This article looks at the relationship between Shinto and the cause of Japanese nationalism.
Last updated 2009-09-17
This article looks at the relationship between Shinto and the cause of Japanese nationalism.
Shinto can't be separated from Japan and the Japanese, but in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Shinto became an established state religion, inextricably linked to the cause of Japanese nationalism.
Shinto legend tells that the emperors of Japan are descended in an unbroken line from the first Emperor, Jimmu Tenno, Amaterasu-Omikami's great-grandson. The native Japanese people themselves are descended from the kami who were present at the founding of Japan.
This story contains a very clear message that Japan is an old country, whose people are descended from the founding kami, and an Imperial family with an unbroken line of descent from Amaterasu herself. The Imperial family is older than the people of Japan, and descended from a kami of higher rank.
The political message of the story is that Japan is the way it should be, that its survival depends on maintaining the relationship between the Emperor and his people, and that the Emperor rules Japan because the gods want him to. Before the Meiji Restoration and the creation of State Shinto, this story was just one myth among many, and not something crucial to Japanese self-image.
In the 6th century Buddhism was imported into Japanese religious life and Buddhism and Shinto together began to play a part in Japanese government. The Emperor and court had to perform religious ceremonies to make sure that the kami looked after Japan and its people. A court liturgical calendar was developed.
Over the next few centuries Buddhist influence in government grew stronger. The 17th century was dominated by state-imposed Buddhism (with many Shinto elements) as a reaction against an outside threat posed by Christian missionaries.
Japanese civic religion in the 17th century still included elements of Confucianism, while popular religion consisted mainly of Buddhism and Shinto. There was a movement towards a purer Shinto during the next two centuries, culminating in the Meiji Restoration towards the end of the 19th century, when Shinto became the established religion of Japan for a time.
(See the general history article for a more detailed look at Shinto's coexistence with Buddhism.)
When Shinto was reconstructed in 1868 the Imperial legend was moved centre stage, and Amaterasu - who until then was only revered in parts of Japan - was promoted to be the most important of the gods, given a national role in the new system of state Shinto, and because of her new status, used to validate the role of the Emperor, not only as ruler, but as the high priest of Shinto.
This gave the Emperor, as her direct descendant, a divine right to rule not only Japan, but the whole world.
Furthermore, it became official doctrine that since the Japanese were descended from the gods, they were superior to all other races.
The political status of the Emperor changed and he became a powerful figure. Although he was required to respect the law of the land, he was in fact above it. Just how powerful the Emperor had become by the time of the mid 20th century is still a matter of great controversy, as it is crucial to determining the Emperor's personal responsibility for the Japanese military actions during the period.
Although the Meiji Constitution stated that:
Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief
Meiji Constitution, article 28
this promise of religious freedom did not do anything to reduce the dominance of State Shinto.
From then on, Japanese political, social, military and religious institutions centred themselves on the figure of the Emperor, who had now become an icon of everything good and pure and holy; the very essence and spirit of Japan. These ideas were also heavily promoted in Japanese schools.
These beliefs set the political and military course of Japan until 1946.
Shinto was dismantled as the state religion of Japan after the Second World War by 3 key documents:
The three documents parallel Shinto purification rituals, since their purpose is to restore purity and cleanliness to a once good religion that had been polluted by political action.
The first of these documents is one of the most powerful modern condemnations of the abuse of religion. The purpose of the Directive was not to destroy Shinto but to:
prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression
Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto, 1945
The restructuring of the Japanese education system was a key initiative in the religious reforms.
Although Shinto is no longer a state religion many Japanese still regard Shinto as the national religion, but post-war Shinto is very different from the pre-1946 version, having been cleansed of the political, nationalistic and militaristic elements that were included in State Shinto.
The present Japanese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in article 20:
Further protection of religious freedom is given in article 14 which forbids "discrimination in political, economic, or social relations because of ... creed", and article 19 which states that "freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated".
Article 89 adds further separation of religion and state:
No public money or other property shall be expended or appropriated for the use, benefit or maintenance of any religious institution or association, or for any charitable, educational or benevolent enterprises not under the control of public authority.
Japanese Constitution, article 89
Some elements of State Shinto still remain:
Orders from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers to the Japanese Government:
15 December 1945
MEMORANDUM FOR: Imperial Japanese Government
THROUGH: Central Liaison Office, Tokyo
SUBJECT: Abolition of Governmental Sponsorship, Support, Perpetuation, Control, and Dissemination of State Shinto
1. In order to free the Japanese people from direct or indirect compulsion to believe or profess to believe in a religion or cult officially designated by the state, and
In order to lift from the Japanese people the burden of compulsory financial support of an ideology which has contributed to their war guilt, defeat, suffering, privation, and present deplorable condition, and
In order to prevent recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression, and
In order to assist the Japanese people in a rededication of their national life to building a new Japan based upon ideals of perpetual peace and democracy,
It is hereby directed that:
a. The sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control, and dissemination of Shinto by the Japanese national, prefectual, and local governments, or by public officials, subordinates, and employees acting in their official capacity are prohibited and will cease immediately.
b. All financial support from public funds and all official affiliation with Shinto and Shinto shrines are prohibited and will cease immediately.
