State and Religion in Japan: Yasukuni Shrine as a Case Study

Chapter 5
State and Religion in Japan: Yasukuni Shrine as a Case Study

Hiroaki Kobayashi

State and Religion in Japan: Religious Relativism and Freedom of Religion

The relationship between State and religion (the Church–State relationship) has great significance for religious freedom and it is well known that this relationship differs from state to state. To what does the term ‘Church–State relationship’ refer in modern Japan? In order to grasp this, we should survey the history and character of Church–State relations in Japan. Then we can deal with the problem of the Yasukuni Shrine as an example.

The religious life of the Japanese people can be seen in the traditional Shinto rituals and Buddhist ceremonies handed down and practiced in local communities. Examples of such would be the worship at Shinto shrines at the beginning of the year, and the memorial services for ancestors. Historically, and even now, most Japanese people have not had an exclusive faith. It would be quite an exceptional phenomenon for a Japanese person to believe in a particular single god and devote his whole life to him. The Japanese religious population totals more than 220 million, despite the fact that the entire population of Japan is only 130 million. This implies that the typical Japanese person belongs to more than one religious organization. Today’s modern Japanese person belongs to either a Buddhist or a Shinto institution, depending on his family, and is affiliated with Shintoism as a member of the local community.

From the Meiji Restoration period until the end of the Second World War, ‘State Shinto’ was the national religion within a constitutional monarchy system. The religious activities of the Japanese people were placed under State control. People were coerced into submitting to State Shinto (religion of the Emperor system) as the national religion. The state rejected religions that advocated worldwide universalism. Religious freedom that makes one aware of human dignity was guaranteed ‘within limits not antagonistic to their duties as subjects (of the Emperor)’, on the assumption that the religious authority of the Emperor would be absolute. The ‘duties as subjects’ mentioned above were secular national duties, such as military service, tax payment, obedience to the law, and so on. Worship at a Shinto shrine was not included.1

We can draw a conclusion from the above-mentioned review of Japanese religious history. While the national power governed, protected, controlled or suppressed certain religions, there are no precedents for a particular religion to dominate or control the State. State Shinto, after all, was placed under the control protection of the government, even while being a beneficiary of the national power.2

In other words, in Japan, any religion could easily become the object of arbitrary national regulation, but no religion ever attained the ability or the will to exercise control over the State. In this respect, Japan, characterized by religious relativism, polytheism and natural religion, is essentially different from Christian Europe and Islamic countries, in which religion exercised great influence on the State.

Jumping to the conclusion, as long as this situation continues, our concern for religious freedom will be directed to the matter of State power. In other words, the problem is how to liberate the religious practice of individuals and their organizations from potential intervention by the national government. The challenge is how to make national governmental power respect religious freedom.

Freedom of Religion in the Japanese Constitution

The pivotal feature of the government’s religious policy during the post-war period was not just that State Shinto was abolished under the Japanese Constitution as an act of repentance for the religious policy of the Meiji era, but that the Constitution excluded religion from the whole public arena (including public education) and set a rigid separation of Church and State. On the other hand, the Religious Corporation Law (1951) offered religions protection and generous treatment under the taxation system.

The Religious Corporation Law established 180,000 independent and different religious corporations. Buddhism and Shrine Shinto were among them. The Religious Corporation Law, which was established as part of the revised constitution after the war, aimed at the protection of religion and tried to make amends for the suppression of religious organizations in pre-war times. The basic thought behind this law is that registered religious organizations contribute to the public good, and on that basis economic enterprises and public institutions were permitted to support religious activity.

Buddhism and Shintoism were given a legal status equal to that of other religions, including Christianity. In this respect, the legal enfranchisement and protection of religious minorities was established. Moreover, the range of activities permitted to religious organizations was very broad and there were few rules that regulated religion.

As is well known, after the Second World War the occupation forces, consisting mainly of US personnel, drafted the current Japanese Constitution. The Japanese government submitted it to the Parliament, which adopted it under various forms of censorship by the occupation forces.3

Accordingly, the articles relating to the freedom of religion for the most part are based on the American way of thinking. We can regard this as a typical example of the spiritual control exercised by occupation forces over an occupied nation in a state of lethargy after its defeat. Under these circumstances, it was natural that the academic community and courts both followed the judicial precedents established in the United States.4 On the basis of these historical facts, I would like to examine the judicial aspects of religious freedom in Japan.

The relevant constitutional articles are articles 20 and 89. They are as follows:

Article 20:

1. Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.

2. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious acts, celebration, rite or practice.

3. The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.

Article 89:

No public money or other property shall be expended or appropriated for the use, benefit or maintenance of any religious institution or association, or for any charitable, educational or benevolent enterprises not under the control of public authority.

Under the Japanese Constitution, the State is obliged to take a neutral and non-unifying attitude toward all religions and denominations.

Moreover, as mentioned above, regardless of whether it is an established or a new religion, the permitted range of religious activities is quite broad, and there are few rules regulating religion. Hence, the need for a special law to protect religious minorities is never discussed within academic circles.5

On the other hand, the State’s neutral and non-unifying attitude towards all religions was not originally meant to imply the State’s indifference toward, withdrawal from or antagonism against religion. And yet the rigid separation of Church and State in fact results in a removal of religion from national life, thus fostering a suppression of religious freedom.

