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Privately Public

The April 19th issue of Jinja Shinpō has an article that draws out some of the issues from my post last week about public and private matsuri.

A jinja in Tokyo had little leaflets printed with a prayer for people to say at their family kamidana, to pray for the recovery of northeast Japan (Tōhoku) after the tsunami in 2011. The leaflets were printed and distributed because, although the tenth anniversary of the disaster was on March 11th this year, the pandemic meant that the jinja could not invite anyone to the matsuri that they were holding to pray for a swift and complete recovery. Thus, instead of simply not having anyone participate, they decided to encourage people to perform their own matsuri, at their own kamidana, with the same purpose.

Is this a public matsuri, or a private one?

In one sense, it is obviously private, because it is being conducted in a private home, with no-one outside the family present. Indeed, the absence of public participation is the point — if people could gather, they would be encouraged to do so at the jinja.

In another sense, however, it is public. The people praying at their kamidana are unlikely to still be suffering from the Great East Japan Earthquake, because they are living in Tokyo. That means that they are offering prayers for the public good, rather than their own benefit. Further, the prayers they are being encouraged to offer are explicitly a substitute for a public matsuri. The jinja would have held a ceremony open to the public if it could have.

The jinja has done a similar thing in the past. Last April, they distributed leaflets encouraging people to pray at their kamidana for a swift end to the pandemic. This is, if anything, even more ambiguous, because in this case the people offering the prayers would have benefited directly if the prayers had been answered. (Alas, the pandemic did not end swiftly.)

While these examples are particularly clear, kamidana rituals are supposed to be ambiguous between public and private in general. Jinja Honchō wants everyone to have an ofuda from Jingū at Isë, to enshrine Amaterasu Ōmikami as the imperial ancestral kami on their kamidana, and the theological reason for that is, as I understand it, that kamidana rituals should pray for the health of the Tennō and the prosperity of the nation. That is, the content of the rituals should be, at least partially, public, even if the performance is private.

There is a resistance on the part of the Shinto establishment to the idea of people having matsuri performed for entirely personal reasons, and the idea that you should not make purely personal requests at Jingū seems to be more widely held. Nevertheless, most formal requests at local jinja are for an individual or a single family, and most priests do not seem to feel that there is anything wrong with that.

On the other hand, many of the closed rituals, which can only be attended by a fixed group of people, pray for issues of public concern, such as a good harvest, or the prevention of epidemics.

Thus, you can have a public matsuri with a private purpose, as most formal prayers can be observed by other visitors to the jinja, and a private matsuri with a public purpose. As is so often the case in Shinto, it’s complicated…

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