The main article on the front page of the December 11th issue of Jinja Shinpō was about the annual National Edification Meeting. (What’s “edification” when it’s at home? It’s the translation of a Japanese term that means activities to promote the religious aspects of jinja, but as much in terms of engagement by people who are already there as in terms of finding more people, so it is difficult to translate into English. “Edification” is the term that Jinja Honchō uses in the English title of the department I’m attached to.)
The keynote speech was given by a Mr Okazaki, who has spent ten years as the secretary of the residents’ association of an apartment complex in Saitama Prefecture where the residents broadly split into two groups: elderly Japanese (who probably moved into the complex as young parents when it was new) and young Chinese. This has, as might be expected, created problems for community cohesion, because there is not only the cultural split between Japanese and foreign immigrants, but also the generational split.
Some of the points he raised were very familiar from my time on the Kawasaki City Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents (back when I was a foreign resident): foreigners arriving in Japan for work or study do not have much chance to learn about Japanese culture, and this inevitably leads to friction. The separation of rubbish is a major flash point. (Why? I suspect because it is visible, and causes problems for everyone, because the council will not take the unseparated rubbish away. If you are new to Japan, you are likely to get it wrong. Which is not to say that people born and raised in Japan always get it right — “This is not plastic rubbish. Not even if you put it inside a crisp packet”.) So he emphasised the importance of finding ways to explain Japanese culture in a way that foreign residents will understand — a translation of the Japanese is not usually enough.
He also emphasised the importance of the residents’ association in helping to create relationships between the two groups, by making sure that some of the members of the committee were foreigners, and getting input from the local council and universities. (I’m guessing that part of that was language support, although the article does not say.) He pointed out that if people never talk to their neighbours, you will not get a community, and that while “coexistence” is not as good as “living together”, it is a necessary first stage.
The relevance to this meeting came at the end, because he suggested that jinja could play a similar role to the residents’ association, serving as a location where new foreign residents and long-standing Japanese residents could get to know each other, and work on things (such as matsuri) together. He argued that anyone trying to do this needed to be trusted in the local area, and the jinja were really the only places that could do that.
I’m not sure that jinja are the only places, but they are a good choice, because they are supposed to be for all members of the local community, normally have a good established relationship with people who have been there a long time, and don’t demand more commitment than people want to offer. Getting involved in a matsuri is much less of a commitment than joining the residents’ association committee, for example.
I agree with Mr Okazaki. I think jinja have the potential to do a lot to help foreign residents integrate into the community, and, indeed, to help new Japanese residents of an area integrate with long-standing residents. I know that some jinja are already doing this, and I hope that Jinja Honchō will be able to encourage, and help, more to get started. The fact that it chose to make this the topic of the main annual event on this subject is a good sign.