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Epidemics and Matsuri

Jinja Honchō runs an annual conference for priests, at which academics give presentations on topics relevant to the religious content of Shinto. Normally, the priests gather for this, but that was not possible last year. Instead, two presentations were recorded, and made available on the priests-only website. I haven’t seen them, because I’m not a priest, but quite a lot of priests apparently did. They may even have been accessible to more priests than usual, as there was no need to travel to a central site, but there was no opportunity to ask questions or make comments. To compensate for that, Jinja Shinpō gathered responses from half a dozen priests, and printed them on the back page of the January 18th issue.

The presentations were both about an incident recorded in the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, in which Sujin Tennō is faced with an epidemic, and his prayers to end it are ineffective. Ōmononushi, the kami of Ōmiwa Jinja in Nara Prefecture, appears to the Tennō in a dream, and says that if one of his descendants is appointed as a priest to honour him, he will end the plague. This is done, and the plague duly ends.

The reactions from the priests were interesting, because they were much more conventionally religious than the articles you normally find in Jinja Shinpō, or in literature published by Jinja Honchō.

Many of the priests were concerned that failures in the matsuri at their jinja, or at jinja in general, may have contributed to the pandemic and its impact on Japan, although one of them did note that Japan is getting off comparatively lightly, so maybe things are not too bad. One commented that he was not a descendant of the kami enshrined at his jinja, and wondered whether this was a problem — after all, Ōmononushi specifically requested a descendant. A couple of them mentioned Amabië, the fish-yōkai that has been a popular anti-pandemic talisman in this pandemic, and suggested that it would be more effective to honour the kami. One also picked up on the feature of the legend that it was necessary to know which kami was responsible for the curse before one could conduct an effective matsuri to resolve it. Several mentioned the eighth-century regulation requiring priests to serve only six year terms, because life-time appointments made them complacent and led to the matsuri and cleaning of the jinja being neglected. Since life-time appointments are overwhelmingly the most common today, they mentioned this with a sense of concern as to whether they might have become complacent.

There are a couple of points I want to make about this.

One is that this, consistent with my other experience, suggests that most Shinto priests do believe that matsuri have a direct effect on the kami, who have a strong influence on the way life goes. This is almost always implicit in Shinto practice, and it is very rare to see it made explicit. However, for most of the main practitioners, Shinto is, it seems, a religion, not just a traditional practice.

The other is that the priests were all concerned that their own behaviour might have caused the problems. There was almost no suggestion that other people needed to change their behaviour, and when there was it was directed at all priests, including the author. This may well be one of the reasons why the religious attitude is so rarely made explicit: Shinto priests do not feel a strong need to tell other people how to behave.

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