Politics and Religion: Politics and Japanese Religions

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One of the most striking photographs of the twentieth centurya kamikaze plane crashing headlong into an Allied ship during the last year of the Pacific warillustrates dramatically an extreme version of the collusion of religion and politics in Japan. The ideal of dying valiantly to defend or preserve one's sacred homeland is of course found in societies all over the world. However, few societies have combined diverse religious traditions, political will, educational curricula, and coercive social controls to elevate and sustain an ideology of personal self-sacrifice to the extent once found in Japan. Moreover all of these twentieth-century characteristics can be traced to earlier precedents within Japanese social and political history.

The practice of using religious traditions to enhance political power in Japan has a momentum of over eighteen hundred years. And yet the concepts of religion and politics have only recently begun to acquire in Japan some of the same semantic and legalistic meanings with which they are regarded in Europe or North America. The Japanese Supreme Court ruled in 1997 on a case that for the first time clearly upheld a 1947 constitutional distinction between religious and political activities.

The term for religion in Japanese, shukyō, consists of two characters: shu, meaning "sect," and kyō, or "teaching." Originally used in Chinese Buddhism, it was first employed in a treaty in 1869 to translate the German word Religionsübung (religious exercise). This conception of the word is adequate for religions such as Buddhism or Confucianismboth with thousands of texts, teachings, and commentariesbut less appropriate for Japan's premodern oral traditions that venerate local deities connected with healing, agriculture, fertility, defense, and control of the weather.

Formative Period

The earliest recorded period in Japanese history shows clearly a symbiotic interaction of religion and politics. Starting around the sixth century ce, correct governmental administration was based upon the principle of saisei-itchi (a Chinese reading of the Japanese term matsurigoto ), or "unity of ritual and government." Any ruler wanting his or her realm to prosper was obligated to formulate policies reflecting the will of the deities (kami), delivered through oracles at certain ancient, powerful shrines (such as Mount Miwa in the central region or at Usa Hachiman on the island of Kyushu) and manifest also through omens and natural phenomena. There is considerable but not conclusive evidence that powerful women shamans, one identified in Chinese chronicles as Himiko, channeled the will of the kami as the basis of their rule in the second and third centuries ce.

When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in 538, it too became a valuable resource in building a stable political and social order. The emperor Kinmei received a Buddha statue and several volumes of scriptures from King Songmyong of Paekche (Korean Peninsula), who advised him that not only did great people of the past have full knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine but also it had benefited those who built strong states. Some of Kinmei's vassals, who had been displaced and then immigrated from the Korean Peninsula some two to three centuries earlier, were supportive of this new religion, whereas native clans warned that its adoption would anger local kami.

Soon, with religious differences serving to focus other conflicts over title and territory, these two opposing forces met in battle in 587 ce. After the immigrant Soga clan defeated the native Mononobe, religious and political development centered on Buddhism flourished during the seventh century. Some of the patterns established at that time have continued throughout Japanese history: the emperor system, the idea of Japan as a sacred country, state support of Buddhism (and vice versa), regional temples and shrines (as well as the rituals conducted there) designed to protect the state, and venerating (in order to pacify and control) the spirits of the dead.

Shortly after the temporary setback for the native clans mentioned earlier, court nobles were commanded in 593 ce by Suiko, the first of a series of powerful empresses, to support Buddhism. Two important precedents associated with the religion in China and Korea were now to be established in Japan. The first was the Golden Light Sūtra (Suvarna-prabhasa ) and its message of protection for kings, their families, and countries. The other sūtra was the Benevolent Kings' Sūtra (Kārunikā-rāja-prajñāpāramitā ), which in a similar vein assured rulers that by reading and explaining the sūtra they would enact the "Rite of Protecting the Country." Thus the reign of Buddhist law and that of a local king were seen to coincide, benefit, and legitimate each other.

