The Kinensai is a matsuri that is (supposed to be) held at all jinja across Japan on February 17th, to pray for a good harvest. It is recorded in the eighth century regulations for the central government’s matsuri, and it is fairly safe to assume that the basic idea, at least, goes back further. The current form was standardised in the late nineteenth century, and it is supposed to be a taisai (grand matsuri) at all jinja. Today, I want to write about how it was held this year at Saguri Jinja in Kyoto Prefecture, as reported in the March 13th issue of Jinja Shinpō.
This jinja is the focus of efforts by the prefectural Jinjachō to head off depopulation before it happens, by giving people stronger ties to the community in which they grow up. The hope, I believe, is that they will make more effort to stay, or to return after university, and that outsiders might even be attracted to come. Obviously, it will take years to see whether that works, but Saguri Jinja’s activities are interesting in themselves — I have posted about them before.
First, the jinja held the Kinensai on February 19th. Without looking at a calendar you can probably guess that that was a Sunday, and you would be right. The hope was that people would attend, and that hope seems to have been realised, as about seventy people came, despite the rain.
While the change of day made it possible for more people to attend, it would not be enough by itself to positively attract them. To do that, the chief priest decided to have the matsuri primarily performed by women. This is unusual, and his hope was that it would encourage the women of the community to get more involved with the jinja. This is not unreasonable, as seeing “people like you”, in whatever way is contextually applicable, does help convince you that you can get involved. (Interesting side note: in a Shinto context, I am not primarily “a man”; I am “foreign born”. Seeing a foreign-born woman taking a role does make something seem accessible to me, while seeing a Japan-born man doing so does not.)
First, he spoke to as many female priests in the local area as he could, and managed to convince enough to participate that he was the only man serving in the matsuri. (As the (acting) chief priest, he really has to lead the ceremony.) Second, he asked the local schoolgirls who danced the Urayasu-mo-Mai kagura at last year’s reisai (the main annual matsuri) to offer it again, and they did so.
It is worth noting that the chief priest seems to have been able to organise female priests for all the other roles without too much trouble, but that this was unusual enough for him to think that it would have an impact. That is a good reflection of the current prevalence of female priests in Jinja Shinto: there are quite a few of them around, but most people still notice if a priest is female. On the other hand, it is only “oh, a female priest” — they are no longer surprising or remarkable. A whole matsuri with nothing but female priests is still remarkable, while an entirely male one is not, but the general percentage of female priests is still somewhere around 10%, so that is what one would expect.
I hope that these sorts of activities are successful in keeping rural communities, and their jinja, vital, but that simply getting female priests in will stop being unusual enough to draw attention.