Shinto and Politics

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 5, 2014 — 14 Comments

Back in November I pointed to an article in the Japan Times on the recent ascent of a politically oriented brand of Shinto, the indigenous faith of that island nation. Because of the role Shinto played in Japan during World War II, this has made some people very nervous, despite protestations from organizations like the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership that their mission is merely “renewing spiritual values” in their homeland.

“In the past, Ise Jingu (shrine) was the fountainhead for unifying politics and religion and national polity fundamentalism,” author Hisashi Yamanaka recently told the Asahi newspaper. “Abe’s act is clearly a return to the ways before World War II.”

After I linked to that article,  P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a polytheist who has participated in many Shinto ceremonies at a local temple in Washington state, warned against engaging in “Shinto-y slope arguments.” 

“I don’t think that a better understanding of Japan’s Shinto cultural and religious heritage being given to students in modern Japan is a bad thing at all–in fact, they would greatly benefit from knowing more about the symbols and phenomena which their parents revere but are often at a loss to explain, particularly in the post-World War II period for the reasons described above. There is no “Shinto-y slope” involved in knowing more about this religion, which could provide an important corrective to corporate greed and environmental degradation not only worldwide, but also within Japan specifically (especially in the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster), which is sorely needed in the world today. The people who advocate such a return to their indigenous values do so in a context in which the questions of religious and cultural separation are not as clear as they are in Western contexts, nor are they as relevant. And, I really don’t think that the people involved, no matter how stern and formal they may be, are foolish enough to suggest some of the excesses that occurred in earlier State Shinto contexts be replicated today–or, at least, let’s hope they aren’t thinking in those directions, and attempt to assume the best of intentions meanwhile until proven otherwise rather than resorting to the fallacious “slippery slope” arguments, no matter how tempting and popular they may be.”

So, with the qualification that we shouldn’t rush to judgment, it’s time to revisit the issue of politics and Shinto, this time involving our own Vice President, and the issue of diplomatic relations between Japan and other Asian powers like South Korea and China. It all revolves around a visit to the politically volatile (even in Japan) Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine

“U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spent nearly an hour trying to persuade Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, two weeks before a trip there sparked a furor in Asia, diplomatic sources said. Abe visited the Shinto shrine, where convicted wartime leaders are honored along with war dead, on Dec. 26, triggering fierce criticism from China and South Korea, and leading Washington to express disappointment at his decision in an unusually explicit manner. With U.S. President Barack Obama expected to visit in April for talks with Abe, the rising tensions between Japan and the two neighboring nations will likely be high on the agenda. The turmoil, which undermines American interests in the region, could dash Abe’s hopes of boosting Japan’s U.S. security alliance.”

As noted in the Japan Times piece, Prime Minister Abe is deeply invested in the revitalization of Shinto within Japan, and sees Shinto as a way of restoring an essential “Japanese-ness.”

“This group is dedicated to “restoring Japanese-ness” by promoting Shinto values. They oppose female imperial succession, promote official visits by prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine, and oppose the construction of a non-religious site of war commemoration and the ‘removal’ of the spirits of  war criminals from Yasukuni, push for constitutional revision and patriotic and moral education, oppose free trade of agricultural products because of what they describe as traditional ties between rice cultivation and Shinto, oppose giving permanent residents the right to vote in local elections and the sale of forest land, water resources, or ‘important property’ to foreigners, and oppose separate family names for married couples and “gender free education” which they see as examples of support for equality between the sexes gone too far.” – Matthew Penney, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Concordia University, Montreal

In short, they’re the rough Shinto equivalent of culturally conservative Christians here in America. But why is Joe Biden interfering? Why would the American embassy in Japan make plain their disappointment in Abe’s visit to this controversial shrine? Because it is destabilizing relations with other Asian powers, who see these moves as overtly political, a return to a Japan that once invaded their territory. The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading newspapers, issued an editorial advocating for a secular war shrine, noting the ramifications of having political leaders visit Yasukuni Shrine.

