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Inactive Jinja Policy

Most of the front page of the 10th July issue of Jinja Shinpō was devoted to an article about a meeting on Jinja Honchō’s inactive jinja policy. This is a topic that clearly deserves the front page, both in terms of its immediate importance, and in terms of its long-term significance for Jinja Shinto.

Strictly speaking, this is a legal problem, and the meeting was almost entirely concerned with that side of things. An “inactive jinja”, in this sense, is a jinja that is legally registered as a religious corporation, but which does not currently meet the legal requirements of such a corporation. The most important conditions are that someone is serving as the head of the corporation, and that it has a site for performing religious activities.

The question of inactive jinja is not the same as the question of jinja that have no ujiko or adherents. A jinja can have no adherents, and an energetic chief priest attached to another jinja who makes sure that the legal conditions are all met. On the other hand, a jinja can have dozens of ujiko, several large matsuri a year, and a mikoshi parade in summer, and still be inactive because no-one is legally serving as head of the corporation. (I think there are actual examples of both cases.) On the other hand, there is obviously a correlation, because a jinja is much more likely to be inactive if there are hardly any ujiko.

After the Japanese government, in its wisdom, decided to meet all the demands of the person who assassinated Shinzō Abë, the scrutiny of inactive religious corporations has become more stringent, and there is a real possibility that a significant number of jinja will be legally dissolved, and their property — mainly the land — forfeit to the state.

At the end of last year, there were 1,193 inactive jinja within Jinja Honchō. Of these, 922 had no legal chief priest, and 138 had no facilities for religious activities. (Some jinja fall into both categories.) Six hundred and thirty seven are in depopulated areas, which emphasises that this is not just a problem caused by people moving away.

There are a number of ways to solve the problem of an inactive jinja. The ideal option is to supply whatever is missing from the legal conditions, so that the jinja does meet the legal requirements. If that is not possible, for example because the jinja has no priests, no ujiko, and no sanctuaries, then the corporation can either be dissolved, or merged with another one. At the meeting, staff from Jinja Honchō explained that dissolving the corporation was a lot of work, because all its liabilities needed to be resolved, and the remaining assets transferred somewhere. It is much more straightforward to merge the corporation into another one.

However, one problem with that is that the land the jinja stands on is then owned by the other corporation, which might be another jinja, or the prefectural Jinjachō. That is not popular with some ujiko, who feel as though they are losing the land. (In a lot of places, the ujiko feel that they own the jinja and the precincts, although legally that is not the case. Sometimes, that causes serious problems.)

In the past, one approach that was taken to avoid that problem was to simply fail to record the change of ownership in the land registry. This has been legal in Japan for as long as there has been a land registry — you have to register changes of ownership by sale, but not by inheritance or similar processes. As a result, there is land in Japan for whom the owner of record died a century or more ago, and figuring out who actually owns it now is virtually impossible. This is a problem for local authorities, because they can do nothing with that land, including charging taxes. The land that this situation affects is said to be equal in area to the whole of Kyūshū, so it is not a marginal issue.

As a result, the law is changing, and from next April you will be required to register these changes, with a substantial penalty if you do not. That means that jinja have to make all the changes they have put off until now, and make the changes in the future. And that will make mergers harder.

After the explanation of this bit, some of the prefectures talked about problems they had encountered. One concerned trying to fix the status of the corporations by appointing a new priest. Apparently, some of the registry offices have fined the new priest for the delay in registering the change, which is legally unobjectionable but not helpful when trying to find volunteers to fix the problem. (Technically, I think that the jinja is being fined, but such jinja typically have no money, so the head of the corporation has to find it.)

Another issue concerns the mergers. Merging the jinja with the prefectural Jinjachō is the fallback option, but some Jinjachō warned that people were resorting to it too quickly, and that a lot of Jinjachō didn’t have the resources, particularly the space, to accept the sanctuaries and goshintai of the merged jinja. Thus, this was something that needed to be treated carefully.

One person asked why neither Aichi nor Gifu Prefectures have any inactive jinja, despite having lots of jinja (and, in the case of Gifu, almost nothing but depopulated areas). The explanation was that the prefectural Jinjachō put a lot of effort into making sure that they don’t let any jinja find themselves without a chief priest. Personally, I would love to hear more about exactly how they do that. It makes a lot of sense that it is easier to prevent the problem arising than to fix it, but those chief priests need to be found somewhere.

