Politics & Religion in Early Japan
Existential and Essentialist Modalities of Ancient Shinto
The “Standard” Account
Relying on preconceived notions about religion, Western commentators have often molded their narratives of Shinto into a form convenient and digestible for their Western audience. Extrapolating from the religions in their own cultures, Westerners often look in other religions for a scriptural foundation and narratives about gods creating the world. Using this template, standard descriptions of Shinto often include a summary statement something like this:

Shinto is an animistic Japanese religion going back to preliterate times. The myths of creation and how the state was established were preserved in oral traditional until written down in the early eighth century in two chronicles, Kojiki and Nihonshoki. These chronicles narrate the beginning of the gods and goddesses (kami) and the process by which the islands of Japan (or by extension the whole world) came into being through their actions. The most important deity is the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. She is considered the direct ancestor of the Japanese imperial family and gives the throne a religious foundation.
Such explanations appear in dozens of Western books and reference works dealing with Japan Since, as we will see, they support an essentialist interpretation of Shinto, they commonly appear in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japanese accounts as well — the same era when modern Western scholarship first turned its attention to Japan. If we were to go back two or three centuries earlier, however, most Japanese of the time would fail to recognize in the description their own version of “Shinto.” (SWH, 72)
The “Historical” Account
The reign of Empress Suiko (592-628 C.E.) was one of the most remarkable periods in Japanese history. A crisis had developed in Japan toward the end of the sixth century as a result of the loss of Japanese domains on the Korean peninsula [note: this theory is now widely rejected by scholars, even in Japan] and the defeat of its ally, the kingdom of Paekche. Within the country, there also was serious contention among the powerful clans, partly on account of developments in Korea. The large number of Korean refugees who fled to Japan from the turmoil of the peninsula added to the authorities’ difficulties. Besides political and economic problems, the arrival of Buddhism some fifty years earlier had caused bitter controversies. Some of the important clans, representing traditional Shinto views, were violently opposed to what they considered a foreign and harmful religion. Above all was the fact that a unified and expanding China under the Sui and a unifying Korea under Silla were now facing a weak and decentralized Japan. Apart from whatever threat to their security that the Japanese felt to lie in the changing situation on the continent, they also, of course, wanted to emulate the superior achievements of the rising Chinese and Korean dynasties.
Accordingly, the Yamato court attempted to enhance its power and prestige in the eyes of foreigners and domestic rivals alike by adopting many features of the superior Chinese civilization and especially its political institutions. ... The chief architect of this project was Prince Shotoku (573-621), who served as regent during much of the reign of his aunt, Empress Suiko. The veneration of Prince Shotoku after his death may be inferred form his name itself, which might be translated as “sage virtue” or “sovereign moral power.” Shotoku, although a member of the imperial family, was also a member of the powerful Soga family, which had been the main support of Buddhism during its early days in Japan, and he always showed a deep interest in the religion and appears to have been well read in Confucian literature. (SJT, 40-41)
Although Shotoku was a devout Buddhist, it was to Confucian models that he turned for guidance when faced with the enormous task of state building. His most crucial problem, the establishment of the court as the central authority, was well met by the teachings of Confucianism as it had developed during the great Han empire. According to these teachings, the universe consisted of three realms, Heaven, Earth, and Man, with man playing a key creative role between the other two. The basis of all authority and order lay in Heaven and was manifested to Earth by the stately progress of the sun, moon, and planets across the firmament. It was the duty of the ruler to make sure that his country was governed in accordance with the pattern established by Heaven. ... A regular, determined system of government was exactly what was needed in Japan during Shotoku’s time. The statement of the Han Confucian ideal of government itself is found in article III of his constitution: “The lord is Heaven, the vassal, Earth. Heaven overspread; Earth upbears. When this is so, the the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature develop their efficiency.” ... Shotoku’s own respect for Chinese learning is obvious from his constitution, which makes no mention of traditional Japanese religious practices or the Japanese principle of a hereditary line of emperors. (SJT, 41-42)

Confucius (551-479 BCE) lived at the midpoint between the establishment of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1040 BCE) and the creation of the first truly centralized empire, the Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE)a time when it was clear that the old system had somehow failed, though it remained unclear whether it would be better to look for a solution in the past or the future. The so-called Analects of Confucius represent a compilation of his oral teachings (compiled posthumously by his students, probably over numerous generations) that collectively though by no means systematically present his solution to this collapse of the sociopolitical order. By the middle of the 2nd century BCE, Confucianism had become the “official” philosophy of the Chinese empire, which was now a centralized, highly bureaucratic state.

I. Harmony is to be valued, and contentiousness avoided. All men are inclined to partisanship and few are truly discerning. Hence there are some who disobey their lords and fathers or who maintain feuds with the neighboring villages. But when those above are harmonious and those below are conciliatory and there is concord in the discussion of all matters, the disposition of affairs comes about naturally. Then what is there that cannot be accomplished.

