Although there is no widely accepted definition of Shintoism even among Japanese scholars, the term could be defined tentatively as a Japanese traditional religious system based on so called “Shinto.” Shinto is generally believed to be indigenous to Japan. The term was coined by the combination of two words from Chinese -shin, originally from the Chinese character for ”divine beings” or “gods” (shen), and to, originally from ”way” (tao). Therefore, the literal meaning is ”the way of the gods,” which corresponds to the native Japanese reading of the term, kami no michi, orkannagara no michi. The term Shinto (kami no michi) first appeared in Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan compiled 720 ce), together with the term ”Buddha’s law,” hotoke no minori. This was done in order to consciously designate traditional forms of worship of the emperor, which were inherited from ancestors, as these related to kami (god or gods; the same character as shin) and not to Buddhism. This indicates the large influence that rivalry with Buddhism had in the creation of the Shinto tradition from the outset.

Nevertheless, there are various theories concerning the establishment of Shintoism as a relatively independent religious system. One suggests the establishment of a centralized system of governance based on the legal codes of ancient Japan in the seventh or eighth century (Inoue 1998), and another holds that the idea of Shinto as an independent religion scarcely existed before the Meiji Restoration (Hardacre 1989). In any case, the Shinto tradition became an important religious source that was connected to agricultural rituals and festivals at the community level, and rites of passage at the personal level. Shinto is understood to have been a major religious and cultural influence that has provided a unique value orientation for the Japanese people. Therefore, in order to understand the divergent and yet uniquely Japanese sensitivities, attitudes, and mentalities of people and communities, a recognition and understanding of Shinto is essential.

According to statistics compiled every year by the Division of Religious Affairs of the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science based on reports from each religious body, at the end of 2001 the number of religious corporations (officially certificated and registered under Japanese law) related to Shinto was about 85,000, 46.7 percent of the total figure (Buddhist temples numbered over 77,000, 42.5 percent of the total; Christian churches 4,337, 2.4 percent of the total). Shinto adherents accounted for about 106,000,000, i.e., 49.7 percent, of the total number of religious adherents in Japan (Buddhists 95,000,000, 44.5 percent; Christians 1,800,000, 0.4 percent). The total number of religious adherents was twice that of the actual population of Japan, which means that most people are counted twice, by a Shinto shrine and by a Buddhist temple in each area. This kind of mixing of Shinto and Buddhist religious traditions is indicative of the traditional religious life of many Japanese people.

The National Police Agency also reported that nearly 90,000,000 Japanese visited a shrine on New Year’s Day in 2004. According to more detailed public opinion surveys conducted by scholars and various newspapers, the percentage of respondents who said they visited a shrine on New Year’s Day was 56 percent in 1979 and 61.7 percent in 1994. However, the rate of those who ”believe” in Shinto was only 3.3 percent in 1979 (Yomiuri Press), and 4.4 percent in 1995 ( Jiji Press). This indicates that Shinto in general is a religion of participation in traditional rituals and festivals at shrines, and is not a religion that constitutes an articulated system of beliefs, doctrine, and ethics.

The shrine ( jinja) precinct is a sacred area with a gate (torii), ablution area, and sacred buildings, including the main sanctuary, which houses the symbol of the kami (shintai) and a worship area (haiden). At special times through the year, shrines become the focal point for community festivals (matsuri), which are held according to the tradition of each shrine in honor of its own kami. Nevertheless, there are also many common festivals, such as the Spring Festival (Haru matsuri), Autumn Festival (Aki matsuri), and the like. As individual rites of passage, family members sometimes visit the local shrine. After birth, for example, an infant is taken to the local shrine in order to be acknowledged and celebrated as a new member of the village or the community by its tutelary deity (or the local guardian god). Further celebrations include the Seven, Five, and Three Festival (Shichigosan), at which boys of 5 years of age and girls of 3 and 7 years of age are brought to the shrine. In addition, marriage rites are performed at shrines, though they are becoming less popular among the younger generation. Shinto is a ”this worldly” religion in the sense that it is interested in tangible benefits which will promote life in the human world.

