The Meiji Restoration
Shinto & the State

Yasukuni Shrine with the Imperial Flag as background
Shinto Icon
Kanji for Kokugaku (National Learning)
Ever since the eighth century, Shinto had been overshadowed by the more highly systematized foreign traditions favored at court and among nobility, but it had remained true to their Shinto heritage and produced theoretical writings. In medieval times Kitabatake Chikafusa wrote a theological defense of the divine ancestry of the emperor and the centrality of Japan based on Shinto ideas. Indeed, the medieval schools of Shinto thought, although borrowing heavily from foreign traditions, pursued the ultimate goal of improving Shinto’s status in Japanese religion. “Loyalists” — those around the imperial court who favored the emperor’s return to power — had always supported Shinto. It is only natural that they were opposed to rule by a military leader and his warriors. There were religious commitments on both sides of this issue. In Tokugawa times, the several lines of Shinto support were united and reinforced by a powerful movement called “Restoration Shinto.” (Japanese Religion, 154)
Painting of Motoori Norinaga with Kokugaku students
Motoori [Norinaga] was especially contemptuous of Buddhist teachings that humans can transcend death and therefore should not be sorrowful at death. He wrote that such teachings are deceptive because they are contrary to human sentiment and fundamental truths of life. Motoori insisted that life is sorrowful and that people must be true to their emotions by marking death with sorrow. This inherent emotional life of human beings is not limited to reflection on mortality but touches all aspects of life and nature: this is what Motoori called “mono no aware.” (Japanese Religion, 157)
Definition of Mono no aware (the pathos of things): "the awareness of the impermanence or transience of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing"
According to Norinaga, when we use reason to dissolve mystery rather than discover its intimate links with us, we run the risk of distorting the truly wondrous nature of reality. If everything makes sense, there is no room for awe. (Japanese Religion, 115)
Old copy of the Kojiki with the Japanese words for "the strength of kotodama (the spirit of the words)"
Kojiki relates the narrative of creation. Since language must go back to the kami deities, the original story must have been in the words of the celestial kami themselves. According to Norinaga, then, every creation narrative not written in ancient Japanese must already be a translation, if not a transformation, of the true story. Knowing the narrative to be sacred and expressed in the words of the kami, the ancient court storytellers handed down the account verbatim from one generation to the next. Emperors, themselves kami, appointed these storytellers. Therefore, Norinaga reasoned, the Kojiki’s text goes back directly to the words of the kami themselves at the creation. To get back to those words — the kotodama of their sounds as well as their meaning — would be to participate ritually in the act of the creation itself. In chapter 1 we discussed Norinaga’s theory of poetic creativity: the collective resonance of the kokoro in events, words, and poet creates the poem. He assumed the creation of the world had the same structure. While the words of the kami did not themselves create the world, the words spoken were an intrinsic part of the resonance in that creative moment. For Norinaga, in short, Kojiki is a holographic entry point containing in its words the entire kami-filled, tama-charged world. Its reading (with makoto no kokoro) puts one into intimate connection with the ancient ways of the kami(SWH, 114)
When on the way to these Shrines one does not feel like an ordinary person any longer but as though reborn in another world. How solemn is the unearthly shadow of the huge groves of ancient pines and chamaecyparis, and there is a delicate pathos in the few rare flowers that have withstood the winter frosts so gaily. The cross-beams of the Torii or Shinto gate way is without any curve, symbolizing by its straightness the sincerity of the direct beam of the Divine promise.
Photo of the Ise Shrine
The shrine-fence is not painted red nor is the Shrine itself roofed with cedar shingles. The eaves, with their rough reed-hatch, recall memories of the ancient days when the roofs were not trimmed. So did they spare expense out of compassion for the hardships of the people.
Priests at the Ise Shrine
Within the Shrine there are many buildings where the festival rites are performed, constructed just like those in the Imperial Palace. Buddhist monks may go only as far as the Sacred Tree known as the Cryptomeria of the Five Hundred Branches (Ioe-no-sugi). They may not go to the Shrine. This, too, is a ceremonial rule of the Imperial Court. ... When I came to reflect on my condition my mind is full of the Ten Evils and I felt shame at so long forsaking the will of Buddha, yet as I wear one of the three monkish robes, I must feel some chagrin at my estrangement from the Way of the Deities.
       And particularly is it the deeply-rooted custom of this Shrine that we should bring no Buddhist rosary or offering, or any special petition in our hearts and this is called “Inner Purity.” Washing in sea water and keeping the body free from all defilement is called “Outer Purity.” And when both these Purities are attained there is then no barrier between our mind and that of the Deity. And if we feel to become thus one with the Divine, what more do we need and what is there to pray for? When I heard that this was the true way of worshipping at the Shrine, I could not refrain from shedding tears of gratitude. (
Religion in the Japanese Experience, 23-5)
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Commodore Perry's "Black Ship"
Generally, the movement known as Restoration Shinto was not limited to religion but influenced cultural and political developments as well. In terms of organized religious institutions, Restoration Shinto sought to reinstate Shinto as the true Japanese religion, purified of its foreign borrowings. Culturally, Restoration Shinto leaders tried to revive interest in Japanese classics for their own sake. In politics, the movement contributed to the growing support for a “restoration” of imperial rule. Most of these developments within Shinto were theoretical writings for the limited circle of intellectual elite and political leaders, but there also appeared at this time popular Shinto preachers, who drew upon the precedent and patterns of popular Buddhist preachers and Neo-Confucian teachers.
"eijyanaika" (what the hell) from the movie Eijyanaika
In late Tokugawa times the patterns of thought in Restoration Shinto became linked to a general dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa government, and they gave rise to nationalist and ultranationalist forces. Restoration Shinto and these related forces play a significant role in the complex events of the Meiji Restoration. (Japanese Religion, 157)
 Sonno-joi: "revere the emperor, expel the barbarians"
Satsuma Samurai looking at a map

