Saturday, April 08, 2006

The politics of Shinto

Shinto is Japan's native religion, tracing its origins to animistic beliefs and rituals of Japan's prehistory. At some point in ancient times, when Japan's ruling class decided to declare its leader to be an emperor of divine origin—chosen by the gods to lead and protect the land—the religion now known as Shinto was revised accordingly. In short, Shinto became the state religion, justifying the Emperor's status just as the Roman gods justified the power of that empire's leader.

In the 12th century, however, the military took over the reins of power from the Emperor. The usurping generalissimo took on the title of Shogun, and the shogunate was born. The trouble was, the Shinto tradition didn't say anything about a Shogun. So the Shogun declared that he derived his power from the now-powerless Emperor, who was "consulted" on important matters. Officially, he could say yea or nay to important shogunate decisions, but in reality, the Shogun held all the power.

Fast forward about 700 years. In the late 1800s, the Shogun was overthrown by a coalition of clans who had grown weary of what essentially was rule of the country by and for the Shogun's own clan, the Tokugawas. The principal "high ideal" under which the anti-shogunate forces rallied support was the restoration of Japan's emperor to true political power.

(What provided the trigger for this restoration movement was the coming to Japan of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry, along with British and French representatives pressing for treaties for the right to lay anchor and do business in Japan. The Japanese, after hundreds of years of technological stagnation due to the shogunate's extreme isolation policy, took one look at the cannons on the American and European ships and realized that their nation was far behind those countries militarily—and therefore extremely vulnerable. The shogunate was deemed too bureaucratic and backwards in its thinking to modernize the country quickly enough. But this realization of Japan's vulnerability also provided an excuse to vent widespread resentment with the shogunate's rigid social structure, in which commoners and even low-level samurai and local leaders had little opportunity for bettering their standing.)

Once the Shogun was overthrown, there was a brief but unnerving period during which people feared widespread social breakdown. In response, the new rulers further ramped up the "divine Emperor" rhetoric to make him an even stronger symbol of national unity. Again, the Shinto religion was called on to help out. Thus the renewed importance of Shinto to the state.

These historical factors help explain the continued vibrancy of Shinto and the importance of Japan's royal family in today's Japan.

—Mellow Monk

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