This is a serious issue that the Shinto establishment is taking seriously, and is making progress on. The number of inactive jinja showed a net fall of 19 last year, which is at least a move in the right direction. However, at that rate it would take 63 years to solve the problem, and that assumes that depopulation does not make things worse. I do not think that we can say that they have found a solution yet.

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5 thoughts on “Inactive Jinja Policy”

  1. Thank you for this fascinating overview. It is striking to me that although I have been following this very closely, I know virtually no one who has been questioning the larger logic and structural effects of Japan’s new religion policy. I suppose that the original Jinja Shinpō articles you’re translating just mention this casually as new legislation they have to get on board with, not the unintended result of a major shift in popular attitude which needs to be addressed.

    1. Why do you think there has been a major shift in popular attitude? It looks to me as though people were generally concerned about the fundraising practices and links to the LDP of the Moonies, and that this has had knock-on effects on the enforcement of the laws for religious corporations. I haven’t noticed a major shift in popular attitudes to jinja and Shinto, and the attitude to “religion” looks like another strengthening of the underlying suspicion, like the one after the sarin incident.

      I’m interested to hear what you’ve seen that I haven’t.

  2. What I’ve seen is that following the assassination, the Ministry of Health issued an order banning parents from raising their kids in a religion that “significantly deviates from accepted social standards” or enforcing the wearing of a yarmulke or hijab.

    There is also a hunt against campus religious activity in the newspapers: one of my professor friends received a survey from Kyodo News asking him for his university’s “anti-cult plan”. They have a poster at the entrance of their campus warning students about high-control groups masking themselves as student clubs, but not an official plan. Of course, if he doesn’t have one his university will likely be singled out in a Kyodo report, so he is forced to consult with other professors to make one.

    Again, these are subtle changes (I don’t know how many individuals they will affect as stated) but they signal to me a nationwide shift in climate, which makes me think that there will be no legal recourse to prevent a possible dissolution of ancient shrines. Maybe everything will work out in the end but as a scholar I’m always very sensitive to these things.

    1. I don’t think these signal a major shift in climate, to be honest. I chased down the original of the MHLW notification, ( ) and I think it is being somewhat mischaracterised. The basic idea is that you can’t use religion as an excuse for child abuse, and the Q&A covers cases that might not be clear.

      The hijab point, for example, is that parents must allow children to conceal their religion in public if that is what the child wants to do. If the child wants to wear a hijab (possibly with a spiked collar — search for “Voice of Baceprot” on YouTube), then that is entirely legal. Similarly, the comparison to “accepted social standards” is in the context of isolating children from wider society. You are allowed to hold non-standard events and have children willingly participate, or even gently compel them (within the limits that parents are normally held to), as long as those events are not abusive in themselves and do not interfere with education. You are not allowed to universally forbid them from attending normal social events, like birthday parties and school concerts, if they want to. I think that is a good idea, because isolating children from society is abusive in itself and a very good way to foster other abuse.

      It is true that it says you may not persistently threaten children with eternal hellfire, but personally I think that is child abuse, so that’s fair enough. It is not safe to assume that some practice is not abusive because it is established and endorsed practice within a religion.

      Religious freedom means that parents can harm their children in the name of their religion, as long as the expected harm is tolerable and the risk of unacceptable harm is low. The concrete decisions about what that means are not easy, and I think there is a risk of the authorities being a bit too cautious in religious contexts at the moment, but the guidelines themselves strike me as unobjectionable.

      On the other point, I think the concern about an “anti-cult plan” is a temporary thing. The university should really have a general policy on predatory groups, whether religious, political, or commercial, just like it should have a general harassment policy. If this gets the university to think about the problem and come up with a good approach, so much the better. (And if the university is really concerned about religious freedom, it will come up with a predatory group policy, not a cult policy.)

      These do look like another manifestation of the long-standing Japanese suspicion of “religion”, and while I think the official response to Abe’s assassination is mind-bogglingly stupid, I don’t think it signals a shift in societal attitudes. Besides, mainstream Shinto and Buddhism are not “religions”. I recently saw a presentation about an organisation that uses traditional Japanese culture, including “jinja and temples”, as a platform, but also claims to have absolutely no involvement at all with religious groups. On the same page.

      1. Thank you for finding the original document being referred to! I took Massimo’s summary at face value for some reasons I’d rather not state here, so I appreciate the closer scrutiny.

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