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Rice for the Kami

The Shinto ritual year is structured around rice agriculture. (This may have been less true in some areas before the Meiji standardisation of ritual, but it is generally true now.) These days, of course, only a tiny proportion of the Japanese population is directly involved in growing rice, and that proportion has been dropping for years. Some Shinto groups have taken steps to address this, by giving people, particularly priests, an opportunity to participate in traditional rice agriculture. One such group is the Kanagawa Prefecture Young Priests’ League. (They don’t have an official translation of their name.)

Every year, they organise a rice field somewhere in the prefecture, loaned by someone with close connections to a member, and then grow rice in it. The priests gather to perform the Tauë Matsuri, the rice-planting matsuri, when the seedlings are planted out in the field, and then they help to actually plant them. There are often one or two gatherings to weed the rice field, and then they have a Nukiho Matsuri to mark the harvest, before the priests help to harvest the rice. For some of these events, the whole work of planting and harvesting is done by hand, but in other cases everyone does a bit, and then the farmer finishes off with machines. It is common to invite local schoolchildren to help with both events — or, at least, it was before the pandemic, and a few places have started to reintroduce that this year. I am not sure exactly how Kanagawa does it; it is reported in Jinja Shinpō, but not in that much detail.

The rice that was grown there is then offered to Jingū at Isë for the Kan’namësai, the most important annual festival there, and to jinja throughout the prefecture, where it is intended to be presented during the Niinamësai, the matsuri giving thanks for the harvest performed on November 23rd. Offering the rice at jinja seems to be standard for these events, as the descriptions I have read include something along these lines. (The details vary, of course, depending on exactly which group is doing it.)

After rice has been offered to the kami, it is, of course, taken down to be eaten. The prompt for writing this blog post was that, the other day, the priests at my local jinja gave me some of the rice that had been offered to that jinja by the Kanagawa group.

On the one hand, I rather feel that I should do something special with it. On the other, it is supposed to be eaten, and we don’t really have any special meals coming up. Maybe we will just note when we are eating it.

I think that these projects are a good idea. Not only do they preserve certain Shinto rituals, they also give more people a direct connection to agriculture, and a better sense of where food comes from. Given the environmental problems caused by farming (just in general, no matter how organic), I think it is a good thing if people know what is involved. Kanagawa does invite children, and I suggested it to my daughter when she was in the right age range, but she wasn’t enthusiastic. So I haven’t had the chance to participate. Maybe in the future…

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3 thoughts on “Rice for the Kami”

  1. This is a little tangential to your blog post, but I’ve always wondered how different religions conceive of “offerings” and how they square that with the ultimate fate of the foodstuffs themselves. For example, when the ancient Greeks offered animal sacrifices to their gods, they would butcher the animal and offer the choicest portions of meat to the god by ritually burning them. My understanding is that the meat was effectively destroyed by this process. The Greeks would also offer wine to chthonic gods (underground/earth gods, like Hades) by spilling some wine onto the ground. But in other religious traditions (like Buddhism, perhaps?) offerings of food are not destroyed by any ritual: they are a direct means to sustain monasteries and monks and priests, and the practice is thought of by practitioners are both an offering to a deity and support for these religious devotees.

    What about Shinto? It sounds like rice offering to a kami is not destroyed by any ritual or process, nor does the rice become the exclusive property of a religious order to keep them fed. So is the process of “offering” here just symbolic? Is the rice seen as being “changed” by the offering process? How to Shinto practitioners conceive of edible “offerings”?

    (Interestingly, Christian traditions run offerings in reverse: instead of offering food to the gods, they view consecrated “bread and wine” as being offered to parishioners by Jesus Christ. I’m fascinated by this stuff!)

  2. This is a big topic, but, essentially, the offerings seem to have originated in the idea of a shared meal with the kami. There is evidence that the kami’s part of the meal was destroyed afterwards in some rituals, but receiving and eating the offerings after they have been offered is entirely standard today. Are they changed? Well, the shared meal is often described as a way of sharing the kami’s power, but it is not clear whether that is due to any change in the food itself.

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