Shrine Merger (神社合祀)

Shrine Merger is a policy to consolidate shrines. It is also called shrine consolidation. Deities from several shrines were enshrined together in one shrine or transferred to the precinct of one shrine, and the rest of the shrines were abolished to reduce the total number of shrines. It mainly refers to the policy enforced in the end of the Meiji Period.

Shrine merger enforced before modern times

Shrine merger of the Okayama Domain
Shrine merger of the Mito Domain
Shrine merger of the Tsuwano Domain
Shrine merger in 1868

Shrine merger in the end of the Meiji Period
One purpose of the shrine merger was to reduce the total number of shrines and concentrate expenses to furnish the remaining shrines with facilities and properties that exceeded a certain standard. It supposed to maintain the dignity of shrines and establish sustainable management.
Another purpose was derived from the national principle that shrines were 'the nation's house of worship.'
In order to make local public entities spend public funds on shrines at lower shrine ranking, the total number of shrines had to be reduced to the amount that these entities' finance could afford.

This policy was led by Bureau of Shinto Shrines, Ministry of Interior, but it is said that the Bureau of Regional Affairs in the same ministry was also involved. The Bureau of Regional Affairs was negative about offering public funds from local public entities to prefectural and lower shrines, which was one of the purposes of a shrine merger, because it would be a further financial burden on these entities. In exchange for agreeing with this measure, however, the bureau included the core shrine theory in the shrine merger policy as part of local governance policy.

The core shrine theory is a concept that shrines should be at the core of local governance. With this theory, a criterion of one shrine per one town or village was applied to the shrine merger policy. By matching an area of shrine parishioners with an administrative district, it was intended to let the sole shrine in the town or village play a core role in regional activities.

Details of shrine merger
The imperial edict in 1906 advocated the shrine merger policy, and 70,000 out of approximately 200,000 shrines throughout the country were abolished by 1914. The policy affected Mie prefecture most severely; about 90% of the shrines in the prefecture were abolished. The policy was intensively enforced in Wakayama and Ehime prefectures as well. However, the enforcement of this policy was left to the discretion of the governor, so the extent of the enforcement varied from prefecture to prefecture. For instance, only about one out of ten shrines were abolished in Kyoto prefecture.

This shrine merger policy based on bureaucratic pragmatism did not necessarily reflect the will of shrine parishioners and worshippers. It was inevitable that a living community and an administrative district did not always match. By the merger, some ujigami (a guardian god or spirit of a particular place in the Shinto religion) were transferred far away from the residential area of shrine parishioners who couldn't visit the shrine anymore. Some shrines refused to be merged, but the merger was forced in some cases.

Movement against merger
Some shrine parishioners and worshippers held campaigns against the merger, but these did not result in a large-scale movement. All they could do was show their dissatisfaction by telling that ujigami of abolished shrines would curse those who carried out such acts.

Nonetheless, the shrine merger policy was gradually brought to an end by fierce opposition from intellectuals including Kumagusu MINAKATA, a natural historian and ethnologist known for his studies in slime mould. Due to the government's answers in the Imperial Diet, there seemed to be no intensive mergers after 1910. It was too late, however; too much damage had already been done by this merger policy. Many rites, festivals, and customs were lost, and people's religious faith were destroyed.

Restoration of merged shrines
Not a few of shrines that once had been merged were restored. Restoration was easier for the shrines that were nominally merged but their main building and other facilities remained. Generally, a shrine whose base of worship survived intact after the merger could be restored easily. On the other hand, a shrine tended not to be restored if its base of worship was a community that disappeared or changed due to reorganization of administrative districts or change of situation.