Prime Minister Abe

Prime Minister Abe

“The world is feeling uneasy as Cabinet members and other senior government officials of Japan and China trade barbs at international conferences over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views about history-related issues. Abe has stressed his willingness to hold talks with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, repeating, “The door is always open for dialogue.” But such overtures alone cannot make a difference. It is time for the Japanese leader to start taking concrete action to treat the festering sores in Japan’s relations with these countries. […]  We also ask people who support the prime minister’s visits to the shrine, especially young generations, to listen to our thoughts about the matter. The feeling of mourning over the deaths of war victims should be respected. But Yasukuni Shrine cannot be described as a simple place for praying for the spirits of the war dead. It is a religious facility burdened by its past links with Japan’s wartime militarism. If the prime minister or other Japanese political leaders visit the shrine, their acts hurt the feelings of many people in Japan as well. Yasukuni is fundamentally different in nature from the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. Those who don’t learn from history will suffer reprisals from history. And young people with hopes for a bright future will suffer the most from such reprisals. We hope this will not be forgotten.”

Meanwhile, the United State’s involvement in this issue has not gone unnoticed here at home. Tez M. Clark at The Harvard Crimson advocates a “hands-off” diplomatic strategy, saying the government went too far in publicly chiding the Prime Minister for his visit to the shrine.

“What makes Abe’s most recent visit unique is the fact that the Ambassador Caroline B. Kennedy ’80, newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Japan, issued a statement condemning the visit, stressing that “the United States is disappointed.” Personally, I agree with the U.S.—and with the 69 percent of Japanese who said Abe should have considered diplomatic relations—that Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni shrine was rash and insensitive, given the current political climate in East Asia. Unlike Germany, the other major Axis power, Japan has not sincerely made an effort to apologize for its brutality during the war. Despite numerous apologies by the central government over the decades, Japanese politicians have been consistently insensitive to the countries harmed by the Japanese Imperial Army—one of the more recent examples being a Japanese mayor who referred to the wartime rapes of thousands of East Asian women as “necessary.” But while Abe’s actions were not optimal, the U.S. overstepped its bounds by issuing a reprimand for his conduct. Kennedy’s statement was especially impolitic in tone, treating a head of state as though he were a petulant child.”

The intersection of religion and politics will never be simple, especially when something as seemingly simple as a temple visit can ripple out into damaging international relations. This story about the politics of Shinto in Japan should be sign that we all need to understand religions that fall outside the monotheistic norm far better, especially for those who engage in religious journalism. Most of the time, Shinto is presented an entertaining cultural sideline for foreign reporters in Japan. Focusing on the dances, movements, music, and spectacle, with very little understanding of the context. This needs to change. Shinto is as important a topic in Japan as Christianity is here in America. It is a faith that helps define the nation, and is key to understanding motivations that can seem baffling to an outsider.

“A survey by the Asahi Shimbun last week showed that 46 per cent of Japanese thought that he should not go there, while 40 per cent said it was not a big deal. What mattered most for Abe was quite simple — 56 per cent of those who voted for the Abe administration supported the visit, while for 35 per cent it was a no-no. For Japan’s domestic consumption, Abe’s visit has given him a much-needed boost as he continues to struggle to beef up the country’s economic growth. He has added a new arrow — the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stimulus — to the three-arrows package of fiscal incentives, monetary loosening and structural reforms. Unsettling mood However, the mood is unsettling within the region. The further deterioration in Japan’s relations with China and South Korea could have far-reaching economic repercussions for economic integration in Asean and East Asia.”

