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Overseas Shinto Shrines

I recently finished reading an English-language academic book about Shinto. (Yes, yes, that may have had something to do with the last two posts.) The book is Overseas Shinto Shrines by Karli Shimizu, and I highly recommend it. You can buy it directly from the Bloomsbury website, but if that’s difficult for you, it is also available on Amazon (that one is an affiliate link).

The title is slightly misleading, because the first chapter is about Kashihara Jingū, in central Japan, and the second is about jinja in Hokkaidō, which is also part of Japan. However, these are actually more relevant to the main theme than the last chapter, which is about jinja in Hawai’i (not part of Japan — just in case you were unsure). That is because the main theme is the way that the Imperial Japanese government used newly-founded jinja to advance its programme of secularisation and national identity throughout the empire, both in Japan, and in other territories.

I am not going to try to summarise all of the arguments — the merit of the book is its well-supported descriptions of how each of the jinja covered was used in a slightly different way, but with strong common features. It essentially looks at the statiest bits of State Shinto, and makes a very strong case that not only was State Shinto not a religion, the people running it were strongly committed to making sure that it was not a religion, by their standards or anyone else’s. The idea of State Shinto as a religion is post-war American propaganda, developed to justify the actions of the Occupation in this area.

I do not know even close to as much about this period and these jinja as Shimizu, but everything in the book is consistent with what I do know, so I think that the research is reliable, and most of the arguments are very convincing. The influence of the state practices she describes is clear in contemporary Shinto, making this book very helpful in understanding some of the reasons why contemporary Shinto is the way it is.

If you know a bit about Shinto (you have read An Introduction to Shinto, for example) and want to know more about the historical background, this book is essential reading. (I would not start with this book, because it is an academic text, but I think it would be accessible to someone with a bit of background knowledge.)

The book did raise questions for me. This is not a criticism of Shimizu — it is not possible to research everything at once. However, it is clear, from things she discusses in passing, that a substantial number of people did see Shinto as, at least, substantially more religious than the state did. This is perhaps most clear in the chapter on Hawai’i, where religious motivations are explicitly involved in several foundation stories, but she mentions religious activities in other chapters as well. In the main cases she looks at, this is not so important — these were new jinja, with no traditions. The state got to define them as it wished. However, that was not true for most jinja in Japan.

I would be very interested in a similar study that looked at existing jinja in Japan, and how they were required to change by the state. I think Shimizu’s argument that the state was trying to use all jinja as tools for the creation of Japanese secularism does apply to its interactions with other jinja, but I can see that going less smoothly when dealing with an existing “religious” institution. (The concerns about just how applicable “religious” is to any jinja at any point do still apply, which is one of the things that would make this research interesting.) As I have mentioned before, I suspect that this would look a lot like state persecution of Shinto, but no-one has actually done the research — at least, as far as I know, and I would expect to have heard of it.

In any case, that is for future research. Overseas Shinto Shrines is an excellent book, making an interesting and important claim about Shinto under the Japanese empire, and providing thorough evidential support. The paperback and ebook editions are not that expensive. Go buy it.

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4 thoughts on “Overseas Shinto Shrines”

  1. Just for clarification, for bits such as . . .
    . . . a substantial number of people did see Shinto as, at least, substantially more religious than the state did . . .
    . . . The state got to define them as it wished. . . .

    . . . would The State, and being secular, at these times, be the pre and during war Japanese State, the post war Japanese State, or the post war Americans giving directions, or some combinations, depending?

  2. “The state”, in this review, is Japan under the Meiji Constitution — so roughly the first of your options.

  3. The section “A priest’s tale” in John Breen’s chapter “Ideologues, bureaucrats and priests” in the 2000 book “Shinto in History,” offers an excellent example of the state persecution of Shinto in the 1868-1872 period.

    1. It is, isn’t it. It was almost twenty years since I’d read that book; I’d forgotten about that bit.

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