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Sacred and Profane

One of the amusing features of working closely with jinja is the official avoidance of language suggesting a commercial transaction when talking about how people get omamori or ofuda. Yes, there is a little label there showing an amount of money, and yes, you hand over that amount of money and get an omamori in return. You can even get change. But this is not a sale. (And, to demonstrate that, you generally don’t get a receipt.)

This can lead to some awkward circumlocutions. “We need to prepare new suggested minimum offering labels,” for example.

However, there is a more fundamental issue here, and one that runs through the whole practice of a jinja. There are sacred and profane aspects to everything that a jinja does.

There is a sense in which jinja are clearly selling omamori, and everyone I have met in the Shinto world acknowledges that. On the other hand, it is also true that they are gifts from the kami in return for an offering. Priests serve the kami at the jinja, but they are also employees who have to pay income tax and are protected by labour law. Precincts are sacred spaces, but also land owned by the religious corporation.

It is not the case that one interpretation is “more true” than the other. It is also entirely appropriate for priests to focus on the religious interpretation, because that is their job. However, the secular interpretation is equally true, so chief priests do have to pay attention to labour law. If they employ people, they have to pay minimum wage — even though priests and miko are willingly serving the kami.

This reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s view of free will, at least on one interpretation of his work. He said that, considered as physical objects, people were determined by physical laws, and thus not free. However, considered as people in themselves, they were entirely free, and morally responsible. It may not be clear how someone can be both unfree and free at the same time, but this is no different from being a servant of the kami and an employee at the same time.

This creates real problems when the interpretations clash. Jinja cannot take credit cards for omamori, because omamori are not being sold. Legally specifying it as a sale would be a step too far. Similarly, jinja exert more control over what priests eat before major matsuri than can probably be justified under labour law. It is really not clear what would happen if someone mounted a legal challenge to that, because the Japanese constitution does forbid the state from interfering with religion — the Supreme Court would have to decide how it was going to interpret the situation.

This is not unique to Shinto. In some cases, religions get exemptions from inconvenient laws (Christians in medieval Islamic states had legal access to wine for communion, for example, and the Catholic Church is not required to ordain female priests by gender equality legislation). In other cases, the conflict is simply glossed over. I suspect that this problem is even broader than religion, in fact, and touches on fundamental issues about constructing a pluralist society.

It’s a much more profound problem than a simple allergy to saying “sell omamori”.

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