The April 24th issue of Jinja Shinpō carried an article reporting on the graduation of priests from the main training centres for the Shinto priesthood. Overwhelmingly, this means Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and Kōgakkan University in Isë. (The other six have nineteen graduates between them, while Kokugakuin alone has 151.)
The reports cover three points. The first is the shortage of priests. At Kokugakuin, 151 people qualified as priests and 109 took jobs at jinja, 102 of them as priests. (The other seven were miko or non-priest staff, and six of those seven were women who probably went to work as miko at large jinja — although that is speculation based on what I know about the background.) More than half of those got their jobs through personal contacts. In some cases, they went back to work at the family jinja, but they also relied on broader contacts. The university introduced 56 new priests to jobs in 42 different jinja. On the other hand, 202 jinja contacted them with 317 vacancies.
The situation at Kōgakkan was similar. Seventy five people qualified as priests, and 62 took jobs at jinja, 57 of them as priests. Here, the overwhelming majority got their jobs through the university: 56, at 48 different jinja. Even so, the university received requests from 162 jinja to fill 267 vacancies.
So, there are five or six vacancies per priest. I get the impression that there is still an attitude among older priests that it is a privilege to serve at a jinja, and young priests should just put up with the hardships, but the numbers really don’t back that up. If your young priest quits, you are very unlikely to be able to fill that vacancy.
I should note that the shortage of successors is a problem that the Shinto community and establishment is well aware of, but seems to have no real solutions for. It is a very difficult problem; if people do not want to become priests, the Shinto community cannot force them.
The second point is the change in the areas to which new priests are going. A few years ago, there was a strong tendency for new priests to want to work in large cities, particularly among graduates of Kokugakuin, who wanted to stay in Tokyo. That trend is, apparently, much weaker now, although neither university gives numbers. Kōgakkan does mention specifically that a lot of students want to work in the prefecture where they grew up, or one next to it — which makes a lot of sense.
Finally, the proportion of women is called out. At Kokugakuin, the graduating class of the main university course had 104 members, of whom 44, 40%, were women. This is described as a “10%” increase on last year, which I think probably means from 36% to 40%, looking at the numbers I wrote down then. On the other hand, only 24 went on to work at jinja, which is only 30% of the students who did so. Still, that is apparently higher than last year, and the university comments that they are getting more vacancies open to both men and women, and more open only to women, which they think helps to explain the increase. The reference to vacancies open only to women is intriguing — I wonder whether it means vacancies specifically for miko, or whether there are jinja actively recruiting female priests. (I presume this is legal. As religious corporations, I think jinja are exempt from certain aspects of gender equality law.) At Kōgakkan, there were only 21 women who qualified as priests, which is less than 30%, and the article is inconsistent on how many of them went to work at jinja. The text says eleven priests, four miko, and four office staff, but the table says eleven priests and five miko/staff.
In any case, the trend for women to go to Kokugakuin continues, and the higher proportion of women among younger priests is also a solid trend — the overall proportion among priests of all ages is around 10%.
I would just like to make a brief comment on women going to be miko. For 22-year-olds who have just graduated, becoming a miko rather than a priest may actually be a way to get more involvement in the religious activities of a jinja. Miko perform kagura at most matsuri, and distribute omamori and ofuda. Male priests of the same age are likely to be stuck in the office, and may get to carry a mat during the matsuri, if they are lucky. If you intend to have a career at that jinja, you want to be a priest, but if the plan is to work and get experience before becoming a priest at your family jinja, becoming a miko may be a better option, given that you already have the priest’s qualification.
In any case, some of the worrying trends from earlier years (the student focus on Tokyo and the limitation of vacancies to men) seem to be getting better, but there is no sign of an increase in the supply of new priests. This is one reason why there are still chief priests who have been chief priest of their jinja since before I was born.