Japanese imperial flag
Photo of the Meiji Emperor
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. ...
Word cloud for "nationalism"
“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. ...
Print showing the reconstructed Jingikan (Department of Divinities)
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)
Woodblock print of the Meiji Emperor with a variety of kami from the Kojiki/Nihonshoki
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)
Woodblock print of Emperor Jimmu
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:
Shinto priestThe 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)
Shinto Icon

The Separation of Buddhism and Shinto

Painting of Buddhist images being destoyed (during the "separation of Buddhism and Shinto")
Photos of Konpira-san/Kotohira Shrine
Konpira Daigongen (a.k.a. Konpira-san)
From Hindu Deity (Kumbhira)...

Image of the Konpira Daigongen (Great Avatar--the primary deity of the temple/shrine)
... to Buddhist “Yakushi General” (Kubira Taishou) ...
to Shinto Kami (Okuninushi-no-mikoto)

Shinto Icon
Image showing sects associated with State Shinto as well as the 13 Sects of "Sect 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)
Shinto Icon
Woodblock print of the opening of the Diet (following the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution)
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)
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The Imperial Rescript on Education
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)
Shinto Icon
Womb World Mandala with Amaterasu placed in the center
“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)
From Existentialist ...
... to Essentialist Shinto

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. (Shinto: The Way Home, 129)
Japanese flag with the islands of Japan on top
Here is how it was put by one bluff soldier who rose to the highest political office under the emperor, that of prime minister, for most of the Pacific War years. When asked in parliament early in the war whether he was becoming a dictator, Tojo Hideki responded:
It is only when I am exposed to the light of His Majesty that I shine. Were it not for this light I should be no better than a pebble by the roadside. It is because I enjoy the confidence of His Majesty and occupy my present position that I shine. This puts me in a completely different category from those European rulers who are known as dictators. (IJR, 204)
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)
Womb World Mandala with Emperor Hirohito in the center
The Emperor
as Holographic Entry Point

