The second interesting presentation at the Shinto Youth Association training session (first one here), as reported in the September 12th edition of Jinja Shinpō, was about cashless payments. I have mentioned before that the (belated) spread of cashless payments in Japan is an issue for jinja, both for practical reasons, and because the physical offerings have religious significance. At the training session, further issues were raised.
Omamori and ofuda are not bought and sold at jinja. This is because of the religious significance of the items: omamori and ofuda are symbols or vessels of the kami (depending on the theology of the particular priest), and may be thought of as channels of particular sorts of power. They are not simple commercial goods, and as such they cannot be bought. Instead, people make an offering to the jinja, and, in return, they receive an omamori or ofuda. The Shinto world has specific vocabulary for this, and strongly discourages people associated with jinja from using words meaning “buy” or “sell” or “business” in this context.
There are also legal issues to do with taxation. Religious income at a religious corporation is not taxed, but business income is. Thus, a jinja can run a cafe, as long as it pays tax on the income from the cafe. (Some of the larger ones do.) As far as the jinja is concerned, the granting of omamori is not a commercial transaction, and so the income is not taxable. It would be religiously inappropriate to record it as commercial, and therefore taxable. However, if the tax office decides that the jinja is selling omamori, then the income should be declared for tax purposes, and the jinja can be prosecuted if it does not.
This means that jinja have to act in such a way that it is clear that omamori and ofuda are not commercial items, and that formal ceremonies are not a commercial service. The speaker drew attention to the risk that omamori and ofuda would be seen primarily as revenue-generating items rather than religious items, and asserted that people’s impression of them was very close to that already. This is certainly a risk, not least because offerings for such items are a vital part of the income of many jinja, particularly the larger ones. The presence of notes that look an awful lot like price tags next to the omamori at many jinja does not help either.
The need to avoid treating the granting of omamori as a commercial transaction, or doing anything to strengthen the impression that it is, creates a problem for accepting cashless payments. The operating agreements from credit card companies apparently explicitly exclude the use of credit cards for paying for religious activities by religious groups, and the law governing prepaid cards restricts their use to payment for goods and services.
In other words, if the jinja sees the granting of omamori in recognition of an offering as a religious activity, it may not use cashless payment services for it. On the other side, the use of such services would clearly be an admission that the omamori were, in legal terms, being sold, and the income would have to be registered as commercial with the tax office. It is religiously unacceptable for a jinja to allow that.
Thus, given the current state of the regulations governing cashless payments, it is a violation of widely shared religious principles for jinja to accept them.
Some of these problems may require legal reforms, and others may require jinja to make fundamental changes in how they operate. In any case, the shift to a cashless and digital society is having far-reaching effects on jinja.
Question about omamori and ofuda, from a Westerner who’s only visited one Shinto shrine (in Hawai’i): do jinja require a donation of a certain amount for these items, or are they more a donate-what-you-can thing? To put it another way, if a certain item is marked for $10 (translate to yen at your discretion) and they are down on their luck and unable to pay that, would they be able to make a smaller offering and obtain it anyway?
Here in the states there is language for this in other spiritual/religious contexts: “pay-what-you-can” or “donate-what-you-can” or NOTAFLOF (No One Turned Away For Lack Of Funds) pronounced “not a floff”. I guess I’m wondering how much like a business transaction the omamori actually are.
In general, a certain donation is required. The required donation for a Jingū Taima is set centrally, and individually jinja have to receive that much. To be honest, it really looks a great deal like a business transaction in many cases. That said, if you have an established relationship with a jinja, things become a lot less business-like, and there are ceremonies that you really can attend for a nominal, or even non-existent, donation.
I think this is also another deep difference between Shinto and the western image of religions. The relationship between people and kami in Shinto is more transactional than the relationship between God and man in Christianity, in large part because people are in a position to significantly benefit the kami. On the other hand, it is not a business relationship either. It’s much more like a gift economy, something that is a larger part of contemporary Japanese society in general than it is in the west.
Things get complicated…