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Japan shrine association rocked by key member's move to secede

A general view of the main shrine of Kotohira-gu is seen in Kagawa Prefecture on June 13, 2020. (Kyodo)

TAKAMATSU, Japan (Kyodo) -- An organization encompassing some 79,000 Shinto shrines in Japan has been rocked by a key member shrine declaring in June its intention to leave the body after years of distrust.

The Kotohira-gu shrine in Kagawa Prefecture, popularly referred to as Kompira-san, said in a statement dated June 5 that it will withdraw from the Association of Shinto Shrines, which directly names chief priests at major shrines and has offices in each prefecture.

Dedicated to sailors and seafaring and situated on a mountain, the centuries-old shrine is a major tourist draw in western Japan. Every year, millions of visitors climb its 785 steps to reach the main shrine and another 583 steps to the upper shrine.

The rift became irreparable after the association failed to provide the shrine with a "heihaku" cash offering in time for Emperor Naruhito's conducting of the Daijosai, a Shinto-style ceremony held once in an emperor's lifetime to pray for peace and abundant harvests, in November last year.

The special offering was supposed to be used for a rite that shrines across the country were requested by the association to hold on the same day as Daijosai. But the money, delivered through the association's regional offices, arrived at the Kagawa shrine only in late January.

"We can only think that it was an act of harassment against our shrine," said Yasutsugu Kotooka, 71, the chief priest.

Kotooka, who was prevented for a long period by the association from succeeding as chief priest when his father died in 1994, said a number of other incidents besides late receipt of the offering have fueled his distrust of the association.

He cited an incident in 2015 when the association was reported to be involved in the shady sale of an apartment building for employees. Two senior officials who blew the whistle were dismissed and demoted, respectively, by the association, leading them to file a lawsuit seeking to nullify the disciplinary action.

The association declined to comment on Kotohira-gu's departure or the real estate deal.

The association was founded in 1946 after the postwar Allied occupation ordered the disestablishment of Shinto as a state religion. The association considers Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture to be the most prominent shrine in Japan.

The religious corporation has been headed by Tsunekiyo Tanaka, the 76-year-old chief priest of the Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu shrine in Kyoto Prefecture, since 2010. He entered a rare fourth term in June last year.

Aside from Kotohira-gu, some other major shrines have been critical of the association, saying it has grown autocratic in recent years.

"After Mr. Tanaka assumed the presidency, we have seen more people coming in (to become regional top priests) from the association," said a source close to the Usa Jingu shrine in Oita Prefecture.

The association named a former executive as the shrine's chief priest in 2016, barring a woman from the family whose members have been serving as chief priest at the shrine by heredity from assuming the position. The move has prompted a group of shrine parishioners to collect signatures seeking removal of the former executive.

The Keta Taisha shrine in Ishikawa Prefecture, which formally broke away from the association in 2010 after a legal battle that ended with a Supreme Court ruling, was sympathetic toward Kotohira-gu.

"Shrines are deeply rooted in local communities. Centralization does not fit them," said chief priest Takahide Mitsui, 58.

An association insider admitted there are many more shrines that wish to leave the association, saying the association is now "losing its unifying power."

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