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Government Support for Matsuri

The front page of the May 20th issue of Jinja Shinpō had an article about government subsidies for matsuri in Ibaraki Prefecture. This is the first example that they are aware of, nationwide, and it is significant because of the legal obstacles to government support for anything that might be described as religious, even when it is also an important part of traditional culture and threatened by social changes.

The support has several conditions:

The tradition must be passed on within the prefecture, be carried on by local society or a preservation committee, and include a “sairei”, which means a religious-type matsuri.

The tradition must date from the early modern period or earlier, and have a continuous tradition to the present. (The early modern period is normally taken to end in 1868, the date of the Meiji Revolution, and the standard date for the beginning of Modern Japan. You can argue five or ten years either way, but this is certainly about right. I guess that they do not anticipate supporting things that started after 1850, but they have some flexibility.)

The tradition must include something designated as a national or prefectural intangible folk cultural property. There are a few formal designations that qualify.

The tradition must normally draw a substantial number of people (10,000 or more) from outside the immediate area, so that it has potential for revitalising local society.

The grants are substantial — millions of yen, which means tens of thousands of dollars. This is the sort of grant that could make a critical difference to a matsuri’s survival, by allowing the group to restore and replace the items used in the matsuri. The last two requirements mean that I would expect this programme to survive a legal challenge, and the first two provide good reasons for backing “religious” events. The aim is to preserve the traditions of the area, and those traditions are associated with “religions”. (Lots of scare quotes, because the applicability of the term to Shinto is debatable.) Note that the first condition appears to require that the event is not directly run by a religious institution. This is unlikely to be a problem, because, for practical reasons, the management of matsuri with over 10,000 people is almost always handled by a separate committee that is formally independent of the jinja (or temple, in some cases). Relations with the jinja seem to be harmonious in most cases. At least, I am not aware of any major public disputes. I am sure there are minor disagreements all the time.

I suspect that we will see more moves like this at a local level, especially now that there is a precedent. People want to preserve their actual local traditions, even if those traditions are categorised as religious, and some of those people get elected to local government bodies. Japan has a long (post-war) tradition of active government support for traditions, whether craft or artistic (I was just reading that the UK is about to introduce a system similar to the one that Japan has had for decades), and so it makes sense to extend that to folk customs. The fact that most folk customs are associated with “religion” has made that legally difficult, but people seem to be more relaxed about this now.

In any case, this is important news for the Shinto community, and thoroughly deserves space on the front page.

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