This article is an excerpt from What is Shintō. (Kinseisha)
Born in 1931. Professor emeritus, University of Tokyo. Comparative cultural historian. Author of many works in Japanese, English and French: Japan's love-Hate Relationship with the West (Brill), Rediscovering Lafcadio Hearn (Global Oriental), Lafcadio Hearn in International Perspectives (Global Oriental), A la recherchè de l'identitiè japonaise: le shintō interprètè par les ècrivains euroèens (L'Harmattan). Hirakawa is also known for his Japanese translation of Dante's Divine Comedy.
Is Shintō a new religion invented?
What kind of religion is Shintō? There are two diametrically opposed views about the indigenous religion of Japan.
Around the year 1900, two great Western interpreters of Japan were living in Tokyo. One was the writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) who was then teaching English literature at the Imperial University; the other was the scholar Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935) who was the unrivaled dean of Japanese studies in the West before WWII. If Hearn might be called the Western discoverer of the values of Japan’s native religion Shintō, Chamberlain was trenchant in his negative evaluation of Shintō. Though having been close friends for many years, they became estranged because of their differences over Japan’s indigenous religion. Chamberlain, who was a Voltairian, made negative statements about religion, especially Shintō. He writes as follows in his Things Japanese:
Shintō, which means literally ‘the Way of the Gods,’ is the name given to the mythology and vague ancestor and nature-worship which preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Japan…
We would here draw attention to the fact that Shintō so often spoken of as a religion, is hardly entitled to that name even in the opinion of those who, acting as its official mouthpieces today, desire to maintain it as a patriotic institution. It has no set of dogmas, no sacred book, no moral code.… Shintō had no root in itself, being a thing too empty and jejune to influence the hearts of men.
In 1912 Chamberlain wrote a more sarcastic article entitled “The Invention of a New Religion” which was published by the Rationalist Press Association of London. This time he condemned Shintō as something invented by the Japanese bureaucracy for the purpose of promoting veneration of the emperor and Japan as a modern nation-state. Chamberlain’s view was, and still is, authoritative, and other similarly critical views followed, mostly written by Western ecclesiastics. In 1922 appeared “The Political Philosophy of Modern Shintō: a study of the State religion of Japan” by D. C. Holtom. During the war years, in the West, it was argued that State Shintō or Emperor-worship was the backbone of the fierce fanaticism of the Japanese military.
While Chamberlain and his followers’ negative views of Shintō were much appreciated in the Allied nations, Hearn, considered a spokesman for Japan, was ignored by the Americans and the British. Lafcadio Hearn, who had become a naturalized Japanese citizen and assumed the name Koizumi Yakumo, seemed for a time to have been obliterated from the Western consciousness.
On the other hand, in twenty-first century Japan, we can see that Shintō apparently has not been rejected. Meiji Jingū, a great Shintō shrine dedicated to the late 19th century Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken, attracts not only Japanese visitors but also many foreign tourists. Lafcadio Hearn, alias Koizumi Yakumo, is widely read in his adopted country. In this contradictory situation, the fluctuations in the fortunes of the national religious culture, as well as the changing Western attitudes toward the Japanese native religion, are worth consideration.
Why is Hearn’s book, Kwaidan, with its research into the ghostly world of Japan still attractive to readers? Are his travel sketches written in Matsue, the city he described as the chief city of the province of the gods, and his interpretations of Shintō correct and worth reading?
Western depreciation of Shintō
In 1874 Western scholars of Japan, gathered in the open port city of Yokohama, held a symposium and concluded that Shintō was doomed to early extinction. They were surely mistaken; through many fluctuations, Shintō has held its position together with Buddhism as Japan’s most important religion.
Embarrassed by his early failed prediction, Chamberlain, on his return to Europe after a stay of more than thirty years in Japan, was psychologically pressed to explain the nationalistic revival of Shintō. The rationalist Chamberlain’s harsh criticism of “Bushidō or The Invention of a New Religion” was appreciated by Christian missionaries. Their evangelizing efforts were not always successful in Japan, and they, too, were of the same opinion as Chamberlain. Many people began to criticize Shintō, calling it the state religion. Those Westerners who took for granted the superiority of Christian civilization could not allow those jingoistic Japanese to take as an act of faith the superiority of Shintō emperor-worship. For them State Shintō was considered to be the great obstacle to Christianization of Japan.