At the same time the regional deities and myths of conquered clans from the recent past were being consolidated into a systematic account, the Kojiki (712 ce), to legitimate what has since become the world's oldest extant imperial system. King Tenmu (r. 673686 ce) bolstered his imperial position as emperor by co-opting the kind of authority traditionally reserved for clan priests. A four-layered system of kami worship developed: imperial kami were superior to all others, the emperor as a "manifest kami " (akitsukami ) directly descended from the sun deity (Amaterasu) outranked clan chiefs, the most important rituals were conducted by the emperor, and finally the imperial shrine at Ise stood above all other shrines. Tenmu also stationed an imperial princess at Ise to worship on his behalf and created the Council of Kami Affairs to supervise ritual activities of benefit to the state at shrines. The concept of Japan as a "divine nation" (shinkoku ) first appeared in a subsequent chronicle of 720 ce (the Nihonshoki ) and then, as will be evident in a moment, emerges again at various critical moments in Japan's history.

Tenmu's grandson Shōmu further developed Buddhism as a tool of the state. In 741 ce he issued an edict requiring every province to build both a monastery and a nunnery, where rituals aimed at protecting the regime (chingo kokka ) could be held on a regular basis, conducted by priests and nuns certified by the state. "Protect the country [through Buddhism] against all calamity, prevent sorrow and pestilence, and cause the hearts of believers to be filled with joy" (Kōjiro, 1993, p. 255). At the center of power in what is now Nara in central Japan, Shōmu first consulted a kami oracle (at Usa Hachiman in Kyushu) for approval, then constructed the Tōdaiji temple, housing what was at that time the largest seated Buddha in the largest wooden building in the world, dedicated to the peace and prosperity of the state.

In many ways this early period of interactive religious and political development created institutional precedents for subsequent eras. Although the political power of emperors was soon usurped by regional clan chiefs, the structure of the imperial system, though buffeted by centuries of political wrangling, would remain essentially unchanged until 1868. When the capital moved from Nara to nearby Kyoto in 793 ce (in part to escape the meddling influence of powerful Buddhist priests in Nara), its placement followed established "religious" designs strongly influenced by Chinese Daoist principles that now are identified (with varying accuracy) as feng-shui, or geomancy. Before moving into the Kyoto Plain, the court had to negotiate with powerful local shrines (such as Matsuo, Fushimi, and Kamo) and gain the protection of their deities for the stability of the realm. It also established temples (Tōji, Saiji, Enryakuji) located at key directional quadrants of the capital (east, west, northeast, respectively) that would further enhance the court's spiritual defenses.

It would be safe to say that those in power during this time saw political and social change as well as calamities as originating from the willful agency of meddlesome spirits, divine beings, and transhuman forces. For example, a belief in the power of departed spirits (goryō) gained considerable influence during the Heian period (7941192). These spirits were thought to be responsible for everything from epidemics to earthquakes, as droughts, famines, stillbirths, pestilence, ominous dreams, and so on were "imbued with a strong political coloration: disasters of all kinds were a barometer of political injustices" (McMullin, 1988, p. 272).

When the Fujiwara clan rose to power through intrigue, assassinations, and exile, these moves left in their wake a number of departed and potentially vengeful spirits. The first rite to propitiate six of these spirits in particular, believed responsible for an epidemic of tuberculosis, was held in 863 ce, later developing into one of the nation's three most famous festivals, Kyoto's midsummer Gion Festival. Likewise a court official exiled to Kyushu around this same time, Sugawara Michizane (845903 ce), was later believed to have returned as a vengeful spirit to wreak havoc via lightning, flooding, and fires upon the city and court. Shrines dedicated to his spirit, known as Tenjin or Tenmangū shrines, are still prevalent in Japan and are thought to be propitious for academic success. Another vivid example of goryō belief will be encountered in the contemporary period.

Middle Period

Following a major battle between supporters of the court (Taira) and a rival faction (Minamoto) in 1185, political power again shifted both to a new clan and location. Not only had the infant emperor drowned in the climactic sea battle at Dan-no-ura, but also one of three imperial regaliaa sword supposedly plucked from the tail of a dragon and given by the kami to the imperial lineagehad also been lost at sea. Although the court held fast to the other two relics (a mirror and a magical jewel) and remained in Kyoto with a newly installed emperor, political power moved to Kamakura, far to the north. New and innovative alignments between religion and politics also ensued.

