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One of the front page articles on the December 11th issue of Jinja Shinpō was about a study session held online by the Shinto Youth Association, on the topic of “The Role of Jinja in Contemporary Society”. This consisted of two talks by Professor Kurosaki of Kokugakuin University. The first was on the role that jinja can, and have, played in disaster response, a topic that Prof. Kurosaki has researched extensively.

The second was about “context”. There is a famous distinction in social sciences between “high context” and “low context” societies. In a low-context society, everything is stated explicitly, because there is little in the way of shared assumptions and knowledge that can be relied on. The USA is the standard example of a low-context society. In a high-context society, very little is stated explicitly, because everyone can safely assume that everyone else shares their assumptions about what should be done. Japan is the standard example of a high-context society.

The first point of Prof. Kurosaki’s talk was “not any more”. In the Shinto world, there was, traditionally, no need to verbally explain matsuri, because people learned them by participating in them as children, taking on significant roles as young adults, and then overseeing them in middle age, before complaining about how the young people were doing it all wrong as elderly people. OK, maybe not that last one. However, this is no longer how society works in Japan. People move around the country. In depopulated rural areas, there might be no-one under sixty who grew up there, which means that if a matsuri is not going to disappear, new people are going to have be taught explicitly how to do it.

He then specifically addressed the internet as a way to make this information available. However, he went on to point out that, if you keep putting out information, you risk creating information overload, and so it is important to create a sustainable plan for publication.

I am in this picture and I do not like it.

So, yes, he is absolutely right about the problems for jinja. It is probably true that most Japanese people do not know how to pay their respects at a jinja, although it wouldn’t be an overwhelming majority. Local matsuri certainly cannot rely on the traditional transmission of practice to survive. Shinto needs to work with a lower context environment, and that is a large part of the job of the department I am in at Jinja Honchō.

On the issue of information overload… yes, I need to do something about the organisation of this site. I have well over 500 posts now, over 250,000 words, which is too much for people to read through. This even applies to the Patreon essays. I’m not going to take any of the information away, because it is good for it to be available to people who want to see it, but I think I need to work on a bit more structure to make it more accessible. This site may look different in the fairly near future.

I have a Patreon, where people join as paid members to receive an in-depth essay on some aspect of Shinto every month, or as free members to receive notifications of updates to this blog. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

2 thoughts on “Context”

  1. Of course reading through them and internalizing the ~250,000 words are different topics. I’ve read most of them over the years, but interlining them… not so much.

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