This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)

Lafcadio Hearn, a travel writer who lived in Japan from 1890 until his death,  like many other Western travellers, remarked on the curious spectacles of Japanese culture and tradition which had been cut off from the outside world for over 200 years. What is embedded, somewhat unknowingly, is a narrative of intense social and religious upheaval. Indeed, Hearn wrote extensively about the Shinto and Buddhist practices of the Japanese population where he lived, on the island of Kyūshū, writing “for in this most antique province of Japan all Buddhist and Shintoists likewise utter the Shinto prayer: Harai tamai kiyome tamai to kami imi tami”which when loosely translating Hearn’s romanised transcription means “The distant gods, smile [upon us] we pray; drive out [evil], we pray; cleanse us; we pray”. And while this may depict a harmonious relationship between the two religions it belies the conflict and reform of faith in Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan. These dynamics of faith were carefully designed to support the rise of militant nationalism which would come to a head on the global stage of world war in the mid-twentieth century Shōwa period (1926-89).

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 in which the Shogunate was overthrown and the Emperor, or Tennō’s role was restored, there was a reorganisation of Japanese society. A powerful tool used by the Meiji government was the reassertion of Shinto rites and beliefs, especially when concerned with the divine status of the Imperial family and Emperor. Buddhist temples were targeted in a movement historically called haibutsu kishaku(廃仏毀釈) where nearly eighteen thousand temples were destroyed as a symbol of a wider transition that aimed to separate Shinto and Buddhist divinities completely, shinbutsu bunri (神仏分離). However, one thing to consider when analysing this subject is the Japanese understanding of religion. Shinto was fundamentally a belief system that informed the Japanese worldview and allowed its followers to comprehend their realities of life (eg. natural disasters, sickness, and the divine rule of the Imperial family). The Meiji government implemented laws allowing for religious freedom, but created a loophole of faux-secularisation where Shinto was converted into an ideology instead of being comparable to religion. Hence, the adoption of Murakami Shigeyoshi’s theory, “State Shinto”. Murakami argues that this term also means that the Japanese populace were also active members of this nationalistic idea, ‘supporting and rallying’ the cause instead of the top-down process of ideological assimilation that can be witnessed in other nations’ histories.

The overall success of Shinto is contested by Fukuzawa Yukichi, a famous enlightened thinker of the Meiji period, renowned for his views on Japan’s modernisation and educational practices who wrote about his suspicions of Shinto in the modern world. He claims ‘Shinto was always a puppet of Buddhism’ (1883), and thus used Buddhist principles instead of having its own coherent set of beliefs. The Great Promulgation campaign (1870-84) sought to overcome this issue by establishing a new modern doctrine, and under this the “imperial edict on the promulgation of the Great Teachings” which sent missionaries across the country in order to proselytise Japan with a state-sponsored comprehension of what Shinto actually was.

Another obstacle the Meiji government had to contend with in solidifying a modern definition of Shinto was the power of local shrines and their relationship with local governance. During the restorative era of government and into the first decade of the twentieth century the state recognised that centralisation in religious institutions was necessary for an adoption of State Shinto, and began to invest significantly into Shinto shrines as ‘vehicles for national initiatives’. Consequently, the government had further reaching control that could overcome the historic fragmented and localised nature of the country.

Additionally, with any ideological movement, education was an institution that was necessary to intercept and signposted ideological change in the morals and ethics of the population. The Meiji period witnessed significant educational reform which placed Shinto and thus the Emperor at the heart of Japanese life. National Learning (Kokugaku) was a school of thought that exemplified the departure from all religions in favour of strengthening Shinto principles and mythos which was led by enlightened thinkers such as Fukuzawa. Furthermore, from the 1880s onwards school events and trips to Shinto shrines, rituals, and festivals calling back to ancient Japanese traditions were organised for the purpose of revering the Emperor. The Rescript of Education was also implemented from 1890 and sent to every school in Japan, accompanied by a portrait of Emperor Meiji. The image we can conjure of a Japanese classroom post-1890 parallels those seen in authoritarian states during the twentieth century such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Communist China.  

In combination with the divine provenance of the Emperor, he had become God in the eyes of the Japanese, and this is highlighted in classroom practice. These educational and religious reforms nurtured nationalism from an early age, and normalised the reverent role of the Emperor within Japanese society – children now grew up with an intense awareness of their moral duty to the Emperor and the state by proxy.This process developed a new “modern” Japanese national identity characterised by an ideological shift towards radical, militaristic nationalism. This would also later encompass Japan’s national image during the Pacific War, leaving long-term echoes of Japan’s modern history on the global stage.  For example, even today the phrase “Tenno heika banzai (天皇陛下万歳)” evokes images of Japanese soldiers running towards the enemy on a suicide mission, completely hypnotised by the rhetoric asserted during the Meiji period of the divine provenance of the Emperor. As expressed by Helen Hardacre, the history of State Shinto is an uneasy concept to approach in contemporary Japan as it attempts to re-contextualise national values in a modern world.