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The Tennō’s Priestesses

A few months ago I wrote about a series of columns in Jinja Shinpō being written by a female priest who did not grow up in a priestly family. The latest instalment was in the January 25th issue, and was about her service in the jinja of the Imperial Palace, the Three Sacred Halls.

The priests for these jinja are divided into the male Shōten and the female Naishōten. The Naishōten are required to be unmarried, and today I believe that means that they are all fairly young, although in the past women sometimes spent their entire lives in the role. This priest seems to have taken on the role almost immediately after graduating from university and qualifying as a priest.

The Naishōten live within the Imperial Palace grounds, very close to the Three Sacred Halls, and thus they are required to maintain a fairly high level of ritual purity at all times. There are, it seems, four levels of ritual purity, of which they are required to maintain the third at all times. (The two higher levels are presumably for when they are actually performing rituals, but she does not say. The lower level would appear not to be of any relevance to them.)

The requirements for this appear to be fairly elaborate. For example, when they sleep, they wear a yukata, but they have to tuck their feet inside the yukata so that their feet do not touch the futon, because if the futon touched their feet its level of purity would change, and, presumably, some sort of purification would have to be done. Their feet are supposed to stay inside the yukata all night, even while they are asleep. Similarly, the first time she put the sheets on her futon, she pricked herself on a safety pin, and the senior Naishōten who was supervising her said, quite urgently, “You must not get that blood on the sheets!”. That would, obviously, be a source of impurity.

Another thing that she mentioned was that they have to speak in a particular way. They are required to use the formal Japanese of the Imperial court at all times, and must avoid certain words, such as “death” or “blood”. (So, what the Naishōten literally said was “You must not get that sweat on the sheets!”.) They are also supposed to use traditional women’s words, such as “o-atsumono” for udon noodles. The taboo words go back to the Heian period, at least, and the women’s words are recorded in the early Edo period to my knowledge, and so probably go back further than that. That is, these are both old traditions.

She says that it was quite a struggle, at least for the first year, and it certainly sounds like it. However, she persevered, and did the job for four years, and now regards it as a very valuable experience. I am sure that it would be extremely valuable for a priest, particularly one who did not grow up at a jinja.

Although the Naishōten only received that name in the Meiji period, they took on the roles of women who had served the Tennō for at least a thousand years. It would be interesting to know how much continuity there actually was, but I would have to do rather more research in order to find out.

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2 thoughts on “The Tennō’s Priestesses”

  1. The book 女性神職の近代—神祇儀礼・行政における祭祀者の研究 by 小平美香 discusses how the job of naishoten changed in the Meiji period. The book’s main focus is exploring why women were banned from becoming Shinto priests, but naishoten form an interesting case study about how their function could not be done by men and thus the term naishoten was used to differentiate them from (restricted to men) shinshoku/kan.
    Of course, 高谷朝子’s 皇室の祭祀と生きてー内掌典57年の日々 is another good book if you are interested in the subject.

    1. Thanks for the comment. 小平先生’s book is on my list of books to definitely read when I research that period in depth. 高谷様’s book is my source for the statement that women once spent their entire lives in the role, although I’ve only read a review of it… Imperial shinto is not my primary interest, and there is just too much to read even on the areas I am primarily interested in, so I regretfully suspect that I will never get around to that one. (My Japanese reading needs to get faster. Practice!)

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