The origin of basic forms of Shinto worship of gods is obscure. There is no founder, no sacred scriptures, nor any fixed system of doc trine. Instead, Shinto seems to originate from simple worship of kami gami (gods), with rituals developing when people began to settle down to grow rice in the Yayoi era from 300 bce to 250 ce. At least by the early historical period (third century ce), the clan (uji) system formed a certain ancestral worship, which was worship and rituals performed for gods of personal clans (ujigami). People also believed in other spiritual powers and beings which had the kami nature. Some kami were connected to specific geographical areas or lands; others were believed to reside within living beings and phenomena such as the sun, the moon, mountains, trees, thunder, fire, and wind. This religious culture was based on a kind of animism that prevailed in various parts of the world since ancient times. Shamans and diviners were regarded as important figures in operating and controlling these divine powers. The imperial (tenno) clan eventually gained power over other clans, especially in terms of rites and festivals that were connected with rice growing. Its supremacy could be attributed to a kind of shamanistic power, and following the famous work of Sir James Frazer, Japanese anthropologists agree that the Japanese emperor could be regarded as a shaman king or ”priest king” in origin.

Although each clan continued to maintain its own forms of ancestor worship and myths of origin, as the imperial clan gained greater supremacy its myths also gained ascendancy. These provided the dominant motifs into which the myths of the other clans were integrated. By the eighth century, these myths were collected and edited as two well known volumes, Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) of 712 CE and the above mentioned Nihon shoki. These volumes laid important foundations for various ideas and themes of the cosmological view in Shinto. The universe was divided into three   levels:   the   Plain   of  High Heaven (Takama ga ham); this Manifested World on the Earth (Nakatsu kuni); and the Netherworld (Yomotsu kuni). Moreover, beliefs in the creation of the world by Izanagi (male kami) and Izanami (female kami), the dominance of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and the descent of the imperial line from Amaterasu, and in forces of life, fertility, pollution, and purification were established. The basic Shinto practices, dances, and chanting of norito (prayers) were formed in accordance with these myths as well. While the details of these themes are unique, they share a common structure with other typologies found in the Andromeda, Perseus,   Oedipus,   and  Orpheus   myths from ancient Greek mythology.

These records also indicate the hegemonic position of Amaterasu Omikami, and the myth that the imperial line directly descended from the sun goddess gradually became prominent. In addition, although the indigenous nature of Shintoism is often emphasized, it is obvious that Shintoism has transformed and hybridized with other religious traditions throughout history. This was particularly evident with its amalgamation with Buddhism and Confucian ism, which became the ideology that legitimized the ruling of Japanese feudal societies by the imperial family. According to Nihon shoki and other sources, Buddhism was first officially introduced from Korea in the sixth century CE, and Empress Suiko declared she would adopt Buddhism as the principle of governing the country in 593. This was partly because it was regarded as having magical religious powers that would help govern the people and guard the nation. In this process of introduction, opposition, and amalgamation with Buddhism, Shinto itself became conscious of its own originality and tried to describe and develop its myths, forms of ritual, and certain doctrinal themes. The making of Shintoism as a religious system in Japan was formed through this process.

At the folk or community level, this syncretism is deeper and more intricate. In festivals and celebrations in traditional villages, a division of religious functions developed, with Buddhist temples usually taking charge of rituals relating to death such as funerals, while Shinto shrines were responsible for festivals, rites of passage, and agricultural rituals.

In spite of the National Seclusion policy in the Edo period (1603-1867), knowledge and information about western scholarship and science gradually filtered into Japan, especially after 1720 when Tokugawa Yoshimune (the shogun) lifted the ban on the importation of foreign books. By the early nineteenth century, Dutch studies (rangaku) and western studies (yogaku) were widely read throughout Japan.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the School of National Learning (Kokugaku) emerged and then developed into Revival Shinto (Fukko Shinto), Shintoism was given more social importance not as a religion but rather as a political ideology. In the works of Hirata Atsutane, who emphasized a return to Shinto’s original traditions, most religions such as Buddhism and Christianity were thought of as foreign. He and his contemporaries sought to discover an “original” Japanese religious tradition. As some of their ideas derived from other religious traditions, however, “original” tradition in this context should be understood as a result of cultural contact with other traditions and not as a purely original Japanese idea. Revival Shinto asserted that Shinto should return to its former position as the fundamental principle guiding the nation. Nevertheless, Revival Shinto can be seen as an expression of, or a reaction to, a cultural and colonial crisis brought about by the increasing influence of the West. This laid the foundation of a sweeping conservative anti foreign movement, which gathered under the slogan ”revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” (sonno joi).

