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Ashizu Uzuhiko on State and Religion

Ashizu Uzuhiko is almost certainly the most important twentieth-century Shinto thinker. His influence on Jinja Honchō, and thus on the framework within which the overwhelming majority of Shinto jinja operate, was profound. I have written about him before, but Jinja Shinpō has just run a series of three articles (in the September 4th, 11th, and 18th issues) about his view on the separation of state and religion, so I am writing about him again.

The author of the articles, Prof. Fujita, is at Kokugakuin University, but in the Health and Physical Education Department, which I guess makes his interest in Ashizu more of a hobby than his job. Nevertheless, he appears to be one of the main academics studying Ashizu today, although he admits that such study is still at a very early stage. These articles are thus a first attempt to describe Ashizu’s views on the relationship between the state and religion, and set them in context. Even though Prof. Fujita follows several quotes with comments to the effect of “this is a really clear statement”, I don’t think the substance of Ashizu’s views is clear yet — at least not to me. It is clear that they are interesting, and that the standard portrayal of him as a right-wing reactionary is wrong. His positions overlap with positions held by right-wing reactionaries, but his reasons for them appear to be quite different.

This is very clear in his wartime statements, in which he was on the liberal wing, arguing that personal religious freedom was fundamental, and that the state should not interfere with that in any way. Specifically, he was arguing that people should be allowed to hold Buddhist or Christian funerals for relatives who had died in the war, as against people arguing that all such funerals should be Shinto.

However, he also believed in “Saisei-icchi”, the unity of rites and rule. This is clearly not what western thinkers have meant by “separation of church and state”. Still, Ashizu insisted that he did not support theocratic rule. He thought that the two should be unified in a “higher dimension”, at the level of the Tennō. No matter what Prof. Fujita thinks, I do not find this completely clear.

In one essay, Ashizu drew an analogy with academic research. Academic research and politics both aim at the creation of a better society (he was being generous, so we will be as well), but it is very important to keep them clearly distinct. This is true on a very deep level. Academic research requires a detachment from your subject matter that is inconsistent with the commitment to action called for by politics. It is possible for one person to do both, but they would have to keep them well compartmentalised.

This is potentially productive as an analogy. While everyone would agree that academic research and politics need to be kept distinct, almost no-one would argue that the state should have no connection with academic research, and not support it in any way. At least, no academics would argue that — where would they get their lovely grants from if the government wasn’t handing money out? On the other hand, lots of people do argue that the government should keep its hands off academic research to a great extent. It certainly should not be running it, or telling academics what to research. There is space for a similar relationship between the state and religion.

Another distinction that Ashizu drew was between the private and the public, in the “private sector/public sector” sense, not the “secret/open” sense. He believed that private religion should be free, but that there was a need for a public religion that would provide a sense of cultural unity for society.

This is where things get very unclear for me. The freedom of private religion is clear enough. The way in which a religion can play a unifying public role while still respecting that freedom, however, is not. Apart from pure unclarity, there is an apparent contradiction. He was quite clear that jinja could not be private religious institutions, but that would appear to be a limit on private religious freedom — and, in Japan, quite a serious one.

On the other hand, Japan has always had the religious toleration that the leading Enlightenment thinkers were pushing for. There have been multiple Buddhist sects active in Japan for as long as Buddhism has been here, with new ones added over time, and that alongside Shinto practices. The European equivalent would have been an early recognition of Arian Christianity alongside Catholic, with the various heresies being added as time went on.  What is more, almost all those Buddhists were deeply involved in Shinto practices, and still are. As another example, Ashizu stated that, while the pre-war Japanese government had restricted freedom of speech, it had never done so for disagreement with Shinto doctrine. This may well be true, and not only because Shinto doesn’t really have any doctrines.

I suspect that Ashizu had a concept of religious freedom and state religion that only makes sense in the Japanese religious context, or at least makes no sense in the Western context. However, these three articles did not go into enough detail for me to work out what it might have been. The most important texts do appear to be available, so I may look into this. Quite apart from it being the sort of thing I am interested in, the official Jinja Honchō position on state-religion relations is basically “what Ashizu thought”, so it would be useful to know what they officially hold themselves to believe.

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4 thoughts on “Ashizu Uzuhiko on State and Religion”

  1. Having read “Faking Liberties” by Dr Thomas, which gets into the tension between the Occupation stance on religious freedom (& tying it to Christianity) and the situation that had existed already in Japan, this is an interesting write up; is Ashizu’s work or a commentary in English at all, or Japanese only?

    1. I am not aware of anything in English, other than what I have written here. Hardacre mentions him a handful of times in her history of Shinto, but not in any detail. (Fair enough, in a single-volume history of Shinto.) There may be material I am not aware of, but I doubt it. He is an unlikely choice of topic for English-language academics.

  2. “He believed that private religion should be free, but that there was a need for a public religion that would provide a sense of cultural unity for society.”

    That sounds like the Roman model, whose public ceremonies were done by and was focused towards the emperor. But then at home, Romans can worship whatever they want as long as it’s not subversive or immoral.

    1. There are a lot of similarities between Japanese practice and ancient Roman practice. Given that there is a gap of several centuries and several thousand miles, I find that very interesting.

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