The front page of the June 20th issue of Jinja Shinpō had a long article on jinja in the digital age, reporting on a study session held by the Shinto Youth Association. (This is for youngish priests.) The course was given by Dr Kawamura, a researcher at Kokugakuin University, who stressed that he was speaking as an individual, rather than offering any sort of authoritative statements.
He made two general points. One was that the key question is whether a particular practice goes against the fundamental principles of Shinto. The other, however, was that individual priests had to make those decisions for their own jinja. As he pointed out, when people were debating whether it was permissible to build jinja in reinforced concrete, nobody ever said “Yes, you may build them in concrete”. Priests made their own decisions, and now there are a number of reinforced concrete jinja, and others that stayed with wood.
On the specific issues, he observed that terms like “virtual sanpai” (“virtual jinja visit”) were being used to cover a wide range of activities. It might mean that you could request a formal prayer online, and have the ofuda sent to you afterwards. Alternatively, it might mean setting up cameras to show what was going on in a ceremony, and purifying the attendees over the internet. It might even mean paying money to an entirely virtual jinja, and then having an animated character (probably female…) go through the actions of a purification. Obviously, the issues here are very different.
The first is not fundamentally different from accepting requests for prayers by post, which jinja have been doing since before the war. Attending the jinja is still the best way to do it: that is most respectful. However, if people really cannot get to the jinja, this is, he seems to think, basically acceptable.
As for a video link to the matsuri, he was rather more cautious. He said that an internet broadcast of a matsuri was nothing more than a record of the ceremony, and that you could not send the power of the kami over the net. He commented that “The kami are real, not imaginary, and it is precisely because they are real that they have power”. (A straight statement like that is, incidentally, very unusual in Jinja Shinto.) Although he said that watching a video of a matsuri could not be a substitute for attending in person, he did think it could be very good publicity for the jinja.
The article doesn’t describe his opinion of the animated character option.
On the topic of cashless offerings, he noted that the cash offerings have significance both as offerings and as a form of purification, and that a principled explanation for how a cashless offering fulfilled those purposes was needed. Since jinja do not have to pay tax on offerings because they are offerings, not payments, he emphasised the need to think again about what was really going on there, particularly with offerings made for an omamori or ofuda.
This was followed by small group discussions, including specific examples of what some jinja are doing (no details in the article), practical questions about how you would set up a website if you decided to do it — for example, you can’t have a “Shopping Cart” for omamori or ofuda, so what do you call it? — and so on.
I think it is good that this study session happened, and it will be interesting to see how different jinja develop this — and how the Shinto establishment feels about their various approaches.