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Matsuri and Animal Welfare

The May 27th issue of Jinja Shinpō had a thought-provoking article about revisions to a centuries-old shinji (sacred rite). The rite in question was (and is) performed at Tado Taisha, a jinja in Mië Prefecture. It dates back to the fourteenth century, and involves people from the areas that were traditionally dedicated to supplying the jinja riding horses up a slope.

Before the changes, the slope was steep (about a 15 m rise over 100 m), and finished with a two metre wall, which the horse had to jump over. The horses would be ridden up, and the number that successfully completed the course indicated how good the harvest would be.

As with most such rites, it was suspended during the pandemic, and last year it was revived. Unfortunately, during the rite one of the horses broke bones (probably a leg, but the natural Japanese does not specify which bone), and was put down on a vet’s advice. This was picked up on social media, and there was a massive pile-on of animal welfare organisations accusing the jinja of animal abuse. As the rite was a Prefectural Intangible Folk Cultural Property, the prefecture came in for criticism as well, and the relevant committee told the jinja to fix the issue. I’m not sure whether that was hypocritical or necessary — I believe there are limits to the changes you can legally make to a registered folk cultural property, so it may be that this instruction was important legal cover for the jinja.

In any case, the jinja put together an independent committee to look at revising the rite, with experts in both matsuri and horses, which made recommendations that the jinja accepted. The slope has been made a bit less steep (although the photographs in Jinja Shinpō make it look fairly steep, even now) and the wall at the end has been removed. The riders receive advance training in how to treat the animals, and a vet is present on the day. Spectators are also required to be quiet, and not frighten the horses.

The rite was held under these conditions this year, and the article does not mention any complaints from outside the jinja, and so it seems that it went off smoothly. The chief priest and the main representative of the ujiko both affirmed that, while this was a change, it was just the sort of thing that happened to traditional customs.

However, some discontent from within the community was mentioned. One person was quoted, anonymously, as being unsure whether the current form is appropriate to a sacred rite. He may have a point. From the sounds of things, the changes ensure that all the horses will successfully complete the course, barring a completely unexpected accident. However, that makes it impossible to sensibly predict the harvest based on the number that succeed — they all do. If the divination was a central part of the rite, then something important has been lost, despite claims to the contrary.

It is important to note that horses did not normally die in this rite. As far as I can tell online, the 2023 incident was the first for years. Apart from anything else, horses were (and are) expensive, so a rite that regularly killed them would not have survived for centuries. I guess that most horses that failed balked at the wall, or refused to keep going up the hill, and were fine afterwards. Given that horse sashimi is still eaten in Japan, it is not obvious that the risk to the horses actually justifies changing the tradition. Nobody needs to eat horse meat, and so if preserving a culinary tradition (which is probably not that old) justifies the guaranteed death of horses, then it would seem that the preservation of a cultural tradition could justify a risk to horses. (Many of the original critics are probably vegetarian, and being entirely consistent.)

On the other hand, it is up to the jinja to decide these things, and if they decide that the divination aspect is not important, then it is not. There are a lot of examples of things that were originally quite risky being revised into entirely formal traditions. In another few decades, the rite at Tado Taisha might involve the horses walking quietly up the slope with children dressed as samurai on their backs.

This is a thought-provoking case because there was a really good reason to change the form of the rite — a horse died, after all. On the other hand, the rite has been quite fundamentally changed, so that it can no longer serve its ostensible purpose. This is a particularly stark form of the problem that all jinja face in adapting their matsuri and rites to contemporary realities. Everyone in the Shinto community agrees that you should preserve the fundamentals and change the incidentals, but that is no help in deciding what the fundamentals are.

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