By the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate was dismantled and replaced with a limited representative and monarch system under the Meiji Constitution (promulgated in  1889). Japan began building a modern nation state partly to counter the colonizing threat posed by the West. The state’s involvement in Shinto affairs increased and the formation of so called State Shinto began. State Shinto was in a sense different from Shinto as it   had   originally   developed.   Although it included aspects of Shinto mythology and incorporated Shinto institutions and practices, the newly established Meiji government essentially invented State Shinto as a means to legitimize governmental authority and unify the people. The government incorporated all Shintoist rituals and observances and ordered all citizens to observe them, thus utilizing Shinto ceremonial  events  to  promote nationalism. Thus State Shinto was a type of new national religion introduced by the government after the Meiji Restoration. However, the government itself did not regard State Shinto as a religion but as the Japanese ”national cult” – one that included religious ideology and rituals and surpassed all other religions.

In addition, the qualifications of the emperor as head of state and his rights as sovereign did not have their source in the Constitution, although the form of government was a kind of constitutional monarchy according to its pro visions (Chap. l, Art. 4). The Imperial Prescript on the Promulgation of the Constitution declared: ”The rights of sovereignty of the State, We have inherited from Our Ancestors.” It was stressed that these rights had been derived neither from the people nor from the Constitution, but from an institutional charisma of a ”lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal.” Moreover, the stipulation in Article 3 of the Constitution that ”the emperor is sacred and inviolable” granted the emperor a sacred, transcendental character. Thus the emperor possessed a mystical authority as a kind of divine king, or as the highest priest of the state, as well as possessing secular powers as sovereign of the state and as supreme commander of the military forces.

This politico religious ideology was derived from an extreme interpretation of Shinto mythology, according to which the emperor was regarded as having descended from the supreme ancestral deity, the sun goddess Amaterasu, and was regarded as its manifest deity (Akitsu kami). This idea was based on, first, the assertion that the emperor, the land, and the people of Japan constituted one sacred invisible entity, and second, a system of related teachings, Shinto institutions, practices, and rites known as State Shinto, or National Shinto as it was called by the Allied Powers (Bunce 1948), or, as designated by W. P. Woodard (1972), a national cult.

Thus, the structure of the Japanese state as a whole was signified mystically or religiously by the ideology of the emperor system, and the government sought unification of the people in the nation and sought to control even their everyday religious life by utilizing this mystic ideology through State Shinto.

Shintoism since 1945

On August 15, 1945, the Japanese government accepted the Potsdam Declaration of the Allied Powers and surrendered unconditionally. This defeat in World War II and the reform of the whole Japanese society through the Occupation by the Allied Powers led to radical changes in Japanese religions, especially in Shinto and its relation to the state.

The first directive relating to reform of the religious system, issued by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), was the so called Civil Liberties Directive of October 4, 1945. In order to realize the objectives of freedom of thought, speech, religion, assembly, and respect   for  fundamental  human  rights, it required the abrogation and immediate suspension of the operation of all provisions of laws establishing or maintaining restrictions on those rights. However, the more important directive was the so called Shinto Directive of December 15, 1945, which ordered clearly and in a shocking way the ”abolition of State Shinto” and the ”complete separation of religion and state.”

The purpose of this directive was clear, namely, ”to separate religion from the state, to prevent misuse of religion for political ends, and to put all religions, faith, and creeds upon exactly the same legal basis, entitled precisely to the same opportunities and protection.” It forbade ”affiliation with the government and the propagation and dissemination of militaristic and ultra nationalistic ideology not only to Shinto but to followers of all religions, faiths, sects, creeds, or philosophies” (Shinto Directive, Article 2a). It therefore forbade ”the sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control and dissemination of Shinto” by the state, abolished the Shrine Board (Jingiin) of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which was the representative agency of State Shinto within the administrative structure of the government, and prohibited all Shinto education and rites in educational institutions supported wholly or in part by public funds, the attendance of public officials in shrine worship or any other Shinto observances, and the use in official writings of terms with State Shinto, militaristic, and ultra nationalistic con notations. In short, this meant in a very direct way the abolition of State Shinto and the disestablishment of state religion.

