Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Brief History of Shinto (part 4)

Academic Post #4
A Brief History of Shinto (part 4): If You Overthrow the Shogunate and Establish a New Government, You Can Say Anything About Shinto That You Like (Although People Might Not Listen)

Where we left off last time, National Learning dudes were convinced that Shinto should be used by the emperor to rule over all people.

Suddenly, the Meiji Restoration happened!*  Basically, a bunch of disgruntled people overthrew the shogunate and put the emperor back into power.  But then someone said, “Hold on a second!  This is actually not that great of an idea!  Look at China.  They have an emperor, but they’re getting crushed by Westerners and all sorts of crazy rebellions!**”  So after studying Western forms of government, they decided to set up the Diet and a cabinet of ministers…so it became an oligarchy, basically.

In addition to governmental changes, there was a huge push in Japan to modernize and Westernize.  At the same time, the new state-builders were worried that unless the Japanese people were united as a whole, the West would be able to just swoop in and crush them.  What Japan needed was a “national consciousness,” something that bound all Japanese people together.  What it needed was…State Shinto.

The problem was that Western powers were pushing for Japan to guarantee freedom of religion, which meant that if the Meiji government made observances of State Shinto mandatory, the Western powers would get ticked off and beat them up.  On the other hand, if they didn’t make State Shinto mandatory, it wouldn’t be very effective.
The solution?
Shinto isn’t a religion.  It’s a SUPRARELIGIOUS ENTITY.***

There’s a whole lot that can be said (and has been said) about State Shinto, but since this is a brief history, I’ll stick to the basic outline:

What was State Shinto supposed to do?
1. Make the people feel loyal toward the government (especially the emperor).  As a consequence of their loyalty, they would do pretty much whatever the government asked them to do.
2. Unite the people by making them feel as though they all had something in common which made them Japanese.  Remember, Shinto stretches back to ANCIENT ANTIQUITY and hasn't changed AT ALL NOT A BIT.
3. Remember all that about Japan being the source of everything ever?  Well, imagine that times one thousand.  A sizable chunk of the propaganda from WWII features poor, unenlightened Koreans/Chinese/Taiwanese people on their knees as they are dazzled by the Japanese army, who have conveniently brought Amaterasu with them to spread her heavenly light over the poor, oppressed, unenlightened foreigners.***

How was State Shinto supposed to do that?
1. Shinbutsu bunri, also known as the separation of Shinto from Buddhism.  Shrines were ordered to be moved out of temple complexes and vice versa.  Any Buddhist paraphernalia in shrines had to be thrown out.
2. Setting up national holidays and certain rites which the whole populace was supposed to participate in.  Also included mandatory fieldtrips to shrines for kids in elementary school.
3. Ordering the priesthood to stop performing rituals that could be associated with “religious” activity.
4. Worshiping the emperor as a “living kami.”  While the imperial family was always believed to be descended from Amaterasu, their connection to the sun goddess was particularly stressed during the State Shinto period.

How well did this work?
1. Shinbutsu bunri.  Not all that well.  Shinto didn’t really exist separate from Buddhism, so separating the two of them was…hard, to say the least.  It would be like if I handed you The New Testament and asked you to take all the silly stuff about Jesus out.
2. National holidays worked equally badly, mostly because a lot of people ignored them.  Many of the new holidays and rituals had no grounding in local beliefs or traditions, so nobody really had an incentive to follow them.
3. Trying to cut the religion out of Shinto failed pretty spectacularly as well.  The main problem was that the government couldn’t afford to support shrines, and the main way shrines normally got their revenue was from the local populace.  If the local populace came to the shrine and asked for prayers for health/good luck/plentiful crops to be performed and the priest refused, the shrine had no money and the priest starved.  If the priest accepted, he was violating Shinto’s suprareligious nature.
4. It’s…not really clear how well the propaganda concerning the emperor worked.  People certainly knew about it, but whether they believed it is another matter entirely…

But now you’re saying, “Waaaaait a second!  If State Shinto failed so spectacularly, what’s the deal with WWII?”
Well, there are a couple of things going on here.
First of all, State Shinto didn’t cause WWII.  State Shinto was the result of a mindset which contributed to the start of WWII.  Think of it as a symptom of the underlying problem, not the problem itself.
Second of all, State Shinto was pretty horribly ineffective at the beginning, but as the war progressed (and the situation in Japan got generally scarier) some bits of it became more effective.  If it’s a question between going to the festival that is meaningless to you or working, you’re going to work.  But if it’s a question of going to the festival that is meaningless to you or getting shot in the face, you’re probably going to go to the festival.  Also, there were some bits of it which were relatively effective from the beginning, such as the observances performed at schools.
Third of all, the situation was a lot more complicated than I have room to describe here, so you should really go read more about it if you are interested.

Further reading
Shinto and the State, 1868-1988
Japan's Modern Myths by Carol Gluck
Although this book doesn't focus specifically on Shinto, it does talk about ideology in the Meiji period, of which State Shinto was a small part.

*Note: This is not actually how history happens.  Some people had to get killed in nasty ways before anything got restored.

**Taiping Rebellion.  Best rebellion ever, not even kidding.  Basically a guy claiming to be Jesus’s younger brother (yes, that Jesus) gathers together a bunch of followers, runs away from the army with his followers and in the process somehow manages to capture the southern half of China, holds onto the southern half of China for ten years as the Qing army fails hilariously at defeating him, manages to tick off/weird out the Western powers who are actually interested in helping him, rewrites the Bible, orders the death of his right-hand man (the Holy Ghost) and the resulting slaughter takes out about twenty thousand of his followers, and is finally killed, becoming one of the twenty to thirty MILLION deaths caused by the rebellion.  If you’re interested in reading about this (bizarre and fascinating and bloody) rebellion, I highly recommend God’s Chinese Son by Jonathan D. Spence.

***You have my permission to headdesk, if you so desire.  If you do not have a desk, you may headtable.

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