Episode 31 – Dr. Helen Hardacre (Harvard)

Originally published on June 1, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Helen Hardacre, Reischauer Institute Professor of Japanese Religions and Society in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Dr. Hardacre is the author, most recently, of Shintō: A History, published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Dr. Hardacre, thank you for talking with me today. 

Helen Hardacre: My pleasure. Thank you so much for your invitation. 

TG: You recently published this book Shintō: A History from Oxford University Press in 2016, and of course, previously, you published Shintō and the State. So, could you talk about what’s happening with Shintō in Japan around the turn of the Meiji Restoration and then throughout the Meiji period? 

HH: Certainly. Well, what was happening at the end of the Edo period, of course, represented the culmination of trends that in some ways, have begun much earlier. For example, I’d like to mention three things: the development of popular pilgrimage to the Ise shrines (and to a lesser extent, to other shrines), the development of kokugaku thought, and the development of Shintō-derived new religious movements. So, if we think of how the ground for Meiji Shintō was prepared during the Edo period, we could point to a popularization of practices relating to shrines and Shintō observances. 

I believe your listeners may be familiar with the phenomenon of pilgrimage to the Ise shrines, but this becomes a very widespread practice during the Edo period. And at that time, the Ise shrines had a number of proselytizers who divided the country – with the exception of Okinawa, Hokkaidō, and the northernmost portion of Honshū – into districts where they would travel periodically (usually annually or sometimes, biannually) to solicit donations for the shrines, and to invite the residents of those territories to come to Ise as pilgrims. When they came as pilgrims, they would arrange to stay in the inns or accommodations maintained by the oshi, who came to their area to collect funds. So, a sort of network funneling people into the Ise shrines was established across the country, and this had the effect, over time, of making the populace aware of the Ise shrines, of giving them the idea that everyone could and in fact, should make a pilgrimage there in the course of a lifetime, and popularized the worship of the Ise kami on a broad scale. 

Meanwhile, in the cities, while that was going on, we also find the widespread popularization of the worship of Inari, originally considered a rice god whose messenger is the fox. Inari became widely worshipped among popular society during the Edo period. And so, for example, by the middle of the nineteenth century, we find well over a hundred Inari shrines in the city of Edo and a comparable concentration in Osaka. The worship of kami was being popularized and commercialized on a wide scale in the Edo period, and this is an important part of the background of what we see happening in Meiji. 

In another dimension, we also see since the eighteenth century the development and dissemination of kokugaku thought (“national learning,” so called). It arises, originally, as a study of the ancient classics, particularly the Kojiki and Man’yōshū, but not limited to those works, not necessarily as a Shintō phenomenon. And we also find that Buddhist practitioners of it such as Keichū were very important in the formation of it. Motoori Norinaga corresponded with a broad range of people across the central part of the country and the West, especially regarding their composition of poetry, and by that means, spread and developed his interpretations of ancient texts, particularly the Kojiki alongside his personal scholarship, which resulted in solving the mysteries, in the first instance, of how to read that text. Of course, he was part of a larger group of scholars also engaged in trying to recover an understanding of how the Kojiki should be read, but he became particularly influential among shrine priests based on his correspondence with a number of them and also on his personal acquaintance with the priesthood at Ise. 

So, there develops a kind of association between kokugaku and Shintō at this early stage, say, even in the eighteenth century, and that then becomes intensified with the advent of Hirata Atsutane and his influence, which becomes particularly important in the mid and late nineteenth century. Also, the association with shrine priests, and the link between kokugaku and Shintō becomes intensified under his leadership and that of his intellectual heirs. That point is important because some of them were among the earliest officials governing matters relating to Shintō in the early Meiji period. 

But before getting to that, I’d like to mention a third area of groundwork for Meiji Shintō that we see occurring in the late Edo period, and that is the development of Shintō-derived new religious movements. That is to say popular movements spreading worship of the kami in a very particular form based on the teachings of a founder. The earliest of these comes to be called Kurozumikyō, and is based on the teachings of a figure named Kurozumi Munetada who was a shrine priest of the Okayama domain who founded a religious group based upon revelations that he believed he had experienced in 1814. So, this means that the phenomenon of religious revelation becomes a feature of Shintō as a whole from the early nineteenth century, and that is an important factor in its popularization later as well, including in the Meiji period. 

