japan and the shinto religion -- 7/18/14

Today's selection -- from Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix. After Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into the Uraga harbor in 1853 and shocked the isolated nation of Japan into modernity, there followed internal wars and then the "restoration" or reestablishment of an emperor -- replacing the shogunate. That emperor was Mutsuhito, known posthumously as Meiji or "the Great," and he used the Shinto religion as part of his overall effort to gain the obedience of the people. His grandson, Hirohito, who presided over Japan's involvement in World War II, inherited this tradition:

"Allegedly nonreligious 'state Shinto' (as opposed to 'sect Shinto') took shape during Meiji's reign directly from the belief that Japan was a holy realm protected by Shinto deities and ruled by an emperor who was descended from the sun goddess. The nationalization of core elements of Shinto entailed the establishment of the Grand Shrine of Ise Jingu as the major Shinto shrine in which the sun goddess was enshrined. Ise became the main symbol of Shinto as well as a center of national devotion and the apex of a hierarchy of lesser shrines in villages and towns throughout the country.

"In 1890 Emperor Meiji issued, without the countersignature of any minister of state, the short Imperial Rescript on Education. 'Know ye, Our subjects,' it began, using the newly coined compound term shinmin to denote 'loyal-officials-directly-subordinated-to-the-emperor, and people-who-obediently-comply-with-their-orders.' ... The final line of the rescript asserted that emperors were the source of all morality. ...

"The rescript molded generations of Japanese to be loyal servants to the emperor-state, in which governance was an essentially paternalistic exercise, carried out in a paternalistic manner, by officials who were supposed to know best what was good for the people. In addition the education rescript accustomed all Japanese to the notion that morality and culture were closely tied to, yet never transcended, the state. ...

"State Shinto, and the notion of 'the unity of rites and governance' through the emperor, gained a new lease on life through the establishment in 1900 of a Bureau of Shrines and Religion within the Home Ministry. Soon each member of a household, whether Buddhist or Christian (then about 1 percent of the population), had to become a parishioner of a local shrine and have a connection with a tutelary deity. When the local shrines raised their status to the state level by choosing names from ancient myths or historical legends, all the gods of the shrine became connected genealogically to the ancestral goddess of the imperial house, Amaterasu Omikami. Feelings of veneration for Emperor Meiji deepened, and many people began to imagine that they themselves existed because of him. ...

The young Meiji emperor, 1872

"In 1908, ... the Ministry of Education began to rewrite school textbooks to describe Japan as an organic, harmonious, moral, and patriarchial 'family state' in which all Japanese were related to the emperor. Revision was needed because society was changing rapidly and interpretations of Meiji's 'Imperial Rescript on Education,' written in archaic language, needed to be unified. Now the education rescript acquired a meaning it had not had in the 1890s. Children continued to be taught the foundation myths: that they were the subjects of the emperor and had to obey him just as they obeyed their fathers and mothers. But for the first time the impersonal emperor-state itself was presented as the supreme entity that took priority over all other values. The relationship of the imperial house to the nation began to be described as that of a progenitor 'headfamily' to its various 'branch' and 'stem' families. When the textbook revision was completed in 1911, the premises of monarchical absolutism had been written into public education, and state power had, in theory, been grounded in the intimate sphere of the family.

"In the real world, of course, not all Japanese sided with the government or identified strongly with the imperial house as the new textbooks assumed. Significantly the years 1910-11 witnessed the highly publicized High Treason Incident, in which a small group of radical socialists and anarchists were charged with lèse-majesté and executed for allegedly plotting to assassinate Emperor Meiji. One of them was a young priest of the Sota Zen sect, Uchiyama Gudo, who had written and widely circulated a scathing denunciation of the entire imperial system:

'The Big Bullock of the present government, the emperor, is not the son of the gods as your primary school teachers and others would have you believe. The ancestors of the present emperor came forth from a corner of Kyushu, killing and robbing people as they did. They then destroyed their fellow thieves. ... When it is said that the [imperial dynasty] has continued for 2,500 years, it may seem as if [the present emperor] is divine, but down through the ages the emperors have been tormented by foreign opponents and, domestically, treated as puppets by their own vassals .... Although this is well-known, university professors and their students, weaklings that they are, refuse to either say or write anything about it. Instead, they attempt to deceive both others and themselves, knowing all along the whole thing is a pack of lies.' "


Herbert P. Bix


Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan


Harper Perennial


Copyright 2000 by Herbert P. Bix


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