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Sylvia Merrill

Books in Review

A Study of Japan

(June 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 6, June 1943, pp. 191–192.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Modern Japan and Shinto Nationalism
by D.C. Holtom
University of Chicago Press

Dr. Holtom has written an interesting and well documented book on the relation between the Japanese state and the state religion, Shinto. But, like all studies dealing with a very specific phase of the life of a nation, while presenting a picture factually and theoretically correct, it does so only from the texts and documents of the religions involved, leaving the reader without a picture of the relationship between the life of the Japanese and his religion.

Today, when the Japanese is being pictured as a religious fanatic, a study of religion in Japan as a living force would be a very valuable contribution. In that sense, Helen Mears’ book, The Year of the Wild Boar, while not the scholarly, well-thought-out book that Dr. Holtom’s is, gives one a much clearer and realistic picture of the actual and living effect that Shinto has on the life of the people. It would be well for one interested in the question to read both books for a more rounded view.

Modern Shinto, regardless of the supernatural powers with which Dr. Holtom endows it in the first chapter of his book, is but another weapon of Japanese imperialism to keep a poverty-stricken nation duped, spread the infallibility of the Emperor and make the imperialism of the nation more palatable. While the origins of Japanese religion are fascinating, and read like a fairy tale, its purpose in our generation is very practical.

Capitalism, the State and Religion

It is interesting to note that directly after the restoration of the Emperor Meiji to power (1868) and the beginning of capitalist development, the emphasis of the state on religion was not great. As a matter of fact, in 1873 the official ban against Christianity was repealed. This was done to make it easier for Japan to deal with Western powers. But in 1890, reaction set in. In the twenty-odd years of its new life, Japan was constantly in fear of domination by the Western powers. In the early years of her capitalist existence, she was forced to toady to the Western powers. Coinciding with the rise of imperialism in the West, the Japanese embarked on a program of national consolidation to defend their independence through the newly-acquired knowledge and techniques from the West. In this manner, she would be better able to meet the Western powers on an equal footing. An offshoot of this anti-foreignism were the decrees on education, which called a halt to the cultural westernization of Japan and a return to the “old-fashioned virtues.”

Preceding this the government had withdrawn the right of unrestricted religious instruction in the schools and introduced instruction in state Shinto – “the meaning of its rites and ceremonies, the nature of its deities, the relation of all these to loyalty and patriotism and the subject’s duty of participation,” were all carefully established as foundation courses in the national instruction. This was a blow at all existing religions.

With the close of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the second period of foreign influence opened and with it “a wave of fascination for Marxism swept over the land, especially in university and higher school circles, and leftist social theories became popular among students and professors as well as in labor groups. Even communism dared to raise its head (in 1905?). All sorts of isms had vogue in groups here and there and the authorities looked on in growing alarm. Police measures were, of course, applied with characteristic thoroughness, but these did not touch the social and psychological roots of the malady. In searching about for means wherewith to check the infatuation with ‘dangerous thoughts,’ the directors of the national life now turned to the examination of the resources of religion as a thought-control agency. The record of Christian opposition to Soviet atheism (in 1905?) and the Roman Catholic position on Marxism were plain before them. Christianity now basked in official favor, so much so that representatives of Buddhism and Shinto complained to the government that they were being discriminated against in favor of a foreign religion. Christianity was presented with an opportunity for an impressive apologetic that it immediately seized upon. The gospel of Christ was portrayed as the faithful mongoose that killed the communist viper; it was the devoted watchdog that kept away the burglar of radicalism; it was the guardian angel that protected the citadel of the national life against the demons of unsocial license. It inspired a true religious faith that brought the blessings of Good upon the soldiers that faced ungodly forces across the Siberian border.”

Bureaucratized Religion as a Class Weapon

Christianity has made its peace with the regime. In 1918, the Bishop of Nagasaki declared that the Catholics could not accept the shrine worship. In 1936, Rome reversed the decision.

Christianity in Japan is very weak. There are only about 340,000 members of the Christian church in a total of 70,000,000 people for Japan proper. Under the circumstances, the church in Japan has two paths open to it: “persecution and martyrdom or compromise and accommodation. The Japanese Christian church has chosen the latter.”

Buddhism with its doctrine of pacifism, everlasting peace, compassion, etc., like Christianity, has made the necessary “practical adjustments.” Both Confucianism and Buddhism have been twisted and turned into conformity with state Shinto.

Whereas Christianity never played a dominant rôle in the life of the people. Buddhism has. It is the religion of the people and has the largest number of followers. It was therefore impossible for the government to treat it as it did Christianity.

Zen Buddhism has found great following among the military because of its closeness of Confucianism. “Zen stresses arduous physical and mental discipline, unyielding moral force, indomitable spirit, and courage that faces death with resignation. In all these ways Buddhism fosters the qualities of spirit that make for strong soldiers.”

Buddhism’s adherence to its pacifist philosophy under the stress of Japanese national needs and policy has become mere verbiage, which they explain in long-winded tracts that probably preoccupy the professors considerably.

Because of the cloistered character of Dr. Holtom’s book, it lends itself very easily to the picturization being propagated of the Japanese as religious fanatics. Needless to say, the fact that the government finds it expedient to foster state Shinto, gives shrine worship, government-sponsored pilgrimages and government-sponsored festivities a greater national prominence than we are accustomed to in the Western world. Religion under those circumstances becomes a matter for government bureaus and state policy. It ceases to be the “personal” affair it is supposed to be in the Western world. Without a doubt the average Japanese attends the religious festivals, and in the farming regions religion takes on a more primitive and necessary character, as the gods are associated with the needs of life, water, sun and rain. But it would be erroneous to assume that the average Japanese lives only for a chance to die for his Emperor.

The greatest preoccupation with dogma and doctrine takes place in petty bourgeois circles. Here not only religion, but such ancient customs as the Tea Ceremony and Flower Arrangement have become compensation for not being able to think or say anything on subjects more vital. Similarly in the Army, the officer caste and a whole layer of lower officers have without a doubt been filled with a messianic nationalism as keen as Hitler’s Elite Guard. This nationalism finds a perfect expression in state Shinto.

But for the mass of the people, workers and farmers, all evidence leads to the contention that in their lives religion plays much the same rôle as it would to any people with a low cultural level and weighed down by a bureaucratic police state. In the last analysis, religion can be as much an opiate to a people who pray to one kind of god as to a people who pray to another.

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