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Japan's Silent Shinto Revival


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Japan is a country that has more than its share of religious cults and extreme groups.

The case against the former leader of Aum Shinri Kyo (Aum Supreme Truth), Chizuo Matsumoto (50), better known as Shoko Asahara, is still not over - even though he was sentenced to death in February 2004 for the Tokyo subway sarin gassing in 1995 that killed 12 and made thousands ill. In the meantime, the cult he founded is growing again - but with two factions. There are 'hardliners' continuing to promote the leadership of the imprisoned Shoko Asahara and many of the early teachings, while others are promoting the comeback of Fumihiro Joyu (42), who took over leadership in the years after Asahara's imprisonment. Joyu changed the group's name to 'Aleph' but then stepped down as 'supreme' leader in 2003 after opposition from the Asahara faction - which has been running the cult since.

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While the media, especially the international media, brings public attention and focus on groups such as Aum Shinri Kyo, there has been a growing revival of Shinto that has virtually remained unnoticed and unreported, with the exception of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visit to the Yasukuni Shrine since 2001.

Missionary friends in Japan, in their supporters’news-prayer letter, recently presented some insights and perspectives on Japanese religious and cultural developments, the silent Shinto revival and the increased resistance to Christianity:

It is important for Japan to have good relationships with China and Korea. Why then does the Japanese prime minister make a point of antagonizing them by his insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine every year? What is the Yasukuni Shrine? It is the place where Japanese war heroes are enshrined and their spirits worshiped. And chief among them are 14 who were convicted as A class war criminals of World War 2. This regular official visit was actually started only about 30 years ago by a nominal "Christian" prime minister! Since then the PM has been accompanied each year by more and more parliamentarians (the other day, over 100) and the act has become more and more a thorn in the flesh of other Asian countries, particularly China and Korea, the countries which suffered most from past Japanese militarism. Occasionally Japan has attempted an apology for the past, but as long as these visits continue, national apologies are not taken seriously. (Many personal reconciliations have taken place, however.)

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Is Japan in danger of falling back into militarism? The danger is probably less of militarism than of nationalism (though who knows what nationalism could lead to). The constitution is undergoing revision, and every effort is being made to include an emphasis on nationalism (as distinct from patriotism, though they are the same word in Japanese). In particular, nationalism is to be taught to children in school. In Japan nationalism includes Shinto at its core. We believe that Mr Koizumi, the present PM, in his visits to the shrine, is trying to make a strong point for Shintoism as the national religion.

What part does Shinto already play in the life of Japanese people?

1. Soon after birth, every child is offered up to the local "guardian" spirits. This takes place at the local Shinto Shrine.

2. At the age of 5 for boys, and 3 and 7 for girls, children are again "blessed" (?) at a Shinto Shrine.

3. During primary school, every child is taken to the big national shrine of the sun goddess, and expected to worship there. This takes place under the guise of a school excursion.

4. Many homes have a "god shelf" where local Shinto gods and the sun goddess are worshiped. This is particularly so in the country.

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5. Over the new year period, almost the whole country makes a pilgrimage both to their local Shinto shrine, and also to a big famous one. This is particularly so now when the economy is not so steady.

6. Local Shinto shrines have regular festivals and street parades. In country districts this is the main social function, and the whole town has a jolly time.

7. Big famous shrines have enormously popular festivals, drawing huge crowds from all over Japan.

8. Those involved in business, or agriculture, are most particular to get the favour of the gods by special ceremonies. Big city firms line up their employees on the roof and conduct ceremonies before a small shrine built there. All are expected to take part as a sign of loyalty.

9. All houses, and the ground under them, have Shinto incantations performed before and during building.

10. Traditionally weddings were always conducted before the Shinto gods, and most still are.

11. In country towns, such as where we live, each household has to share responsibility to care for the spirit of the shrine. The "spirit" is passed on from one house to the next each year, and the neighbours gather for a feast with plenty of alcohol. This is very serious business, and no household would dream of not fulfilling its responsibility - on pain of being put to isolation in the community.

12. Fees for the conduct of local shrine affairs are automatically included and collected in normal town fees.

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As you can see, the Japanese people are firmly held in a web of Shinto right from birth, even though they do not especially believe in it as a personal religion. (This is in addition to Buddhism with its ancestor worship. People belong to both Buddhism and Shinto at the same time.) The Bible makes it clear that idolatry is the worship of demons, with all the spiritual darkness and bondage that that implies. But we have the promise: "If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed!"

