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Tokyo shrine stabbing incident spotlights problems facing Shinto shrines nationwide

Tomioka Hachimangu shrine, where a double murder, suicide and assault occurred, is seen the following day on Dec. 8, 2017, in Tokyo's Koto Ward. (Mainichi)

The fatal stabbing incident at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine in Tokyo's Koto Ward on the evening of Dec. 7 that left three dead and one injured was seeped in the background of the affairs of chief priests. However, while Shinto shrines are a familiar staple of Japanese life, little is known about how priests are chosen or how the operation of a shrine is conducted.

The precise number of shrines scattered throughout Japan is actually unclear. While there are roughly 79,000 facilities nationwide that fall under the umbrella of the religious corporation Association of Shinto Shrines, there are an estimated 100,000 shrines, including small facilities that do not have a regular priest. Some believe this number to be closer to over 150,000. This means that shrines in Japan are more numerous than the country's 55,000 convenience stores.

The Association of Shinto Shrines considers Ise Jingu shrine in Mie Prefecture, which is home to the patron god of the Imperial Household, the goddess Amaterasu, as the most revered. The shrines under the association distribute protective talismans called "o-fuda" from Ise Jingu, and the profit made from their sales is sent back to the central shrine. The relationship between the association and member shrines can be imagined as the one between convenience store operators and their chain stores, in which the operator distributes products of manufacturers to stores under their umbrella and then the operators collect royalties on the profits. However, the association also has the authority to appoint who is in charge of shrines in its network. A personnel committee receives recommendations from a shrine and debates whether or not to appoint a person as the chief priest.

The Association of Shinto Shrines recognizes some 350 shrines as special locations due to distinguished history or size. Tomioka Hachimangu shrine was one such location. However, since the association would not recognize the late Nagako Tomioka, 58, as the chief priestess, the shrine left the association in September 2017. Usa Jingu shrine in Oita Prefecture and Keta Taisha shrine in Ishikawa Prefecture also disagreed with decisions made by the association including personnel choices, and it resulted in litigation.

There are also famous shrines that are not under the umbrella. Among them are Nikko Toshogu shrine in Tochigi Prefecture and Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo mistakenly referred to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko as "Imperial Highnesses," a term used for princes and princesses, rather than "Majesties," the term appropriate to their position, in a pamphlet for a special ceremony, causing trouble with the association. The shrine left in 2004, but returned to the association in 2010.

"The Association of Shinto Shrines has many restrictions on shrines under its control, such as hiring policies," said religious studies author Hiromi Shimada. "If a shrine can afford to leave, it's not a problem, but many small shrines in depopulated areas have no choice but to rely on the organization for things like maintaining personnel."

The main source of income for shrines comes from small coinage used as donations when worshipers visit the grounds and payment for other religious ceremonies. Some shrines also operate parking areas. However, the majority are facing a lack of staff and funds due to the population decline.

According to a survey carried out in 2016 by the association of all member shrines, only roughly 2 percent brought in annual revenue over 100 million yen. In contrast, over 60 percent of shrines made less than 3 million yen a year. Shrines that had a chief priest in line to succeed the current one also hovered a little over 60 percent.

In sparsely populated areas, it is not uncommon to have a chief priest who has multiple unrelated jobs or chief priests that manage multiple shrines. Some figures predict that by 2040, roughly 40 percent of Japan's shrines run the risk of closing down completely. "The world of Shinto shrines is an extremely stratified society," said the editor of magazine "Shukyo Mondai" (Religious issues), Kandai Ogawa. "Most chief priests don't make any money."

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