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The Future of Female Priests

At the end of August the Shinto Youth Association, a grouping of priests under 40ish, held a training session in Tokyo, which was reported in the September 12th issue of Jinja Shinpō. There were three presentations, one of which appears to have been a conventional motivational speech by a businessman, and of little interest to us. The others were interesting, and I will write about them here, in one post each.

The first was about female priests. This was a panel discussion, with a (male) moderator and two female priests. The moderator first set the scene, explaining the difference between female priests and miko (which surely can’t have been necessary given the audience), and noting that most female priests serve at what are called “minsha”, and are from priestly families. “Minsha” refers to “ordinary” jinja, for want of a better word. They are the jinja that were not given high ranks under the pre-war government, and do not have people visiting them from all over the country today. They can be fairly prosperous, supporting a full-time priest, but many of them, particularly in rural areas, are not. Priestly families are those that have supplied the priests for particular minsha for generations. (This was officially illegal pre-war, but the prohibition does not seem to have been enforced at all for minsha.) Thus, most female priests are the children or wives of priests, and are serving at their family jinja. In particular, he noted that there are very few women who were born into non-priestly families, qualified for their licence, and now serve at a jinja. It looks like he then showed some survey data (the report is compressed, and a little unclear) showing that, although acceptance of women working as priests is still somewhat limited, prejudice and discrimination based on sex are decreasing. My anecdotal experience backs up his claim.

The two female priests then spoke about their experiences. One was a junior priest at Dazaifu Tenmangū in Kyūshū. She said that, when she is serving with male priests, she chooses the colours of her vestments so as to avoid creating a clash. (The colours of vestments for male priests are closely defined. Women have an almost free choice for some items, with a handful of colours ruled out.) She also explained that, to avoid creating a resistance to taking on more women in the jinja, she made sure to take on the unpopular jobs, such as the night shift. (As a side note, that suggests that Dazaifu Tenmangū has solved the “only one dormitory and bathroom” problem that is an issue for introducing female priests to some large jinja.)

She said that, overall, female priests should first serve as priests, in just the same way as men, and then use their femininity and individuality to add something on top of that.

The other priest was the eldest of four daughters in a priestly family. (It is quite possible that they were trying for a son.) She currently serves as a junior priest in a jinja, Shōnai Jinja, in Yamagata Prefecture. (It is a moderately famous jinja, and I am not entirely sure whether it is her family jinja. It is very common for priests from priestly families to work at a larger jinja for a few years after qualifying.) She talked about making active use of social media, particularly during the pandemic, to give people a sense of connection to the jinja, and of organising events to get families with children to come to it. She also mentioned that she used to be mistaken for a miko quite a lot, but that recently people have simply accepted her as a female priest.

In the questions session, they were asked what they thought about the future management of jinja from a woman’s point of view, and both said much the same thing: Do not worry about whether a priest is male or female. Just try to make the best use of that person’s individual talents.

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