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Devotion to Duty

This post is about another of the jinja affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, as reported in the Spring 2023 issue of “The Imperial Family”. This one, Watatsumi Jinja, is in Iitatë, in Fukushima Prefecture. This village was badly contaminated after the meltdown at the nuclear power station due to bad luck with the direction of the wind, but it was not actually that badly hit by the earthquake itself, and is too far inland (and at too high an elevation) to be affected by the tsunami.

The radiation levels led to an evacuation order, and over 90% of the village’s inhabitants left. Revd Tada, the chief priest of Watatsumi Jinja, stayed, however. He did send his wife and son out of the area, but he felt that he had to stay at the jinja. There were two reasons for this. The first was that, if some of the ujiko came back to visit, the whole atmosphere of the jinja would be different if there was a priest present. Implicitly, the idea seems to have been that the place would not feel so abandoned. The second is that offerings are supposed to be made to the kami every day, and someone had to stay to do that.

(As an aside, I should note that I am not entirely clear on how legally enforceable the evacuation orders were. The Japanese government is extremely limited in its ability to impose such things; none of Japan’s pandemic lockdowns were legally enforceable, for example. The fact that the chief priest was able to stay suggests that the evacuation orders were, in the last analysis, voluntary, but that may have depended on exactly where in the village the jinja is.)

The area has now been largely decontaminated, although there are still huge sacks of contaminated material sitting in “pre-temporary storage areas”. (The final disposal areas will be “not in Fukushima”, but until the people who live there are convinced that it is a good idea to take the radioactive material, it will be stored in “temporary storage areas” within Fukushima Prefecture, near the site of the power station. However, not all of it has been moved there yet, so some is still in “pre-temporary storage areas”.) The evacuation orders have been lifted, and people have started to return.

However, it seems that only about 500 households (of 1,300) returned when the orders were first lifted, and almost all of them were pensioners. Only around 10 households returned later, along with a tiny number of people who newly moved to the village. Revd Tada particularly wants to see more young people moving in.

A reduction in population on this scale does have a serious effect on the jinja, because it is not clear that it will be economically viable. The number of households from which the jinja collects donations every year has dropped from over 800, to 200 in the village, and 45 who have moved to neighbouring areas but maintained their links to the jinja.

Revd Tada is now 76, and has spent twelve years serving at the jinja in a radioactive environment, and he hopes to hand over the role to his son in the near future. He would like to see the ujiko return, but, as he says, many of them have established new lives in the areas they evacuated to. The most difficult aspect of rebuilding is not, in most cases, the financial one.

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