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The Meiji Persecution of Shinto

Conventional historiography of Shinto in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries says that Shinto was backed by the State, and used to place pressure on other religions. Even people within Shinto tend to agree with the first part of that, even if they are reluctant to agree that Shinto was involved in the persecution of other religions.

However, my reading about the period has led me to think that this is a bad way of looking at the issue. I am not going to comment on possible persecution of other religions, because I do not know enough about the details, but I think that a case can be made for seeing the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods as being characterised by state persecution of Shinto.

So, what happened? All the property of Shinto jinja across Japan, including the jinja themselves, was seized by the state. Priests were required to become state employees if they wished to retain the right to perform ceremonies at the jinja, and female priests were all fired. Existing forms of worship were suppressed, and many religious objects were removed from jinja. (Most of these were removed because the government classified them as “Buddhist”, and they included the goshintai that were thought to house the kami at a substantial number of jinja.) As a result of this, the mainstream of Shinto in 1850, Yoshida Shinto, had been completely destroyed by 1945, and it remains effectively dead today, as its traditions have been lost. Priests were required to perform rituals that glorified the new state and preached obedience to the government, including signing up to fight in wars of conquest. Priests were also forbidden to perform religious services for the people who lived near the jinja. The government provided little or no financial support for most jinja, putting them in a very difficult position, as they were forbidden to conduct any activities that might draw donations from the people living around them. Finally, the government forcibly closed approximately 50% of all the jinja in Japan.

These policies can only be regarded as supportive of Shinto if you deny that all the forms of practice that were suppressed count as “Shinto”. That is, of course, what the government at the time did, but there is no reason for us to accept their definition of Shinto. On the contrary, there are a number of good reasons to reject it. Describing these policies as “persecution” of Shinto might be a little extreme, although there were forms of Shinto, notably Ōmoto, which were actively persecuted, with important members imprisoned.

Given the events of the period, we really need an explanation for why the conventional historiography is so well established. I think there are three.

First, the government at the time said that it was supporting Shinto. Government propaganda is very influential.

Second, the current Shinto establishment was founded to perpetuate the systems set up in this period, so it also tends to support the conventional story. A private sector group set up to continue the persecution of Shinto would have little moral claim to regulate jinja, after all.

Finally, the conventional story is convenient for other Japanese religions, as it allows them to dodge the question of their involvement in the war and in colonialism. If all the bad stuff was done through Shinto, which was persecuting them, then they are innocent victims.

However, in recent years the Shinto establishment has started, slowly, to move away from the prewar position, and research on the support of Japanese Buddhist and Christian groups for Japan’s wars of conquest has become more common. This may be a good time to begin a reassessment of the position of Shinto in Japanese society at that time.

I have a Patreon, where people subscribe to receive in-depth essays on various aspects of Shinto, about once per month. If that sounds interesting to you, please take a look.

2 thoughts on “The Meiji Persecution of Shinto”

  1. I just read the book “Japanese Culture – The Religious and Philosophical Foundations” by Roger J. Davies. In the last chapter “Western Influences in the Modern Era” there is a paragraph about “State Shinto”. That paragraph made it clear to me that ‘State Shinto’ forced it’s own form of Shinto onto Japanese society. A form that stood in stark contrast to previous traditions, rites etc.
    I think you have a point in your statement about the persecution of Shinto.

  2. Pingback: Nihon Shinto Shi – Mimusubi

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