Skip to content

Meiji Jinja Policy

Jinja Shinpō is currently running a series of articles on important Shinto figures of the Meiji period. This has included people who are very famous generally, such as Meiji Tennō, and also people who are almost unknown even within Shinto circles now, but were important at the time. (They are up to eighteen without covering any women, as far as I recall, but this is no cause for surprise; the Meiji government was not keen on important women.)

Last week, the article was about Koto’oka Hirotsunë, one of the less well-known individuals. At the time of the Meiji Revolution, he was the bettō of Konpira Daigongen in Shikoku. A “bettō” was a Buddhist monk who was responsible for a jinja; he led the rituals for the kami, and, at least in this case, appears not to have performed any other Buddhist duties. “Gongen” was a term for a Buddhist deity manifesting as a kami.

In 1868, the Meiji government announced that “gongen” was no longer permitted as a name for kami, and that Buddhist items had to be removed from jinja. Hirotsunë received this news, and immediately headed for Kyoto, which was still the capital. There, he offered a petition asking for an exception to be made for his jinja. He argued that Konpira Daigongen was not an originally Japanese kami, but rather one that had come from India, and who was purely associated with Buddhism. Thus, this kami should be allowed to keep a Buddhist name and Buddhist rites.

That petition went nowhere, and it was quickly obvious that it was hopeless. So, the next month he offered another petition. This one said that the kami of the jinja was Ōkuninushi (about as originally Japanese as the kami get), and that all the priests of the jinja would renounce their Buddhist vows and use “pure Shinto” rites to venerate the kami. He himself immediately renounced his vows, and took the name “Koto’oka” from the name of the location of the jinja. Over the next few years, the rituals at the jinja now called Kotohiragū were completely changed, and the few priests who refused to renounce their Buddhist vows had to leave the precincts. One of them was entrusted with the funerary plaques from the old temple that had been on the grounds.

This is an interesting case, because there was no violence, but the practices at the jinja were completely changed. One interesting question is how to interpret this.

One thing you could say is that this was a Buddhist complex that was forced to become Shinto. The problem with this is that Hirotsunë renounced his Buddhist vows rather than leave the jinja. That makes it clear that he saw himself primarily as the person responsible for honouring the kami, not primarily as a Buddhist monk. (The monks who refused to renounce their vows were presumably the other way around.)

Another thing that you could say is that this was a Shinto complex that was forced to completely change its religious practices, in particular by severing all the links to Buddhism that were a central part of them. (In fact, as the article notes, they were also required to change rites taken from Yoshida Shinto, which claimed independence from Buddhism but just looked too Buddhist.) This is only problematic if you accept the Meiji government’s definition of Shinto, according to which it only venerates Japanese kami, and has no Buddhist elements. However, it is absolutely clear from the history of Shinto that pre-Meiji Shinto was not like that.

If you do interpret things this way, then the Meiji policy towards Shinto looks much more complex. It is much more like the Puritan reformations in Europe, where a great deal of Christian art was destroyed and a lot of traditional Christian practice suppressed by adherents of a different version of Christianity, than a persecution of one religion by followers of another.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.