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Removing Offerings

When should you take offerings down from your kamidana?

A few weeks ago, someone left a comment on the blogpost on my old website about kamidana, suggesting that leaving the offerings there for two weeks proved that I knew nothing about Shinto and certainly couldn’t have written a useful book about it.

Now, that blog post was written more than ten years ago, and I do not leave my offerings up for two weeks now, nor do I recommend it. However, the question is not that simple. So much so that it has taken me several weeks to track down the necessary information.

You might think that every description of what to do with a kamidana would answer the question “When should you take offerings down from your kamidana?”. So the first surprising fact is that they don’t. I have never come across a Japanese source that says when you should take the offerings down. That covers two books (including the first textbook for the Jinja Kentei) supervised by Jinja Honchō, many leaflets from Jinja Honchō and individual jinja, and several books that had no official link to Jinja Honchō. One of those is a whole book about household rituals, which goes into great detail about all of the other aspects of venerating a kamidana, but says nothing explicit about taking the offerings down.

Common sense assures us that the offerings get taken down at some point; if not, the kamidana would get full, and anyway the diagrams and pictures never show more than one set of offerings. So, when?

There are two possibilities. One is that you remove the offerings immediately before replacing them with new ones. A leaflet from Kanagawa Jinjachō, which is a bit more explicit than many, says that the ideal is to put new offerings up every day, but that you should do it at least on the 1st and 15th of the month — when you can.

And, indeed, when I asked one of the priests at my local jinja when to take the offerings down, she said “on the 1st and 15th of the month”. She holds that it is disrespectful to the kami to not leave the offerings there for two weeks. If a particular offering would go off in that length of time, three days or so might be acceptable.

I also asked two of the priests in the Edification Division of Jinja Honchō about this (I had a meeting on another topic, so I asked this at the end), and both of them said that the standard practice was to take the offerings down immediately before you replace them. They both replaced the offerings every day, although one of them said that some people only did it every couple of weeks, and they probably threw the rice and salt out on the garden. (The water evaporates if you leave it for two weeks.)

So, it seems that the way I used to do it is permissible according to all the priests, and the best way to do it according to one of them.

The second possibility is that you should take the offerings down immediately after venerating the kamidana. These are the two possibilities that arguably do not need explicit mention: in the first case, you remove the offerings in order to replace them, and in the second, you remove the offerings when you have finished.

One of the priests at Jinja Honchō did bring this possibility up, pointing out that it was the same as the ideal practice for a matsuri at a jinja, and he suggested that it may be the best because the fundamental idea is that you should consume the offerings immediately after they have been offered to the kami.

This is what I do now, and what I recommend, for precisely that reason. It also allows you to offer cooked rice and then consume it, which is not possible if you leave the offering out for any length of time. Offering cooked rice is the older and longer tradition, so I want to make space for it, but in that case you cannot leave the offerings once you have finished your veneration.

Another reason for recommending this approach is that the most standard approach, only taking the offerings down when you replace them, creates strong pressure to do so frequently. I don’t think that pushing people into doing it every day from the beginning is a good idea, because it makes the barrier too high. If the offerings are taken down every time, it doesn’t matter so much if they are a bit irregular.

So, what about the suggestion in the comment that the offerings should be put up every morning and taken down every night? It’s obviously not standard practice, because that could not be simply left out of the description of honouring a kamidana, nor is it what the priests described as their practice. However, it is not actually wrong, and one of the priests at Jinja Honchō did mention it as a possibility. It is analogous to the practice of “nikku” at a jinja, where offerings are placed in front of the kami first thing in the morning, and left there until the night. So, it’s permissible, but a minority approach, and I would not recommend it. It is not standard, and does not have the benefit of allowing you to consume the offerings immediately after venerating the kamidana.

This issue brings up two important general points.

The first is that Shinto practice is really, really diverse, even among priests within Jinja Shinto, and even on a subject as simple as this. This goes back to last week’s post, as it is part of the reason why no-one has the authority to tell anybody else that they are doing Shinto wrong.

The second is the problem of finding reliable English-language sources about Shinto. I’m sure that the person who commented on my post thought that they were a reliable source and had found an unreliable one, but they were wrong on both counts.

Mimusubi is a good example for this problem. I do everything I can to make it a reliable source. It’s not perfect, because I make mistakes, but it is usually right, because I avoid posting things if I do not have the evidence in front of me, and covers a wide range. However, how can you, the reader, determine that? Most English-language sources on Shinto are not reliable. This even applies to most academic publications on Shinto; they are not outright mistaken, but many of them have a strong distorting bias. Non-academic sources often are outright mistaken. If you are limited to English-language sources, Mimusubi is just another source that disagrees with some of the others.

There isn’t a lot I can do about that. I can tell you that I work for Jinja Honchō, and that the work I do is explaining Shinto to non-Japanese, but I can’t provide any evidence for that. My name isn’t on Jinja Honchō’s website, and even if it were, it would be in Japanese, and you wouldn’t be able to read it.

I am trying to persuade Jinja Honchō to put more useful information on their English-language website, which would involve me writing them a new website, but I am not making very much progress on that. However, I think it would be very useful. The English-language website of the largest Shinto organisation in Japan would clearly be a reliable source for contemporary Shinto practice.

Now, if only I could also persuade them to add a link back here…

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5 thoughts on “Removing Offerings”

  1. Pingback: Kamidana – David Chart's Blog

  2. Pingback: Cultural Sensitivity – Mimusubi

  3. Hello David,

    You’ve said the vessels for the offerings to the Kami shouldn’t be used for anything else. So when sharing a meal with the Kami, should you eat from those same vessels or transfer the food to your own plate and eat from there?

    1. That’s a good question. Yes, basically you should transfer them to something else. However, if they are offerings that do not need to go on another plate to be eaten (a rice cake or manju, for example), then there is no problem with just taking them off the offering vessels and eating them. As long as you aren’t touching the vessels with things that touched your mouth (or with your mouth — I wouldn’t drink directly from the water jar!), I think you would be OK.

  4. Pingback: Kamidana Booklet – Mimusubi

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