The Meiji Restoration
Shinto & the State


What is “modernity”...
& how does it relate to “tradition”?

Unfortunately, there remains a lack of consensus about the exact dimensions of the modern, although most commentators agree about the kinds of symptoms that we should be able to use to diagnose it. A society might be considered modern, for instance, if it exhibits signs of industrialization and urbanization. An economic system might be modern if it boasts a market economy organized according to capitalist principles. A modern political system should be organized around a central nation-state, supported by popular nationalism, and a representative system of government (perhaps a democracty) that gives voice to the will of the people. This political system rests upon a so-called ‘modern consciousness’ that involves an awareness of the dignity of individuals and their inalienable rights. It supposes a level literacy and access to information (via education and the public sphere) that enables people to make rational choices about their best interests. This emphasis on rationality is foundational: the modern era is held to be characterized by reason rather than superstition (or perhaps religion) and by the development of science and technology — the mechanization of society. Modern man holds the technological power to attempt to control nature, to unleash destructive weapons, and to save lives through modern medicine. Industrial machines make the world smaller and provide the conditions of the possibility of a meaningully global world: the train is the pervasive harbinger of modern times. (Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction, 8)

When did Japan become “modern”?

Will the “Real” Commodore Perry
Please Stand Up!!!

The Meiji Restoration
& the Rise of Nationalism

From ancient times the Japanese people had a general sense of collective unity, but through most of Japanese history, especially in the medieval feudal setting, individuals and groups identified themselves more as belonging to a specific geographical region and to a particular social unit (such as a feudal domain). After 1868, the new governments main priority was to establish a much stronger national identity, which required the refashioning of individual identity as citizens within a nation-state. Much of Japanese history from 1868 to 1945 is the story of the creation of the nation-state and the rationale of nationalism to support it. ...
“The sense of nation, of being Japanese, was transmitted to the whole of the kokumin [citizens, countrymen] for the first time in the Meiji period and is not much diminished today.” (Religion in Japan, 196, cf. IJR, 190)
Was the Meiji Restoration a religious event? That depends on how one regards the role of religion in human life. It is possible to consider changes in religious consciousness as fundamental, deep-level motors in history. One can also argue for rivalry over economic or political power as the real force, and say religious partisanship is no more than a mask, or after-the-fact rationalization, for such very human drives. Or it may be, as is more likely, that history is fueled by a complex mixture of faith and fortune-hunting, and moreover that the engine driving each individual “player” may run on a different ratio of these energies. (IJR, 188)
The Meiji Restoration’s major policy toward religion was the attempt to purify Shinto shrines and the Shinto priesthood from Buddhist influence. ... The goal was to return to the ancient period, an ideal age when (Kokugaku advocates claimed) Shinto (especially the emperor through his rites) had played a prominent role in government. ... Accordingly, in 1868 Shinto was proclaimed the sole basis of the government, which embarked upon an ambitious project designed both to make such ancient purity possible and to discredit the combinatory ideas that had allowed the Tokugawa to usurp imperial power.” A series of edicts ordered both the separation of kami from Buddhas, and the purification of all shrines of the kami ... by decreeing the laicization of the priests with Buddhist credentials ... who served at them. ...
Not only did the emperor become the head of the state but also there was established a Ministry of (Shinto) Rites [Jingi-kan] within the government, superior to other ministries. In addition to cleansing Shinto from Buddhist domination, the ministry began to regulate Shinto on a centralized, nationwide basis. ... An imperial rescript, or proclamation, in 1870 explained the rationale for such policies. According to the rescript, the Japanese nation had been founded by the gods (kami) and preserved by an unbroken line of emperors who maintained the unity of rites and rule. This unity was considered indispensable for the restoration agenda of the Meiji era. (Religion in Japan, 198-9)
On April 6, 1868, an imperial edict announced the restoration of various imperial Shinto rites, often from the ritsuryo, that had long been in abeyance under the shoguns. The official position was that these rites helped restore the ancient concepts of matsurigoto, or saisei itchi: government and (Shinto) religion as one inseparable unity. (IJR, 191)
On April 22, 1869, the Emperor dispatched one of his officials to venerate the grave of the Emperor Jimmu in Nara Prefecture. Three days later, the Emperor himself led  a procession of court nobles and daimyo to the Hall of Ceremonies where they performed a worship service before all the gods of the Shinto pantheon and swore allegiance to the Charter Oath, a general statement of the new government’s aims. The Emperor then interpreted the Charter Oath and expressed his desire to continue the Imperial tradition of concern for the people’s welfare. By these actions, the Emperor Meiji personally demonstrated the meaning of the unity between worship and government. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 253)
In June, 1871, the government took the first step in making Shinto the national religion by issuing the following proclamation:
The function of shrines is to provide a place of worship for all the people of Japan. They are not the sole property of any individual or family. Some shrines still obtain priests in accordance with ancient procedures, but in most cases the daimyo who originally established the shrine has continued to appoint its priests. Often where ownership of the land has changed several times, the connection with the daimyo who established the shrines has ceased, and they have become laws unto themselves. Even in small villages, the priests have made the succession of the priesthood hereditary and use the shrine revenues for their own income; they consider themselves independent. Priests have become a class apart; this is exactly opposed to unifying worship and government, and has many harmful effects. ... From now on, the government will appoint the priests for all shrines, from the very largest at Ise to the very smallest throughout the country. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 254)

The Separation of Buddhism and Shinto

Because early Meiji attempts to make Shinto the exclusive national religion shaping the new state proved impractical, government officials who were less enthusiastic about this policy found ways of using Shinto to unify and support the state without following the agenda (especially the anti-Buddhist program) of Shinto supporters. In effect, officials of the new government recognized that if it was not feasible to make Shinto the sole religion of the state, then it would be more effective to make the state into a semi-Shinto institution.
       Shinto remained deeply involved in state matters, but the state declared Shinto to be nonreligious in character. To be more precise, an 1882 law divided Shinto into Shrine Shinto (jinja shinto, sometimes called nationalistic or State Shinto by Western writers) and sect Shinto (kyoha shinto). Under the category of Shrine Shinto, the law included most of the Shinto shrines throughout the country, excluding only those that had developed special sect forms. (This government action did not create any new shrines, but it changed the status of most local shrines.) From 1882, only adherents of Shrine Shinto could call their buildings shrines (jinja), for they alone were state institutions. A special Bureau of Shrines was set up in the Department of Home Affairs to administer the shrines as state institutions. In this subtle shift of events, rather than Shinto controlling the state, the state came to control Shinto. (
Religion in Japan, 201-2)
[T]he government from time to time issued statements and policies which seemed to declare Shinto, especially on the level of the major national rituals and shrines like Ise, to be not a religion, but simply a set of “foundational” rituals and symbols of a patriotic nature. That assumption conveniently allowed the state to require the participation of schoolchildren, soldiers and sailors, government officials, and on occasion all citizens, in indoctrinating Shinto-type practices, such as the schoolroom imperial obeisances, while at the same time telling the world that Japan observed religious freedom. (IJR, 194)