Villain’s part played by Shintō
Are these changing Western attitudes toward Shintō logical and reasonable? We are afraid that American criticisms of Shintō during WWII were more political than religious. Is it not strange for a religion that was so “empty” and “jejune” to become, only seventy years later, in 1944 the backbone of Japan’s patriotic nationalism? When the Japanese began to launch kamikaze attacks, young pilots crashed their bomb-laden planes into their targets, mainly naval ships. Americans explained their suicidal attacks as acts of religious fanaticism. Was it really so?
I myself would have crashed my plane into the enemy bomber if I could have known beforehand that the approaching American super flying fortress was going to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city.
I was brought up during the 1930s and 1940s. If Shintō was really the state religion of Japan, there should have been a class about the religion in public schools. There was no such class in which Shintō was taught. It was true that emperor-worship was stressed in Japan as in any belligerent country. There were without doubt manipulations of Shintō by ultra-nationalists in the years of the war. Was it, however, possible for a religion so “empty” and “rootless” to transform itself into such a moral force by being artificially made into State Shintō?
Among Japanese people the term kokka Shintō, the Japanese translation of the term State Shintō, is never heard. Was State Shintō a reality or was it a quasi-imaginative interpretation, a product of Allied Forces wartime propaganda? I do not say that it was an intentionally anti-Shintō campaign or a fabrication of missionary prejudice, but there were inevitably elements of racism in disguise, a variation of the yellow peril idea in wartime American perceptions of “Japs.”
We were more or less misled by preconceived ideas. Even today some Western journalists report that in Japan of 2016 there is a dangerous nationalistic revival of Shintō conducted by Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who chaired a meeting of G7 leaders near the Ise Grand Shrine, a Shintō shrine dedicated to the ancestors of the Imperial House.
Let us examine what Shintō is, and clarify why it was possible for Hearn to understand so sympathetically the ghostly world of the Japanese.
What is Shintō?
Travelers who come to visit prominent Shintō shrines such as Ise Jingū or Izumo Taisha generally leave with the impression that there is an authentic religious atmosphere in these serene sanctuaries.. In Tokyo too, though built only a century ago, Meiji Jingū is very impressive with its torii gates, its long approaches through forests and, finally in the deep, its wooden Hall of Worship and Main Sanctuary, before which people stand praying and clapping twice. The shrine together with its surroundings gives a feeling of peace that washes the hearts of visitors in the middle of a gigantic city: when visitors go there they feel that they are in a sacred space; this place is clearly not a secular public park. Even non-Japanese visitors are likely to feel a sense of reverence, even if they know nothing about Shintō.
Is this indigenous religion very active in this island country? In Japan, there are about 80,000 Shintō shrines, 70,000 Buddhist temples, and 3,000 Christian churches. The number of religious establishments seem to be considerably high if compared with the total number of elementary schools which was about 24,000 at the beginning of the twenty-first century. There are around 22,000 Shintō priests in Japan today. It is true that there are many jinja, or Shintō shrines, which have no priests or guardians. In depopulated rural areas part-time Shintō priests take care of vacant shrines, the number of which is increasing at an alarming rate. A question we would like to raise then is: are Japanese people today actively religious or not? Do they really believe in Shintō deities?
Are most Japanese Shintoists?
Opinions differ as to the religious nature of Japanese. Foreigners who visit the Meiji Shrine on New Year’s Day are struck by the number of Japanese who pay their respects there: more than three million people walk in a long procession to pray before the Hall of Worship from early in the morning on January first. Japanese visitors to Meiji Jingū on New Year’s Day decidedly outnumber Catholics who gather before the Vatican Papal Palace on the Christmas Day. Foreigners who see with their own eyes the number of people who gather and pray not only at Meiji Jingū but also at shrines and temples across Japan on the first three days of the new year must conclude that the Japanese are a very religious people.
According to Edwin Reischauer’s Japan: The Story of a Nation, the underlying essence of Shintō remain little changed since prehistoric times. During the militaristic era, it was used through an emphasis on the early mythology connected with it, as an inspiration for national solidarity. But despite the later emphasis on Tennō (Emperor) worship, Shintō is essentially a religion which centers around the worship of nature and reverence for ancestors, and a sense of communion with them and the spirits of nature has not changed.. Young Japanese seem to come to Meiji Jingū attracted more by the shrine’s serene and austere atmosphere than by the memory of the Meiji Emperor and Empress, to whom the shrine was dedicated.
