The April 2022 issue of the Journal of Shintō Studies included an article asking “Why Has Shinto Not Been Engaged in Terminal Care?”, by Kaneda Iyo. This is a reasonable question: Christian and Buddhist clergy have been, and are, deeply involved in care for the dying, but Shinto priests are not, and never have been. The contrast needs an explanation.
She splits the reason into three broad causes.
The first is the social role of Shinto priests. The job of a priest is to perform matsuri for the kami, and these matsuri are primarily on behalf of the community, rather than individuals. This is strongly connected to community welfare, but the emphasis in Shinto is on preventing things from going wrong, rather than on responding when they do. Thus, Shinto does not spend much time on trying to ameliorate specific social problems, but rather focuses on improving the whole community.
The second is special features of Shinto religious thought about death. This has two aspects. The first is the association of sickness and death with kegarë, ritual impurity. The earliest records we have, from the early eighth century, forbid priests from meeting the sick or mourning the dead while they are preparing for matsuri. Later records, from the Yoshida family (a very important priestly family), show that priests in the family would leave the room and go down to the garden when a relative was dying, so that they would not be polluted by being present at the death. This, obviously, makes the provision of terminal care tricky. The second aspect is that Shinto does not see a particularly large gap between life and death. Shinto views of death are not very well defined, but for the most part the dead do not go far, and often come back to visit. So, unlike Christianity, where you need a priest to prepare you to “meet your maker”, in Shinto it is not a theologically significant transition. Thus, Shinto saw reasons for priests not to be present, and no reason that they had to be there.
The third is historical. Shinto simply has not been associated with this kind of activity in the recorded past. In the Edo period and earlier, Buddhism dealt with death. After the Meiji Revolution, jinja were sites of state ceremony, and were forbidden to do “superstitious” things, which would include providing religious comfort to the dying. This was continued after the war, when Jinja Honchō has not really been interested in having priests address such individual problems.
These three reasons strike me as very plausible, because they fit in with what I know about Shinto. The last one is, of course, simply a matter of historical chance, but the other two are more fundamental aspects of Shinto. The article concludes by asking how Shinto priests could be involved in terminal care, but it might be better to ask whether they should be. Shinto could, I am sure, provide some sort of religious background for terminal care, but maybe it should not be provided by priests. After all, there is no need for all religious figures to be like Christian priests.