Shinto & the State
From the Meiji Restoration to WWII



What is
...& why did it arise in the late Tokugawa?

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)
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. (Introducing Japanese Religion, 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)
The Unity of Rites and Government
On April 6, 1868, an imperial edict announced the restoration of various imperial Shinto rites, often from the ritsuryo [legal/administrative code], 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. (Introducing Japanese Religion, 191)
On April 22, 1869, the Emperor dispatched one of his officials to venerate the grave of the Emperor Jimmu [the legendary first Emperor of Japan] in Nara Prefecture. Three days later, the Emperor himself led  a procession of court nobles and daimyo [feudal lords] 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)
Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to peace
and order and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects,
enjoy freedom of religious belief.

Religion in the Japanese Experience, 255; cf. IJR, 193)
The Imperial Rescript on Education
Promulgated on October 30, 1890
The Imperial Rescript on Education has greater historical significance than its brief length suggests, for it summoned up the nationalistic fervor that stemmed from the Meiji Restoration, and it served as the training guide for absolute commitment to the state until 1945. Powerful symbols such as the emperor and hierarchical patterns of loyalty were invoked to support a nationwide school system, which was developed in the Meiji period (1868-1912). The rescript and a portrait of the emperor were hung in every school, and pupils were required to bow before them much as American pupils pledge allegiance to the flag. Religious undertones may be seen even in the American practice, but the religious character of the Japanese ceremony is more direct. The emperor, often known as a “manifest kami,” was venerated as a descendant of the kami, the living symbol of their spiritual tradition as well as their ethnic and national unity. In short, veneration of the emperor was used to train the people to hold absolute loyalty toward the state. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 236; cf. IJR, 194)
Know ye, Our subjects:
       Our Imperial Ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and have deeply and firmly implanted virtue; Our subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and herein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall ye not only be Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers.
       The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all attain the same virtue. (
Religion in the Japanese Experience, 237)
“The National Entity”

The term kokutai was used in the Tokugawa period by scholars combining Neo-Confucian and Shinto thought. ... [O]ne expression of the relationship was emphasis on kokutai as “an inner essence or mystical force residing in the Japanese nation as a result of Amaterasu’s [divine revelation].” (Religion in Japan, 209)
Nearly all Japanese people who grew up after 1890 received a public education of nationalistic ethics emphasizing absolute loyalty to the emperor and to the state that he symbolically ruled. Those who questioned absolute loyalty to the state were definitely in a minority: some liberal intellectuals, a few members of the so-called New Religions, and a few Christians. ... In the 1930s, a surge of anti-foreign feeling was sweeping through the country, especially after Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and Japan’s relations with foreign countries deteriorated. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933. By this time, persistent government suppression and prosecution of individuals and groups under the pretext of their being a threat to “peace and order” made it a serious matter to question the state’s authority. In 1938, all schools were required to use an ultranationalistic textbook that emphasized the uniqueness and supremacy of Japan as a political and religious unity; in Japanese this “national entity” was called kokutai. According to the Japanese historian Ienaga, “Every facet of the curriculum was permeated with emperor worship and militarism. ... Young children were indoctrinated to believe that the Greater East Asia War was a holy war.” (Religion in Japan, 208-9)
[According to Kokutai no hongi (Fundamentals of National Polity, an important document issued by the Ministry of Education in 1937),] “Our county is established with the emperor, who is a descendant of Amaterasu Omikami, as her center, and our ancestors as well as we ourselves constantly have beheld in the emperor the fountainhead of her life and activities.” Serving the emperor and his “great august will” gives life its rationale and is the source of morality. That means casting aside one’s “little” self and becoming a part of the greater “self” of the state under the emperor. This is not a master-servant relationship of mere obedience, as of one individual to another, but a profoundly mystical loss of the self in something greater, “dying to self and returning to [the] One,” a natural development of the great Way. It is no less an extension of filial piety, for the Imperial Household is the head family of the nation. (Introducing Japanese Religion, 203)
Bushido may be cited as showing an outstanding characteristic of our national morality. ... [I]t was not that death was made light of so much as that man tempered himself to death and in a true sense regarded it with esteem. In effect, man tried to fulfill true life by way of death. This means that rather than lose the whole by being taken up with and setting up oneself, one puts self to death in order to give full play to the whole by fulfilling the whole. Life and death are basically one, and the monistic truth is found where life and death are transcended. Through this is life, and through this is death. However, to treat life and death as two opposites and to hate death and to seek life is to be taken up with one’s own interests, and is a thing of which warriors are ashamed. To fulfill the Way of loyalty, counting life and death as one, is Bushido. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 241-2)
Hiroshima: The Atomic Bomb
Hirohito Surrenders
Surrender & Occupation
Imperial Rescript ~ January 1, 1946
… We stand by the people and We wish always to share with them in their moments of joys and sorrows. The ties between Us and Our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world. ... (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 43-4)
Reflection Paper Icon
How did State Shinto transform the way that most Japanese thought about their relationship to the Emperor during the period from 1890-1945 ? Would you agree with the government of the period that State Shinto was not a “state religion,” but merely a set of cultural beliefs and practices that encouraged national unity?