Female Shinto Priest
Left: Newly appointed Shinto Priest, Hiroko Takayama, stands in front of the shrine where she worships, Dazaifu Tenmangu. Right: Shinto Shrine Dazaifu Tenmangu, built in 905.

A former 35-year-old IT professional from Fukuoka took a 180-degree turn in her career. Today, Hiroko Takayama, an outgoing cheerleading student who worked as a sales representative for a foreign information technology company, is a priest for Japan’s native religion of Shinto.

It’s Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine’s first female priest in 16 years, bringing the total number of priests to 40. The Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine was dedicated to the Heian Period cultural figure Sugawara no Michazane (845 – 903). Michazane was well-known for being the patron of scholarship.

Takayama had family who owned a shrine so she grew up hearing all the Shinto prayers and attended the festival processions as a sacred child. And, although she’s viewed shrines as her spiritual home, she never really thought much about being a Shinto priest until recently.

She attended Waseda University in Tokyo and became a cheerleader. Upon graduation, she was employed as head of sales for a foreign information technology company. However, upon the sudden death of her uncle in 2009, her priorities shifted.

Takayama took a leave of absence from her job and began the one-month training to become a Shinto priest at the Kokugakuin University. She did go back to her job temporarily despite her Shinto passion.

Her passion never wavered, and it wasn’t long before she found a job at another foreign firm that would allow her to take a one-year Shinto course at the university. She studied the history of Shinto and its ceremony style, and interned at both the Meji Jingu and Ise Jingu shrines. It was then Takayama said she believed this is what she wanted to do in life.

She was still a student when given the title “seikai”, which is a mid-rank of a Shinto priest. And, before she graduated from her university, she had secured a spot at the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine.

Takayama’s job is similar to the male colleagues, only for night duty. She said she generally stays late and will come to work around 5:30 a.m. Still, there are some shrine rituals that women are not permitted to carry out.

While the doors are still opening up to women in the Shinto religion, based on information from the Association of Shinto Shrines, there are just 3,000 females working in them.

Takayama said every shrine has its tradition and maintaining that tradition is important. She said her goal is to work as a priest, not a female priest.

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