State Shintō (国家神道 Kokka Shintō) is a term coined by the United States General Headquarters in 1945 to describe the use of Shinto as an ideological tool. The definition was used to identify and remove aspects of nationalistic ideology, such as worship of the Emperor, from Japan's native traditional spiritual practice of Shinto. Generally, scholars agree the term can be used to describe the state's attempts to regulate Shinto to this end, though there is disagreement as to the extent to which the government was successful. As a result of this debate, controversy remains around the role of certain Shinto symbols, such as the Emperor and Yasukuni shrine, when used in state functions.
Origins of the term
Shinto is an amalgamation of indigenous folk practices, court practices, and spirit-worship which dates back at least to the sixth century. These beliefs were not unified under the term "Shinto" until reforms in the Meiji era,:4 though the term was used in the Chronicles of Japan (日本書紀 Nihon Shoki) during the 8th century. Shinto has no set of doctrines or founder, but derives from a set of creation myths described in books such as the Kojiki.:9
The term "State Shinto" was first used in 1945, as the "Shinto directive" declaration of the United States General Headquarters, tasked with governing Japan in the aftermath of the second world war. That order, the "Abolition of Governmental Sponsorship, Support, Perpetuation, Control and Dissemination of State Shinto," defined State Shinto as "that branch of Shinto (Kokka Shinto or Jinja Shinto) which, by official acts of the Japanese government, has been differentiated from the religion of Sect Shinto (Shuha Shinto or Kyoha Shinto) and has been classified a non-religious national cult commonly known as State Shinto, National Shinto or Shrine Shinto."
The "Shinto directive" created the "State Shinto" term to categorize, and abolish, Imperial Japanese practices that relied on Shinto to support nationalistic ideology. This allowed Japan's constitution to maintain Freedom of Religion by not banning Shinto practices outright.:133
Most generally, State Shinto refers to any use of Shinto practices incorporated into the national ideology during the Meiji period starting in 1868. It is often described as any state-supported, Shinto-inspired ideology or practice intended to inspire national integration, unity, and loyalty.:700 State Shinto is also understood to refer to the state rituals and ideology of Emperor-worship, which was never a traditional emphasis of Shinto.:699 Of the 124 Japanese emperors, only 20 have dedicated shrines.:80
Scholars suggest "State Shinto" is not itself a state religion. Instead, it refers to an ideological appropriation of Shinto through state financial support for specific shrines.:700:118 However, many Shinto authorities reject the concept of "State Shinto", which they describe as a foreign invention that interferes with Japan's cultural heritage. This view sees "State Shinto" purely as an invention of the United States.:119
Scholars such as Yanagawa Keiichi have argued that though the Japanese Empire denied its practices were religious, they shared attributes with religion, such as a clear doctrine and a divine faith in the Emperor. Scholar Katsurajima Nobuhiro suggests the "suprareligious" nature of these practices were only on account of the state's failure to consolidate religious Shinto.
There are other interpretations of the term "State Shinto" which note problems with the term. Ashizu Uzuhiko, in his book "What was State Shinto?", notes that "State Shinto" was never clearly defined by the Shinto directive, and interpretations by the United States often varied depending on which office was communicating with who, and what they had hoped to accomplish.
The extent of popular support for the actions categorized as "State Shinto" is the subject of debate. Scholars note that "State Shinto" was not an official designation for any practice or belief in Imperial Japan, but describes a mixture of state support for non-religious shrine activities in a period of immersive ideological support for the Kokutai policy in education, including the training of all shrine priests. Some suggest this permitted a form of "grass roots" Shinto to reflect a State Shinto position without the direct control of the state. Others suggest the idea of Emperor worship was never supported by the population, and that the government's funding and control of Shrines was never adequate enough to justify a claim to the existence of a State Shinto.:118
The definition of State Shinto requires distinction from the term "Shinto," which was one aspect of a set of nationalist symbols integrated into the State Shinto ideology.:547 Though some scholars, and the Shinto Directive, use the terms "Shrine Shinto" and "State Shinto" interchangeably, some scholars use the term "Shrine Shinto" to refer to the majority of Shinto shrines which were outside of State Shinto influence, leaving "State Shinto" to refer to shrines and practices deliberately intended to reflect state ideology.:547
Scholars, such as Sakamoto Koremaru, argue that a something akin to the "State Shinto" system existed only briefly, between 1900 and 1945. In 1900, the government established a distinct Bureau of Shrines (specific to Shinto) from the previous Bureau of Shrines and Temples (which had included Buddhist temples). That Bureau became the Bureau of Religions. These changes gave a unique position to Shinto shrines from those of Buddhist temples or Christian churches. In this sense, Shinto shrines were designated as "suprareligious" or "non-religious" and tied to practices of the state.
