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Studying Female Priests

The 31st July issue of Jinja Shinpō contained a long article on a study meeting of the national association of female priests, the first one held in person since before the pandemic. The main speaker was Dana Mirsalis, an assistant professor at Pacific University who studies female priests in contemporary Shinto. Her talk covered three topics — menstruation and blood kegarë, external matsuri, and physical labour — and was followed by a discussion session in which the attendees picked up on those questions.

On menstruation, Prof. Mirsalis observed that the theological position on blood kegarë was unclear, and that there was no standard approach to menstruation. She has observed three approaches: haraë, having the woman stay away from the jinja, and simply ignoring the issue. The choice is apparently influenced by age (the article is not clear on whose age) and by the number of priests at the jinja. The latter makes perfect sense: if the jinja is being run solo by a female chief priest, leaving the jinja while she is menstruating is simply not practical. On the other hand, if there are lots of priests and they get a certain number of days off every month anyway, it would be easy for the jinja to ask female priests to take those days off. I would definitely be interested in hearing more details about those differences. During the discussion, priests also brought up issues around pregnancy.

External matsuri means things like purification ceremonies for building sites (jichinsai) that are performed away from the jinja. The biggest issue here is that it seems that female priests are not always accepted as real priests. It also seems that the vestments for female priests, and ritual movements, are not ideally suited to performing a matsuri outside a jinja. (On that point I have to say that, having worn neither, the male vestments and movements do not strike me as any more practical. My guess is that the fan is harder to deal with than the shaku, perhaps because it is supposed to be held in both hands almost all the time. Definitely interested in more detail here as well.)

The point about physical labour was to do with “feminine behaviour”. Female priests are expected to be “feminine”, and that apparently excludes physical labour. The article does not have enough detail to say any more than that, but in the discussion one of the priests in attendance commented that it was difficult to maintain both an aura of accessibility when around the jinja, and an aura of sanctity while performing matsuri. There is a good point about the Shinto community’s expectations of female behaviour around here, but I would like to read Prof. Mirsalis’s forthcoming book to find out more about it.

In general, I think she raises a lot of interesting points, and it turns out that there is a recording of a lecture she gave on this topic, in English, on YouTube.

I watched this after writing the first draft of the blog post, because I found it when looking for links, but I think the content overlaps a lot with the talk reported in Jinja Shinpō. It’s a good lecture — there were some things I didn’t know, and almost everything she said that I do know about was true. I don’t think I agree with her overall interpretation of the attitude of the Shinto establishment, but an important part of that is that I think their attitude is changing right now. Her research, in other words, is already a bit out of date. In any case, I highly recommend the lecture.

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