Freedom of Religion in Shinto

@Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake

@On December 10, 2008 we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations at its third general session. It was precisely at that time that I received from the Oriens Institute the invitation to write something on greligious freedom in Shinto,h an invitation which I felt to have a special meaning. The notion of gfreedom of religionh is indeed a basic one among the rights and liberties that were acquired through the 18th century citizensf revolutions in the West.

@When taking up the problem of religious freedom, we unconsciously think of it as something established by the modern nation-state. There are still many states where freedom of religion is not yet sufficiently secured. Even in developed countries where one claims that this institutional guarantee does exist, we cannot quickly conclude that this freedom is sufficient if we take the gsilent pressureh of society on individuals into account. Therefore, the premise about religious freedom in modern nation-states is in a certain sense correct, yet also in a certain sense insufficient. Consequently, we have to widen our thinking to embrace ancient and medieval times. In all cases, however, it is possible to affirm that this problem has as a fundamental premise the existence of the State as an institution.

Advances and Reversals of Religious Freedom in History

@ The first written law with regard to freedom of religion is probably the so-called Edict of Milan, concluded in the year 313 between Emperor Constantine I of the Western Roman Empire and Emperor Licinius of the Eastern Roman Empire. Through the Edict of Milan religious freedom was guaranteed for all citizens of the Empire. It was an epoch-making law recognizing freedom of religion not only for believers in ancient Roman religions but also for believers in religions of foreign origin, including Christians. Eventually, in 380, under Theodosius I, the last emperor of the united Roman Empire, Christianity was declared the official State religion and as a result, for hundreds of years, institutional freedom of religion became non-existent.

@As far as religious freedom in the Muslim world is concerned, we should not forget the Ottoman Empirefs Hatt-i Sharif Edict of Gulhane of 1839, in the reign of Abd-ul-Mejid. In countries under Islamic rule during the Middle Ages (nations whose legislation was based upon Islamic Sharifah law), the so-called gPeople of the Bookh (Christians and Jews) were given religious freedom. By entering into an agreement with the Muslim rulers they were considered gdhimmih (protected people) as long as they paid the Jizya poll tax. Later on during the Mogul Empire also Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian believers received similar protection. Even the Jizya tax was abolished and freedom of religion as such became more or less accepted. When modern times arrived, because of the intervention of the Great Western Powers in the Ottoman Empire, justified as for the protection of the Christians in the countries concerned, the Gulhane Edict which guaranteed complete religious freedom was implemented.

@In the seventeenth century many who were persecuted by the English State Church and who longed for freedom of religion settled in New England. Paradoxically, they themselves established a sort of State religion in their colonies, discriminating against those who did not share the religion. In 1776, when thirteen of those colonies declared independence as the gUnited States,h they abolished their respective State religions. The Bill of Rights, i.e. the first ten amendments to the United Statesf Constitution promulgated in 1791 conferred not only freedom of religion on citizens but excluded the possibility of any particular religion become the State religion. It was under the influence of the USA that also in the Japanese Constitution, promulgated in 1947, Article 20 emphasizes the principle of separation of Church and State, a principle that controls the activities of the administration more even than it protects the rights of the people.

State Shinto

@When in a given nation the majority of the people belong to one specific religion, it often happens that this religion is treated favorably and that religious minorities are discriminated against. In order to do away with this, it is necessary to endorse the supremacy of the secular power over religion. The reason is that, when we look at some Muslim countries also nowadays, we can hardly deny that freedom of religion is infringed upon as long as institutionally Sharifah law is given preference over a secular legal system. Or on the contrary, it even happens that State power becomes linked to a particular religion and that, in some cases, a gnew religionh is created which is used as an efficient ruling system. A good example of this is that of so-called State Shinto in the Meiji Era.

@When with the Meiji Restoration a modern nation-state was established in Japan, the public officials of the Meiji Government created State Shinto, a new state religion with the Emperor as its supreme ruler. They did so in order to have an ideology for integrating the whole country, taking the State religion system of Europe as a model.

@This State religionfs rituals and attire closely resembled those of traditional Shrine Shinto, but its doctrine and administrative structures were totally different. Or better, we should say that originally in Shrine Shinto there was no doctrine or church-like organization as such. As we can conclude from this, this State religion was nothing more than a newly constructed device serving as an administrative structure that had merely put a Shrine Shinto dress on the State religion system of Europe. Because the essence of religion was lacking in it, before the end of the Pacific War it gained the enthusiastic support of the populace. Yet when after the war this institution was disestablished as a result of the so-called Shinto directive, promulgated by the GHQ on December 15, 1945, it quickly collapsed.

