Who gets to decide whether someone may practise Shinto, and whether they are doing it right?
This is, it turns out, a really hard question.
The obvious answer might well be “Jinja Honchō”. It is, after all, the largest Shinto organisation in Japan, representing the overwhelming majority of mainstream jinja. There are two problems with this answer.
The first is that Jinja Honchō avoids, as a matter of policy, deciding either of those issues. I have been told, on several occasions, to phrase things more indirectly because they do not want to give the impression that something is required, or forbidden. (To quote directly (from memory, and translating), “Well, you can say that they mustn’t spit back into the purification font. But not more than that.”) This sometimes requires negotiation, because foreigners need concrete guidance on what to do at a jinja, so phrases like “it is common to…” or “the standard etiquette is…”, along with a note that some jinja do it differently, are frequently needed.
So, if they get to decide, they have decided not to establish standards on either question. Anything goes.
However, the second problem is that it is not at all clear that they do get to decide. While Jinja Honchō covers the overwhelming majority of jinja, it does not cover everything. Fushimi Inari Taisha is not part of Jinja Honchō, for example, although most Inari jinja are. More pertinently, the various branches of sect Shinto are not part of Jinja Honchō. Konkōkyō, for example, has practices that are not part of Jinja Honchō’s standard recommendations, and it doesn’t seem plausible to assert that Jinja Honchō gets to tell them that those practices are not really Shinto. (Not that it would, of course.) Conversely, Konkōkyō certainly doesn’t get to tell, say, Izumo Ōyashiro that they are not really practising Shinto. (Not that they would, either.)
It does, on the other hand, seem reasonable for the Konkōkyō hierarchy to define who can practise Konkōkyō, and what they should do in order to do so. In theory, Jinja Honchō has a claim to set standards for Jinja Shinto, but, as I said, they have chosen not to do so. On a smaller scale, if we ask about practice at an individual jinja, there is a strong case to be made for the chief priest getting to decide, probably with the support of the ujiko and sōdai. They maintain the jinja, manage and perform the matsuri, and pass all of the traditions on to the future. In many cases, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on performed the same functions. If they do not have the authority to decide who practises Shinto, and how, at their jinja, then it seems clear that no-one ever has that authority.
One reason you might want to deny individual jinja that authority is that you might disagree with their decisions. For example, there are jinja who exclude women from certain matsuri, or exclude anyone who is not a member of one of a fixed list of families. Even if you do disagree, you probably shouldn’t force your way into one of these matsuri — although if you think that might be reasonable, then you are committed to denying that anyone has any authority to restrict Shinto practice in any way, under any circumstances.
What about someone who decides to practise their own version of Shinto? Who has the authority to tell them that they shouldn’t do that, or that they are doing it wrong?
The answer seems to be “nobody”. They are not practising at a particular jinja, and no organisation seems to have the necessary authority to speak to people practising independently. Konkōkyō could tell them that their practice was not Konkōkyō, but they knew that already. In theory, Jinja Honchō could tell them that their practice was not Jinja Shinto, although they would not actually do so. No-one, however, has the authority to tell them that they should not do it, or that it is not Shinto.
This is why my essay on Practising Shinto Outside Japan avoids telling people what they must or must not do. Instead, it gives a specific form of practice, and says “if you do this, you are practising Shinto”. That is something that people within Shinto can do; if you follow Konkōkyō’s guidelines, then you are practising Konkōkyō, so you are also practising (one form of) Shinto. If you follow the guidelines I give, you are practising Jinja Shinto, and thus practising (one form of) Shinto. The positive side of things is only a problem if the people offering advice do not do their research properly.
For “reasonable” cases, I think that is all you can say. If someone is making their kamidana offerings in a different way from you, for example, I don’t think you can say any more than “I do it differently”. If you have studied Shinto practice in Japan extensively (which requires fluent Japanese, because there simply are not enough sources in any other language), you might also be able to say “I am not aware of anyone in Japan who does it that way”. However, in that case you would also be aware of enough diversity in practice that you would think that there probably is someone in Japan who does it that way, or close enough.
What about ridiculous cases? “I practise Shinto by enshrining Inari as an aspect of Coyote in a stone circle, and perform yoga while burning a voodoo doll as an offering”, for example.
It is really, really tempting to say that you can say “Look, that’s just not Shinto”. However, as I have discussed in my essays, it is very hard to define Shinto, and since no-one seems to have the authority to impose a definition, in general, I don’t think anyone can actually say that. What you can say, I think, is, “That practice is extremely different from all forms of Shinto practised in Japan. Why do you think it is helpful to call it Shinto?”. (At least, you can say that if you have studied Shinto in Japan to a significant extent.)
What if they say, “Oh, OK, maybe it isn’t Shinto. That’s just how I worship Inari, then”? Can you tell them to stop because their practice is cultural appropriation?
Well, who are “you”? If you are not a Japanese practitioner of Shinto, then no, you can’t. Doing so would, itself, be cultural appropriation on your part: you would be appropriating the authority to serve as a gatekeeper from the people who are actually part of the culture.
What if you find it actively offensive? In that case, I think you just have to ignore it. There are practitioners of Christianity and Islam who find any practice of any other religion actively offensive, but they do not get to tell people to stop practising Shinto. There are practitioners of varieties of Christianity who find Roman Catholic practice actively offensive, but they do not get to tell Catholics to stop practising or stop calling themselves Christians. (I mean, they do, but they shouldn’t.) The same applies here.
What if you are a Japanese practitioner of Shinto? As discussed earlier, no-one seems to have the authority to tell someone that they are doing it wrong, and that applies even more so if they are not even claiming to practise Shinto. I don’t think you (we) have the authority to do this either, although at least it isn’t cultural appropriation if we do it. It’s still wrong for us to tell people to stop, but not for that reason.
(Note that things may be different when one culture has a history of oppressing another, and that history continues into the present day; for example, “white Americans” and “all other Americans”. In that case, there are other arguments that can be made for the members of the oppressed culture having moral authority to stop members of the oppressing culture from appropriating elements of that oppressed culture. However, Shinto is not in the position of being oppressed by any other culture, so those arguments do not apply here.)
Thus, I do not think anyone has the authority to tell anyone else to stop practising Shinto in a particular way, or to stop using elements of Shinto practice in a particular way, beyond the very specific case of a chief priest directing practice at their own jinja.
There is another side to this question, however. If you are someone coming from outside Shinto with an interest in it, what should you do? This is a different question. There might well be issues that you should consider carefully, even if no-one else has the authority to tell you that you have made the wrong judgement. Indeed, I think there are. However, this article is already far too long, so I will return to those another time.