The turmoil of clan warfare as well as the instability of establishing military and administrative control provided an opening for radically different and highly popular religious movementsPure Land, True Pure Land, Nichirento develop centers of political power during what was considered a time of "degeneration of the Buddhist doctrine" (mappō). Though differing in religious emphasis (Amida's Pure Land paradise versus the magical effects of chanting the Lotus Sūtra ), all three movements were founded by charismatic monks (Hōnen, Shinran, and Nichiren, respectively) whose methods to reach salvation through chanting special prayers appealed to all social classes.

Nichiren in particular promoted his version of the Lotus Sūtra as an exclusive truth that, if adopted by the government, would save the nation from threats he predicted were immanent. Soon after this warning came the first Mongol invasion of 1274. Even though vastly outmanned by the Mongol and Korean forces, a typhoon wrecked their fleet and forced a withdrawal in the first "divine wind" (kamikaze ) intervention, attributed to the deity Hachiman. Incredibly the second Mongol attack in 1281 also met the same fate, but this was not enough to convince the state that Nichiren's theocracy was correct.

Although the new rulers of Japan were from the warrior class, many of their religious affiliations followed established patterns. They rebuilt the clan shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachiman, dedicated to the kami of military power and swift intervention. Also just as King Tenmu had done in the Nara period, the next generation of rulers, the Hōjō, established a ranking system of regional temples as well as "temples for the peace of the nation" (ankokuji). An influential text by Kitabatake (12931354) titled Chronicle of the Direct Descent of Gods and Sovereigns argued that Japan is a "divine country" (shinkoku ) and helped to develop further a national consciousness among ruling elites.

The Kamakura government promoted and patronized both Zen and Pure Land Buddhism as favored institutions. Major Zen temples, many of which had head abbots from China or who had studied in China, were organized by the state into the gozan or "five mountain temple" system around 1298. Samurai warriors and their feudal lords found in Zen Buddhism the discipline, self-negation, and nonostentatious aesthetics amenable to their code of loyalty and service (bushidō). Should samurai die in service to their lord, the saints of Pure Land Buddhism (particularly one noted for compassion, Kannon) were ready to usher their souls into the western paradise of the Amida Buddha.

The regional nation-protecting temples established earlier had become centers of enormous wealth and territory, some of which rivaled the central government before and during the Kamakura period. Because of ongoing political conflict, these religious estates (shōen ) became even more autonomous and powerful. Fearful of losing territory to rival estates, shōen administrators began a practice of turning low-ranking monks into security personnel to defend their territorial interests and policies. Over time, these "priest soldiers" (sōhei ) developed into fierce fighting units dressed in the garb of mountain monks.

In Kyoto sōhei monks at Enryakuji temple atop Mount Hiei, home to the Tendai sect of Buddhism, were notorious for descending into the city with sacred regalia at the front of their procession and intimidating the imperial court or battling rival factions. They fought with and burned to the ground at least six times a temple (Mii-dera) north of Mount Hiei whose founder had split from Enryakuji in the tenth century. They clashed with the great Nara temples (in particular Kōfukuji), battled against new Pure Land sects (including destroying the tomb of the founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, Hōnen), burned the headquarters of the Higashi Honganji Pure Land sect in 1465, and destroyed twenty-one Nichiren temples in Kyoto in 1536.

For nearly five hundred years neither the military government in faraway Kamakura, nor the imperial court in Kyoto, nor fragile alliances of regional warlords could control the Enryakuji militias. But in 1571 they finally met their match. Having angered Oda Nobunaga (who was soon to become Japan's first leader of a centralized state after nearly three hundred years of internal wars) by siding with his opponents, he led twenty-five thousand samurai against the mountain monks. His forces not only killed over three thousand priests and monks of all ranks but burned to ashes one of the most sacred religious sites in Japan. After all, the temple was established in 788 ce first as a hermitage and later was reconsecrated for protecting the city from malevolent spirit forces issuing from the northeast. Shortly after Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, the Enryakuji complex was slowly rebuilt in the same location.

The Modern Period

Despite Nobunaga's razing of the Mount Hiei temples, he was not antireligious and contributed to many important temples and shrines during his short rule. He also permitted contact with foreign Jesuit Catholic missionaries who had first appeared in southern Japan in 1549. They followed three Portuguese adventurers who had traveled aboard a Chinese ship and landed in 1543, making a favorable impression with their matchlock rifles, a technology that would revolutionize clan warfare in Japan. Trade ensued over the next decade, although it was closely linked to the missionaries as translators and middlemen. Through these relations, Christianity established a foundation in western Japan for roughly sixty years, bringing with it European-born missionaries who also conveyed to Japanese scholars ideas about science, engineering, cartography, anatomy, and medicine.

Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was still quelling rebellions against his rule and so had less tolerance for a faith thought to shift allegiance away from the shogun toward a foreign notion of transcendent divinity. What had been a system of lucrative trade (as "Black Ships" traveled from Europe to Asia and back again) and a permissive attitude (allowing the building of churches in local fiefs) was now curtailed in 1587 as Hideyoshi accused the missionaries of preaching a "devilish law in the land of the kami," again evoking the sacred nation concept. Throughout the coming decades and after the Tokugawa clan seized firm control of the country in 1600 after Hideyoshi's death, Christianity was both tolerated and reviled, with a final persecution and expulsion of missionaries occurring in 1639. The military government then closed itself off from Western trade and diplomacy for over two hundred years.

The rise of the Tokugawa was credited to the cunning brilliance of its founder, Ieyasu, but he (as well as subsequent Tokugawa leaders) was ably assisted by several Buddhist priests (such as Hayashi Raizan and the abbot of Nanzenji temple, Sūden) as well as by neo-Confucian scholars. After his death in 1615, he was deified (as had been all previous military leaders) and later enshrined in the mountains at Nikkō in a temple-shrine complex (the Tōshōgū) unsurpassed for its ostentatious extravagance.

As their predecessors had done, the Tokugawa used Buddhist temples throughout the land to promote the stability of their regime. Not only were rituals held, but the temples themselves were organized into the terauke system to serve as extensions of state administration: all those residing within a temple's traditional precincts had to register as members of that temple. By doing so the populace entered into a system of religiously based surveillance and moni-toring.

Shrines were also part of the Tokugawa government's system of control. Fearing a resurgence of Christian sentiments in the major port city of Nagasaki, the military government sponsored a revitalization of kami -based rites and institutions. The city's main Shintō shrine, Suwa Jinja, dates from 1614 and enshrines a deity known for its military prowess and vigilance. Like many others, the shrine also hosts on its grounds a subsidiary of the main shrine to the deified Tokugawa founder.

Beginning around 1825, more than two centuries after the Tokugawa clan gained control of the state, serious fissures in their administrative competence were becoming apparent. Critics of the inward-looking and increasingly corrupt feudal system feared Japan would be invaded and colonized by more technologically advanced European and American powers. To avoid a fate shared by China and India, samurai scholars and administrators began a discourse on reform, often at the cost of their careers and sometimes their lives. Klaus Antoni noted in Religion and National Identity in the Japanese Context (2003) that this ideology of a national polity, or kokutai, began to emerge among scholars of "national" (rather than foreign) learning (kokugaku ) who promoted a reexamination and revitalization of Japan's ancient myths and the imperial system they legitimized. National learning scholars developed a "postulated common ethnicity" that promoted a strong and unified imagined community under the emperor's rule.

In ways similar to the formative period of civilization in the early fourth and fifth centuries, Japan was once again exalted as a "land of the kami " whose emperor provided a direct link to the nation's founding deities. By extension the Japanese people, like one big extended family, were also privileged to have something termed the "soul of Japan" (yamato-damashi) running through their blood. Sharing so many commonalitieslanguage, race, culture, ethnicity, respect for kami and buddhas, veneration of ancestorsand with the emperor as both father figure and "deity visible as a human being" (arahitogami), the national learning scholars attempted to influence political policy toward the establishment of a state that could defend itself against colonizing predators.

Over a decade after American gunboat diplomacy forced open Japan's ports beginning in 1853, troops allied with samurai reformers (who wanted a modern state based on European parliamentary models but headed by an emperor) clashed with those of the feudal Tokugawa government, with the former emerging victorious in 1868. This major transition in Japanese history ushered in an age of radical change and innovation in many areas but none more striking than the interaction of religion and politics. One of Japan's founding fathers, Fukuzawa Yukichi, observed, "There is only a government in Japan, but still no nation." It would take a new and oftentimes coercive alignment of religion and politics to produce the national consciousness he sought.