For modern Pagans, a deeper understanding of Shinto is also beneficial, not just as a study of a non-Christian indigenous faith that has survived into the post-Christian modern era, but in understanding what a revival of modern Paganisms (and polytheisms) could mean. What will the beliefs and religious structures we endorse translate into once we have a taste of real power? Are we ready not just for infrastructure, but for the way shifting beliefs shifts a culture? Japan is a nation wrestling with how best to engage with Shinto in the modern world, and different factions have different ideas of how that should happen. This diplomatic incident gives us an opportunity for deeper thought and study, calling us to pay closer attention to faith outside our own borders.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Prime Minister Abe is deeply invested in the revitalization of Shinto within JapanThis group […] oppose giving permanent residents the right to vote in local elections […]This goes beyond equivalency to contemporary conservative Christiaity in the US, and Abe’s uncritical investment in the group is consequently scary. Of course the key word is “uncritical” — it may not fairly describe Abe’s position at all, but the snapshot-and-move-on nature of Western journalistic coverage makes a hard call.Of course I agree Japanese schoolkids should learn about Shinto as part of their cultural heritage, just as I think American schoolkids should learn the Bible as literature and transcribed oral tradition. And as an American NeoPagan I can hardly object to Japanese revival of the liturgical and spiritual dimensions of Shinto.But I think it bears watching. My gut reaction to the protests of Japan’s neighbors over visits to the shrine is that it’s trivia fever. But those neighbors have every economic motivation to have a smooth relationship with Japan. This protest is against their national self-interest. I conclude that their gut is not my gut, that Japan has done a poor enough job of apology and reconciliation for the atrocities of WWII to evoke this response to what those who protest evidently see as rubbing salt in unhealed wounds. The West moved very quickly to get past such things in Europe and Asia in the name of anti-Communism, and it looks like it worked better in Europe.Whether US diplomatic responses are wise or foolish is another hard call. I have no doubt that we are trying, basically, to keep the relationship between Japan and South Korea, in both of which we are heavily invested in more ways than one, from disrupting. I hope we have better luck than in the Middle East.

    • Wolfsbane

      On the contrary.
      The Japanese have demonstrated over and over that they are first class apologists for their actions between 1894 and 1945..

  • The resilience of both Buddhism and Shinto in Japan should be an inspiration to all Pagans. Japan has been the target of relentless efforts by Christian missionaries going all the way back to Francis Xavier’s arrival on Japanese shores in the late 1540s, but with very little to show for it. But then during the occupation of Japan after the war, general Douglas McCarthur made it his personal mission, as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, to finally bring the gospel to the Japanese Heathens. “Japan will become Christianized. Every possible effort to that end is being made,” he declared.

    But still to this day Christianity remains confined to the statistically insignificant margins of Japanese society. And this despite the fact that Japan has witnessed a great deal of spiritual innovation and experimentation — almost all of which turns out to be repackagings and reformulations of ancient principles and practices from Buddhism and Shinto.

    And it should be remembered that the politicization of Shinto was part and parcel of the conscious westernization and modernization efforts of the Meiji period. Historically and traditionally “Shinto” has been decentralized and highly variegated, just like all good Pagan traditions should be.

    • Laurie Wion

      I’d say the resilience of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan has a lot to do with the isolationist policies of the Edo period, which included laws that called for the execution of anyone found to be practicing Christianity. Death has a way of discouraging conversion as much as encouraging it.

      • Christianity was suppressed for political reasons, because the Japanese understood that the missionaries were working hand-in-glove with the European Great Powers who wished to do to Japan what they did to China and India. By eliminating the missionaries, and those who allied themselves with the missionaries, the Japanese succeeded in doing exactly what they set out to do – they avoided becoming a subjugated colony. Defending one’s sovereignty is a very different thing from “isolationism”.

        • Laurie Wion

          An understanding fueled by the Protestant Dutch, who wanted to paint Catholic Spain and Portugal in as bad of light as possible so they, the Dutch, could get a bigger share of trade. The Dutch in fact were one of a very few foreign nations the Japanese continued to trade with, and they were restricted to the port of Nagasaki.