Because the emperor is the holographic entry point for being Japanese, the essentialist ideology maintains that a person cannot fathom one’s own Japaneseness or act Japanese without going through this entry point. In short: because of the imperial connection to Amaterasu, the emperor is the sine qua non of the Japanese state. If one does not pass through this holographic entry point to be connected with the whole, one cannot by definition be patriotic, genuine, sincere, or fully energized with tama. One’s very spirit or soul (mitama or tamashii) will be incomplete without this holographic relation with imperial charisma. Note the essentialist nature of this ideology. In this new context, “Shinto” is not the name for a description of how people act, think, and feel. Instead it is the name for an essential quality that prescribes, rather than describes, proper conduct. (Shinto: The Way Home, 134)
According to Kokutai no hongi, or 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. (IJR, 203)
samurai committing seppuku (hara kiri)
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 [from Kokutai no Hongi: Cardinal Principles of the National Entity of Japan])
Japanese "Zero" fighter plane
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The bombing of Hiroshima
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Hirohito delivering his surrender speech for radio
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)
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The Yasukuni Shrine
Yasukuni (Pacifying Our Country) shrine stands across the street from the imperial palace in the Kudan section of Tokyo. It was built in 1869 under the name “Shokonsha” (Shrine for Beckoning the Spirits), but in 1879 it was given its present name as it assumed its status as a central shrine with various branch shokonsha established throughout the country. These shokonsha, of which Yasukuni is the prototype (and in effect the holographic entry point for all of them), were built to enshrine the spirits of the Japanese who died for their emperor in either the Meiji Restoration civil war or in the ensuing foreign wars. ... Altogether there are some 2.5 million enshrined there (all individually named and almost always including their funerary ashes). (Shinto: The Way Home, 142-3)
Enshrinement at Yasukuni
Kanji for "tama" (soul)To be enshrined at Yasukuni is to be kami. Hence all those who have “died for the emperor” during the foreign war years, almost 2.5 million souls (mitama), are now kami. In dying for the emperor, they have realized most fully their own tama nature; they have expressed their spiritual essence in its purest form. In so dying, they have holographically reflected the holistic tama of the emperor, the land of Japan, and its people. So when one is enshrined at Yasukuni, one’s individuated tama has merged into a collective tama protecting and energizing all Japan. (Shinto: The Way Home, 144)
The spirit (mitama or tamashii) of the deceased emperor leaves the body and ultimately rejoins the collective imperial tama. This pool of tama is probably most easily thought of as a living force directly linked to the kami, especially Amaterasu. At the coronation the tama is sent into the new emperor, energizing his own individual spirit. Technically it is through this tama transference that the emperor becomes kami. Some Japanese throughout history have understood a similar dynamic between themselves and their own ancestral tama. Although the theoretical understanding is probably not as clear as the doctrines behind the imperial succession, the general understanding is that upon death the individual spirit (at least in part) merges into the familys ancestral spirit and subsequently the accumulated ancestral spirit becomes a kind of tutelary power for the family. (Shinto: The Way Home, 143-4)
Map showing the layout of the Yasukuni Shrine
A Pilgrimage to Yasukuni
Click for Powerpoint of the Yasukuni Shrine
DVD Cover for "Spirits of the State: Japan's Yasukuni Shrine"
Oesterle: 299.561 Sp4f
Museum at Yasukuni Shrine
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Contemporary Issues?
Since 1945, various problems have arisen regarding the interpretation and implementation of this document [regarding the abolition of State Shinto]. These issues have never been completely resolved, and continue to pose difficulties for Shinto today. Shinto authorities claim that the directive was a foreign intervention into the Japanese tradition, creating an artificial division of state and religion that had never existed in Japan. Controversy arises particularly around such concrete issues as the religious status of the emperor and whether his annual ritual ceremonies are only a private matter or (according to Shinto authorities) are actually state ceremonies; whether the funeral for an emperor and the enthronement of a new emperor are state ceremonies or religious rituals; whether the national shrine for war dead (Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo) is only a religious institution or (according to Shinto authorities) is also a national monument; whether rites at the Ise Shrine and the periodic rebuilding are only religious ceremonies or (according to Shrine authorities) also involve state concern. Within the present Japanese constitution, all of these issues are treated as private religious concerns, but state funds were used for the funeral of Emperor Hirohito (also known as the Showa emperor) in 1989 and the enthronement of his son as Emperor Akihito. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 38-9)