This post is about another article in Issue 267/268 of the Journal of Shintō Studies: “The Effects of Inactive and Semi-Inactive Shintō Shrines on Local Communities — A Case Study of a Super-Aged Community —”, by Fuyutsuki Ritsu.
Dr Fuyutsuki has been researching jinja in depopulated areas of Kōchi Prefecture, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, for many years, and has already published a book about it (which I have read, and may write about properly at some point). This article is about the same region, but focuses on a particular area that has lost about 93% of its population since 1960, so that only 82 people live there now. Apart from two youngsters in their early sixties, all of them are 65 or over, and the proportion of people over 75 is high. These people are split between eleven communities, with a typical population of ten. In 2016, back when the population was at the dizzying heights of 114, one of the eleven communities already had a population of zero, and the largest was home to 27.
This area supports eleven jinja, none of which are inactive jinja according to the various definitions. They all have a chief priest — the same priest, although he is supported by two more priests who live outside the area. They all have sanctuary buildings. And they all have annual matsuri.
Dr Fuyutsuki used the questionnaire from a national survey on attitudes to jinja to find out whether the people in this area had different attitudes from the national average, and got answers from thirty people in the area. Only 3.3% (one person) said that they did not visit their local jinja, as compared to 20% in cities in the national survey, and 60% said that they visited for matsuri. One person visited every day. Nobody said that they visited on weekends or holidays, but then they are all retired… However, hatsumōdë does not seem to be a very common custom in this area; only eleven people said they did it.
These numbers show that the small, elderly population is still very involved with the jinja, and this is backed up by the chief priest’s assessment that all eleven jinja can currently be maintained. However, these are “semi-inactive” (which is not actually a very good translation of the Japanese; “pre-inactive” might be better). It is obvious to everyone that some of the jinja will be non-viable in ten years’ time, when the population of the local community falls to zero. The chief priest said that he would have to look into legally merging some of the jinja in the next decade or two, because there were no serious candidates for successor ujiko or sōdai.
However, a lot of the local residents are opposed to that. They do not want the jinja, which have watched over the area for centuries, to be moved to anywhere else.
This article shows how important small jinja can be in rural communities, although there is no way to be sure that its findings also apply to other regions of Japan. On the other hand, there is no prospect of a sudden influx of young people, so these communities are going to disappear in the foreseeable future. It is really hard to see what can be done about these sorts of cases. Even if some way is found to continue rites at the jinja, with a peripatetic priest for example, that would not halt the population decline, and there would still be no ujiko. This is what the Shinto establishment means when it says that the fundamental problem is simply beyond its capacity to solve.