While initial impressions may suggest that Japanese are religious people, inquiry leads to a more varied opinion. Questioned about their religion, quite a few Japanese do not answer positively. They are rather shy and evasive about this issue. If they do not have a firm belief in a religion, they do not positively declare their religious identity. Even though they will pray before a Shintō shrine, ordinary Japanese do not always call themselves Shintoists. This attitude is a clear difference from Christians, probably because the latter are more self-affirmative, as Japanese Christians religiously belong to a minority group. It is true that those who adhere to new religions are generally more vocal. It is also true that some Buddhist devotees profess their faith more openly. However, even those Japanese who answer that they have no religion, are likely to pray before a Shintō shrine from time to time and invite Buddhist monks for the funeral services of their family members in accordance with social customs. These people too are often nominally counted as Buddhists in the statistics taken by religious organizations, but if asked individually many of them will probably say they have no religion.
Wartime American understanding and misunderstanding of Shintō
This reluctance or indifference of the majority of the Japanese in acknowledging their own religious identity seems to derive from two reasons, unconscious and conscious.
First, this has partly something to do with the very nature of the Shintō religion itself. It has no canonical scriptures to define what Shintō is, while there are sutras for Buddhist devotees, the Bible for Christians and the Koran for Muslims. Westerners seem to set a great value on the Bible, while ordinary Japanese do not set a religious value on the Kojiki, which is the Shintō classic, compiled in 712, and which contains many mythological legends concerning Shintō deities. That must be a reason why most Japanese consider themselves to be less religious than Westerners or Muslims. So long as they have this kind of hesitant feeling, they cannot positively profess that they are Shintoists. Most Japanese think vaguely that while Westerners go to church every Sunday, they are not so assiduous in their Shintō religious practices in daily life. They know that while Muslims kneel and bow in the direction of Mecca five times a day and that some of them learn by heart many passages of the Koran, Japanese today do not worship so punctually. Going to pray at a Shintō shrine on New Year’s Day is a widespread custom, but there are no sermons on the part of Shintō priests, and there are no formulae for Shintō prayers: Japanese simply clap their hands and then pray silently.
Second, the reluctance to call oneself a Shintoist has had something to do with WWII. During the war, the Allied Nations, knowing little of Japan, interpreted Japan as the Asian counterpart of Nazi Germany. They tried to explain militaristic Japan by analogy. They considered Shintō, together with its mythologies to be a source of Japanese ultra-nationalistic fanaticism, comparable in its role to the German mythological belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. The story was that Japan made Shintō the State religion and that is why Tennō was called God-Emperor and soldiers who died for their country were deified. But the notion of deity or kami in Japanese is quite different from the Judeo-Christian concept of God. The English translation of the word arahito-gami into God-Emperor was misleading. In Shintō the worship of the Sun Goddess, deities and ancestors is part of the much broader worship of wonders and mysteries of nature: everything which inspires a sense of awe might be called a kami. A high mountain, a volcano, a waterfall, a large tree, an unusual person have all become objects of worship and been called kami. Kami means etymologically something high.
The so-called Shintō directive of the American Occupation authorities
It is true that many Japanese share this sense of awe toward things superior to ordinary humans. The question is, was this belief really the cause of fanatical Japanese patriotism? American interpreters of Japan, many of whom were Christian missionaries or their children educated in American or Canadian schools in Japan, believed or insisted so. The emperor-worship and Shintō became in this way the archenemy of Western Christian democratic nations, as they were considered to be the essential elements composing the basis of Japanese ultra-nationalism. During the war years, the Allied propaganda exaggerated that anti-Shintō interpretation. In order to break down the spiritual backbone of the Japanese fanaticism, American bombers dared to burn down the Meiji Shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor on April 14, 1945. I am much intrigued to know who really was responsible for ordering the bombing.
General MacArthur and others who sympathized with the idea of the Christianization of the defeated Japan favored strong measures against State Shintō: the American Occupation authorities issued four months after Japan’s surrender one of the most questionable directives, the so-called Shintō directive. By the memorandum dated 15 December 1945 the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers abolished governmental sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control, and dissemination of State Shintō (Kokka Shintō, Jinja Shintō). The directive was very effective; it was stronger than the thousands of incendiary bombs dropped on the Main Sanctuary of Meiji Shrine, as its effects were psychologically more enduring.
