“Shinto People”

The June 21st issue of Jinja Shinpō carried an interesting column about the way the Shinto world talks about itself. It was mainly concerned with specific Japanese usages, and one of the points the author made was that these usages are really hard to translate consistently into other languages, so I am not even going to try. Rather, I want to comment on his central point.

The phrases that Shinto people use to refer to themselves as a whole are very ambiguous. Now, recall that Japanese has a (well-deserved) reputation for being more ambiguous than English. These are phrases that are particularly ambiguous by Japanese standards. It is almost completely unclear who is included.

For example, one standard phrase is “jinja kankeisha”, which can be literally translated as “people connected to jinja”. This phrase always, I think, includes the priests of a jinja. If the jinja has permanent non-priest staff, then it would normally also include them. However, in some contexts it might not include security guards, although in other contexts it would. Similarly, a temporary miko hired for the new year might or might not be included.

When it comes to people who are not paid by the jinja, things get even less clear. Are the sōdai, the lay people who do much of the practical management, included? Normally, yes. There is even a national meeting for them organised by Jinja Honchō. What about ujiko? They live near the jinja. Well, the ones who just live near the jinja would often not be included, but might if the context was about the groups of people who had a particular link to the jinja, as opposed to people who didn’t. The same applies to sūkeisha, who are people who have a special reverence for a particular jinja. In some contexts, they would be the group that “jinja kankeisha” contrasts with — for example, at a major matsuri. In others, however, they might be part of the group — when talking about who gets sent the jinja’s newsletter, for example.

People who just visit once to pay their respects would not normally be included, but in a very broad context, for example about the economic basis of jinja, they might be.

Things are even worse for the word that I translate using phrases like “the Shinto world”, shikai (斯界). Literally, it just means “this region”, or “this society”, or “this specialism”. So, when it is used in Jinja Shinpō, does it mean priests? Does it mean Jinja Shinto as a whole? Does it exclude sect Shinto? Does it cover everyone who goes to hatsumōdë, which makes it about 80% of the Japanese population?

The point of the column is that it is not at all clear who they are thinking about when they talk about the “Shinto world”, or about the people involved with a particular jinja. Of course, if, unlike me, you do not have to translate it into another language all the time, this fact might not be immediately obvious.

I do wonder whether this is another case of constructive ambiguity. Everybody is comfortable using these phrases, and everyone knows what they mean, and so no-one needs to ask for clarification and find out that everyone means different things.

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