Priesthood: Shintō Priesthood

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The term shinshoku ("Shintō priesthood") is used in modern Japan to refer to those persons serving at shrines in the performance of various religious duties. Prior to the Meiji period (18681912) no uniform organization existed within the Shintō priesthood, with the result that clerical titles and functions varied widely depending on the period and shrine involved.

Clerical Titles

Religious titles in use since premodern times include the following:


Saishu (supreme priest/priestess). The saishu is highest-ranking priest at the Grand Shrine of Ise, in charge of all ceremonials and administration relating to the shrine. In the early historical period, the post was filled by a member of the Nakatomi family from the central government's Bureau of Kami (jingikan ), but after the mid-sixteenth century, the post became a hereditary office of the Fujinami branch of the Nakatomi family. From the Meiji Restoration (1868) to the end of World War II, the post was held by a male member of the imperial family, and by a female member thereafter.


Kuni no miyatsuko (provincial governor). Originally holding joing political and relgious office, these persons were restricted primarily to ritual functions following the Taika Reforms (645).


Gūji (chief priest). Originally, gūji was an admistrative official with a status superior to other clerical ranks who held responsibility for construction and finance at the largest of shrines. Depending on the status of the shrine, a supreme chief priest (daigūji ) might have placed under him a junior chief priest (shōgūji ) or associate chief priest (gongūji ). At present, the gūji holds joint responsibility for all administrative and ceremonial functions within a shrine.


Kannushi (master of divinities). This title refers to the priest holding chief responsibility for a shrine and the role of central officiant in divine ritual. In later times, the term came to be used as an overall synonym for members of the Shintō priesthood.


Negi (senior priest). Deriving from the old Japanese word for "entreat" (negai ), the title negi referred to priests primarily engaged in addressing prayers and general worship to the deities. The term later came to indicate a post directly subordinate in rank to the kannushi of a shrine, and was also used as a general synonym for members of the priesthood. At present, it refers to a clerical rank subordinate to gūji.


Hafuri or hafuribe (liturgist). One of the oldest titles within the Shintō priesthood, this term was used variously to refer to a specific priestly office next in rank to kannushi and negi, or as a general application for members of the priesthood, a usage it retains today among the common people.


Tayū. Formerly an honorific title given to middle-grade government officials, this term later came to be used as a general title for Shintō priests, in particular those religiosi serving the Grand Shrine of Ise. It is still used among the common people as a general name for Shintō clerics.


Jinin (divine attendant). Formerly, jinin were low-ranking functionaries of shrines, entrusted with miscellaneous duties.


Tōya. A lay member of a local parish organization (miyaza ), selected from qualified parish members to serve for a specific period as ritualist for the parish shrine. Still widely seen in villages around the Kyoto-Osaka area, the custom of selecting a shrine tōya from the lay community on a rotating yearly basis was apparently a general practice for shrine organizations in premodern periods. With the development of a specialized priesthood, the post has changed in many areas into that of a lower-ranking, part-time priest, or a lay role requiring its incumbent to serve only on certain ceremonial occasions.


Shasō. The shasō were Buddhist clerics serving at shrines as part of the historical phenomenon known as the harmonization of Shintō and Buddhism (shinbutsu shūgō ). Depending on the shrine, such priests were given a wide variety of titles, but the practice ceased after 1868 with the governmental policy enforcing the separation of Shintō and Buddhism.

Women held high ceremonial positions within early Shintō, but they were gradually relegated to roles assisting the male members of the priesthood. The following are representative of roles for females serving at shrines in the premodern period:


Saigū or saiō (supreme priestess). A saigū was an unmarried imperial princess sent as the emperor's representative to the Grand Shrine of Ise. The practice continued until the early fourteenth century.


Saiin (high priestess). A saiin was an unmarried imperial princess sent to serve at the Kamo Shrine in Kyoto, following the custom practiced at Ise. The practice continued until the twelfth century.


Mikannagi (priestess). This was a general term for young girls aged seven to eight, selected from the daughters of kuni no miyatsuko to attend the deities served by priests from the government Bureau of Kami.


Monoimi (abstainer). Monoimi were young girls selected from among daughters of the shrine clergy to lead lives of exceptional ritual purity. Incumbents could be found at many of the great shrines under various titles.


Miko. The term miko is a general title designating female attendants serving at shrines. Formerly ranking below kannushi, negi, and hafuri as regular members of the priesthood, miko at present serve exclusively in supplementary roles, often as sacred dancers.

In addition to the foregoing, numerous other terms have been used as general referents for the Shintō clergy, including shake, shanin, shashi, and shikan. Individual shrines might also make use of a variety of special titles to refer to specific clerical ranks, such as uchibito, tone, tanamori, gyōji, azukari, and oshi. In the ancient period, political administrators simultaneously served as ceremonial officiants; there was no independent, professional clergy. For example, the leader of a clan (uji no kami ) would lead his kinship group in ritual worship of the clan deity. With time, these two roles became specialized, and as professional clerics became more numerous the tendency was strong for such individuals to pass their religious profession on to their descendants.

The ShintŌ Priesthood from 1868 to 1945

Following the collapse of the Tokugawa regime in 1868, the authorities of the new Meiji government revived the ancient concept of saisei-itchi (unity of worship and rule), thus placing all shrines and members of the Shintō priesthood under direct government control. Because shrines and priests were thus considered to belong within the public domain, a comprehensive national ordering of shrines and priests was instituted to replace the non-unified ranks, duties, numbers of staff, statuses, and remuneration that had previously existed independently from shrine to shrine.

