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Samuel Blaine

Professor Yamaguchi
Modern History of Japan

Shinto and Japan


Japan is a country with a very colorful history and background. It has a
history that tells a story full of tradition, religion, society, and change. The
religion that everyone thinks of when speaking about Japan is Shintoism.
Shintoism is almost exclusively a Japanese religion, considering where it
originated (Japan) and what it teaches. Shintoism is a very unique belief
system in that it does not have a set of written scriptures or tomes and it
does not have a singular founder. It is also different to some of the major
world religions due to its polytheistic belief system. The people who practice
Shintoism generally believe in kami. This word can translate many different
ways into English. Kami could mean god, spirit, divinity, mind, or deity to be
worshipped. The Websters dictionary defines kami as one of the Shinto
deities (including mythological beings, spirits of distinguished men, forces of
nature).1 The ambiguous nature of the word is somewhat intentional, it adds
to the unique complexity that is Shintoism. The two understood doctrines of
Shintoism are: Japan is the land of the gods (kami) and the people of Japan
are all descended somehow from those gods. We can see that Shintoism is a
very interesting, unique, and complex belief system. I think that as Japan
changed into a more modern country, Shintoism changed some also. Did

Shintoism impact how the Japanese saw themselves? Did it perhaps impact
how they interacted with other countries? Did
1

Allee, John Gage. Webster's Dictionary. New York: Galahad, 1975. Print.

Shintoism change as the nation became much more modern? Did Shintoism
affect the government of Japan, and if it did, how? The answers to these
questions can give us a great look into the history of Japan and what part
Shintoism played in it.
An enormously important period in the history of Japan is called the
Meiji Restoration. In his book Shinto: The Kami Way Dr. Sokyo Ono tells us,
The Meiji Restoration had two parallel and complementary objectives. One
was political, the other religious. The political objective was the restoration of
the direct rule of the Emperor, who for centuries had been relegated to a
position of political impotence. The religious objective was to revive the Kami
Way as the spiritual basis for government and society.2 This tells us a lot
about the time period of the Restoration. The people of Japan had clearly
gotten away from the worship of Kami and the other traditions of Shintoism.
This dual purpose Meiji Restoration was trying to restore its imperial leader to
his former power while simultaneously uniting the country spiritually under
Shintoism. In this instance we can see how spiritual practices and
government affairs are aligned in Japan. During the 1868 Meiji Restoration
political reform was not all that was sought out, religious reform was a
priority also.
2

As the Meiji Restoration continued to grow in strength and many


structures changed in Japanese society more steps were taken that showed a
union between the government and religion. A major goal of the leaders
during the reforming period of the Meiji Restoration was to create an official
separation between Buddhism and Shintoism. Over the last several decades
the lines had been blurred between the two eastern religions. Often referred
to now as
2

Ono, Sokyo, Dr., and William P. Woodard. Shinto: The Kami Way. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle,

1962. Print.

syncretism, many Japanese people during the late nineteenth century were
worshipping Kami and Buddha alongside one another. According to Dr. Ono,
The first steps toward the religious goal included an order separating
Buddhism from Shintoism, the establishment of a Department of Shinto
modelled after the Office of Divine Affairs (Jingi Kan) of the seventh century,
and a declaration to the effect that Shinto would be the religious foundation
of the new government.3 It appears that the officials of this period were
trying to create a sense of solidarity and nationalism amongst the Japanese
with this move. Buddhism had crept over to Japan from China, and many
could see it as Chinese culture embedding itself amongst the Japanese. We
can see from this that it was important to the Japanese that there was a
national pride created. This national pride would also create a new unity
amongst the islands of Japan.

As the Meiji Restoration happened, an undertaking that is important


not to miss is that as the new Emperor Meiji is helping to bring about all of
these positive changes to Japan, he is also making Shintoism the official
state religion for the nation of Japan. A unique transformation was underway
in Japan during the late 1800s. Shinto shrines and temples became property
of the government, priests were often appointed by the Emperor, and
detailed laws were written up on shrines and their patrons. As the Emperor
announced the Imperial Charter Oath of Five Articles, a new document that
addressed how Japan would function, he added a paragraph to the end.
Author Floyd Ross shows us in his book Shinto: The Way of Japan that
Emperor Meiji said, In order to perform the greatest reformation in our
history, I will lead the nation in giving oath to the Kami of Heaven and Earth
and will establish
3