          The isolation wasn’t just about getting rid of foreign influence. It was also a way for the shogunate to control lesser nobles by strictly regulating who they could trade with, which would limit the amount of profit they could make, and potentially keep them from building a personal army they could use to overthrow the shogunate.

          And if it was just about “defending sovereignty”, then why were Japanese citizens strictly forbidden to leave the country, or attempt to return if they were sailors who’d been shipwrecked on a foreign shore, on pain of death?

          The history is not as simple as “good Japanese vs. evil Christian missionaries”. Even modern scholars agree that there was more to the isolationist policy than kicking out some missionaries.

          • Sometimes things really are pretty simple. The Europeans were in the process of taking over essentially the entire world. Christian missionaries played an essential role in this process. Those two facts are clear to anyone who looks at this period of history, and those two facts were also clearly recognized by the Japanese.

            The period of “Sakoku” lasted from 1633-1853. If you look at what happened to China and India during this period then this removes any doubt as to why the Japanese had such a policy. One does not need to assign any sort of moral valuation to the actions of either side. The Europeans were interested in conquest, and the Japanese were interested in not being conquered, so both sides can be seen as acting purely out of self-interest. But if one views this from a religious perspective as a Pagan, then, at least for this Pagan, it is clearly a good thing any time any society anywhere on earth and any time in history is successful in avoiding forced conversion to Christianity.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    They oppose female imperial succession,.

    I think I’ve read all that I need to know.

    • The official prohibition of female succession is a modern invention, part of the Meiji reforms (of the late 19th century – around the same time that the Japanese started wearing top hats). Therefore it cannot in any way be considered a “traditional Shinto value” or anything of the sort.

  • Ashley Yakeley

    I adore Shinto. It’s refreshing to visit a country where this kind of animist paganism is so deeply embedded into the culture (and the land) to the point where it’s associated with cultural conservatism rather than radicalism, even as one might object to much of the rest of the cultural conservative agenda.

    Shinto is also very very pretty. This means a lot to those of us pagans who consider beauty a central value.

  • Wolfsbane
    • As an American I have no qualms about feeling pride for the fact that we kicked ass in WWII. And thank the Gods we did. And as a Pagan I have no qualms about feeling pride for the stubborn resistance of Shinto to four and a half centuries of efforts by Christians to wipe it out. And I thank the Gods for that, too.

      I think it is important to keep in mind that the Yasukuni Shrine is not some ancient Shinto sacred site. It was constructed during the Meiji period (during the second half of the 19th century) as part of the systematic perversion and politicization of Shinto by the evil bastards who eventually led Japan to utter disaster and shameful defeat. Far from being “traditionalists”, those evil bastards were a bunch of westernizing fools who enthusiastically embraced National Socialism as if they had thought of it themselves.

      • Wolfsbane

        Embracing National Socialism? No, not at all. They were unabashedly imperialist but were willing to ally themselves with the European fascists in order to further their territorial goals. Japan was a proponent of racial equality and prohibited the expulsion of Jews from Japan, Manchuria and the areas of China they controlled.
        Remember that during the war Japan was a monarchy and their government operated at the emperor’s knowledge and agreement.

        American propaganda falsely labeled them as fascists because it was easier to do so. Then we didn’t have to answer the tough question and explain why we supported imperialist Britain, France and several other European imperialist powers but the not the imperial Japanese. Also so we didn’t have answer the difficult question why we were sending men to die in the Pacific in order to return our allies’ empires to them.

  • Lee Shawnus

    One historical thing i can point out is that many of the US Presidents were in the Army before and after the Civil War and committed the war crimes of the slaughter of the Native Americans, and they are still honored because that part of their history has been conveniently forgotten.
    Secondly, from a magickal viewpoint, the Japanese are probably afraid to take away the honour of those war crime generals because then their spirits might become angry hungry ghosts roaming about the countryside and maybe back into the right wing party members. The Japanese take such beings very serious, especially those who follow Shinto and Buddhism.