The founding of Kurozumikyō and similar movements was based, in fact, on the earlier work of proselytizers in whom we can find from the beginning of the Edo period who, as sole figures, travel the country and spread the use of the ōharai norito, or the Great Purification Prayer. This is an ancient prayer, which originally had been a part, only, of court ceremonial in the ancient period performed at the end of the sixth month, and the end of the twelfth month to purify the court and the capital of pollution and malevolent influence. However, as the prayer spread through popularizers of the Edo period, and later, through Shintō-derived new religious movements, it comes to be no longer monopolized by the priesthood, but spread among the people as something they would recite on a daily basis. In fact, you can find it recited in great quantity, so that it’s better, it is believed, to be recited more often; something like the nenbutsu, or the daimoku in Japanese Buddhist practice where people would have a small cup of dried beans, one full and one empty, and for each recitation of the prayer, move a bean into the empty cup and aim to recite it hundreds, even thousands, of times. 

So, this intensification of Shintō practice at a popular level, whether through the popularization of the worship of Inari, pilgrimage to the Ise shrines, the use of Shintō prayers and ceremonial in the Shintō-derived new religious movements, or the spread of kokugaku thought through the Edo period, each form one important building block to help us understand what happens in the Meiji period. In the Meiji period, we find at the very beginning in 1868, a group of kokugaku scholars and activists given positions in government. They seek to actualize a vision of a new nation, which to them and their thinking would rightfully revolve around the emperor’s personal observance of worship of the kami in the palace, and this would be mirrored by observances in all the shrines of the country and by the populace as a whole. The result, they believed, would be the creation of a thoroughly harmonious and united country all focusing their worship of the kami upon the figure of the emperor who became a linchpin between the earthly and the heavenly realm. 

TG: I understand at Harvard, you were teaching a class this year called Religion and Society in Edo and Meiji Japan, so could you tell us how you were structuring this course? What were some of the themes that you were using? What was the kind of narratives that you were going over with the students? 

HH: Certainly. In terms of that course’s emphasis on Shintō – which was one thread of the course, but not the only one – I emphasized the narrative that I began our podcast with, talking about the Edo period as a time when the worship of kami comes to be popularized and commercialized on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, while talking about the Edo period, I stress the interweaving and interpenetration of religious traditions that characterized that era so that for most people, the worship of Buddhist figures and kami would have been understood as two parts of the same reality: not in contention with each other, not in competition, and not really separate. Because as I mentioned, most shrines and temples existed in tandem, in combinatory institutions in which the two were seen as inseparable, different in terms of the face they present in terms of a particular divinity who might be the central focus of worship in one particular hall, but which were seen as a combined reality, no particular aspect of which could be separated out. It wouldn’t have made sense. 

I also, at the beginning of that course, include a segment on the prohibition of Christianity, which we see come to be enforced heavily at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries; the legacy of the hidden Christians who perpetuate their faith in secret right down to the early Meiji period. And also, [I] try to acquaint students with the character of Buddhist life in the temples of the Edo period. There was a rule enacted by the Shogunate requiring everyone in Japan to be affiliated as a parishioner with a Buddhist temple. This regulation originated with the desire to stamp out Christianity and to ensure that no Christians remained in the country. The temples were given the job of certifying – through a kind of sectarian investigation held each year – that the populace affiliated as required to a temple, that everyone was, and that there wasn’t any overlap, so people belonged to one and only one temple. 

This intensified the relationship between Buddhism and local government. It also intensified the sectarian character of Buddhism by comparison with Buddhism in other parts of the world, particularly China and Korea, but also, comparisons can be made in Southeast Asia. 

So, the Japanese Buddhist institutions come to be required to police all of the temples of a particular sect, and the Shogunate invests considerable authority in the head temples of each one, and validates the requirements that each sect makes of its clergy and also of its parishioners. This strengthens the character and institutional strength of the temples across the country, and as I said, creates links between them and local government, and also gives them a kind of authority over their parishioners because if the temple refuses to certify that a household is in good standing as a parishioner of a temple, that opens the person or the household to larger questions about its standing in the community. 

Also, temples were invested with the authority to help people get travel documents if they wished to go beyond the borders of the domain where they lived. So by this means, the character of Japanese Buddhism becomes shaped so that the sectarian identity of any temple is an extremely important identification marker, and so that the position of the Buddhist clergy within a community is highly authoritative. And this, then, becomes part of what establishes the character overall of Buddhism during the Edo period. 

I then trace these institutional links through primary documents that we can find in translation (suitable for an undergraduate class) of Buddhist figures such as Hakuin: a Sōtō Zen figure who was both an artist, a diarist, and the progenitor of very important intellectual positions about the Zen tradition, and the training of Zen clerics. I find that students react very strongly and appreciatively when they can read the works of religious figures as those figures themselves expressed what they were trying to achieve. This is true for Buddhist figures, Shintō figures, Confucian figures. Wherever I can find primary expressions of the character of religious life at a certain time, I try to put those in students’ hands, and invite them to interpret what is being said and to relate to them as they will, to give them a sense of some personal connection to these figures. The Edo period is striking for the relative abundance of sources like that, and of course, as we come closer to the present, there are more and more documents of that kind. 