Ono, Sokyo, Dr., and William P. Woodard. Shinto: The Kami Way. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle,

1962. Print.

the National Polity to pave the way for Our nations securtity.4 The
government of Japan, along with the Imperial family, fought for many years a
battle to remain independent of Western influence and culture. During the
mid-nineteenth century, Japan faced the threat of having their culture
absorbed by other Western countries. Confucianism and Buddhism infiltrated
Japanese life on a consistent basis. Japanese officials rallied behind the
banner of Shintoism to fight the loss of their culture and identity. For a large
portion of the nineteenth century, Japan practiced a staunch version of

isolationism relative to other countries in the world. Japan fought the


influences that crept into their country by trying to isolate themselves. Just
before the Meiji Restoration, these isolationist practices tried to ward off
things like Christianity and trade with the West. This would only work for so
long. In 1853, Japan would be threatened militarily by Western nations,
specifically America. In his book A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa
times to the Present author Andrew Gordon tells us, In 1853, Commodore
Matthew Perry of the United States arrived in Japan as the most determined
carrier yet of this simple message: Agree to trade in peace, or suffer the
consequences in war.5 The Western world had grown tired of Japans
isolationist practices. Countries like the U.S., Spain, and Britain were more
than ready to force trade onto Japan. Now true enough these foreign
countries were not trying to squash out Shintoism or even Japanese culture,
they were just ready to force commercial trade upon Japan. This is a point in
Japans history where the country was sort of split for a short time. There
were those conservative voices that voted for the continuation of isolation.
Those voices wanted to fight the Western nations even if it might mean the
loss of
4

Ross, Floyd Hiatt. Shinto, the Way of Japan. Boston: Beacon, 1965. Print.
Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa times to the Present. New York:
Oxford UP, 2003. Print. 49.
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life. But a larger portion of the population would win out with their
progressive ideas. They were pretty much saying it is time to again open
their doors to the world and catch up. But within the next two decades the

Meiji Restoration would occur, and even though the nation of Japan had been
bullied by its larger neighbors for some time, it would begin to make changes
to nationalize and create a stronger more unified Japanese identity.
After the many changes of the Meiji Restoration, Shintoism would hold
on to its strong governmental ties for some decades. During the end of the
1800 and beginning of the 1900s, the Japanese Imperial Army had a series
of militant successes. It is plausible that their victory in the first SinoJapanese War was due partly because of the pride and identity that
Shintoism helped the nation find. Another major military victory was the
Russo-Japanese War of 1904, again Japan wins unexpectedly and the world
realizes that Japan is becoming a major power. This surge of military might
could owe its existence to the use of Shintoism by the Japanese government.
Japan would not continue using Shintoism as a state religion and
unifying force forever. Certainly by the defeats suffered in the Second SinoJapanese War and World War II Japan and its formal relationship with
Shintoism would begin to change. One of the first major changes would
actually be the removal of Shintoism from government protocol. All of the
shrines and temples would return to the care and ownership of the priests
and patrons. Throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century, the
idea of what is Shintoism began to become a bit muddled. Did Shintoism
change years after the Meiji Restoration? Shintoism has been a part of
Japanese life for hundreds of years. But it is safe to say that Shintoism was

used as a tool by certain officials during the Meiji period as a unifying tool to
create a sense of nationalism amongst the Japanese. Author Floyd Ross tells
us, By the opening of the 1930s, for most Japanese Shintoism had become
completely identified with the national cause Shinto had been made into a
handmaiden of the State.6 It seems that it could be said that Shinto had
been twisted into something other than a spiritual practices ever since the
modernization of Japan began. That is possibly a harsh way to describe what
the government was doing with Shintoism. But it is true that this central
Japanese religion had been used for other purposes, much like other major
religions of the world.
In a brief interview with Rina Irie, an international studies student at
the University of Mississippi, about Shintoism, I was able to learn much more
about how the population of Japan currently feels about the spiritual practice
and what it means to them. The first question I posed to Rina was, What is
Shintoism to you? to which she replied It is a religion that is very familiar to
me, but I see it more as Japanese cultural thing.7 I was very interested to
see that she answered me in that way. Many of the worlds religions have
changed for certain people groups over the years. There are many people in
the world that do not consider themselves religious, and yet they still partake
in certain practices more for the sake of tradition or culture. For example, in
America, certainly not everyone is a Christian, but many people still choose
to celebrate Christmas, which is a symbolic date for the birth of Jesus Christ.
The next question I asked my interviewee Rina was, Do you practice it in
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any way? to which she replied, I go to a shrine on New Years day, and pray
for a good year. Also, I often buy a good luck charm too.8
6

Ross, Floyd Hiatt. Shinto, the Way of Japan. Boston: Beacon, 1965. Print. Pg 146.

