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The Future of Shinto

The October 30th issue of Jinja Shinpō contained two articles that provoked me to think about the future of Shinto. One was the report of the Oversight Council meeting, as recounted in my last post, where the councillors squabbled over the presidency before hearing a plea to do something about the jinja that are failing because of rural depopulation.

The other was the column by Yamamoto Yukiko, the senior priest (negi) of Tsubaki Ōkami Yashiro, in Mië Prefecture. She commented that more young people were coming to the jinja, and more of them were having formal prayers performed. Not only that, but a lot of the prayers were thanksgiving for blessings received, rather than requests.

I think these are all symptomatic of a crisis, in something like the original sense of the word, for Shinto. Originally, a “crisis” was the moment when a disease turned to either recovery or death. It is the point at which change is inevitable, but the nature of the change is not. I think Shinto has reached such a point.

The negative side has been visible, and a source of concern, for decades. Rural depopulation means that there are simply not enough people to sustain the traditional matsuri of rural jinja, or even to keep the jinja themselves in repair. The trend in this direction has been visible since the 1960s, but it is now reaching the point where jinja are actually starting to fail now, not in a few years or decades. On the other hand, there have been rumblings about Jinja Honchō for decades as well. It was originally designed as an emergency stop-gap measure to get Shinto through the Occupation without being crushed by the Americans — and it succeeded at that. Seventy five years later, it is not entirely clear what it should be doing now, or how it should be structured. Those tensions are also coming to a head.

The positive side was, it seems, less expected. Shinto and jinja have become very popular, as a part of traditional Japanese culture, with young people, particularly young women. Some of them search out interesting jinja, while others visit the ones that are currently cool. Of course, the first group are constantly discovering new cool jinja. (“Young”, in this case, goes up to forty, but primarily means people in their twenties.) This interest is often, but by no means always, associated with an interest in “spirituality”.

The existence of the positive side, and the fact that it has been around for over a decade now and seems to be getting stronger, makes me think that Shinto and jinja are not going to disappear. However, the traditional organisation, both of individual jinja around families that have lived locally for generations, and of Jinja Honchō, does not look like it will survive naturally.

Thus, a crisis.

Jinja Shinto is enormous, with 80,000 jinja and tens of millions of people involved to some extent. It is not going to transform overnight, or even over the course of a couple of years. I have no idea how Shinto will change, but I think that future histories of Shinto, when picking out critical points in the couple of centuries up to 2050, will pick out 1868, 1945, and some time around now. 

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