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Rogue Speech

This year’s main meeting of the Oversight Council of Jinja Honchō was held on May 23rd and 24th, and reported in the June 3rd issue of Jinja Shinpō. If you have been following this blog for a while (or have read the other posts tagged with “Disputed Presidency”) you will know that this meeting used to be a boring, entirely formulaic rubber stamp for decisions made by the central bodies. Now, it… isn’t.

Jinja Honchō is formally led by the Chairman, but all the decisions are taken by the President, with the support of the Board of Directors. The Chairman and Directors are elected by the Oversight Council, and then, based on discussions in the Board of Directors, the Chairman appoints one of the Directors as President. This happens every three years (assuming I am remembering correctly), and historically has always been a dull formality.

However, a couple of years ago, the Board discussed, voted, and said that Revd Tanaka should be President (again). The Chairman then appointed Revd Ashihara. At this point, everything fell apart. Revd Tanaka had not been appointed president, but the question was whether Revd Ashihara had. If he hadn’t, then Revd Tanaka was still acting president until a new president was properly appointed. The Tanaka faction argued that the rules required a vote of the Board, while the Ashihara faction argued that they only required discussion. Revd Tanaka is acting as president, and the resulting lawsuit is currently before the Supreme Court — the lower courts ruled that a vote was necessary, so Revd Ashihara was not the president. “Lively debates” over this issue have dominated the twice-yearly meetings of the Oversight Council ever since. For more background, read the earlier posts.

These meetings open with a short speech from the Chairman which is traditionally, and even recently, an anodyne call for everyone to work together and make good decisions to support the traditions of Shinto. It is not supposed to include the statement that entrusting a problem that should be solved within Jinja Honchō to the courts is an abdication of responsibility that is further damaging trust in the organisation and storing up trouble for the future. Nor would he normally reiterate that he had appointed Revd Ashihara, or say that “it is my understanding that my judgement as Chairman, as the leader of a religious body, is not subject to interference by the courts, and as long as I am Chairman, this is not going to change”.

After that declaration of war, the guests of honour, and Revd Tanaka, made their conventional statements, which did not get reported in any detail in the paper. (Revd Tanaka’s summary of Jinja Honchō’s activities was printed in full, as normal, and was entirely conventional.) And then the discussions started. About the only new point that seems to have been raised was a complaint that some of the buttons used to indicate that a councillor wanted to speak were not working. Otherwise, people — generally the same people — were making arguments that have been made in the past. The article actually says “the meeting had descended into complete chaos, so the chairman ended the question session”.

The first day concluded with a discussion of the 2024 Noto Earthquake, which was a lot calmer because everyone agreed that the earthquake was bad and helping the victims was good.

The second day got back to fruitless discussions of the presidency, including another attempt to pass a resolution in the Oversight Council accepting the Chairman’s nomination. Once again, this was not put to a vote. There was an interesting exchange, in which one of the councillors expressed surprise at the content of the Chairman’s speech. The head of the secretariat responded that he was also surprised, because the Board of Directors had approved the text of the Chairman’s speech — and it had been completely different. Some people then speculated that someone must have slipped the Chairman an illegitimately revised version, a suggestion that the Chairman strongly rejected. (He didn’t actually say that he had deliberately gone off script, but I think this is the only sensible conclusion.)

This time, someone did observe that the officers are now two years into a three year term. There is a problem looming here, because the Chairman is traditionally elected by unanimous acclamation — and that is simply not going to be an option next time. I mean, they can try, but they are not going to get unanimous applause for anyone.

It is hard to avoid the impression that personal animosities are now driving the immediate problem, but it is also uncovering very important issues in Jinja Honchō. One is that the regulations need to be written more clearly, with better provision for what happens when people disagree. More fundamentally, there are different visions of Jinja Honchō in play here. On the one hand, it is a legal body, with legal responsibilities. On the other, it is a religious group, with religious commitments. On the gripping hand, it exists to support individual jinja, the priests at each of which see their vocation in slightly different terms. Jinja Honchō was formed in the immediate aftermath of WWII as an emergency stopgap measure, and has not been fundamentally reformed since, so it is hardly surprising that there are issues. Of course, now is not the right time to try to address them, because you need trust and mutual confidence within the organisation to allow people to discuss possible solutions freely.

While this might sound like a disaster, I would like to emphasise how little impact this dispute is having on the daily life of jinja, and even on the day-to-day work of Jinja Honchō. I was talking to a couple of priests from outside Tokyo after we had worked on a project together (through Jinja Honchō), and their engagement with the issue was at the level of “they have a problem, don’t they?”. Even so, I do hope that they manage to sort things out before next May.

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