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Table of ContentsWhat shintô Doesn't Haveminzoku shintô as a Valid Branch

minzoku shintô as a Valid Branch – 08 / 30 / 2012
There is a tendency, among the many of the essentialists, towards dismissing the minzoku shintô branch as somehow being "inferior" to whichever particular brand of religion they're promoting – even if that is another branch of shintô. Here are some quotes taken from the internet; these are representive of most of the websites that talk about shintô.
"minzoku shinto or Folk shinto isn't, technically, a separate branch of the shinto tree as it has no formal central organization or creed."
"Folk shinto is a shinto faith which was customarily practiced by common people without being systematized. Thus it is inseparable from the Shrine shinto."
"Folk shinto (minzoku-shinto) includes the numerous but fragmented folk beliefs in deities and spirits."
"Finally, there is the minzoku shinto, or the Folk shinto. This is not truly a separate form of shinto... instead, it is merely the beliefs and practices of the commoners, who simply followed their beliefs and never took the time to organize them into a separate system of worship. Folk shinto cannot truly be separated from Jinja shinto..."
"(minzoku shinto) is not a separate shinto group; it has no formal central organization or creed."
"minzoku shinto is a strain of popular Japanese beliefs and is closely linked to other types of shinto. It lacks a formal organizational structure and formulated doctrine, but is based on the veneration of small idols by the roadside and the farming rituals of rural families. These three variants are interrelated: popular shinto exists as a substructure of the shinto faith, as the follower of sect shinto is usually a parishioner (ujiko) of a particular sanctuary."
One gets the impression that because minzoku shintô isn't formalized, organized, or documented; it either isn't "real" or must exist as a subset of a "real" branch – Shrine or jinja shintô. This is an interesting bit of essentialist mis-information. If we look at the data, a case can be made that in reality, jinja shintô is actually a subset of minzoku shintô.
  • Number of people in Japan: 130 million
  • Number that engage in shintô practices: 100 - 105 million
  • Number that declare themselves to be shintôist: 4 million
  • Number of shintô shrines: 80 - 100 thousand
  • Number of shintô priests: 20 thousand
A little explanation of the numbers from the top down. These are all rounded off. The number of people engaging in shintô practices includes those visit a shrine on New Years or bring their children to participate in a shrine overseen rite of passage, but also include those who have kamidana or butsudan in their home, or who obtain ofuda or omamori, or who see a fortune-teller. Generally speaking, the Japanese people see no problem in engaging in the practices of multiple religions and usually don't think of themselves as belonging to just one. Also they don't include shintô in the category of religion because it doesn't have dogma or creed. The shrines are mostly supported by contributions and sales to the people attending a shrine. Attendence in shrine rituals and events is voluntary. By tradition, shrines list everyone born within the area they administer to, as being a member of that particular shrine, whether or not the people actually considers themself to be a member. Most shrines do not have permanent priests stationed at them, but rather are erected and supported by the surrounding community, with community members performing rituals and doing daily maintenance. The major shrines have multiple priests in residence, so there are even fewer available to attend to the smaller shrines.
What this boils down to is that:
1) the vast majority of Japanese engage in shintô practices (minzoku shintô);
2) the vast majority of those people don't think of shintô as a religion to belong to, but rather as practices to engage in (minzoku shintô);
3) the shrines and their priests are not necessary for many of these practices (minzoku shintô);
4) many shrines are controlled by the local community not the priests (minzoku shintô);
5) even the largest of the shrines and their priests are voluntarily attended and supported by shintô practitioners;
6) the set of kami honored by individual practioners varies, and while usually including the set honored in the local shrine, is not limited to that set (minzoku shintô).
All of this makes the idea that minzoku shintô is just a part of jinja shintô seem like a case of the "tail trying to way the dog". minzoku shintô, while readily using what the shrines offer, exists not only as a branch of shintô, but most likely as the largest branch, if not the trunk, of the shintô tree.

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