c. All propagation and dissemination of militaristic and ultra-nationistic ideology in Shinto doctrines, practices, rites, ceremonies, or observances, as well as in the doctrines, practices, rites, ceremonies and observances of any other religion, faith, sect, creed, or philosophy, are prohibited and will cease immediately.
d. The Religious Functions Order relating to the Grand Shrine of Ise and the Religious Functions Order relating to State and other Shrines will be annulled.
e. The Shrine Board of the Ministry of Home Affairs will be abolished, and its present functions, duties, and administrative obligations will not be assumed by any other governmental or tax-supported agency.
f. All public educational institutions whose primary function is either the investigation and dissemination of Shinto or the training of a Shinto priesthood will be abolished and their physical properties diverted to other uses. Their present functions, duties, and administrative obligations will not be assumed by any other governmental or tax-supported agency.
g. Private educational institutions for the investigation and dissemination of Shinto and for the training of priesthood for Shinto will be permitted and will operate with the same privileges and be subject to the same controls and restrictions as any other private educational institution having no affiliation with the government; in no case, however, will they receive support from public funds, and in no case will they propagate and disseminate militaristic and ultra-nationalistic ideology.
h. The dissemination of Shinto doctrines in any form and by any means in any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds is prohibited and will cease immediately.
1) All teachers' manuals and text-books now in use in any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds will be censored, and all Shinto doctrine will be deleted. No teachers' manual or text-book which is published in the future for use in such institutions will contain any Shinto doctrine.
2) No visits to Shinto shrines and no rites, practices, or ceremonies associated with Shinto will be conducted or sponsored by any educational institution supported wholly or in part by public funds.
i. Circulation by the government of "The Fundamental Principles of the National Structure", "The Way of the Subject", and all similar official volumes, commentaries, interpretations, or instructions on Shinto is prohibited.
j. The use in official writings of the terms "Greater East Asia War", "The Whole World under One Roof", and all other terms whose connotation in Japanese is inextricably connected with State Shinto, militarism, and ultra-nationalism is prohibited and will cease immediately.
k. God-shelves (kamidana) and all other physical symbols of State Shinto in any office, school institution, organization, or structure supported wholly or in part by public funds are prohibited and will be removed immediately.
l. No official, subordinate, employee, student, citizen, or resident of Japan will be discriminated against because of his failure to profess and believe in or participate in any practice, rite, ceremony, or observance of State Shinto or of any other religion.
m. No official of the national, prefectural, or local government, acting in his public capacity, will visit any shrine to report his assumption of office, to report on conditions of government, or to participate as a representative of government in any ceremony or observance.
2. a. The purpose of this directive is to separate religion from the state to prevent misuse of religion for political ends, and to put all religions, faiths, and creeds upon exactly the same legal basis, entitled to precisely the same opportunities and protection. It forbids affiliation with the government and the propagation and dissemination of militaristic and ultra-nationalistic ideology not only to Shinto but to the followers of all religions, faiths, sects, creeds, or philosophies.
b. The provisions of this directive will apply with equal force to all rites, practices, ceremonies, observances, beliefs, teachings, mythology, legends, philosophy, shrines, and physical symbols associated with Shinto.
c. The term State Shinto within the meaning of this directive will refer to that branch of Shinto which by official acts of the Japanese Government has been differentiated from the religion of Shrine Shinto and has been classified as a non-religious national cult commonly known as State Shinto or National Shinto.
d. The term Shrine Shinto will refer to that branch of Shinto which by popular belief, legal commentary, and the official acts of the Japanese Government has been recognized to be a religion.
e. Pursuant to the terms of Article I of the Basic Directive on "Removal of Restrictions on Political, Civil, and Religious Liberties" issued on 4 October 1945 by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in which the Japanese people were assured complete religious freedom,
(1) Shrine Shinto will enjoy the same protection as any other religion.
(2) Shrine Shinto, after having been divorced from the state and divested of its militaristic and ultra-nationalistic elements, will be recognized as a religion if its adherents so desire and will be granted the same protection as any other religion in so far as it may in fact be the philosophy or religion of Japanese individuals.
f. Militaristic and ultra-nationalistic ideology, as used in this directive, embraces those teachings, beliefs, and theories, which advocate or justify a mission on the part of Japan to extend its rule over other nations and peoples by reason of:
(1) The doctrine that the Emperor of Japan is superior to the heads of other states because of ancestry, descent, or special origin. (2) The doctrine that the people of Japan are superior to the people of other lands because of ancestry, descent, or special origin.
(3) The doctrine that the islands of Japan are superior to other lands because of divine or special origin.
(4) Any other doctrine which tends to delude the Japanese people into embarking upon wars of aggression or to glorify the use of force as an instrument for the settlement of disputes with other people.
3. The Imperial Japanese Government will submit a comprehensive report to this Headquarters not later than 15 March 1946 describing in detail all action taken to comply with all provisions of this directive.
4. All officials, subordinates and employees of the Japanese national prefectural, and local governments, all teachers and education officials and all citizens and residents of Japan will be held personally accountable for compliance with the spirit as well as the letter of all provisions of this directive.
For the Supreme Commander:
[Signed] H. W. Allen
Asst. Adjutant General
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.