A little while ago, I read a book about jinja in depopulated areas of Japan. (過疎地神社の研究 (Kasochi Jinja no Kenkyū, Research on Jinja in Depopulated Areas), 冬月律 (by Fuyutsuki Ritsu)) The book is a report of several years’ anthropological study of the jinja in an area of Kōchi Prefecture, on Shikoku. Dr Fuyutsuki interviewed the priests and the sōdai, and the book is very interesting, in part because it makes it clear that it is not easy to say anything general about the problem. I may write at more length about it in the future.
This blog post, however, is about the appendix, which lists all the jinja in the area that are registered as religious corporations. This appendix was compiled with the cooperation of the chief priests, and gives the name of the jinja, lists the venerated kami, and other data about the impact of depopulation. The list of venerated kami is interesting for several reasons. First, out of 103 jinja, there is only one Inari Jinja, and the frequency of other kami is rather different from the national level. That is another sign of the high level of local diversity in Shinto.
The most interesting point, however, is that, of 103 jinja, eight list the kami as “unknown”.
This information was gathered from the chief priests, by a researcher who spent several years getting to know the priests and the important laypeople. If he couldn’t find out which kami were enshrined at a jinja, then it is virtually certain that no-one alive knows.
These are not small shrines by the side of the road or in someone’s garden; these are religious corporations, and at least one of the jinja has a mikoshi (although it doesn’t have enough young people to take it out these days). Nevertheless, it does not seem to be a source of great concern that nobody knows which kami is enshrined. Certainly, it isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the book.
Given the way that Shinto practice works, this is not actually too surprising. First, very few people involved with a jinja worry about the name of the kami. People visit their local jinja to pay their respects to the kami, have prayers said, and visit or conduct the regular matsuri. The traditions of that particular jinja make a big difference to these activities, but the identity of the kami does not. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon for people visiting a jinja to not know who the kami is.
Further, norito are very often addressed to the “kami of [jinja name]”, rather than to named kami. In part, this is practical — my local jinja enshrines about a dozen kami in the main sanctuary, and naming them all would take quite some time, even leaving aside the issues of etiquette involved in putting them in an order. However, it may also be connected to deep traditions in Shinto. There is good evidence that early practice was frequently directed at the kami of particular places, rather than a named kami known from multiple locations. In some cases, that effectively continues, because the kami of some jinja have names that simply mean “the kami of this location”.
Thus, it might not be quite right to say that the kami of those jinja are unknown. They are known to be the kami of those jinja, and they are venerated at those jinja. The practices are known, and the norito can be addressed to “the kami of this jinja” without introducing any ambiguity about which kami you are talking to. Names are only needed when you want to identify kami across jinja, and say that the same kami is enshrined at different jinja. As I have mentioned before, even with the names, this is far from straightforward in Shinto: Ebisu is identified with two different kami from the myths, depending on the jinja, Inari with three, and while Hachiman is almost always three kami, which three differs from one jinja to another — and one of them is often just “Himëgami”, which simply means “female kami”.
It is probably fair to say that Shinto practice does not require people to be able identify a kami outside the context of a single jinja. There are cases where the identification is important — it does matter that a lot of jinja enshrine Amaterasu Ōmikami, and that the same kami is enshrined in all of them — but those are the special cases. The default is that matsuri honour the kami of this jinja — whomever they may be.