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The Priest’s Knees

The last new year article I want to write about was in the January 16th issue. The author is the chief priest of a jinja in rural Shimanë Prefecture. He starts by drawing a distinction between two words for a Shinto priest: shinshoku (“kami job”) and kan’nushi (“kami master”). He says that he feels that the second is somewhat higher status, and indicates someone who can properly call and dismiss the kami at prayers, and who works without holidays. A rural kan’nushi adds the ability to play the drum and flute for sacred dance.

For the first several decades of his career, he says that he was clearly a shinshoku, in part because he was a teacher as well. However, over the twenty years around his retirement from teaching, he felt that he was finally getting closer to being a kan’nushi. He was a member of the local priests’ kagura group, and helping at other jinja’s festivals, while deepening his knowledge of Shinto practice and working for the prefectural Jinjachō.

And then, in 2019, his knee gave out when he twisted it turning on his knees to come down steps during a matsuri. This, as he writes, was potentially a career-ending injury for a priest. He went to a doctor in the nearest city, someone whom he had taught at high school, and was told that his knees were basically shot. (The Japanese isn’t as casual as that, but I don’t want to look all the medical terms up to make sure I get them right.) However, the problems were treatable, and with injections and physiotherapy over four years he reached the point where he could kneel in seiza again for short periods, and do many of the liturgical movements.

The doctor was very encouraging, saying that the priest was in very good shape for his age, and should be able to keep going for a few more years. He is now planning a late flowering as a priest — no, as a kan’nushi.

This year, he will be 84.

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4 thoughts on “The Priest’s Knees”

  1. This raises an interesting question: if a priest found themselves physically unable to perform certain rites due to age or disability, would Shinto afford them any flexibility to continue performing their duties, either with accommodations/changes to the rituals, or by allowing them the use of physical aides? Or would Shinto be strict in the physical requirements?

    1. Changes are possible; I have seen elderly priests using stools rather than kneeling. However, the movements are a central part of the ritual, so, in general, someone has to do them. Remember, in Shinto it isn’t just the intent that matters. Priests with such issues can still participate in matsuri, but there are certain things that are central, and which they simply can’t do. This is an area where we may see more changes as the average age of priests rises.

  2. Follow up questions, do you know if Jinja Honchou would offer any kind of medical assistance for these kind of problems? I wonder if priests have any kind of regular routine to keep their knees in shape…

    1. Jinja Honchō doesn’t offer any systematic assistance, but Japan has universal medical insurance, and by that age it covers at least 90% of the cost of any treatment.

      Priests are supposed to perform at least one matsuri every day (the daily offering), and that probably does a lot to keep their knees in shape.

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