Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Brief History of Shinto (part 5)

I didn't realize that yesterday was post #50 until just now.  Yay?

Also, a lot of today's post is modified from my thesis.  'cause sometimes you really want to include a quote from General Douglas MacArthur.


Academic Post #5
A Brief History of Shinto (part 5): Actually, We Changed Our Minds; Shinto's a Religion Again, and Everyone Is Super Confused

When World War II ended and the Occupation was faced with the task of “rehabilitating” Japan, their first major hurdle was State Shinto.  The leaders of the Occupation saw State Shinto as the source of the Japanese xenophobic ultranationalism.  Of course, some people saw the situation in a different light than others; General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of the allied powers and a generally REALLY INTERESTING GUY, declared, “Japan is a spiritual vacuum.  If you do not fill it with Christianity, it will be filled with Communism.  Send me 1,000 missionaries.”[1]  Although Shinto leaders feared that MacArthur planned to Christianize Japan by force, most of the Allied Occupation leaders were significantly more reasonable and mostly wanted to make sure that Shinto would never again be used for nationalistic or militaristic purposes.

This is where the Shinto Directive comes in.

The Shinto Directive (which, ironically, I have to read for class this week in the original Japanese) basically said:
  1. The Japanese people have religious freedom.
  2. Shinto is the same legally as any other religion in Japan.
  3. Religion and the state must be separate.
  4. All references to and instruction on Shinto must be removed from public school curriculum.
Ironically, the part of the Shinto Directive which sparked the most outcry from the public was the last bit; people argued that shrines, aside from being religious instituions, were places of immense historical and cultural value, and so children who were deprived of field trips to shrines would grow up lacking a proper appreciation and understanding of their culture and history.  The Occupation government wasn’t convinced, but after the end of the Occupation, field trips resumed.*

The other major change which occurred under the Occupation was that the emperor was required to renounce his divinity in a radio broadcast to the nation.  It was the first time the emperor had ever done a radio broadcast, and everyone I have talked to from that generation has vivid memories of the event.  It’s sort of like how in my generation we ask, “Where were you when you heard about 9/11?” except that it’s “Where were you when you heard the emperor was human?”

And now I get to talk about all the weird fallout created by classifying Shinto as a religion.
This is definitely one of the things I find most fascinating about Shinto, so excuse me as I wax poetic.

The problem boils down to this: nobody’s really sure what the heck Shinto is.

Historically, there was no concept of a religious sphere that was separate from the secular sphere in Japan.  The old word for government (; matsurigoto) literally meant “the business of ritual worship.”  To say that government and religion were heavily intertwined would be to imply that they were two different things, which they weren’t.

Thus, when Japan came into contact with the West, and, perhaps more importantly, Christianity in the nineteenth century, it had no equivalent concept or term for the word “religion,” nor any concept of “religion” as a distinct sphere of daily life.  However, the Japanese needed a word for “religion” if only for translation purposes, and so after trying a variety of different words, they settled on shūkyō (宗教), a Buddhist technical term.

Additionally, the lack of resemblance between Japanese religions and Western ones was what led to the discussion among scholars of the early Meiji period concerning whether the word shūkyō could be used to describe Shinto.  In the end, as you already know, it was decided that Shinto was not a religion, because the Shinto priesthood, for the most part, associated shūkyō with doctrine, funerals, and rites intended to induce this-worldly benefits, NOT with the rites of state which State Shinto was supposed to perform.

However, at the end of the war, suddenly Shinto was a religion, and everyone was really, really confused.  Everyone is still really, really confused, as illustrated in a survey conducted by the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.  29% of the respondents said that they belonged to a religious group, and 19% described themselves as atheists.  Despite what Western audiences might see as a very low level of religious affiliation, 50% of the respondents professed belief in the existence of deities, and almost two-thirds said they believed in an “unseen higher power.”  Most interestingly, 25% of those who described themselves as atheists said that they believed in a God or gods.[2]  So what exactly Shinto is, what religion is, and how the two are related is still kind of an amorphous blob of confusion, for most people.

Further reading

Also, the BBC has a brief history of Shinto, which you may find helpful (and more coherent than mine).

And thus concludes this brief history of Shinto series!  I hope it has been somewhat informative/not confusing.

I have some ideas for new academic topics starting next week, but if you have suggestions, I would love to hear them!  You can leave a comment below or you can email me or you can send me a letter by carrier pigeon or you can yell really, really loudly.  Unfortunately, I do not know everything in the world, so if you suggest a topic I know absolutely nothing about (like, I dunno, Buddhist influences in Basho’s poetry), I probably won’t be able to write anything about it.  BUT if you want to hear about a supremely nerdy topic (like internet shrines or the Lucky Star shrine or mail-order amulets) I can probably talk/write your ears off.

*Nakano-san said that 2nd graders visit Gosha Shrine twice a year for fieldtrips.

[1] Helen Hardacre, Shintō and the State, 1868-1988, 135.
[2] Robert Kisala, “Japanese Religions,” 5-6.

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