Under the American Occupation and even long after the word Shintō became practically taboo among Japanese intellectuals, something which should not be touched lightly and openly, Kōgakkan School, one of the two higher educational institutions specializing in Shintō studies, and situated near Ise Jingū, was closed.
What kind of divinity did the Emperor renounce on January 1st, 1946?
The Imperial House itself had to clarify its position in order to survive the critical years following Japan’s surrender. No one was more troubled by vainglorious mottos of modern Shintō mythology than the emperor himself. On January 1st, 1946 Emperor Hirohito by proclamation denied the ‘divine’ nature of the Japanese Emperor. In the Imperial Rescript it was announced:
“The ties between Us and Our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.”
When the proclamation was issued, the New York Times printed in large letters “Deity Idea Blasted.” It was also widely reported that “His Majesty disavows entirely any deification or mythologizing of his own Person” etc. On the Japanese side, the proclamation was commonly known as ‘Tennō no ningen-sengen’ (Tennō is a human being declaration). The reaction in Japan to the so-called Japanese Emperor’s Renunciation of Divinity, however, was not the one of shock that foreign correspondents gathered in Tokyo at that time had anticipated. (See, for example, the editorial of the Nippon Times, Jan. 5, 1946, or the Time, Jan. 14, 1946). Western wartime correspondents were apparently misled by their Western preconceptions.
Who held the false conception of ‘God-Emperor’ of Japan?
During the war years, Japanese children had been taught the concept of “eight corners of the world under one roof” (hakkō ichiu). The notion simply means “all humans are brothers” and no racial indoctrination such as “the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world” was consciously made in Japanese classrooms of the1930s and 40s. Since the time of the Versailles peace conference in 1919 Japan’s open diplomatic objective was racial equality. It should be added, that despite the strong assertion of Christian missionaries and some Western Japanologists that Shintō became the State religion of Japan, Shintō was not taught in public schools even at the height of the war years. Of course, it was natural and almost inevitable that in years of national crisis, worship or deification of the sovereign became intense. Japan’s case was not an exception. However, has Hirohito ever been a God-Emperor to the Japanese? Although there was intense Emperor-worship throughout the war years, the Japanese did not believe that the Emperor was divine in the Judeo-Christian meaning of the word ‘God.’ That was the reason that most Japanese remained calm upon hearing the so-called Emperor’s Renunciation of Divinity.
The famous passage of the Rescript that “the false conception that the Emperor is divine, and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world” was written by Japanese at the suggestion of a British scholar, R. H. Blyth (1898-1964) who had remained in Japan during the war years. It should be noted that his book Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics was published by Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, in 1942, a rare publication of a book written in English by a wartime internee. Blyth was later known for his studies of haiku and its relation to Zen Buddhism.
The Imperial Rescript was not a proclamation imposed by the Allied Powers, as had been widely assumed by Western correspondents and most Japanese. It was drafted as a Japanese initiative, if R. H. Blyth could be counted as being on the Japanese side. Blyth was aware of the misunderstanding concerning the “divine nature” of the Japanese emperor, the misconception had been widely spread in the world. Blyth was very much afraid of its bad effects, and therefore, recommended to Admiral Yamanashi, principal of Peers School and Blyth’s most respected superior, that this point be clarified to the rest of the world. Listening to his proposal, Admiral Yamanashi acted promptly. He immediately went to see Ishiwata Sōtarō, the Imperial Household Minister, to have the proclamation issued on New Year’s Day.
Who held that “false conception”? Wartime Japanese? Or wartime Americans? Blyth said it was better for the Japanese Emperor to renounce the divinity, which Americans thought he had and which he did not have anyway((1). Blyth’s suggestion was made, in fact, to remove the misleading notion of God-Emperor.
The Japanese notion of Shintō god and the Judeo-Christian notion of God
What kind of difference is there between the Japanese notion of Shintō god and the Judeo-Christian notion of God? An easy way for Westerners to understand it is through another analogy.
French historian Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889) writes in the chapter “the Domestic Religion” of his masterpiece La Cité Antique as follows: “To make a man a god appears to us the reverse of religion.” This is, however, not a critical comment on Shintō. The French historian refers to the family-centered belief system of “the Ancient City” of the Mediterranean world. In Semitic religions, it is God that creates man, but in the ancient Greek and Roman world as well as in Japan to make a man a god is the order of things.
