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Priests and Workers

As I mentioned last time, one of the interesting points raised at the Oversight Council was the relationship between priests and workers. More specifically, it was about whether priests can be considered as workers. The actual language used translates literally as “religion person”, but that sounds silly in English, and they are mainly talking about priests.

There was concern that considering priests to be workers, under the law, could cause significant problems. For example, if all-night duties, such as serving at hatsumōdë or spending the night in the jinja before a major matsuri, were held to violate the Working Conditions law, then it would become impossible to properly serve the kami. Similar concerns were raised about ritual purification before matsuri, when priests are required to bathe at the time and in the place of the jinja’s choosing. In the past, concerns have been raised about priests publicising evidence of embezzlement by the chief priest, but that shouldn’t really be a concern; don’t act in ways that give your priests good reason to think you are embezzling.

On the other side, people said that, as long as you are employing a priest, they are an employee, and so the laws governing employees apply. Given the result of the court case it would seem that, legally, these people have the right of it.

That said, there are genuine concerns here. When someone is employed as a priest or similar, there are religious reasons to impose requirements that would be unreasonable at any other sort of job. To take an example from Shinto practice, a jinja might require all priests who will participate in a matsuri to abstain from meat, onions, garlic, and similar smelly food for five days before it. Normally, an employer may not tell its employees what to eat outside work, but this may well be an important religious requirement for a particular matsuri.

To generalise, religious requirements need neither be reasonable, nor in line with current social expectations. If labour law is held to make it illegal to enforce such requirements, that certainly could be an interference with freedom of religion. In this case, given the importance of that freedom, the correct legal judgement may well be that people who do not like those requirements should not take those jobs. To be honest, that seems reasonable: if you do not like the religious requirements of Shinto, then you probably are not cut out to be a Shinto priest.

There are even more difficult cases. What about jinja that have sacred spaces that are forbidden to women (or men, although I do not know of any examples of that off hand)? They can employ women, but those women could never become senior priests, because they would be unable to enter the sacred spaces to perform the matsuri. That would seem to conflict with equality legislation, and that legislation is also backed up by the Constitution, just like the freedom of religion. In those cases, it is not clear what the best legal judgement would be.

Politically, I suspect that freedom of religion would be given priority over gender equality. They are both constitutional rights, so when they conflict, you have to prioritise one or the other. And telling the Catholic Church that it either has to start ordaining women or get out of Japan would be politically… awkward.

So, there are real concerns here. However, they are almost certainly best handled by maintaining good relations within jinja so that the junior priests do not sue. If that is impossible, then the real problem is not the law.

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2 thoughts on “Priests and Workers”

  1. If one receives Shakai hoken or Kosei nenkin from an employer – they are employees – regardless of job description.
    In Jinja Shinto, there are no priests or lay employees taking “vows of poverty.” All Jinja Shinto priests who are legally employed receive a base salary and employment benefits.

    1. Legally, that’s true, of course, as I mentioned, and all the employees get paid, as you say. There are a lot of volunteers involved as well, but everyone involved thinks of them as volunteers, and that’s not a problem.

      The issue raised by the comments made at the Oversight Council is that it seems that a substantial number of people think that priests are “different” from “ordinary employees”, and thus are not, or should not be, covered by all the protections that ordinary employees have. That’s legally untenable, of course, but I think there are real issues about priests and such that require serious thought. You can’t normally fire a woman for getting pregnant — obviously. Can a Catholic convent expel, or at least discipline, a nun who gets pregnant?

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