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How Japanese Women Saved Shinto

A Shinto priest explains the ancient Japanese religion – and the crucial, often forgotten role women played in keeping it alive after World War II.

How Japanese Women Saved Shinto
Credit: Pixabay

In front of the giant torii, the entrance to Japanese Shinto shrines, most visitors are overwhelmed with awe. These enigmatic places of worship seem to conceal the utmost secrets in their interiors.

What exactly is Shinto, the native Japanese religion honored by these shrines? Very few can come up with a satisfactory answer.

Even fewer are probably aware of how crucial women were to carrying on the Shinto tradition to the present day.

In view of the Ohoshi Matsuri, a sacred festival, I had the privilege – more unique than rare for a foreigner – to reside for a week in the house next to the ancient Tsumori Jingu shrine in Kumamoto, one of the oldest shrines in the region It’s located on the island of Kyushu, a land of volcanoes and natural hot springs.

The name of the shrine’s priest (guuji) is Kai-san and he’s been guarding the sacred house for over 30 years now.

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“Shinto is so much part of the life of a Japanese that many do not even realize that they have a religion,” he says when I inquire about the meaning of this religion, so ineffable that everyone, even locals, finds it hard to define.

Its deities? The wind, the lightning, the sky. They range from Mount Fuji to the big sugi trees. Kai-san assures me that “in the land of the 8 million gods (yaoyorozu in Japanese) they come in all kinds of shapes and forms.”

In one of the most extreme examples, the deity to awaken sexual life is located in Chiba, and is a phallic trunk with all the details of a hyper-realistic modern sculpture.

At the beginning of the last century, religion and state worship were indistinguishable entities, embodied by the Emperor. Today many wonder to what extent Shinto still affects the current politics.

It has “little” impact, “and only for the things that really threaten the tradition,” Kai-san answers.

In short, the Shinto hierarchy makes no appeals against abortion or euthanasia (a common practice for other faiths) as these concepts are simply too modern. Unlike Christianity, the Shinto faith does not live on creeds and dogmas. The priestly hierarchies find meaning and orientation in tradition.

But when talk arises, as happened two years ago after Emperor Akihito’s abdication, of the possibility of a woman sitting on the Chrysanthemum Throne, the Shinto authorities feel that the tradition is being challenged. We should expect to see this dispute reemerge in the coming years. By tradition, imperial succession follows the male line, but according to scholars there is nothing in the Japanese Constitution itself that forbids females from ascending to the throne.

Such objections are a bit ironic, given that Shinto itself owes a great deal of its modern persistence to women. After post-war reforms that separated state and religion, the Shinto priests decreed something nothing short of revolutionary: They allowed women to officiate functions. It had never happened before.

The novelty was dictated by a practical need. The priests, who before the war could count on a regular salary – they were, as a matter of fact, regular public employees, given Shinto’s status as the state religion – suddenly found themselves without an income. They had to reinvent a profession for themselves. Some became shokunin (craftsmen) and others teachers. Some even filled the position of blue collar workers in the then-booming construction industry.

So who was left to “guard” the sacred houses? Women. Some were the wives of the previous priests and some were their daughters, while others accessed the profession anew.

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“It was indeed a real revolution, if we consider that the resistance from part of the hierarchy was considerable back then,” Kai-san says. “Just look at how Catholics still today fiercely oppose the ordination of women.”

It was said that women were “dirty,” not fit to be priests. The old taboo around menstruation, “the evil spirit,” was quite vivid at the time.

Immediately after the war, many devotees, and perhaps some still today, refused services if they found women officiating instead of men.

Just like in the West, women after World War II were far from being fully emancipated. Among older folks today many still have the stubborn habit of calling their wife kanai, literally “the one who is inside the house” – as if there is no need to dignify them with the use of a given name.

Yet if it wasn’t for the kanai, the modern fate of Shinto could have been very different.

“Women stepped in to manage the shrines still while performing heavy house chores and looking after the children,” Kai-san points out. “Had that not happened many shrines would have been extinct today, and Shinto itself perhaps a faint reminiscence of the past.”

That’s not hard to envision. Already, due to Japan’s plunging birthrate, many shrines have been simply abandoned in the past few years.

What do Shinto priests actually do? Defining a guuji as the person responsible for officiating functions at a Shinto shrine is nothing short of an understatement. Kai-san, for example, has to beat the drum, stamp notebooks, write dedications by hand, bless cars, clean up the honden (the sacred area), cut bamboo, and even take souvenir photos of visiting families.

And how much does all this work earn him? “It all depends on the offers generated from the devotees,” he says. Part of the donations will flow into the coffers of the sanctuary agency, which is basically the administrative office located in every prefecture.

Every shrine agency keeps the various priests updated – not through emails or digital devices, but the old-fashioned way, through newspapers and magazines.

There are currently 80,000 Shinto shrines in total, that is one for every 1,500 inhabitants of Japan. That is expected to decline due to the demographic downtrend, as shrines will be merged with the neighboring ones. But they will not be put to secular use, unlike deconsecrated churches in the West, which have been converted into hotels or pubs. If the legal registration of the sanctuary expires, they will be abandoned and no one will dare to touch them; they still remain sacred places.

As is the mikoshi, commonly known as the “house of the divinity” that the priest shows me with the utmost care. It’s a heavy wooden palanquin that is safely parked in the most concealed place of the shrine.

What does it carry?

“It is the deity itself. In the form of a mirror, but it depends on the area,” Kai-san says. “It may well be that many years ago it was a stone or even a tree branch. Nobody really knows for sure.”

But we know with certainty that the local sacred festival, Ohoshi Matsuri, has been going on for more than 600 years. This festival consists of a crowd of young local people carrying the mikoshi around the neighborhood on their shoulders, shouting “the kamisama (deity) has arrived!” Then the deity, sheltered by thick curtains and amid dances and the sounds of flutes and drums, will be delivered to the next town. Here it will provide protection to its residents for another year before it will be passed on to the next village, so keeping the tradition and the faith alive.

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And it’s very possible that none of this would still be occurring today if it wasn’t for the essential contribution from the same women who were consigned to live their lives under the anonymous label of kanai.