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Approaches to Depopulation

The February 26th issue of Jinja Shinpō devoted over a page, including most of the front page, to a study group meeting held on February 6th and 7th. Representatives from jinja that have been selected to lead Jinja Honchō’s efforts to deal with depopulation attended and discussed their situation and the efforts they were making to address it. I want to pick up a few points from the articles; one of the strong impressions it gives is that a lot of different approaches are being tried in different areas.

The keynote speech was given by a professor at Kōgakkan University, describing a program in which students work with local communities in Mië Prefecture to resolve issues that those communities face. One part of this program involved Takë Jinja, a jinja with no resident priest. The students helped with a range of activities that aimed to encourage people to visit the jinja. These included decorating the purification font with flowers, encouraging people to visit on the day of the full moon, preparing a wide range of goshuin (vermilion seals that you can receive in return for a small offering at many jinja — people collect them in dedicated books), and classes for children. The goal is to develop it as an example of how a jinja can be run in a sustainable fashion.

Another presentation was given by a representative of Hyōgo Prefectural Jinjachō. Hyōgo prefecture is quite large, and unusual in having coasts on both sides of the main island of Japan. The city of Kōbë is in Hyōgo, but the mountainous interior and the Japan Sea coast suffer from depopulation. The Jinjachō has started a program in which priests are despatched from jinja in Kōbë with lots of priests to officiate at the autumn matsuri of jinja in areas where individual priests have lots of jinja. As autumn matsuri are held around the same time of year, it is often physically impossible for a chief priest to officiate at all of his jinja in the same year. The priests were sent to the region, and stayed there overnight. The first day was for travel and planning meetings (probably with the priests and sōdai, although the article does not say), and on the second day they officiated at two to four jinja.

The despatched priests are not paid specifically for these days, but the activity is credited as in-service training. This seems entirely appropriate. These priests are employed by large jinja and thus have a salary, so they do not need to be paid extra. On the other hand, completing in-service training is important to advance as a priest, and this experience would be extremely useful. The priests also prepared notes on the matsuri at each jinja, to make it easier for priests going in later years to perform the matsuri according to tradition. Hyōgo Prefecture covers five of the ancient provinces of Japan, so there is a lot of variation between Shinto practices within the area, and it is valuable for priests serving there to experience some of that. I think that this sort of approach will be vital in preserving traditions, although I am not sure that it is a long-term solution.

This was followed by small-group discussions, which raised a number of interesting points. One was that “depopulation” covered a wide range of situations, and that it might be useful to split the jinja into groups based on those situations. A chief priest of a dozen jinja, each with a dozen ujiko all over the age of sixty, is in a very different situation from the chief priest of a jinja in a town with a falling population, but an active elementary school. This might be worth doing, but I wonder whether it would be possible to recruit enough jinja in each category to make the groupings useful.

There was also debate over the name of the scheme, because quite a few people felt that “depopulation” had negative connotations, and turned people off. Against that, others argued that it made it easier to deal with government bodies, and that the program had only just started (it’s been running for less than six years, and the second term will finish this summer), so that it was a bit early to change its name. I suspect the name will not change just yet.

These activities are obviously critical for the future of individual jinja, and I think they have the potential to revitalise Jinja Shinto as a whole.

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