According to the policy, the Peace Preservation Law, in accordance with which many leaders of new religions had been thrown into prison during the war, was abrogated. The Religious Organizations Law (Shukyo dantai ho), which had been another instrument designed to restrict religious freedom, was replaced by the Religious Juridical Persons Ordinance (Shukyo hojin rei, Imperial Ordinance No. 719), promulgated on December 28, 1945. This ordinance set out working rules for the free establishment of religious corporations by mere registration with the appropriate government body. The laws obstructing religious freedom of religious groups were abolished, and by the amendments of this ordinance on February 2, 1946, even Shrine Shinto, now separated from the state and liberated from its control, was given the opportunity of continuing its existence as an ordinary religious corporation. Thus ”equality of all religions before the law,” which was one of the objectives of the Shinto Directive, became a reality. Finally, on November 3, 1946, the new Constitution of Japan was promulgated, coming into effect on May 3 of the following year. It codified ”freedom of religion” and ”separation of religion and state” in Articles 20 and 89.

The reform of the religious system by the Occupation administration effected great changes in Japanese society and religion. First of all, it brought about secularization of the Japanese state. Although the imperial system was retained, the emperor was no longer the head of the state nor the source of legitimacy for political rule, but was now regarded as a symbol of the unity of the whole nation. The new Constitution became the source of law and authority. For the first time, Japan became a constitutional democracy. The religious or mystical character of the state was disposed of, and freedom of religion was established as a ”basic human right.” In this free and democratic society, Shintoism continues to exist in several different forms:

  1. Shinto of the Imperial Household (Koshitsu Shinto) focuses on rites for the spirits of imperial ancestors and is observed at imperial institutions. It is distinguished from other forms of Shinto partly because the emperor himself performs its ceremonies, and partly because it is believed that it retains the most archaic style of Shinto worship. But this Shinto is not open to the public.
  2. Shrine Shinto (Jinja Shinto) is presently the form of Shinto that embraces the vast majority of Shinto shrines and adherents in Japan, administered by the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honcho). It is the most popular system of Shintoism now in Japan, which is upheld in a great many and varied local shrines with seasonal rituals and festivals held in honor of kami. It continues to emphasize the traditionally close relationship between Shinto and Japanese life and the need for national regeneration.
  3. Sect Shinto (Kyoha Shinto) refers to 13 religious organizations which originated from new Shinto movements that arose from the social and economic distress toward the end of the Tokugawa period and the beginning of the Meiji period. They were mostly founded by charismatic figures and promised worldly benefits, such as wealth, success in life, and cures for sickness. Because the Meiji government did not want to incorporate these groups  into  the structure of State Shinto, it created a new classification of Sect Shinto, eventually recognizing them as offshoots of the mainstream Shinto tradition. Groups such as Kurozumi kyo, Fuso kyo,  Ontake kyo,  Konko kyo, and Tenri kyo belong to this category.
  4. Folk Shinto (Minkan Shinto) is a designation for the wide ranging groups of superstitious, magico-religious rites and practices of the common people, embracing conceptions of spirits and souls, good and evil kami, divination of lucky or evil direction, and unlucky days. Folk Shinto does not stand in opposition to Shrine Shinto or Sect Shinto but might be considered as the sub stratum of those more organized forms.

Problems involving Shintoism

The post war reforms established the principles of freedom of religion and the separation of religion and state. These principles have been widely accepted, for people remember how freedom was suppressed under State Shinto before and during the war. But with regard to their interpretation, questions have arisen as to whether ”separation” is an absolute or relative term, to be understood as an end in itself or as a means of affirming religious freedom. There are a number of issues concerning the relationship between the state and religion, especially relating to Shintoism, in the post war period.

State Support for and Official Worship at the Yasukuni Shrine

Before and during World War II, the Yasukuni shrine was an important national institution particularly for promoting hero worship and strengthening the fighting spirit of the nation. Enshrined within it are the spirits of many soldiers who died in war for the emperor or for the state since the Meiji period. Occupation policies dictated that the shrine be stripped of its militaristic elements and completely separated from the state. Consequently, the Yasukuni shrine was forced to sever its ties with the state yet it continued to exist on the same legal basis as other religious bodies, as one religious organization among others.

