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The Pre-War Ideal

I have mentioned before that the Shinto establishment often seems to think that the ideal state of things in Japan was achieved in 1925, and that we should try to get back to that. One of the organisations that often gives that impression is the ‘Group to Correct the Relationship Between the State and Religion’, which basically wants the state to carry out lots of Shinto rituals. Like it did in 1925.

However, the February 27th issue of Jinja Shinpō reported an interesting presentation given at a meeting of the society held on the 15th. Dr Kawamura, a researcher at Kokugakuin University, argued that the pre-war situation was, literally, “not necessarily a utopian vision for the Shinto community”, which is a fairly accurate translation into British English. In American English, it would be something like “an absolutely terrible idea that we should run away from screaming”.

He pointed out that, under the pre-war system, the management of jinja and the appointment of priests was under the control of the government. He explained in detail the pre-war economic situation of jinja and how much priests got paid, and talked about the amount of government subsidy. He pointed out that not all jinja got public support, that the subsidies were not enough to sustain the jinja even when they were paid, and that about 60% of jinja were taxed — unlike today, when, as religious corporations, they are all tax-exempt. Although priests were civil servants, they were not high-rank ones, and it was really not possible to maintain a jinja on public funds.

In addition, he reminded people that priests were appointed by the Home Minister or Prefectural governors, and that this allowed the government to interfere in religious practices. Dr Kawamura argued that this was not a large problem before the war for two reasons. First, the idea that the Tennō had ultimate authority over Shinto rites was strong, so all proposed changes were presented for his approval. Second, thanks to Yoshida Shinto, most priests believed that they were conducting rituals on behalf of the Tennō. The article does not say so, but the context strongly suggests that he was not confident that this would be true today.

I think his conclusion is absolutely right. A return to anything similar to the pre-war system would be a disaster for contemporary Shinto. However, I don’t agree with him that the pre-war government did not interfere with religion. The fact that it stripped all Buddhist elements from jinja, a major change in many cases, is well known. The fact that it suppressed the rites of Yoshida Shinto is less well known, but that affected almost every jinja in the country. If Shinto went back under government control, something similar would almost certainly happen again.

It is good to see an explicit acknowledgement that the Shinto community should not be seeking a return to the pre-war situation at one of the organisations that often behaves as if it is trying to achieve exactly that. I suspect that this is part of a generational change (judging from the photograph, Dr Kawamura is almost certainly younger than I am), and it will be very interesting to see how the Shinto community develops over the next few years.

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