My patrons continued discussing Shinto overseas after my recent post on the subject, and one of them raised an interesting point that ties into historical customs. They asked whether some sort of proxy jinja visit would be possible, and that is something that was a standard part of practice within Japan for centuries.
One of the biggest problems for people who want to practise Shinto outside Japan is getting hold of ofuda. While I am continuing to work with Jinja Honchō on this issue, there are still a lot of problems to be solved.
A possible way for people overseas to get around this is to take inspiration from a traditional Japanese practice: the jinja kō. A kō is a group of people devoted to a jinja, and they still exist today. (There is even an overseas one for Fushimi Inari Taisha, which has a Facebook group.) Historically, there seem to have been two broad types (which were not always called “kō”, but that is probably the most common name). One type was devoted to a local jinja, and provided practical support for matsuri there. Indeed, in the absence of a priest, they may have run the jinja. This type is most likely to have been called something else, and it is not of much relevance to people overseas.
The other type was devoted to a distant jinja. Jingū, at Isë, was a common choice, but they also existed for other famous jinja. It was common for these groups to pool their money so that one member of the kō, normally chosen by lot, could go to the jinja, have a prayer said for everyone, and bring back ofuda.
The applicability of this to foreign practice is obvious. A kō with thirty members could probably afford to send a representative to Japan every year, and this is a clearly legitimate and traditional way to get ofuda.
It would be best for such a kō to communicate with the jinja in advance. You do not need permission to form one, as long as you do not claim that it is endorsed by the jinja, but if someone foreign suddenly turned up and tried to get thirty ofuda, there might be concerns about reselling. Thus, the group would benefit from having at least one member who spoke Japanese, although they would not have to be the one to go to Japan — at least not every year.
My impression, from talking to a significant number of priests about this general sort of issue, is that most jinja would be pleased, albeit puzzled, to be told that there was an overseas kō devoted to the jinja, and that someone would be coming over to pay the kō’s respects, make requests, and take a few dozen ofuda back. I’ve also raised the possibility with Jinja Honchō, and they confirmed that they do not see any problem with it, and do not think that people need anyone’s permission to form such a kō. (We are thinking about more active possibilities, but this isn’t really something that the jinja would do, much less Jinja Honchō, so it is not clear what actions are available to us.) It is possible that some particular jinja might not like the idea, but that would be odd and surprising, although still something that should be respected.
The costs to the members would depend on how many of them there are and how much it costs to get to Japan in any particular year. It would be wise to make a substantial offering to the jinja (say, ¥50,000 for the gokitō, plus the standard offering per ofuda, which is another ¥1,000 or so each), because this would ensure that the jinja remained positively inclined to the group. However, the travel expenses would be at least five or six times that, and variable depending on the time of year, oil prices, geopolitical changes, and how far the jinja is from the airport. The kō would be well advised to put everything in writing and keep clear accounts that all the members can inspect, but that is no different from any other voluntary group that handles money from its members.
The biggest obstacle might be finding enough people with an interest in Shinto who live sufficiently close together to make the kō itself viable, but that is definitely a lower hurdle than those to the other approaches. I do, therefore, suggest this as an option.