Shinto's distinct position
"Religious" practice, in its Western sense, was unknown in Japan prior to the Meiji restoration. "Religion" was understood to encompass a series of beliefs about faith and the afterlife. The Meiji restoration had re-established the Emperor, a "religious" figure, as the head of the Japanese state. As a result, the state ideology suggested that the integration of Shinto practice into Japanese society was unique from the integration of other religions, such as Buddhism.
Japan had allowed Christian missionaries under pressure from Western governments, but viewed Christianity as a foreign threat. The "State Shinto" ideology presented Shinto as something beyond religion, "a unity of government and teaching ... not a religion.":66 Rather than a religious practice, Shinto was understood as a form of education, which "consists of the traditions of the imperial house, beginning in the age of gods and continuing through history.":66
Shinto as "suprareligious"
This idea of Shinto as a unique form of "suprareligious" cultural practice would be incorporated in State Shinto in a way which exempted it from Meiji laws protecting freedom of religion.:117:120 Religious freedom was initially a response to demands of Western governments.:115 As such, the state was challenged to establish a suprareligious interpretation that still allowed for the Emperor's divine lineage.
The Empire of Japan endeavored, through education initiatives and specific financial support for new shrines, to frame Shinto practice, particularly shrine visits, as a patriotic moral tradition.:120 From the early Meiji era, the divine origin of the Emperor was the official position of the state, taught in classrooms as a historical fact, rather than as myth or religious belief.:122 Shinto priests were hired to teach in public schools, and cultivated this teaching, alongside reverence for the Emperor and obligatory class trips to shrines.:120 State Shinto practitioners also emphasized the ritual aspect rather than faith, as rituals were a traditional civic practice that did not explicitly call on faith to participate.
By balancing a "suprareligious" understanding of Shinto as the source of divinity for both Japan and the Emperor, it was possible to compel participation in rituals from Japanese subjects while claiming to respect freedom of religion.:120 The state was thus able to enshrine its place in civic society in ways religions could not. This included teaching its ideological strand of Shinto in public schools, including ceremonial recitations to the Emperor and rites involving the Emperor's portrait.:120
In 1926, the government organized the Shūkyō Seido Chōsakai (宗教制度調査会?, Religious System Investigative Committee) and then the Jinja Seido Chōsakai (神社制度調査会?, Shrine System Investigative Committee) , which established the suprareligious "Shintogaku" ideology.
To protect this distinction, preaching at shrines was forbidden, shrine officials were prohibited from conducting funerals, and the use of the torii gate was restricted to government-owned shrines.
In 1936, the Catholic Church's Propaganda Fide agreed with the state definition, and announced that visits to shrines had "only a purely civil value".
State control of shrines
Though the government's ideological interest in Shinto is well-known, there is debate over how much control the government had over local shrines, and for how long.
Shinto shrines, even when state-supported, tended to avoid any ideological matters until 1940, with the establishment of the Wartime Shrine board. Throughout that period, individual priests were limited in their political role, being delegated to certain rituals and shrine upkeep, and rarely encouraged Emperor worship, or other aspects of state ideology, independently. No shrine priest, or member of the Wartime Shrine board, had sought public office.
As dissent was increasingly stigmatized, the role of the State Shinto ideology grew. Alternative Shinto movements, such as Omotokyo, were hampered by the imprisonment of its priests in 1921.:24 The status of separation of so-called "State Shinto" shrines changed in 1931; from that point, shrines were then pressured to focus on the divinity of the Emperor Hirohito or shrine priests could face persecution.:25:699
However, even after the Japanese government established the Bureau of Shrines, shrine finances were not purely state-supported. In 1906, the government returned to a policy of providing financial support to only one shrine per village.:98 This effort targeted shrines that followed specific guidelines for funding, and encouraged unfunded shrines to become partners with the larger shrines. As a result of this initiative to consolidate Shinto beliefs into state-approved practices, Japan's 200,000 shrines had been reduced to 120,000 by 1914, consolidating control to shrines favorable to the state interpretation of Shinto.:98
In 1913, official rules for Shrine priests — Kankokuheisha ika jinja shinshoku hömu kisoku (官国幣社以下神社神 職奉務規則) — specifically called upon "a duty to observe festivals conforming to the rituals of the state." Some shrines did adopt State Shinto practice independent of financial support from the government. Several independent Shrine Associations nonetheless advocated for support of "State Shinto" directives independently, including the Shrine Administration Organization, the Shrine Priest Collaboration Organization, and the Shrine Priest Training Organization.
