The depopulation of rural areas of Japan is a serious problem for the whole country, and Shinto is in no way exempt. In some ways, Shinto is more seriously affected than many fields, because jinja are closely tied to particular locations, and cannot move very far, even if the same kami can be (and sometimes is) venerated in other places. In addition, matsuri linked to particular rural jinja are at serious risk, because in many cases there are simply not enough people in the area to hold them any longer. The Shinto establishment is well aware of the problem, and has been attempting to tackle it for decades.
The April 10th issue of Jinja Shinpō contained three articles on the topic, including almost the entire front page and the editorial. The articles on the front page reported on a large training session for priests involved with this issue.
On the first day, the administrator of “Second Hometown”, an organisation I am involved with, spoke. This group aims to support jinja in rural areas by organising people to go and help with their matsuri, and ideally build links to the area. I have been involved with them because they sent people to help Asakusa Jinja in Tokyo with their Natsumōdë, but that isn’t their real goal — Asakusa Jinja is not in an area suffering from depopulation. Unfortunately, the group launched just before the pandemic, which seriously restricted what they have been able to do, so the talk was mostly about plans for the future. Their forestry expert also talked about creating diverse and locally appropriate forests in depopulated regions to restore the local and global environment, and to provide support for residents.
Then the priest of one of the jinja that has been a focus of Jinja Honchō’s support spoke. He talked about how he had tried to be a full-time priest, but had had to give that up because he did not make enough money to live on. He talked about how he had personally got involved in local organisations, and formed links with other, nearby, jinja, and that this had enabled him to revive some matsuri, and that the jinja’s income and number of formal prayers had increased.
There was then an opportunity for general comment, and the report of this suggests a high level of frustration. Some priests said that terms like “revitalisation” put pressure on them, while others remarked that the differences between the successful jinja and their jinja were so great that it was hard to see the relevance of those experiences. Attention was drawn to the difference in enthusiasm between priests, and to problems that jinja had in seeing how to use subsidies.
They asked Jinja Honchō to provide guidelines on TV interviews and on using SNS for advertising, and to offer consulting on projects. They also wanted Jinja Honchō to formally divide jinja more finely based on their situation, and to change the name of the whole project — currently “Policies to promote the revitalisation of jinja in depopulated areas”.
The second day may have met at least part of that need, because there was a talk from someone from Jinja Honchō (the head of the section I work with) on advertising, followed by a presentation from a priest who had done it successfully. The priest commented that you should be willing to continue advertising for at least five years before seeing any results, which sounds about right.
This is, obviously, a major problem for Shinto. I think it is the largest single problem facing the Shinto community at the moment, and everyone agrees that it is one of the most important problems, at least. It is clear, however, that the current measures are not as effective as they could be. For example, the central project runs in three-year units, which is not long enough if it takes five years to see results. One major issue is that there are probably about 70,000 jinja negatively affected by this problem, and less than a dozen people in the relevant section of Jinja Honchō (including me).
For purely practical reasons, any solutions will have to be locally led, but Jinja Honchō may be able to offer better support. The support that we are currently offering to jinja looking to improve their services for non-Japanese visitors might serve as a model — once we have worked out what best practices actually are.