Women’s entry into Shinto priesthood is on the rise

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

Women are entering another traditional, male-dominated field in Japan — the Shinto priesthood — at a slow but steadily increasing pace.

Nobuyo Otagaki, 43, is one pioneering female Shinto priest, making an unusual career shift from flight attendant. Otagaki was born into a Shinto shrine, Amagasaki Ebisu Shrine, in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, where her father was the chief priest. She later regretted her poor knowledge of Shinto when asked about it in a job interview.

After working as a flight attendant for six years, Otagaki studied Shintoism and obtained a qualification to serve as a Shinto priest. In 2012, she succeeded her father as the chief priest of the Amagasaki shrine.

As the chief priest of a Shinto shrine in an urban area, “I would like to help increase the number of people who love the gods and festivals,” she said.

While more women are becoming Shinto priests, the number of chief priests at shrines is still limited. According to Jinja Honcho, the umbrella organ of Shinto shrines, there were 667 female chief priests at the end of 2012, or about 7 percent of all chief priests.

Mihoko Ishii, 58, is another female chief priest, serving at the Suwa Shrine in Nambu, Aomori Prefecture. She became a certified priest at the request of the people around her, after her chief-priest husband died.

“As I was a full-time housewife, I knew little about the shrine and so asked them ‘Why me?’ ” Ishii recalled.

When Ishii wonders if she can live up to expectations, she remembers the advice given to her by the late Izu Kudo, former head of Jinja Honcho: “All you have to do is to face the gods as you are, and you don’t have to feel timid because you are a woman.”