“Otaue” is the name for Shinto ceremonies that mark the planting of rice seedlings in wet rice fields. In Japan, rice is normally sown in one place, and then replanted out into the wet rice fields around June, when it has grown a bit. “O-ta-ue” means “honourable-rice field-planting”, so the naming is quite straightforward. These ceremonies play an important role in the cycle of Shinto matsuri concerned with rice agriculture, and quite a lot of jinja maintain them today, despite the decline in the importance of agriculture as a field of employment.
The back page of the 3rd July issue of Jinja Shinpō was devoted to reports, with photographs, of five otaue. They all have basically the same form. Priests perform a matsuri at the rice field, praying for a good harvest, and then people take the rice seedlings and plant them out by hand. Both parts of this are now ceremonial, because there are effective machines for planting rice, and it is not uncommon for the people planting the rice to wear special outfits. This is particularly true for girls or women, who are referred to as “saotomë”, and normally wear a navy-blue short-sleeved top and a straw hat. The top normally has white patterns on it, but I am not sure whether they are always the same. The details of the hat definitely vary. (“Saotomë” is written with characters meaning “early young woman”, but I am not sure whether the meaning of the “early” part is significant. The “young woman” part certainly is, so it may be. The rice seedlings are called ”sanaë”, meaning “early seedlings”, so it is quite possibly taken from there.)
The five otaue were all slightly different, and none of them was just a single jinja doing the ceremony with its ujiko. A lot of jinja may have performed otaue like that, but perhaps nobody thought that it was worth writing an article for Jinja Shinpō about something so normal, at least in this context.
One was organised by the Young Priests’ Association in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and planted a variety of rice called Isë Hikari, Isë Light. This variety derives from rice plants that survived a pair of strong typhoons that struck Isë in 1989, and has been planted by this group since 1996. Some of the rice that they grow is offered at Jingū.
Another was organised by Takëkoma Jinja in Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture. This one was notable because the rice was planted by 43 students from the local agricultural university. The sacred rice field at this jinja has been maintained since 1957, and was established to help breed strains of rice that grew well in the climate of Tōhoku (northern Japan). It is managed by a committee of agricultural experts, and I assume this is why the students were involved.
Then we come to one run by the Prefectural Jinjachō in Ibaraki Prefecture. This one was started in 2010, and the aim is to offer ordinary people, especially children, the chance to participate. This year was the first one since the pandemic to be open to the general public, and there were 81 members of the public, including 44 children, and 39 priests involved. A couple of children were chosen to dress up as saotomë and plant the first seedlings, and then everyone planted the field. The whole event was broadcast live on a local radio station.
Next, one in Shimanë Prefecture with quite a long history. This is the area where Susano’o is said to have descended to earth, defeated the Yamata-no-Orochi (a snake creature), and found Kusanagi-no-Mitsurugi, the sacred sword that is now enshrined as the goshintai of Atsuta Jingū in Nagoya. In 1938 a group of locals got together to plant a sacred rice field, and offer the rice to Atsuta Jingū. The group has not missed a year since, which is really impressive given what was going on in their early years. During the pandemic they reduced the number of people attending the ceremonies, but did not stop, and this year about 60 locals attended.
Finally, the Himeji local group of jinja in Hyōgo Prefecture also organises an annual otaue, and this year the plan was to be back at full scale for the first time since the pandemic started. However, it was raining on the day, so the ceremony was held, instead, in the prayer hall of the nearest jinja. The photograph shows two women (employees of the local agricultural cooperative) dressed as saotomë and planting rice in a tub set on the floor of the prayer hall. This event started in 2015, and the back-up plan for rain has always been to do it in that jinja, but this is the first time they have actually needed to.
While all of these otaue have something extra to them, which makes it worth writing an article for Jinja Shinpō, those extras are clearly different in every case. Even the Shinto practices that are shared across the whole country are adapted to local conditions, and slightly different at every jinja.