History and Sources

What effect did the Japanese loss of World War II have on Shinto?

In 1868, after the emperor Meiji restored imperial power when the last of the great Shoguns asked to be relieved of the burden of authority, loyalty to the emperor became a central theme. Prior to 1945, the vast majority of Japanese regarded the emperor, Hirohito, as infallible. Dedication to the imperial person and rule was perhaps the most important element in national unity. Admission of defeat in 1945 naturally struck at the heart of this central cultural institution. Since most people associated the emperor’s divine descent with ancient Shinto tradition, the disastrous defeat called into question the viability of Shinto as a way of understanding the world and the place of the Japanese people within it.

On December 15, 1945, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, issued the Shinto Directive, dramatically altering the shape of Japan’s indigenous religious tradition. Acknowledging the tremendous symbolic connection between Shinto and Japanese nationalism, the decree disestablished all shrines and declared them private institutions. Priests were no longer officials of the government. The Directive replaced three earlier national structures—the National Association of Shrine Priests, Research Institute for Japanese Classics, and Supporters of the Grand Shrine (of Ise)—with the Association of Shinto Shrines. It attempted to bring as many shrines as possible into a voluntary organization whose purpose was to redefine Shinto as non-nationalistic religious tradition. Most shrines agreed to join, and most remain under local administration, entirely responsible for their own fundraising and upkeep. Long-standing tradition, however, does not yield so easily to the decrees of conquering foreigners. A number of major shrines, such as Yasukuni in Tokyo and others dedicated to Japan’s war dead, still have the power to stir nationalist sentiment. Even now, politicians who want to play that card occasionally make highly publicized visits to Yasukuni.


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