This year’s hatsumōdë was, thanks to COVID-19, very different from most years. I have already written about some of the early reports, but Jinja Shinpō has now completed a survey of its local contacts, which means that it has responses from over 400 priests from across Japan, covering a wide range of types of jinja. The results show that, unsurprisingly, the impact of the pandemic varied a lot from jinja to jinja.
The simplest statistic is that about 80% of jinja reported at least some fall in hatsumōdë visitors over the first three days of the year, the traditional period, and more than half reported a clear fall. Only 1% (four jinja) reported a clear increase over normal years, while a further 5% reported some increase. The remaining jinja reported no change.
The survey also asked about changes to numbers on the first three days of the year individually, and for the fourth and later. The appeals to people to spread their hatsumōdë visits out seem to have been effective, because the number of jinja reporting increases in visitor numbers over normal years rises for later dates, until 100 jinja (about 25%) report some level of increase for the fourth and later. However, even then 178 report a reduction, so there is no change to the overall picture of a fall in hatsumōdë visits.
Some rural jinja have, in fact, complained that the campaign to spread hatsumōdë out was too effective. This has several aspects.
First, for most rural jinja there was never any threat of overcrowding in the first place. If you are in a small town with a thousand residents, then there will be no crowding even if they all come on the first. (One of the things about hatsumōdë is that it is all outside, and takes about one minute.) Some priests were, therefore, annoyed by the presentation of this idea as general, when it was really only meant for large jinja in cities, or ones that draw people from a wide area.
Second, there are people who only visit their local jinja for hatsumōdë and the reisai, the main annual matsuri. Some priests felt that many of those people had simply decided not to go to hatsumōdë.
Finally, there is a practical problem. Rural jinja are not economically viable, in the sense that they cannot support a full-time priest, so the priests all have jobs. They can make themselves available for the first three days of the year, because most people take those as holiday and so there is no problem with being absent from work, but they cannot be there for further visits stretching into mid-January — they have to go back to work. They certainly can’t afford to pay anyone else to look after the jinja, so it has to be unstaffed when people come, which means that they can’t get omamori and such.
To return to the overall numbers, the survey also asked about changes in the number of formal new year prayers. Here again most jinja saw a drop, but about 40% saw no change, or even a rise, which is much more than saw the same for general visitor numbers. This, again, reinforces the impression that there was less of an impact on formal prayers than on casual visits.
Not everything was negative. A number of priests reported positive support from local people, and some jinja saw the same people as they see every year. Some jinja even found themselves short-staffed and running out of new year omamori, as more people came than they had expected.
The overall picture from the priests’ side, then, seems to be that there has been a clear negative impact, but that it will not be catastrophic for most jinja. The jinja that have had the biggest reduction in visitors are the ones best able to absorb it, as a one-off event, and the reported concerns from smaller jinja were mostly about the long-term impact of reduced participation in jinja events, rather than about immediate survival.