What was the Japanese attitude toward Shintō after WWII? Not knowing the difference between State Shintō and natural Shintō, intellectuals became careful not to mention the name of Shintō itself. Books on Ways of Gods written by the eighteenth century National Scholars (kokugakusha) like Motoori Norinaga (1730-1804) and Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843) were practically banned.
There was a kind of alliance between the Occupation Authorities and Japan’s leftists immediately after the war. One example of the political purge was the case of the writer Yokomitsu Riichi (1898-1947). He discussed the problems of the intercivilizational relationship of Japan with the industrialized nations of the West in his masterpiece Ryoshū, written before, during and after WWII. He lost his literary position precisely because he had referred to Shintō in favorable terms. Sharply criticized, Yokomitsu, a promising writer as well-known as Kawabata, died despairing. I do not think that he was in any way a Shintō fanatic; he straightforwardly describes the psychology of a Japanese intellectual in a nation trying to catch up with the more advanced nations of the West.
A most revealing anecdote in this regard is the frank recollection of the eminent literary critic Saeki Shōichi (1923-2016), born of a family of Shintō priests. Arriving in San Francisco in the summer of 1950 as a GARIOA scholarship student, he had to present a card for entry. There was a question asking his religion. Saeki hesitated, as he was afraid that if he wrote “Shintō,” he would not be permitted to enter the United States. This was the extent of Saeki’s post-war inhibition. When Saeki confessed that anecdote in 1983 in his farewell lecture to Tokyo University, I empathized with this feeling.
However, despite the rigorous anti-Shintō politics of the years following Japan’s defeat and their enduring effects on the psyche of overly sensitive intellectuals, the Japanese public continued to pay homage to Buddhist temples as well as Shintō shrines. It is true that the ritual of emperor-worship was not so formal as before.The number of visitors to shrines such as the Meiji Jingū on New Year’s Day continues to increase. The visits are not associated with State Shintō but with customary habits. They do not think of the Emperor and Shintō as being primarily responsible for Japan’s involvement in World War II. Famous Shintō shrines prosper without governmental sponsorship or support. Yasukuni Shrine, which is ‘the Arlington of Japan’, commemmorates Japan’s wartime dead. It is in gratitude toward and out of respect for those who gave their lives for their country, that Japanese visit Yasukuni Jinja.
To condemn militaristic Japan with analogies to Nazi Germany is a mistake. When Hirohito, the Emperor of Japan, passed away in 1989, the state funeral was attended by many Western dignitaries, many of whom were heads of state or presidents of Japan’s former enemy nations. It was apparent that Hirohito had not been the Hitler of the Far East. Though the ceremony was not conducted entirely according to Shintō ritual, it was clear that Shintō, not as a State religion, but as the native religion of Japan, of which the Emperor is the great priest, had been rehabilitated.
Every time an American President visits Japan, it is now almost customary for him to pay respects at the Meiji Shrine. On February 17, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after having participated in ritual purification before the Hall of Worship, declared that she came to the Meiji Jingū to “show respect for the history and culture of Japan.”
Shintō under the post-war Constitution
What part does Shintō play in the daily life of Japanese today? Most Japanese do not know much about Shintō. It is true that some traditional Japanese houses have a shelf for Shintō gods, a kamidana (god-shelf) and/or a family Buddhist altar, a butsudan. But modern apartment buildings constructed by public corporations do not have a special space for a butsudan nor a special shelf for a kamidana, while they always have a shelf for a television set in a room. Formerly a Japanese rural community had a village shrine, chinju-no-yashiro, dedicated to guardian deities, of which the precincts served as grounds for festival dances, today dwellers in modern apartments have a community playground. There may be a culture center too, but without any site reserved for religious use. This is a result of the American Shintō directive, which prohibits public support for Shintō or any religious activities. The American-made Constitution of Japan also insists on the strict separation of religion and politics.
