Skip to content

For the Kami

At the 75th Anniversary Meeting of the National Association of Young Shinto Priests, Her Imperial Highness Princess Akiko of Mikasa (hereafter “Princess Akiko”) gave a speech in which she talked about the purpose of jinja. This was reported in the May 6th issue of Jinja Shinpō.

Princess Akiko is a minor member of the Imperial Family. She is a great-granddaughter of Taishō Tennō, which means that her father was a cousin of the previous Tennō. Her activities are certainly not reported on the national news, but I have a great deal of respect for her. I get the impression that she has thought quite hard about how she can do something useful with her life, despite being a member of the Imperial family, and has come up with a good answer. She has a D.Phil from Oxford University, is currently a visiting lecturer at two Japanese universities, and runs Shin’yūsha. Technically, she is the patron of Shin’yūsha, but she is very hands-on — she attends and participates in all the events, and I think she is involved in organising them as well. Her activities are all concerned with handing Japanese traditions on to the next generation as a living culture, and she is closely involved with the Shinto world in that respect — which I would imagine is why she was invited to give this presentation, and why she said yes despite apparently having to go straight from a major Imperial family engagement.

In her speech, Princess Akiko talked about how Shin’yūsha had adapted to the pandemic. It was, of course, difficult to run in-person workshops, and so they decided to run online ones instead. These were popular, and so they still run them now, in addition to the restarted in-person ones. For example, they run traditional Japanese cooking workshops (for elementary school children — the target audience for most of their activities) in which children make things in their own kitchens. This is fun for them, and makes it more likely that they will make the same food again. (On the other hand, the video link goes both ways so that the children can show the leader what they have made, which means that Princess Akiko gets to see your kitchen. I imagine some terrifically intense cleaning and tidying happens.) Shin’yūsha’s principle in making these decisions was “what will make our members happy?”. Remote workshops allow people to participate even if they live in rural Akita Prefecture, and so they have not been stopped.

Princess Akiko’s application of this idea to jinja was to say that the first priority at jinja should be “what will make the kami happy?”. Her concrete suggestion was that the kami would be happy if the precincts were lively, which is a good suggestion, but the basic principle is broader, and I think she is right about it. Jinja are for the kami, and all their activities should be organised around the goal of making the kami happy.

This, obviously, creates practical problems. My understanding is that priests do not typically have the opportunity to ask the kami what would make them happy. The priests have to use their imaginations, based on the traditions of the jinja and their beliefs about the kami. Even so, I think the perspective is valuable. If you could preserve the traditions of the jinja by opening a convenience store franchise on the jinja’s land, should you? Would that make the kami happy? Note that, if your kami is Inari Ōkami, the answer might well be “yes” for a convenience store or supermarket, but “no” for a bookshop, while Tenjin Ōkami might answer the other way around.

One problem with this is that people can declare that they know what the kami would like, and the kami wouldn’t like this. If they have enough influence in the community, this would let them veto things. On the other hand, anyone with that much influence could probably veto things anyway, so I am not sure whether the choice of perspective would make much practical difference to this issue.

There is a strong possibility that this perspective will produce goals that cannot, in practice, be achieved. “Daily matsuri with a dozen priests and four miko performing kagura would make the kami happy!” “We don’t even have one full-time priest.” However, this is true of any perspective. Doing things because they will make money does not guarantee that you will make money, for example. The gap between the ideal and the practical is something that everyone has to grapple with, and jinja are no exception.

I think this principle can be applied even if you do not believe in supernatural kami. Indeed, in the absence of direct communication from the kami, there is no real difference between “What would make our kami happy?” and “What would make a kami like the one that is believed to be ours happy, if such beings existed?”, as both rely on the priest using their imagination based on the same information.

Thus, I agree with Princess Akiko: the primary purpose of a jinja and its activities is to make the kami happy.

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.

4 thoughts on “For the Kami”

  1. Thank you for this article. If it’s available, where can I watch Princess Akiko’s speech?

    1. To the best of my knowledge, it isn’t online. The group does not usually publish videos of its events, and I do not see any sign on their website that they did so this time. Sorry about that.

  2. “about how she can do something useful with her life, despite being a member of the Imperial family”

    Ouch lol

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.