The 3rd May issue of Jinja Shinpō had a very interesting article about Kashima Jingū, an ancient jinja in Ibaraki Prefecture. The jinja claims to be well over 2500 years old, which is probably not true, but there are archaeological discoveries from the fifth century, so it is certainly over 1500 years old.
The article was about part of the jinja’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is currently holding proxy matsuri on the first day of every month, for the benefit of people who cannot currently travel to the jinja. The interesting part is that the article describes this as “reviving the practice after a gap of ninety years”.
It seems that, in the Edo period, Kashima Jingū had a system of “oshi”, or possibly “onshi”, or “goshi”, or even “mishi” — the article gives no reading for the characters, and they are read “onshi” for the corresponding system at Isë Jingū, and “oshi” for the system at the three Kumano jinja. These were people who organised groups of adherents around Japan to revere Kashima Jingū, and either led trips to the jinja for them, or went on their behalf, and then took ofuda from the jinja back. This was their job, so they were paid to do it, as well as passing offerings on to the jinja. The Kumano and Isë systems were, socially, very important, and are also widely regarded as the beginning of the Japanese tourism industry. The Isë system was abolished by the Meiji government in the 1870s, but it seems that the Kashima system lasted longer than that. However, the development of the transport network in Japan made the system less necessary, and that, I would guess, is why the Kashima system came to an end.
In the face of the pandemic, however, Kashima Jingū decided to revive the system. When they did so, they turned to the Matsunobu (probably — again, no reading is given, and names are hard to guess) family. The members of this family were, until the Meiji period, hereditary oshi, and so a descendant of this family was chosen as the contemporary oshi. I have mentioned the importance of hereditary roles in Shinto before, and this is another good example. On the first of every month, he purifies himself, puts on a robe with “代参” (daisan, which means “proxy veneration”, roughly) written on the back, and goes to the jinja to pay his respects on behalf of the people who cannot be there. The ofuda are sent to them afterwards, and it is possible for them to watch the matsuri. The article does not give specifics, but it does say “watch and listen”, so it sounds very much as though it is webcast.
The article concludes by saying that the jinja is respecting tradition while adapting to the needs of the present day, and that seems to be a fair way to describe it. Kashima Jingū only plans to continue this modern oshi system until the pandemic is over, but I can’t help wondering whether something similar might not be possible for people overseas.