In 1910, graduates of state-run Shinto schools, such as Kokugakuin University and Kougakkan University, were implicitly allowed to become public school teachers.:23 A greater number of better-trained priests with educations at state-supported schools, combined with a rising patriotic fervor, is believed by some to have created an environment in which grassroots Emperor worship was possible without financial support for local shrines.:113
Intellectuals such as Yanagita Kunio were critics of Imperial Japan's argument that Shinto was not religious.:15 As religious rituals were banned, practitioners were driven underground and frequently arrested.:16
Kokugaku ("National Learning") is said to be a precursor to the later development of the ideological strain of Shinto known as "State Shinto." This Edo period educational philosophy encouraged a return to "pure" Japanese thought as it existed prior to any interaction with foreign concepts, including Buddhism.:28
Later, the scholar Hirata Atsutane advocated for "National Learning" as a way to eliminate the influence of Buddhism and distill a nativist form of Shinto.:16 From 1870 to 1884, Atsutane, along with priests and scholars, lead a "Great Promulgation Campaign" advocating an early attempt at fusing nationalism and Shinto through worship of the Emperor, an initiative that failed to garner public support.:42:119 The lack of enthusiasm among the general population has been attributed to its platitudes about obedience to the state; there had been no previous tradition of obedience to the Emperor in Shinto.:119 Intellectuals dismissed the idea.:51 Fukuzawa Yukichi dismissed the campaign at the time as an "insignificant movement".:119
Atsutane's nativist nationalism would encourage a later scholar, Okuni Takamasa. Takamasa advocated control and standardization of Shinto practice through a governmental "Department of Divinity.":18 These activists urged leaders to rein in the widely disparate set of local Shinto practices in favor of a standardized national practice, which they argued would unify Japan in support of the Emperor.:17
One of the preliminary actions of the state toward its absorption of Shinto was the establishment of the Department of Divinity in 1869, part of "The "Great Promulgation Campaign.":17 This government bureacracy encouraged the segregation of Kami spirits from Buddhist ones, and emphasized the divine lineage of the Emperor from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. This segregation distilled what had been a blend of Buddhist and Shinto practices in Japan. However, the department was unsuccessful and soon demoted to a Ministry. In 1872, policy for Shrines and other religions was taken over by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry intended to standardize rituals across shrines, and saw some initial success.
In calling for the return of the Department of Divinity in 1874, a group of Shinto priests issued a collective statement calling Shinto a "National Teaching." In the statement, they advocate for Shinto to be understood as unique from other religions, and thus its practices needed protection from any confusion on that point. Shinto, they argue, is representative of the traditions of the Imperial house and thus, the pure form of Japanese governance::66
National Teaching is teaching the codes of national government to the people without error. Japan is called the divine land because it is ruled by the heavenly deities descendants, who consolidate the work of the deities. The Way of such consolidation and rule by divine descendants is called Shinto.
Signatories of the statement included Shinto leaders, practitioners and scholars such as Tanaka Yoritsune, chief priest of Ise shrine; Motoori Toyokai, head of Kanda shrine; and Hirayama Seisai, head of a major tutelary shrine in Tokyo.:68-69 Nonetheless, this concept of Shinto as a "National Learning" failed to take hold in most popular conceptions of Shinto.:73
Great Promulgation Campaign
However, in 1875, the Bureau of Shinto Affairs attempted to standardize the training of priests. This created an early division between state actors and local priests, as there was disagreement in the standardized training over which kami to include in all rituals, particularly, whether state kami should be included. This debate marked the rise of the Ise sect, which was open to a stronger state presence in Shinto, and the Izumo sect, which did not. The Izumo sect advocated for recognition of the god Ōkuninushi as an equal to Amaterasu, which had theological consequences for emperor-worship. This debate, the "enshrinement debate," posed a serious ideological threat to the Meiji-era government.