First, the new government legitimated the kokutai ideology described earlier as central to their agendas of modernization, industrialization, education, and socialization. Similar to King Tenmu in the seventh century, the emperor's divinity was emphasized even as the country embarked on an ambitious race to catch up with other industrialized world powers. Because of its association with the feudal regime, Buddhism suffered through a brief but destructive persecution in the 1870s and 1880s but recovered state patronage and influence in the early twentieth century. As in the past Buddhist leaders once again promoted the "unity of royal law and the Buddha-dharma " (ōbō Buppō furi ) and actively participated in Japan's territorial and militaristic expansion.

Of far more utility to the state was the ancient religious and ritual tradition of venerating local and regional kami, known to scholars as Shintō (way of the kami ). Every village had at least one Shintō shrine that could be linked to the state cult of the emperor and the sun goddess. Since Shintō had no sacred texts or a centralized, organizational structure, the Meiji government used shrines in much the same way the Tokugawa had used local Buddhist temples: to register and monitor residents but also to involve them with festivals and rituals that promoted state ideologies. Only two years after the revolution ended, an 1870 attempt to create a codified national religion based on kami worship failed. Nonetheless schools began teaching imperial and national mythology as if it were history, effectively sidestepping the contentious issue of freedom of religion. Domestic and foreign critics of this policy were told that Shintō was not a religion but a matter of social etiquette and long-established custom.

By the late 1880s the Japanese state had the necessary ideologies, laws, and infrastructure to establish itself as a modern nationwhich meant in part exploiting political weakness in surrounding countries (China, Formosa, and Korea) in order to appropriate their natural and human resources. With a war almost every ten years, soldiers killed in service to the nation were honored at a special Shintō shrine built by the governmentYasukuniwhere their spirits could be propitiated, calmed, and then employed as guardians of the empire. Like the goryō belief established in the tenth century, the "peaceful nation shrine" incorporated potentially vengeful spirits and transformed them via pacifying rituals. Outside Tokyo large upright stones (chukonhi ) served as memorials to the military dead after the Russo-Japanese War (19061907) and were likewise sanctified through both Shintō and Buddhist rituals. Community officials, school administrators, and citizen leaders were constantly engaged in these and other plans to promote national ideologies and agendas. Helen Hardacre has shown in her important work Shintō and the State, 18681988 (1989) that alternate versions, espoused by new religious movements such as Tenrikyō, Kurozumikyo, Konkōkyō, Sōka Gakkai, and Ōmotokyō, were seen as subversive "pseudo-religions," with some headquarters destroyed and founders harassed and imprisoned.

Even after the Pacific war ended with Japan's defeat in 1945, Yasukuni shrine (and the regional "nation-protecting" shrines established in 1939) were permitted to continue venerating over 2.466 million spirits of the military dead, including (after 1978) officers deemed "class-A" war criminals by the Tokyo War Crimes tribunal. Although the Japanese constitution's Article 20 specifically prohibits any governmental sponsorship of religious activity or institutions, several postwar prime ministers (Miki, Nakasone, Hashimoto, Koizumi) have made official visits to the shrine to pay their respects and to appease political supporters. As might be expected after these visits, both public and diplomatic protests erupt in countries once occupied and ravaged by Japan's military. In 2000 a prime minister used the phrase "kami no kuni," or "land of the kami," to describe Japan and set off a similar furor because of prewar associations fusing religion and politics as the ideology of a nation fighting a divinely sanctioned war.

There is less ambiguity regarding the government's attitude toward religious organizations, especially after the Aum Shinrikyō group's sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995. With twelve deaths and over five thousand injuries, the Japanese government moved quickly to revise laws on religious organizations. Increased reporting requirements and monitoring, more financial transparency, and greater governmental powers to restrict activities were the result. Taking this case and state reaction as a precedent, one can surmise that the coming years will increasingly reflect worldwide standards among highly industrialized nations in treating religious activity as a private, civil right but that religious organizations must be carefully monitored for antistate activities. At the same time one should not underestimate the historic appeal of religious movements in Japan that promote within a rhetoric of democracy and peace both state stability and a veneration of the imperial household.

See Also

Aum Shinrikyō; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Sōka Gakkai.


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