The 30th August issue of Jinja Shinpō had an interesting article on the back page about the impact of the pandemic on people’s habits for paying their respects at jinja.
In the past, even at relatively small, local jinja, people were perfectly happy to pay their respects at the same time as people they did not know, lined up across the front of the prayer hall. (We are talking about jinja in fairly urban areas, and mainly about the 1st and 15th of the month, when a number of people make a point of visiting their local jinja. I don’t imagine that happened much at jinja in remote rural areas.) However, the author notes that this has changed.
The pandemic seems to have created the feeling that people should only pay their respects one at a time, alone in front of the jinja. He reports one occasion when a woman who couldn’t wait any longer came up beside him, clicking her tongue, to pay her respects, which left him with a bad feeling for the whole day.
Now, you might think that it doesn’t take that long to pay your respects — bow twice, clap twice, bow once. However, the author had the custom of reciting the Ōharaëkotoba before the kami, and that takes five to ten minutes, depending on how quickly you talk. I can see that, if you felt you had to wait, that sort of delay might be annoying. The author’s main point was that you shouldn’t feel like you had to wait, because more than one person can pay their respects at once, and people should be allowed to make longer prayers to the kami if they want.
On the other hand, he also comments that some people stand in the centre while paying their respects, although he doesn’t. Now, I don’t either. There is a tradition of not walking along the centre of the sacred path to the prayer hall from the entrance torii, because the centre of the path is said to be for the kami. However, everything I have seen, from Jinja Honchō on down, has been clear that you can stand in the centre while paying your respects. Indeed, priests are required to kneel in the centre of the prayer hall when reciting norito. This is, therefore, a good example of how people develop their own ideas of what is “proper” at a jinja, and run into problems when others do not agree.
Obviously, you are going to run into problems at a smaller jinja if someone is offering a long prayer while standing to one side, and you want to stand in the centre to offer a short prayer, because you would not be able to stand in the centre without bumping into them. If the idea that you have to stand in the centre becomes widespread, then it is going to become socially difficult to offer long prayers, and from a religious perspective that really is something that should be avoided. However, given that jinja already say that it is all right for multiple people to pray at once, it is not clear how they can effectively respond to this change. This is a good example of how something that is a living folk practice can evolve in ways that are not chosen, or necessarily approved of, by the people who appear to be “in charge”.
I think I have seen the same sort of tendency as the author, and it is interesting to see a concrete impact of the pandemic on Shinto practice, particularly in a way that might not have been anticipated.