This answer was quite appropriate considering her former one. It


seems that in Japan many people share Rinas view on Shintoism and how it
is largely cultural now. Many people buy charms and pray a few times a year.
The charms they buy, or Omamori, are generally tokens of protection and
good luck from the Kami. Many people in Japan buy these with the intention
of simply just donating to the temple. I asked another important question to
Rina about is Shintoism still prevalent in Japan? Do people still practice it at
large? To which she responded, Yes, I think it's prevalent. As I mentioned
before, celebrating New Years day or purchasing a good luck charm is very
familiar to us.9 I found this answer to show a lot about Shintoism in Japan.
Before interviewing Rina, I couldnt get a good sense of whether or not
Shinto is still a large part of life in Japan or not. In her answers a constant
idea sticks out that Shintoism is now largely a traditional practice that
families and individuals occasionally practice. I asked Rina a few more
questions to try and give myself an understanding of modern Shintoism in
Japan and what it might look like these days. I asked Rina, To you it seems
Shinto is very traditional, but are there people in Japan that could be
considered devout and really believe in Shintoism as a spiritual practice?
She replied with, I think yes. There are many shrines in Japan and many
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people go to them.10 This piece of information is great because it shows that


not everyone in Japan considers Shintoism to be just a traditional thing but
some also still practice it as their spiritual belief. I learned in my research
that shortly after the Meiji Restoration Shintoism was officially named the
state religion of Japan. This would carry on into the 20th century before the
official relationship between Shintoism and the government was
7,8,9, 10

Irie, Rina. Interview. April 8, 2015. University of MS.

dropped. According to Rina, Currently in Japan, relating religious things and


political things is banned.11 This is an important fact to know that Japan has
maintained their separation between religion and state.
Japans history is directly influenced by the belief system Shintoism
and the role it played within the government and the population. The
government went through periods of closeness and distance from Shinto.
Shintoism was birthed in Japan and, quite unlike any other major religion, it
has mostly stayed in its place of origin. Shintoism is certainly a unique
spiritual practice that gives Japan a colorful and interesting background.
From the country going between a rural, traditional, isolated nation to
becoming a major modern world power, Shintoism has always been a
centrifugal part of Japanese history. I think from the above research we can
see that Shintoism did indeed change a bit as the nation changed. From
before the Meiji Restoration to after it and well into the twentieth century,
Shintoism was practiced, used, and changed just as the nation of Japan
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changed. The government certainly used it as a tool to solidify Japanese


identity and to create a sort of national pride through Shinto. There is also
fairly clear evidence that benefited largely from the use of Shintoism as a
unifying factor. Even though Japan does not currently call Shintoism its state
religion, it did at one point hold that exact title.

11

Irie, Rina. Interview. April 8, 2015. University of MS.

Bibliography
Chiba, Reiko. The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle,
1966. Print.
Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion; Unity and Diversity. 4th ed. Belmont,
CA: Dickenson Pub., 2004. Print.
Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa times to the
Present. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
Irie, Rina. Interview. April 8, 2015. University of MS.
Ito, Satoshi, Jun Endo, and Mizue Mori. Shinto, a Short History. Trans. Mark
Teeuwen and John Breen. Ed. Nobutaka Inoue. London: RoutledgeCurzon,
2003. Print.
Ono, Sokyo, Dr., and William P. Woodard. Shinto: The Kami Way. Rutland:
Charles E. Tuttle, 1962. Print.
Picken, Stuart D. B. Shinto, Japans Spiritual Roots. Tokyo: Kodansha
International, 1980. Print.
Reader, Ian, Esben Andreasen, and Finn Stefnsson. Japanese Religions: Past
and Present. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1993. Print.
10

Ross, Floyd Hiatt. Shinto, the Way of Japan. Boston: Beacon, 1965. Print.
Tanizaki, Jun'ichiro. Naomi. New York: Knopf, 1985. Print.

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