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The National Council of Female Shinto Priests

As I have mentioned before, Jinja Shinpō has a weekly column called “Komorëbi”, “Sunlight Through Leaves”, which is written by eight or so people who take turns, and take on the task for two years. (Thus, they write a dozen columns each, roughly speaking.) The two year cycle has recently restarted, so people are publishing their first columns. As far as I can recall, there has always been at least one woman among the authors for as long as I have been reading Jinja Shinpō (which is about ten years now), but I’m not sure that there have ever been more than two.

The column published in the July 18th issue was the first by Revd Yukiko Yamamoto, the negi (senior priest) of Tsubaki Ōkami Yashiro in Mië Prefecture. In her column, she talks about the National Council of Female Shinto Priests. (The Japanese is closer to that than to “Shinto Priestesses”.) One of the founders, Revd Nakajima, died suddenly a couple of years ago, but due to the pandemic it was only possible to hold a memorial meeting this year, and Revd Yamamoto writes about her memories of Revd Nakajima. That part of the column is entirely conventional, which does not mean that it is not also true.

However, Revd Yamamoto says some interesting things about the position of female priests. She says that, when she became a priest, female priests were still unusual, were not treated as equal to male priests, and were told to shut up. In that context, the all-female training sessions organised by the Council were very welcome, and she made good friends there. The training also allowed them to feel equal to male priests, and to serve at jinja without being embarrassed, even though, as she says, some people brand women as loud and obnoxious if they state an opinion at all.

The Council was founded in 1989, so we are not talking about ancient history here. Indeed, in ancient history women played a much more prominent and central role in Shinto ritual, as Revd Yamamoto points out in her column.

Is the overall situation changing? I think it is. For one thing, women are consistently asked to write columns in Jinja Shinpō, which is a significant platform within the Shinto world. For another, I have recently come across female priests leading important groups that are not exclusively for women: one is the national group of priests who work in education, and the other is the Kyoto Prefectural Young Priests’ Association. The latter may be the more significant for the future, because it is normal for the leader of that group to go on to be the head of the prefectural Jinjachō in a few decades.

For now, though, I suspect that it is still useful for female priests to have access to all-female training groups, where no-one is going to try to silence them — or, at least, not because they are women. I can’t see the National Council of Female Shinto Priests becoming fully redundant in my lifetime.

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