But with the peace treaty and the restoration of independence at the end of the Occupation in April 1952, a movement calling for state support to reestablish a special status for the Yasukuni shrine began. By the end of 1974 a bill sup porting public funding of the shrine had been submitted unsuccessfully to the Diet on five separate occasions. Proponents of the movement eventually changed their strategy, and they began to lobby for the emperor and state officials to worship (sanpai) at the shrine in their official capacity, for foreign envoys to pay their respects, and for representatives of the Self Defense Forces to offer formal worship there. In these and other ways, proponents sought to give people the impression that the shrine was already a de facto public institution, that is, a religious institution with special ties to the state. It was in this context that the movement for ”official visits” (koshiki sanpai) emerged.

The event that particularly drew people’s attention to the issues occurred on August 15, 1975, the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, when the then Prime Minister Miki Takeo visited the Yasukuni shrine. Although some of his predecessors had visited the shrine while in office, this visit was especially important as it highlighted two crucial issues: (1) whether it constituted a religious action by a government official that violated the Constitution, and (2) the complex problem of evaluating the war. Prime Minister Miki emphasized that he visited the shrine in a private capacity, but it is undeniable that his action opened the way for subsequent official visits. Thus it was that a later prime minister, Nakasone Yasuhiro, who was emphasizing the ”end of the post war period,” made the first official visit to the shrine on August 15, 1985. He signed the register as ”Prime Minister of the Cabinet” and made a donation of 30,000 yen from public funds.

Nakasone’s visit provoked an unexpectedly strong barrage of protests from China and other Asian countries, and official visits to the shrine ceased for a time. However, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reestablished this practice again on August 13, 2001, and since then has visited each year. Needless to say, a loud chorus of criticism against these visits arose from many Japanese people as well as other Asian countries, especially from China and Korea. It was even judged to be unconstitutional by the Fukuoka district court on April 7, 2004.

Although these visits ignited disputes over the distinction between the prime minister as a public figure or a private citizen and whether donations to the shrine’s coffers constituted a religious act or were simply a matter of conventional etiquette, the more pressing issue is whether these visits give preferential treatment to one religion over others and serve to accord the shrine the status of a national institution. Moreover, these actions by leading conservative politicians are closely associated with the rise of religious nationalism in Japan, particularly when the Japanese Self Defense Forces were being sent to Iraq and other areas.

The Emperor and Shinto Rituals

The post war system that assigned a purely symbolic status to the emperor gave rise to yet another type of debate and lawsuit. In connection with the mourning service (taiso) held for Emperor Showa on February 24, 1989, questions arose as to the degree to which this ought to be a state ceremony. In order to forestall constitutional misgivings, it was finally decided that the Taiso no gi, a Shinto service of mourning for the emperor, would be carried out as an Imperial Household ceremony, but that the Taiso no rei, a separate Shinto rite, would be carried out as a secular state ceremony. A similar division was employed on November 12, 1990 when the new emperor’s Sokui no rei,or Enthronement Ceremony, was handled as a state ceremony and the subsequent Daijosai, or Great Food Offering, as a private ceremony based on the Shinto of the Imperial Household. The central question in all these matters was the extent to which a rite could be a state ceremony without violating the principle of separation of religion and state.

A closely related question giving rise to intense debate was whether the Daijosai should be paid for with private funds from the Imperial Household’s internal budget (naiteihi)or with public funds from the Imperial Palace budget (kyuteihi). The government, recognizing the religious character of this rite, decided that it would be an Imperial Household ceremony. But the government also recognized the ”public character” of this rite and chose to use public funds from the Imperial Palace bud get. This decision struck a balance between upholders of tradition, who wanted it to be a state ceremony, and public opinion, which called for strict application of the principle of separation of religion and state.

There are many other lawsuits that contest allegedly unconstitutional action on the basis of the principle of separation of religion and state. Most of these lawsuits, however, have to do with issues that grew out of pre war and wartime State Shinto. One issue concerns the extent to which a religious organization is autonomous and the extent to which it is subject to judiciary intervention. The lawsuits mentioned above show clearly that the principle of separation of religion and state introduced by the Occupation has not taken firm root in Japan, and has yet to find a harmonious balance with traditional Japanese culture.


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