First of all, thanks for all the congratulations last week. We really appreciate it! ありがとう! Thanks!
Now, for the article.
The Meiji shrine is in Harajuku, with an artificial forest damming it from Tokyo’s trendiest schoolgirls scratching around nearby fashion hub, Takeshita street. It was built when Japan still believed its emperor was a direct descendant of the sun goddess. Emperor Showa was forced to renounce the imperial family’s divinity after WWII, but that doesn’t stop thousands of tourists from coming to pray to his father, Emperor Meiji, who was fortunate enough to die while he was still a god.
The Japanese no longer believe their emperor is a god. Besides daily ancestor worship at the family alter, the butsudon, religion only happens for special occasions like births, deaths, weddings, and those hellish college entrance exams. So I couldn’t help but wonder if the tourists writing ema, prayer requests, believed the late emperor will answer. My own grandfather wasn’t much use besides the occasional pack of gum in life, so I can’t imagine he would be any more helpful in death. Did visitors believe, or was it what my Sunday school teacher branded “fire insurance,” coming to church on Easter to make sure you don’t go to hell?
From the Japanese I talked to, the answer was neither. While I’m sure there are faithful that do believe the late emperor is now a deity, everyone I talked to about it just thought of writing ema as tradition. That’s just what you do at shrines–and we’re not going to step on any toes.
This religion-as-tradition incarnation of Shinto finds its roots under the reign of the very same Meiji emperor. Emperor Meiji’s engagement to Empress Shoken, also enshrined, proceeded under the watchful gaze of Japan’s last shogunate, but between it and the wedding was the Meiji Restoration, where a handful of ambitious samurai overthrew Japan’s feudal government.
During his rule Shinto was changed from a collection of vaguely associated local shrines into a state religion, with his majesty seated at the top of the pyramid. The Japanese public education system was also instituted to properly indoctrinate young Japanese into his national cult. And it was all a fabulous success. Japan became “a divine nation with the emperor at its core,” a sentiment still mimed by some of Japan’s politicians, including former prime minister Yoshiro Mori in 2000.
Of course, after it realized that it had to modernize or face becoming a territory of a European power, Japan had to restructure its governmental policy. That meant both separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion. As for freedom of religion, the Meiji government granted it under the idea people were free to worship however the pleased so long as they kept it to themselves. Public religious observances and facilities, however, were kept under governmental control.
Separation of church and state was implemented to conform to Western expectations without disturbing the emperor system. Shinto was reclassified from a religion to the “energy of the nation,” which were the traditions of the imperial household to honor its ancestor, the sun goddess. State Shinto, as it’s often called, was separated from “superstitious Shinto,” which was the indigenous worship of local kami. State Shinto purely honored ancestors, not offered prayers or worship, so it couldn’t be classified as a religion.
Even today, Shinto is simultaneously religious and non-religious to the Japanese government, whichever angle suits. A case in 1965 eventually hit Japan’s Supreme Court as to whether the Shinto ground-breaking ceremony of a public gymnasium was constitutional. The first local ruling, which was overturned, stated that though the ceremony was Shinto, it was not meant to propagate the religion, so it was legal. The final Supreme court ruling held a similar verdict. A 1993 case about whether to publicly fund a Shinto rice-offering festival declared that the festival was not religious, so funding was deemed legal.
Bills to publicly fund the Yasukuni shrine, which claims the divinity of the Emperor and enshrines those who died in WWII (including several class A war criminals) has come up several times in the Japanese parliament. Some of those supporting funding argued that freedom of religion was intended for Christians, and that kami worship was the natural state of Japanese. Whether they consider Shinto a religion is probably just as ambiguous and conflicting as the examples I’ve given, but regardless of what exactly the Japanese government thinks, it certainly doesn’t consider Shinto in the same category as other religions.
Whether Emperor Meiji is a god or his shrine is just a place to attract tourists and practice Japanese tradition, it’s Tokyo’s Central Park, made from 100,000 tall and cool trees donated from around Japan. And as long as you don’t think too much about the ambiguous state of Shinto and its last god-emperor, you won’t find a better place to unwind. A stroll though the gardens (500 yen) will also teach you more about Japanese culture than any tour guide.
You’ll see Japan’s reverence of the seasons, which permeates its culture so thoroughly that even the most hard-broiled yakuza looks forward to spring’s cherry blossoms and autumn’s fiery leaves. Kigo are paramount in Japanese art. They are authorized seasonal words used in haiku and an even more ancient form of poetry called waka, which the Emperor Meiji composed thousands of. (And in true capitalist style, can be purchased at his shrine. 100 yen.) The gardens have irises in summer, azaleas in spring, blood red maple leaves in fall, and snowy evergreens in winter. It makes any time a good time to come and contemplate mujo, life’s impermanence as reflected in the seasons.
Visitors to Tokyo have a choice between two major shrines, the Meiji shrine or terminally touristy Sensoji. Sensoji is older, but you should never trust a place that’s outsized by its own souvenir shops. It is a tourist trap. The Meiji shrine though…what it is I can’t say, but there’s something there that makes you understand Japan better, or at least caught a glimpse of its soul. But maybe it’s just my imagination.