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Religious Faith and the Emperor as a Symbol of the State

Shimada Hiromi [Profile]


Emperor Akihito is the first to have come to the throne under the postwar Constitution. Throughout his reign, he has looked to define for himself a pattern of behavior fitting his role as symbol of the state and national unity. The most obvious results of this search have been the imperial couple’s missions to areas affected by natural disasters and visits to many of the battlefields of the Pacific War. What is the faith that has supported the emperor throughout his reign and helped him to find a role for himself?

Is the Emperor a Shintoist?

Does the emperor enjoy freedom of religion under the present constitution? This question is more difficult than it may seem. Members of the imperial family are excluded from the household registry law, and are therefore treated differently from the rest of the Japanese population. Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for citizens, the provisions of the Constitution do not apply in a straightforward way to the emperor and his family.

Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the emperor has carried out Shintō rituals (saishi) at the three shrines within the imperial court. But when the Constitution was revised at the end of World War II, these ceremonies lost their public character and have since been regarded as actions undertaken by the emperor and his family in a private capacity. Should we conclude from this that the emperor’s religion is Shintō?

In fact, the matter is not so straightforward. Shintō shrines count most of the Japanese population as believers in Shintō. All religious organizations must report the numbers of their followers to the government’s department of religious affairs each year. Taken together, these figures suggest that believers in various Shintō-type sects come to around 90 million.

But in public opinion surveys, only around two percent of the Japanese people define themselves as followers of Shintō. The reality is that most people do not identify themselves as believers in Shintō, even though their names may be listed as parishioners at one local shrine or another.

Besides this, there is the question of whether Shintō is really a religion at all. Unlike Christianity or Buddhism, Shintō has no founder figure, no dogma, and no holy text. For these reasons, we should be wary of concluding that the emperor believes in Shintō as a religion simply because he performs Shintō rituals at court on a regular basis.

The Long Relationship Between the Imperial House and Buddhism

In fact, if we look through history, we find that most Japanese emperors have placed their faith not in Shintō but in Buddhism.

The eighth century Nihon Shoki (Chronicle of Japan) records that when Buddhism was brought to Japan, Emperor Kinmei (died 571) was indelibly struck by the beauty of the Buddhist images he saw. The decision by the Emperor Shōmu (701–756) to construct the great Tōdaiji temple in Nara was inspired by his own faith, which eventually drove a major project mobilizing all the skills and resources of the state.

During the Heian period (794–1185), monks like Saichō (766/767–822) and Kūkai (774–835) introduced esoteric Buddhist teachings to Japan and the emperors of the time became enthusiastic participants in the abhisheka ritual (kanjō) by which a master’s teachings are passed on to a student. By the time the Kamakura period began in 1185, this devotion to esoteric Buddhism had become so entrenched that emperors took the throne through an ascetic Buddhist accession ritual known as sokui kanjō.

It is safe to say, then, that the religion of the Japanese emperors until the Meiji Restoration was Buddhism. Of course, they had a close relationship with Shintō as well, and the sun goddess Amaterasu was enshrined at the three palace sanctuaries as the ancestral deity of the imperial line. Nevertheless, the relationship with Buddhism was generally much closer.

Another factor is that through the medieval and early modern periods, Shintō and Buddhist traditions were inseparably linked as the result of many years of close association and syncretism. They were two parts of a single whole.

  • [2018.05.01]

Adjunct instructor, Tokyo Woman's Christian University, and guest researcher, University of Tokyo Research Center of Advanced Science and Technology. Received his doctorate in religious studies from the University of Tokyo. Has been a professor at Tokyo Women’s University and is currently chair of the Soso Japan Society, which advocates the right to natural burial. Author of Sōka Gakkai, Nihon no jūdai shin shūkyō (Japan’s Top Ten New Religions), and other works.

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