A result of the enshrinement debate was that the Ministry of the Interior concentrated on distinctions of "religion" and "doctrine", stating that "“Shinto rituals (shinsai) are performed by the state whereas religious doctrines (kyōhō) are to be followed by individuals and families." Through this logic, Shinto rituals were a civic responsibility which all Japanese subjects were expected to participate in, whereas "religious" Shinto was a matter of personal faith and subject to freedom of religion. This debate marked an early failure in crafting of a unified national Shinto practice, and lead to a sharp decline in both state grants to Shinto shrines and to the appointment of Shinto priests to government positions.:98 The Ministry of Home Affairs took responsibility for shrines in 1877, and in 1887 it stopped financial support for most shrines, aside from select Imperial shrines tied to state functions.
In 1879, Yasukuni Shrine was built to enshrine the war dead. Because the emperor visited and performed rites at Yasukuni, it was suggested that to die in battle was a high honor.:91:119 Around this time, the state began to assign shrines with meanings rooted in patriotic nationalism; including a network of shrines dedicated to soldiers killed in battle. These assignments had no connection to the history of these local shrines, which lead to resentment.:120 In contemporary times, the shrine has become a controversial symbol for Japanese nationalists.
While many citizens of various political persuasions visit the site to honor relatives killed in battle, whose kami (spirit) are said to be enshrined there, so too are the kami of several class-A war criminals. These criminals were enshrined in a secret ceremony in 1978, which has raised the ire of Japanese pacifists, and the international community.
No Emperor has visited the shrine since, and visits by prime ministers and government officials to the shrine have been the subject of lawsuits and media controversy.
In occupied territories
As the Japanese extended their territorial holdings, shrines were constructed with the purpose of hosting Japanese kami in occupied lands. This practice began with a shrine in Taiwan in 1900. Major shrines built across Asia included Karafuto Shrine in Sakhalin in 1910 and Chosen Shrine, Korea, in 1919; these shrines were designated just under Ise Shrine in national importance. Other shrines included Shonan Shrine in Singapore, San'a Shrine in Hainan Island (China), Akatsuki Shrine in Saigon, and Hokoku Shrine in Java.
The Japanese built almost 400 shrines in occupied Korea, and worship was mandatory for Koreans.:125 A statement from the head of the Home Office in Korea wrote about the shrines in a directive: "...they have an existence totally distinct from religion, and worship at the shrines is an act of patriotism and loyalty, the basic moral virtues of our nation.":125
On 1 January 1946, Emperor Shōwa issued a statement, sometimes referred to as the Humanity Declaration, in which he quoted the Five Charter Oath of Emperor Meiji and announced that he was not an Akitsumikami and Japan was not built on myths. The U.S. General Headquarters quickly defined, and banned certain practices, which it defined as "State Shinto." But because the U.S. saw freedom of religion as a crucial aspect of post-War Japan; it did not place a full ban on Japanese religious ceremonies involving the Emperor.:702 Some say this was a concession from General Douglas MacArthur intended to maintain the authority of the Emperor among the Japanese people during the occupation and reconstruction of Japan.:702
Other aspects of the governments "suprareligious" enforcement of Shinto practices, such as school trips to Shinto shrines, were forbidden. Some innovations of Meiji-era Shinto can still be seen in contemporary Shinto, however, such as the belief among priests that Shinto is a nonreligious cultural practice that encourages national unity.:161
Controversy has emerged during the funerals and weddings of members of the Japanese Imperial Family, as they present a merging of Shinto and state functions. The Japanese treasury does not pay for these events, which preserves a strict sense of distinction between state and shrine functions.:703
The Association of Shinto Shrines is politically active in encouraging support for the Emperor,:706 including campaigns such as distributing amulets from Ise Shrine. Ise shrine was one of the most important shrines in State Shinto, symbolizing Amaterasu's presence and connection to the Emperor. In contrast, the Meiji-era Yasakuni shrine is frequently the target of State Shinto controversies, likely owing to its enshrinement of Japanese soldiers killed in warfare.
Conservative politicians and nationalist interest groups continue to advocate for returning the Emperor to a central political and religious position, which they believe will restore a national sense of unity.
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