Nevertheless, the theory of a rigid separation of Church and State has been the mainstream principle underlying Church–State relations in post-war Japan. The effects of this principle can be seen in two fields. One is the judicial decisions concerning the separation of Church and State, and the other is the State policy governing religious education.

Freedom of Religion and the Separation of Church and State

Freedom of religion originated in the religious Reformation of the early sixteenth century. Together with freedom of conscience, it is one of the oldest fundamental human rights.6

Originally, the separation of Church and State should have served as a means to secure freedom of religion.7 In Japan, however, due to the fact that the Japanese Constitution was given as a gift from the US occupation forces, the separation of Church and State was established as a concept inseparably related to freedom of religion. Furthermore, confusion about the content of the provisions concerning Church–State separation causes various problems.

In order to make religious freedom more effective, I think it is necessary to:

1. Set aside the issue of separation of Church and State for the time being (it is true that there is a theory in academic circles of a constitution that distinguishes ‘the separation of Church and State in a broad sense’ and ‘the separation of Church and State in a narrow sense’, interpreting the former as ‘prohibition of mutual intervention between politics and religion’ and placing it as the fundamental principle of a modern state, thus in that sense regarding it as absolute and universal in the present era. It stands up all right as a theory, however, I do not classify the ‘prohibition of mutual intervention between politics and religion’ as ‘separation of Church and State’, whether it be in a ‘broad sense’ or whatever, because therein lies the danger of keeping the relationship between purpose (religious freedom) and method (separation of Church and State) ambiguous. Originally, even under the Japanese Constitution, ‘the separation of Church and State’ was not a directly defined ‘source of the law’; it is important to note that it is a scholarly concept for easy comprehension).8

2. Recognize the neutrality of the State towards religions, religious sects and philosophies of life (Weltanschauungen).

3. Clarify the differences and commonalities between the tasks of the State and those of religious organizations.

4. Respect their mutual independence.

5. Examine, where necessary, the possibility of separating or supplementing one another.

This should be carried out while paying sufficient consideration to the issue of the protection of minorities derived from the principle of equality.9

It is nearly impossible, in a social environment characterized by pluralism, to approach religion, or other beliefs, with an attitude other than tolerance.10 The constitutional mandate for the State to take a neutral attitude towards religions and philosophies of life is, at its root, nothing but a mandate to take a generous (tolerant) attitude towards them.11 But it is wrong to assume that this is a mandate for the State to take the indifferent attitude of a secular state towards them.

Shintoism is a natural religion that existed before the Japanese State was established. Its historical significance is found in the fact that the Emperor was its chief minister. Shintoism originated in the ancient rice-farming culture, and we might say that it is a religion seeking harmony with nature, adapting man to the change of seasons, and conveying a human way of life in its primitive simplicity. Since Shintoism was a natural religion that had no written doctrines whatsoever, it could easily accept Buddhism as a sectarian religion. Thus, Shintoism is a natural religion without a founder that was handed down from ancient times. It penetrated deeply into Japanese society in the form of social courtesies.

A more important legal fact is that, insofar as the Japanese Constitution embraces the system of the Emperor as a symbol, and the system has continued unchanged, the rituals performed by the Emperor as the chief minister of the Shinto religion should also be regarded as being embraced in the Constitution. From this perspective, it is obvious that any rigid separation of Church and State is constitutionally impossible.

Yasukuni Shrine as an Example

Yasukuni Shrine (Yasukuni Jinja), a Shinto shrine located in Tokyo,12 is dedicated to the souls or spirits of soldiers and those who died on behalf of the Emperor and the State.13 Currently, the Registry of Divinities (Reijibo) lists the names of 2,466,000 enshrined people who were dedicated to the service of Imperial Japan.14

The shrine, after more than 50 years, has become a source of controversy. Almost 2.5 million souls have been enshrined, together with 1,068 souls of persons convicted of war crimes by a post-Second World War court,15 including 14 Class A war criminals (for the ‘crime against peace’).16

The Yushukan, a historical museum owned by the shrine, has been accused by the liberal-left of revisionism in its account of Japan’s actions in the Second World War, as well as glorification of Japan’s aggressive militaristic past.17 Hence, according to the liberal-left, visits to the shrine by Japanese Cabinet members and prime ministers, in particular, have been the cause of protest at home as well as abroad. China, Korea, North Korea and Taiwan (though not unanimously) have protested against occasional visits since 1985.18

Yasukuni Shrine was originally named Tokyo Shokonsha (Shrine for Inviting the Spirits). On the Emperor Meiji’s first visit to Tokyo Shokonsha on January 1874, he composed a poem: ‘I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this Shrine in Musashino’.19 The shrine was renamed Yasukuni Shrine (Yasukuni Jinja), the literal meaning of which is ‘the Shrine for Pacifying the Nation’. The Emperor Meiji named the shrine himself.20 Shinto rites are performed at the shrine, which houses the Kami