Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Have women exercised leadership among Shinto practitioners?

In ancient times, women played an indispensable role as shamans in countless Shinto shrines. Even after imperial decrees reduced women’s roles in shrine life, giving precedence to a male priesthood, women continued to fill some key positions. Well into the sixteenth century, for example, women functioned as priestesses in some shrines. The last of the priestesses was a young woman serving the Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki. Women have long acted as spirit mediums consulted by many a priest over the centuries, as well as by individual worshippers. Restrictive legislation arising from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 dramatically curtailed women’s official participation in shrine staff ministries. Only at the Ise Grand Shrine, sacred to the sun goddess Amaterasu, does a woman currently hold the position of high priestess. During the Second World War, many women took over priestly functions when their husbands departed for military service.


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