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Religion and the State in Japan

On February 24th, the Supreme Court of Japan issued a judgement in a case concerning a Confucian temple in a public park in Naha, Okinawa. The city had allowed the temple to use the land without charge, and the Supreme Court ruled that that was unconstitutional, and that the city was required, by law, to charge the full market rate.

This is not directly related to Shinto, but the general issue of the relationship between religion and the state is of great importance to the Shinto community, and particularly the Shinto establishment. From the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II, most Shinto activities were a state function, as part of so-called State Shinto, but even before that there were a number of important matsuri that were conducted by the state. Shinto has never, as far as we can tell, been a purely private religion. (This is yet another way in which it is very different from Christianity.) Many people in the Shinto community would like the state to be able to do more with religion, particularly Shinto, but the constitution creates a strict division between the state and religion, and that has largely been respected. This split is much stricter than the one found in the USA, and people in government tend to be cautious.

The Supreme Court has previously made two rulings that state actions connected to religion were unconstitutional, and both of these concerned Shinto. One was about using public funds to make an offering at Yasukuni Jinja, and the other was about a jinja that was hosted, free of charge, on public land.

The legal details of the constitutional prohibition are complex, and debated, but the current interpretation is roughly as follows. The state may not support religious activities or structures as religious, but may support them as part of Japanese culture, or as resources for tourism. Thus, national museums are allowed to hold Buddhist statues, as long as they do not make provision for venerating them. Similarly, the state is allowed to provide funds to rebuild or repair religious structures that are recognised as culturally important.

It should be obvious how this gets complicated in particular cases. It gets even worse because, in another important case, the Supreme Court ruled that a jichinsai, a full Shinto matsuri performed before construction, was not, in fact, religious. Rather, it was simply a cultural practice.

In the case decided last month, the Confucian temple was new, and on a new site, but it was built by a group that had institutional continuity with an important group of immigrant Chinese merchants from the seventeenth century, a period when Okinawa was a (semi-)independent kingdom. This group had traditionally maintained a Confucian temple, and the temple at issue is the latest. The temple grounds include a hall set up for veneration of Confucius, and a major annual ritual is held on the traditional date of Confucius’s birthday.

To be absolutely honest, my first thought was, “What was the mayor of Naha thinking when they authorised this?”. My second thought was, “They were thinking, “It’s all right, it’s not Shinto.””. It is true that all the important court battles over this issue have concerned Shinto, and it is also true that the original purpose of the constitutional clauses was to stop the state supporting Shinto. (The clauses, like the whole constitution, were written by the occupying US administration.) However, they were written to be general, and this decision makes it clear that the state cannot support any religion, even if the religion is not Shinto.

What are the likely consequences? Well, the organisation in Okinawa is in trouble, because the Supreme Court ruled that Naha City Council’s decision not to charge them about ¥50 million per year for the use of the land, going back to 2013, when the temple was built, was illegal. I am pretty sure that this creates a legal obligation for the council to bill them, which will come to about ¥400 million, or about $4 million. I suppose that they might have that much money lying around, but it is going to be difficult for them.

On the other hand, I do not think this ruling will change much in the way the government deals with religions. There does not seem to have been any new standard, or even much in the way of a clarification of the old standard. The court’s reasoning, as quoted in Jinja Shinpō, was that the temple was obviously religious, and was neither old enough to have cultural importance outside its religious function, nor a tourist attraction for any non-religious reasons. The main impact of the decision seems to be to make it crystal clear that the restriction applies to religions other than Shinto.

The broader implication is that, I think, it makes it more likely that this element of the constitution will be revised, as the Shinto establishment wishes. When it was just them looking for a revision, they had no chance, because they could not get enough support. However, if other religious groups in Japan are also pushing for a similar revision, the chances go up substantially. On the other hand, revising the Japanese Constitution at all is politically difficult (it has never happened), so this may not have much of a concrete impact.

It will, however, ensure that government bodies, both local and national, remain very cautious in their dealings with jinja.

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