I have recently read Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan (affiliate link!) by Jolyon Baraka Thomas. It is very good, and well worth reading if you are interested in the social place of Shinto in Japan since the Meiji Revolution of 1868.
His argument is roughly as follows. Japan had just as much religious liberty as any other constitutional democracy of the time under the pre-war Meiji Constitution. This was deeply problematic and often oppressive, but Japan was in no way exceptional in this. Shinto was definitely not the State Religion at this time. The state did not think it was, and no Buddhists seem to have thought it was, either. Even Americans saw Buddhism as the religion of Japan that was associated with emperor worship (“Mikadoism”, they called it), rather than Shinto.
However, American wartime racist propaganda made it necessary to create a theological state in Japan that could be reformed after the Occupation, and thus State Shinto was created by the Americans so that they could abolish it and “introduce” religious freedom. To do this, they had to create religious freedom as a “universal human right”, because it was being imposed by the Occupying powers, not granted by the Japanese state or claimed by Japanese citizens. Thus, it needed a transnational basis. Contemporary western concepts of religious freedom were mainly directed at atheist communism, but in Japan, “State Shinto” was the enemy, and so the concept was refined in Japan to include the idea of not having a dominant single religion in a country. This refinement was carried out by both Japanese and American thinkers, meaning that the Japanese made a vital contribution to the development of the contemporary concept.
Thomas provides a lot of evidence to back up his assertions, and the broad outlines fit with what I know about the history of Shinto in this period, so I am inclined to accept his general argument. He spends quite a lot of time on the difficulties involved in defining “religion”, and what it means for religion to be “free”. He says, in the conclusion, that his research convinced him that he has absolutely no idea what governments should do to promote “religious freedom”, even though he still supports the general idea.
I am completely in agreement with him on the difficulties in definition. As he points out, (Protestant) Christianity has been the model of a religion, and it is not at all clear whether Shinto is a religion on that model. The two problems raise many specific questions. Does religious freedom mean that churches should be allowed to refuse admission to gay couples? Should religious pacifists be exempted from military service? And do atheist pacifists not get the same privileges? Or is atheism a religion for these purposes? Does freedom of religion include the freedom not to have one?
The two questions — what is a religion, and what does it mean for a religion to be free — are closely connected. I have come to believe that states should not guarantee religious freedom. Rather, they should guarantee as much freedom as possible, and not worry about whether a practice is religious. But that, of course, is just one more proposed solution to the problem. Thomas’s book is extremely valuable both for its account of the Japanese case, and for the questions it raises about the general issue.
I strongly recommend it.