幸先”). This means “before the yearadvance happiness”, and was an encouragement to people to visit their local jinja before the new year started, while it was less crowded. It seems to have worked, at least to some extent.

Overall, then, the signals are mixed at this point, which is really what we would expect. It does not sound as though the Shinto community as a whole is facing a catastrophe, although some jinja, particularly larger ones, are likely to face a difficult few months. I hope that the negative impact appears smaller as the situation becomes clearer.

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