What are some of the additional dangers we have been seeing lately?

1. Gradually over recent years the pre-war/war time national anthem has been guided back into general use, and now it is compulsory in all schools. In Tokyo there are even officials sent to check that teachers are standing and singing, with punishment for offenders. Just a few are willing to take the punishment for the sake of conscience, but most don't think about it.

2. One of our English students told us that her little town had been told "from above" that they must put a lot of effort into the shrine festival. This means that national government through a long chain of command is keeping an eye on even the remotest country towns regarding Shinto activities!

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3. Schools are being instructed to lay emphasis on Japanese "traditional culture". This includes the direct teaching of and participation in Shinto affairs on occasion. Shinto is once again being defined as culture rather than religion (of course it is religion), so it can be exempted from laws such as the separation of religion and state, separation of religion and education, freedom of worship, and so on.

Apart from the intervening mercy of God, there could well be a hard time ahead for Christians as, in addition to the present social pressure, they may have to stand against government pressure to participate in Shinto as "culture", and "patriotism". May God preserve the present degree of freedom till we see a break through for the gospel. In any case, the Lord Jesus says: "I have set before you an open door that no-one can shut!"

Looking at the behaviour of militant Islam, there are those in government that see danger in monotheistic religion! Christianity, too, is seen as narrow in its insistence on monotheism. Polytheism (plural gods) is the only way of tolerance, they say; only polytheism should be allowed! May such voices be silenced.

Readers may find it interesting to check out the English version of the official Yasukuni Shrine website and see some of the claims made there - at: http://www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/.

Under the Questions and Answers section you will find comments such as the following:

Under the reign of His Imperial Majesty the people of Japan sought to join in spirit to revive the beautiful traditions of the nation… Many gave up their lives for the sake of the nation. To convey to posterity the noble sacrifice of those who worked for the Imperial Restoration, the Emperor Meiji decreed in June 1869 that a shrine be built in Kudanshita of Tokyo called Tokyo Shokonsha. In 1879, Tokyo Shokonsha was renamed Yasukuni Jinja…The Kami (Deities) enshrined in Yasukuni Jinja are noble gods who offered their lives for the sake of Japan with the sincere hope for eternal peace in the same manner as His Imperial Majesty…The noble work of building the nation of Japan that was one with His Majesty the Emperor was accomplished through the blessings of the ancestors of each one of you…War is truly sorrowful. Yet to maintain the independence and peace of the nation and for the prosperity of all of Asia, Japan was forced into conflict. The precious lives that were lost in these incidents and wars are worshiped as the Kami (Deities) of Yasukuni Jinja…Do you know how many Kami are enshrined in Yasukuni Jinja? The answer is 2,466,000 Kami. There are these great many Kami in your presence when your worship at Yasukuni Jinja…Moreover, there were those who gave up their lives after the end of the Great East Asian War [World War II], taking upon themselves the responsibility for the war. There were also 1,068 "Martyrs of Showa" who were cruelly and unjustly tried as war criminals by a sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces (United States, England, the Netherlands, China and others). These martyrs are also the Kami of Yasukuni Jinja…The Kami of Yasukuni Jinja offered up their lives in battle with prayers for the eternal independence and peace of Japan, and the sincere wish that wonderful history and traditions of Japan, left to us by our ancestors, will continue to be conveyed to future generations.

Original article published in December 2005, by LOOKOUT - Concerned Christians Growth Ministries Inc.

We are very grateful to LOOKOUT for allowing us to have this article on our CHRISTIAN FAITH website: thanks to Adrian van Leen.

ADDENDUM

Sam has been a missionary in Japan for 12 years and currently works for a missionary organisation in Australia. I asked him to comment on the above article: 

"I personally don’t think that Japanese are growing more Shintoist. The comments that the author made over the place of Shintoism in Japanese society have been true for a number of years. In 1993 there seemed to be a resurgence with a new emperor being instated but this never materialized. I do believe, however, that Japan is a very hyper syncretistic society and I do believe that Japanese are trying to become more open to spiritual matters because of the collapse in their society. Nothing seems to be working there at the moment."