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Internal rift leaves high-level Japan Shinto post in limbo

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Association of Shinto Shrines at Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

The Association of Shinto Shrines, a religious organization that oversees about 78,000 Shinto shrines across the nation, has been rocked by internal wrangling over a top position, known as “Soucho.”

The appointment for the position has already been made, but the appointee has been unable to assume the post due to the internal opposition. This unusual situation has given rise to legal spats, and the Tokyo District Court is expected to issue a ruling on Thursday on a lawsuit filed by the appointee seeking confirmation of his status.

Disputed role

The Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honcho), founded in 1946, is a religious corporation in Tokyo. Its activities include providing education and training to Shinto priests and revitalizing shrines in rural regions.

“Touri,” the highest-ranking official, manages the association’s staff and promulgates rules and guidance. The current incumbent is Naotake Takatsukasa, 77, the adopted son of Emperor Showa’s third daughter, Kazuko. He assumed the position in 2018.

Soucho assists Touri and represents the association as a religious corporation. Tsunekiyo Tanaka, 78, has served four terms as Soucho totaling 12 years since 2010, the longest Soucho tenure in the organization’s history.

Tanaka is the chief priest of Iwashimizu Hachimangu shrine in Kyoto Prefecture and a powerful figure in the world of Shinto shrines.

According to the association and the lawsuit documents, at a board meeting in May, Takatsukasa appointed Takaho Ashihara, 70 — chief priest of Asahikawa jinja shrine in Hokkaido — as Tanaka’s successor. However, at a board meeting held the following month, nine of the 15 members in attendance voted to for Tanaka’s tenure to continue, leaving the Soucho role in limbo.

Ashihara claimed he was appointed by Takatsukasa, but the association countered by saying, “The next ‘Soucho’ hasn’t been decided, so in accordance with the rules, Tanaka will continue in the position.”

The association filed a provisional injunction with the Asahikawa District Court to confirm that Ashihara had not been appointed. After the Asahikawa District Court approved the injunction, Ashihara filed a counter suit to confirm his status as Soucho.

Point of contention

The lawsuit pivots around an interpretation of the association’s rule regarding the position of soucho. It states: “‘Soucho’ shall be appointed by ‘Touri’ from among the board members, after deliberation by the board.”

On Ashihara’s side, attorney Kenji Noda said, “‘Soucho’ is not bound by the result of the deliberation, as ‘Touri’ determines whom to appoint, with reference to the deliberations of the board.” Meanwhile on the association’s side, attorney Naofumi Ogawa said, “The result of the board’s deliberation is respected and a person who is rejected at the deliberation can’t assume the position of ‘Soucho.’”

The two sides’ arguments remain far apart.

According to an association official, the root of the conflict stems from a legal dispute between the association and former ranking officials of the association.

The spat began with a 2015 deal in which the association sold real estate. Two officials filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that top management deliberately sold the property at an unfairly low price to a vendor with whom they were close.

The officials were disciplined by the association for “seriously damaging trust.” The officials subsequently filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court demanding that the association rescind the disciplinary action.

A first and second trial ruled that the disciplinary action was invalid because “there were reasonable grounds to believe that misconduct had occurred, even if the breach of trust was not admitted.” The Supreme Court affirmed the decision in April — a negative outcome for the association.

Following the ruling, Takatsukasa expressed his intent to reform the way personnel were managed saying, “There’s a need to take responsibility.” However, Tanaka countered by saying, “The organization can’t hold [together] if we take responsibility just because we lost in court.”

Takanori Shintani, professor emeritus at the National Museum of Japanese History and an expert on shrine management, said: “It’s undesirable for the Jinja Honcho [association], which unites shrines that are the objects of faith, to continue to have disputes. It’s important to manage personnel fairly and regain people’s trust.”