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.
“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.
“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.