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A kannushi (神主 "god master), also called shinshoku, is a person responsible for the maintenance of a Shinto shrine as well as for leading worship of a given kami. The characters for kannushi are sometimes also read as jinshu with the same meaning.
Originally, the kannushi were intermediaries between kami and could transmit their will to common humans. A kannushi was a man capable of miracles or a holy man who, because of his practice of purificatory rites, was able to work as a medium for a kami. Later the term evolved to being synonymous with shinshoku, that is, a man who works at a shrine and holds religious ceremonies there.
In ancient times, because of the overlap of political and religious power within a clan, it was the head of the clan who led the clansmen during religious functions, or else it could be another official. Later, the role evolved into a separate and more specialized form. The term appears in both the Kojiki (680 AD) and Nihon Shoki (720 AD). In them respectively, Empress Jingū and Emperor Sujin became kannushi.
Within the same shrine, for example at Ise Jingū or Ōmiwa Shrine, there can be different types of kannushi at the same time called for example Ō-kannushi, Sō-kannushi, or Gon-kannushi.
Kannushi can marry and their children usually inherit their position. Although this hereditary status is no longer legally granted, it continues in practice.
The clothes they wear, for example the jōe, the eboshi and the kariginu (see photos), do not have any special religious significance, but are simply official garments used in the past by the Imperial court. This detail reveals the close connection between kami worship and the figure of the Emperor. Other implements used by kannushi include a baton called shaku and a wand decorated with white paper streamers (shide) called ōnusa. Kannushi are assisted in their religious or clerical work by women called miko.
To become a kannushi, a novice must study at a university approved by the Association of Shinto Shrines , typically Tokyo's Kokugakuin University or Ise's Kogakkan University, or pass an exam that will certify his qualification. Women can also become kannushi and widows can succeed their husbands in their job.