Non-Recognition of Religious Freedom from the Side of Religions

@Above I have dealt with freedom of religion mainly seen from the side of State power. Yet what about the view of religions themselves? Here we see a total change of perspective as many religions contain in their doctrines beliefs such as gour teaching is number one,h gbelief in the one unique God,h and the like, These beliefs appear to contradict freedom of religion; recognizing religious freedom means relativizing onefs own religion, and this can easily become an obstacle to missionary activity. (If Toyota salesmen insisted that Honda and Nissan cars were also excellent, it would hardly be good for business.) A missionary religion that claims religious freedom from the State but at the same time adopts the stance of not wanting to recognize religious freedom in dealing with the believers it already has itself, falls into contradiction.

@Although strictly monotheistic, Islam is relatively tolerant of other religions. Yet Muslims are very rigorous when it comes to abandoning onefs faith. The Sharifah decrees that on principle renegades deserve the death sentence. One can still forgive non-Muslims who do not know the gright teaching.h But once somebody apostasizes from it in spite of knowing, then there cannot be greater sin. Whether in fact capital punishment is implemented or not depends upon the level of gIslamismh of given countries. But also in very strict Muslim countries there exists what is called the gtaquiya system,h which is somehow similar to the Hidden Christians in Japan and allows people to hide their faith in order to avoid peril of life. This method also happens to be used as a means to hide loss of faith.

@Religions, it appears, do not like too much to stress religious freedom when dealing with their own believers. Can we claim then that gin religion freedom of religion does not hold goodh? This need not be the case; the key to the solution can be found in the above mentioned gobstacle to missionary activity.h If a religion were to relinquish positive missionary activity, then the fact that onefs own religion becomes relativized need not at all be regarded as threatening.

Why is Shinto tolerant towards other religions compared to Buddhism?

@Shrine Shinto in Japan is originally the religion of the local community and of the clan. Moreover it has for more than a thousand years coexisted with Buddhism. It is no exaggeration to say that between Shinto and Buddhism there has been almost no strife. It has rather been the case that between the various schools or sects of Buddhism and also within each of them there were doctrinal disputes. One of the reasons is that, on the side of Shinto, there did not exist a systematized doctrine or outstanding scriptures which could be used as premises for doctrinal disputes like those within Buddhism. Moreover, as many Shrines were not to leave the locality where the tutelary deities were worshiped, there were no elements in Shinto which could be in opposition to the different Buddhist sects carrying out missionary activities on the level of the whole country. Consequently, even the True Pure Land sect (Jodo Shin -shu), which can be considered to be a sort of monotheism rare in Japan, did not deny the existence of the myriads of gods. Its followers only did not worship them.

@In Shinto freedom of religion never became a conscious proposition, as Shinto faith was not a fixed given. In each of the many Shinto shrines there were numerous gods worshiped and when, for reasons of marriage, change of residence and the like, people left their community, they became without any resistance worshipers in their new local community. Also nowadays the roughly 20,000 Shinto priests who belong to the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honcho) change frequently to other shrines. Many of those priests, who until then have served the gods wholeheartedly, will continue serving totally different gods without any problem. Thus in Shinto faith is thought to be essentially a very flexible matter. A person who is a Shinto believer can at the same time have faith in other religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, New Religions and the like. In this Shinto is very broad-minded.

@However, for quite a long time Japanfs traditional local community has been breaking down. Decline in natality and the ageing of society have increasingly put the shrines which used to be the existential basis of the traditional local communities and the maintenance of the traditional rituals into jeopardy. When we take into consideration that there are only 20,000 Shinto priests for about 80,000 shrines, we have to conclude that the future of Shrine Shinto is not at all that bright.

Freedom of Religion for Sectarian Shinto

@Finally, I should refer to the various organizations in the Shinto tradition called Sectarian Shinto. As some of them, like Tenrikyo, Konkokyo, and others which were founded at the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, had their greatest expansion at the time that the Meiji Restoration Government started to promote its State Shinto policy, many of them came into conflict with the Meiji Government and, even more than the traditional Buddhist sects they were subject to persecution, being considered to obstruct the authority of the Emperor and the establishment of State Shinto.

@Therefore, although they had their own specific doctrinal systems and scriptures, these religions in the Shinto tradition were often full of zeal with regard to the problem of freedom of religion. However, ironically enough, these religions knew their greatest expansion not after the end of the Pacific War when religious freedom became completely recognized, but rather in the most rigid prewar period when they were persecuted by the State power and by social prejudice.

Miyake Yoshinobu, Director General of the Konko Church of Izuo (Osaka), was born in 1958 in a well-known family of Shinto priests. He studied at Doshisha University in Kyoto and Harvard University.

Having been active worldwide in the field of interfaith dialogue for the past thirty years, he established RELNET Corporation in 1997 and served as General Secretary of the recent G8 Religious Leaders Summit.