Under this system, priests of the Grand Shrine of Ise were given the outright status of national officials, with the special title shinkan (divine official); the titles and complement of clergy at Ise included one saishu, one daigūji, one shōgūji, eleven negi, twenty gonnegi (associate negi ), forty kujō (lower-ranking priests), and others. Because the saishu was to offer worship in place of the emperor, a member of the imperial family was appointed to the post. The daigūji was under the direction and supervision of the Minister of Home Affairs, assisting the saishu in matters of ceremonial, and exercising overall control and management of other priests. The shōgūji allotted administrative duties and acted as a ceremonial assistant to the daigūji. Together, these three priests directed the activities of negi and other lower-ranking priests in the various ceremonies and administrative responsibilities of the shrine.

Imperial shrines (kanpeisha ), and national shrines (kokuheisha ) were divided respectively into three classifications based on size, and the priests of these shrines were treated as quasi-government employees (junkanri ) appointed under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Home Affairs and local magistrates. (The only exception was the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo; the ministers of the army and navy had the power of appointment for the priests of this shrine.)

These shrines were allotted one gūji, one gongūji (limited to six major shrines including the Atsuta Jingū), in addition to one negi, one or two shuten (lower-ranking priests), and (at Atsuta only) up to thirteen kujō; these priests were responsible for all ceremonial and administrative functions at their respective shrines.

Smaller shrines at the level of fu (urban prefecture), ken (prefecture) and gō (district) were allotted one shashi and several shasho, while village shrines (sonsha ) and unranked shrines (mukakusha ) were staffed by several shashō, who were responsible for all ceremonial and administrative functions. Shashi and shashō were priests of low rank, selected by local magistrates from among candidates recommended by lay leaders of the parish. These priests were also treated as quasi officials of the national government.

Individuals selected for these various priestly ranks were required to be males over the age of twenty who had either passed a qualifying examination or had received an education preparing them for the priesthood at an approved educational institution. No provisions were made for female members of the clergy.

The Priesthood since 1945

Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Occupation authorities abolished the system of national shrine control and disestablished priests from their previous status as public officials. Shrines were given the same treatment as other religious bodies; their chief priests were allowed to exist as religious judicial persons. In February 1946 the Jinja Honchō (Association of Shintō Shrines) was established in Tokyo as an administrative organ to oversee the activities of shrines; with the exception of a few choosing independent status, the majority of Shintō shrines in Japan became members of the association. As a result, the majority of priests at present are appointed in accordance with the regulations of the Jinja Honchō. As of December 31,1983, the number of priests included within the association was 19,810, including 1,306 (6.6 percent) women.

Depending on the size and status of the shrine, the complement of priests may include a gūji, gongūji (generally one only), a negi (usually one), and several gonnegi. With a status equivalent to chief director for a religious judicial person, the gūji must be above twenty years of age and is appointed by the president of the Jinja Honchō on the basis of recommendations from lay representatives of the organization. While the gūji has authority to set the number of negi at his shrine, the approval of the president of the association is required for the appointment of a shrine's gongūji.

Requirements for individuals appointed as priests include a specialized education, general learning, and training at shrines. Qualifications are divided into five levels and are acquired by passing a qualifying examination or by graduating from an accredited Shintō institution with training for the priesthood. Once appointed, priests are ranked in six grades, based on their qualifications, performance, and years of service, and these grades are reflected in the formal costume worn on ceremonial occasions. With a uniquely revered position among Shintō shrines, the Grand Shrine of Ise maintains an independent system of clergy, based on the tradition followed previous to World War II.

Members of the Shintō priesthood not only serve in the performance of formal shrine rituals but also bear responsibility for such administrative tasks as the upkeep and management of shrine facilities and finances. While Shintō ceremonial places heavy emphasis on ritual purification (saikai ), priests are also expected to display a personal culture and character in their everyday lives consonant with their traditional role as protectors of the faith and leaders in community worship. Since the end of World War II, a strong need has been felt for the active involvement of priests in proselytizing activities among the parish and community of believers, and great expectations are placed on them as well for activities in the areas of social welfare and education.

See Also



Few references specifically relating to the Shintō priesthood are available in English, although some information may be gleaned from the articles included within Basic Terms of Shintō (Tokyo, 1958), compiled by the Shintō Committee for the Ninth International Congress for the History of Religions. Among works in the Japanese language, the Shintō daijiten, 3 vols. (Tokyo, 19371940), represents the most comprehensive dictionary of Shintō yet printed and includes several articles relating to the Shintō priesthood. Quotations from historical sources regarding the titles, functions, and qualifications of Shintō priests can be found listed topically in the section "Shinshoku" ("Jingi-bu": 4546) of the Koji ruien (1898; reprint, Tokyo, 1967). Basic issues relating to the Shintō priesthood are treated by Ono Motonori (Sokyō) in his Shintō no kiso chishiki to kiso mondai (Tokyo, 1964), pp. 472553, while the historical development of the priesthood is particularly emphasized by Umeda Yoshihiko and Okada Yoneo in their article "Shinshoku," in Shintō yōgoshū, saishi-hen, vol. 2 (Tokyo, 1976), compiled by the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics at Kokugakuin University.

New Sources

Breen, John, and Mark Teeuwen, eds. Shinto in History: Ways of the Kami. Honolulu, 2000.

Hardacre, Helen. Shinto and the State, 18681988. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Kurozumi, Tadaaki. The Opening Way: Kurozumi Munetada, Founder of Kurozumikyo. Lanham, Md., 1994.

Kurozumi, Tadaaki. Kyososama no Goitsuwa: The Living Way, Stories of Kurozumi Munetada, a Shinto Follower. Walnut Creek, Calif, 2000.

Littleton, S. Scott. Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. New York, 2002.

Toki Masanori (1987)

Translated from Japanese by Norman Havens
Revised Bibliography