Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

How does the hierarchy among Shinto shrines work?

Over the centuries Shinto authorities have devised a number of structures and classifications by which to distinguish various levels and functions of shrines. The most important is called the “shrine-rank system” (shakaku seido) that has been in place since shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Jingu designates shrines of top rank under imperial auspices, such as Meiji Jingu, in Tokyo, which enshrines royal ancestors, and Ise Jingu, which is at the top of the hierarchy and is called the Daijingu, Grand Imperial Shrine. Next in rank are the approximately one hundred thousand jinja, a generic term including virtually all shrines larger than little wayside structures. About two hundred and fifty are included on a list of highest ranking ones. Of these some two hundred were designated prior to World War II as “governmental shrines” (kansha). Many larger jinja have spawned affiliated or branch shrines called bunsha. Multiple shrines dedicated to a single kami generally constitute distinct families, with one shrine usually acknowledged as the original foundation from which branch shrines developed.

Some very important jinja, such as Kasuga in Nara and about a dozen others, have the honorific title taisha, “grand shrine,” roughly equivalent to “cathedral basilica.” They are also part of a cluster of twenty-two (ni-ju-ni sha) institutions elevated to privileged status, but even they are divided into three levels: seven high, seven middle ranking, and eight lower. That grouping arose out of the practice of ranking shrines within a given region according to their order of priority on pilgrimage routes, or to guide devotees intent on visiting a sequence of holy places. In various prefectures, a further ranking of area shrines simply lists them as “first, second, or third” shrine, acknowledging the three regional shrines that draw the largest crowds of worshippers. A number of jinja (some count 138) have been specially designated as “nation-protecting shrines” (gokoku jinja) because of their dedication to the souls of those who died in battle. Twenty-seven shrines within that category, also called “deceased spirit-invoking shrines” (shokonsha), have been accorded a high rank because of the importance of the heroes from all periods of Japanese history that they commemorate. Tokyo’s Yasukuni Jinja ranks at the top of that category. Before 1945, countless smaller local memorials represented the bottom of this hierarchical category. The main central administration for the rating of shrines is called the Association of Shinto Shrines (jinja honcho), which has branches (called jinja cho) in each Japanese prefecture.


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