II. Sincerely reverence the Three Treasures. The Buddha, the Law, and the religious orders are the final refuge of all beings and the supreme objects of reverence in all countries. It is a law honored by all, no matter what the age or who the person. Few men are utterly bad; with instruction they can follow it. But if they do not betake themselves to the Three Treasures, how can their crookedness be made straight?
III. When you receive the imperial commands, fail not scrupulously to obey them. The lord is Heaven, the vassal is Earth. Heaven overspreads, and Earth upbears. When this is so, the four seasons follow their due course, and the powers of Nature obtain their efficacy. If the Earth attempted to overspread, Heaven would simply fall in ruin. Therefore is it that when the lord speaks, the vassal listens; when the superior acts, the inferior yields compliance. Consequently when you receive the imperial commands, fail not to carry them out scrupulously. Let there be a want of care in this matter, and ruin is the natural consequence.
IV. The ministers and functionaries should make ritual decorum their leading principle, for the leading principle in governing the people consists in ritual decorum. If the superiors do not behave with decorum, the inferiors are disorderly; if interiors are wanting in proper behavior, there must necessarily be offenses. Therefore it is that when the lord and vassal behave with decorum, the distinctions of rank are not confused; when the people behave with decorum, the governance of the state proceeds of itself.
VII. Let every man have his own charge, and let not the spheres of duty be confused. When wise men are entrusted with office, the sound of praise arises. If unprincipled men hold office, disasters and tumults multiply. In this world, few are born with knowledge; wisdom is the product of earnest meditation. In all things, whether great or small, find the right man, and they will surely be well managed; on all occasions, be they urgent or the reverse, meet but with a wise man, and they will of themselves be amenable. In this way will the state be lasting and the temples of the Earth and of grain will be free from danger. Therefore did the wise sovereigns of antiquity seek the man to fill the office, and not the office for the sake of the man.
X. Let us cease from wrath, and refrain from angry looks. Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong. We are not unquestionably sages, nor are they unquestionably fools. Both of us are simply ordinary men. How can any one lay down a rule by which to distinguish right from wrong? For we are all, one with another wise and foolish, like a ring which has no end. Therefore, although others give way to anger, let us on the contrary dread our own faults, and though we alone may be in the right, let us follow the multitude and act like them.
XII. Let not the provincial authorities or the Kuni no Miyatsuko [i.e. the local nobles whose power was being usurped by the imperial court] levy exaction on the people. In a country there are not two lords; the people have not two masters. The sovereign is the master of the people of the whole country. The officials to whom he gives charge are all his vassals. How can they, as well as the government, presume to levy taxes on the people.
XV. To turn away from that which is private, and to set our faces towards that which is public — this is the path of a minister. Now if a man is influenced by private motives, he will assuredly fail to act harmoniously with others. If he fails to act harmoniously with others, he will assuredly sacrifice the public interest to his private feelings. When resentment arises, it interferes with order, and is subversive of law. Therefore in the first clause it was said that superiors and inferiors should agree together. The purport is the same as this.
XVII. Matters should not be decided by one person alone. They should be discussed with many others. In small matters of less consequence, many others need not be consulted. It is only in considering weighty matters, where there is a suspicion that they might miscarry, that many others should be involved in debate and discussion so as to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.


Existential vs. Essentialist Shinto
To review, antedating the two chronicles’ treatment of kami as celestial deities involved in creation, we find evidence of three other senses of kami. First, once Japan organized into settled communities there was formal recognition of ujigami as deities who specifically related to the political/religious leadership in the uji. These were the probably precursors to the celestial deities cited in Kojiki and Nihonshoki. Second, considering awe-inspiring natural phenomena to be kami seems to be a phenomenon going back to earliest times. Third, equally old is the idea of the spirits of the dead having an awesome power that can be managed by granting them kami veneration. With this expanded context for the origins of Shinto in mind, let us return to the texts that initiated this discussion: Kojiki  (Record of ancient matters) and Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan). (SWH, 80)
Kojiki is rich in detail about the mythic preliterate period from the origins of Japan to the imperial rulers of the sixth century. In comparison, Nihonshoki has much more detail about the emperors from the sixth century up to the date of its writing. In this respect, the two narratives complement each other. Furthermore, on most points of overlap the two chronicles either agree or at least do not blatantly contradict one another. And, finally, both texts offer a mytho-historical justification for the Japanese imperial system: both trace the lineage of the emperors back to the celestial kami at the time of creation. Whatever their commonalities, however, the differences between the two texts are equally important for understanding Shinto spirituality and its institutional history. The most obvious difference is that the chroniclers wrote Kojiki mostly in Japanese, Nihonshoki totally in Chinese. This suggests different intended audiences. (SWH, 80-1)
In these ancient Shinto developments we find the basis for establishing an essentialist Shinto spirituality as a (if not the) state religion. We can easily construct the basis for such an ideological argument to be propagated among the Japanese people. It would go something like this:
As explained in Nihonshoki and Kojiki, you are indebted to the kami deities for your personal existence and the existence of your world. Given this dependence, you are internally related to the kami deities. The emperors and empresses are the direct descendants of these kami, and given their special role it is through them you contact your link with the kami. Therefore, if you are Japanese, you must be Shinto; if you are Shinto, you owe absolute allegiance to the emperors or empresses and to the government serving them.
Given the standard account of Shinto presented at the opening of this chapter, one might assume that such an argument was forcefully made and that essentialist Shinto spirituality predominated in Japan from this time forward. ... In fact, the kind of argument theoretically posed here was not to gain any prominent influence for a thousand years. Contrary to expectations, a more existential, rather than essentialist, form of Shinto spirituality became the norm. (SWH, 90-1)