Coexistence of Shintō and Buddhism
There are, however, other curious statistics established by Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines. There are reportedly about 87,000,000 Buddhists and about 91,000,000 Shintoists. In Japan today, Buddhism is spoken of as ‘sōshiki Bukkyō’, that is Buddhism for funerals only. Most Japanese are connected to temples because of their Buddhist funerals, and related ceremonies and cemeteries. That is the reason so many Japanese are counted as Buddhists. Then how about Shintoists? Those who live in certain areas under the protection of a community deity are automatically numbered as Shintoists. Incidentally, the total of both Buddhists and Shintoists which is 178,000,000 exceeds by far the population of Japan which is about 120,000,000. Some simple-minded people find this curious or even ridiculous, believing that people cannot simultaneously belong to more than one religion, and do not understand the compatibility of Shintō with other religions. Shintō with its eight million deities is not a monotheistic religion with a jealous God. It is of nature, not exclusivist. And we should add that many of the first generation Western scholars of Japan did not acknowledge Shintō as a religion. The Japanese government also accepted that interpretation at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was, therefore, considered permissible for all Japanese schoolchildren to pay respects to Shintō shrines, as civil acts of reverence. From that time some Western Christian missionaries began belatedly to criticize that governmental interpretation of Shintō rites as the deification of the emperor or creation of State Shintō. Many Japanese folklorists too protested against that interpretation, insisting on the religious nature of the animistic cult of the Japanese.
Some present-day Japanese cynical interpretations
There are many Japanese who openly say, “I lack a religious nature, and have never believed in any religion.” Some such people comment sarcastically that young Japanese, having nothing else to do on New Year’s Day, go to Shintō shrines, and that they may dress up for the occasion, but it is like Parisians going for a promenade to the Champs-Elysées in their Sunday best. They say that those who go to as far as Ise Jingū or Tsurugaoka Hachiman in Kamakura enjoy their trip as tourists. There may some truth in these cynical remarks, but the act of someone who offers a donation and prays in front of a shrine should generally be called religious. In other countries also there is an element of tourism enjoyed by those who piously make a pilgrimage to Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury or Mecca.
Moreover, some scholars of religion propose a different kind of criterion to measure the religious nature of a nation. If you judge Muslims as deeply pious, seeing them kneel down five times a day for worship, then you may also judge Japanese as people of piety, witnessing how frequently they visit their ancestors’ graves. As to the religious meaning of tombs, we will see it later in Fustel de Coulanges’ observations of them.
Secularization of Japanese society
It is true that the secularization of Japan has been happening since the Edo period, and today there is a common recognition among the majority of Japanese that to be too religious tends to be a nuisance. Any person who is overzealous is called “Waga Hotoke tōtoshi” (My Buddha is Holy). This teasing expression over one’s overzealous adoration of one’s object of cult seems almost sacrilegious to subjectively sincere believers in religion. Though there is no sarcastic mockery in the expression “Waga Hotoke tōtoshi,” it is undeniable there is an ironical overtone. This remark might not be universally accepted, if we replace the word My Buddha with My Christ “Waga Kirisuto tōtoshi” or with My Allah “Waga Araa tōtoshi”. The last one should not be pronounced imprudently in Islamic countries. The old expression “Waga Hotoke tōtoshi” suggests that Japanese appreciate religious reticence or religious tolerance. They do not appreciate a vocal assertion too vehement of any specific religious belief. Even though they go to pray to Shintō shrines and even though they make cash offerings, very few Japanese declare themselves to be Shintō devotees. They might be afraid of being regarded as Shintō fanatics.
Shintō as a half dormant religious feeling
Some Westerners convinced by the simplified wartime propaganda that State Shintō has been the religion of Japan are puzzled by this religious ambivalence. Is this indicative of the degree of secularization of Japanese urban societies? Or does the Japanese attitude of indifference toward Shintō have something to do with the successful brain-washing of the American Occupation? I do not think so.
Today Japanese students learn more about Christianity than Shintō, but the strength of Shintō resides in the fact that this religious feeling is alive in the heart of those who were born and raised in the Japanese archipelago. Taught or untaught, as this feeling is so unconsciously widespread that people awaken to the awe inspiring sentiment, for example, when they look at the sunrise on January 1st, or admire Mt. Fuji from a train’s window, or become conscious of the continuation of life of the Japanese nation, symbolized by the unbroken line of her sovereigns. A haiku by Naitō Meisetsu (1847-1926) suggests this Shintō feeling shared by the majority of the Japanese: Ganjitsu ya ikkei no tenshi Fuji-no-yama. This haiku was translated into English by R. H. Blyth as follows:
The First Day of the Year:
One line of Emperors;
Religious feeling quiescently dormant in one’s heart is something deep-rooted, which awakens at certain important moments of our life. It is strong, as it continues to live unconsciously in our five senses. Shintō is a religious sentiment connected with the flow of time, which is compatible with other religions.