So from what I’m saying so far, I think you can see that as I approach the study of religion in the Edo period, I put an emphasis on religion and society: questions of what religion meant in the lives of particular individuals and communities, and the structuring of religious institutions as having a very important influence on the character of religious life overall. That is a theme I trace through the Meiji period. When coming to Meiji, a very important development, of course, is the beginning of widespread foreign relations between Japan and numerous Western powers. As that goes along, treaties, of course, are concluded, and in those treaties, Western powers typically seek permission for Christian missionaries to proselytize within Japan. And in order for those arrangements to be established, it became necessary to translate Western language words for the concept of religion into Japanese. 

It’s only in the Meiji period and originally in the context of foreign relations that the modern term for “religion,” shūkyō, becomes established as part of the vernacular. Up until that time, a word that had a broad but non-specific character such as shinkō, which we would translate as faith, was used to describe the religious life. But the concept of shūkyō, which implies a panhuman phenomenon – of which there are local variations such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintō, Islam, Judaism and so on – was established only in the Meiji period. And the fact of it not having a millennium or more of popular usage meant that it was novel, and some time was necessary, in a philosophical vein, to come to an understanding of what that concept would mean in Japan, and in institutional terms, to position the religious traditions of Japan in relation to it in one way or another. 

The solution found during the Meiji period was that Buddhism, Christianity and the Shintō-derived new religious movements would be considered part of shūkyō. But Shrine Shintō and the observances for the kami in the Imperial Palace were placed in another kind of conceptual box as “non-religious.” And that view came into government administration of shrines and provoked quite a lot of debate, some of which echoes even today concerning whether Shintō should rightfully be considered a religion. There were government bureaucrats who were very worried about how Shintō should be positioned, especially after the promulgation in 1889 of the Meiji Constitution, in which the Japanese people are granted conditional freedom of religious belief. That is to say, religious belief was to be a matter of individual thought, preference and conscience except where there was some danger to the public order. 

This conditional character of the granting of religious freedom was based in part upon the reading of other constitutions in effect in the world at that time as Meiji scholars and bureaucrats consulted the constitutional provisions for religion made in European and the United States constitutions. But another aspect of their thinking was the belief stemming originally from the kokugaku persuasions that I was speaking of earlier, that Shintō – the worship of the kami and respect for shrines and the emperor – is not properly speaking, a matter of choice or preference, but is something that all Japanese should be expected to follow. 

So, that perspective placed Shintō in a different category from the religions, but produced a lively debate among scholars who pointed to the character of religious observances common shrines such as going there to pray for the birth of a child, recovery from illness, for any variety of this “worldly benefit,” so called, and to expect that their prayers would be fulfilled. That has virtually no difference from the type of prayers that might be placed before the Christian God or Christian saints or any of a variety of Buddhist divinities, scholars recognized. And so, they said: “What are you talking about? How can you say Shintō is not religious? Look what goes on at the shrines.” 

A lively debate ensued, though the bureaucratic position was to toe the line, and hold that Shintō is not a religion. So, this debate comes to structure much of what we see in terms of Shintō and its development in the Meiji period, and subsequently, questions that become particularly pointed once Shintō becomes a part of the colonial administration and shrines are built in the overseas territories, raising the question: Can colonial subjects be expected to worship at shrines? If they do, are they to be thought of as Japanese if the colony has now become a part of the empire? Or should they be held in a different category at a distance? Questions like that arose for other religious traditions in Japan at the time to come up with an understanding of how they should position themselves relative to the state and things that it was or was not doing with respect to religion was extremely important, also, for the development of Buddhism and Japanese Christianity. 

TG: A couple decades ago, you edited this New Directions in the Study of Meiji Japan volume that myself as a historian of the Meiji period, of course, spent many hours going through as I’m sure many other people have. And this being the sesquicentennial or the 150th anniversary of Meiji now, and you know, comparing 125 to 150 and maybe, what might an updated Meiji of our time look like from today’s perspective? 

HH: Right. Thank you very much. That’s a terrific question. As we look back to 25 years ago, and think about how the study of Meiji might be envisioned in a different way for the future, I imagine that there will be many initiatives throughout the world of Japanese studies in this and coming years to determine directions forward that would be appropriate in each of the disciplines where we find Japanese studies. Speaking solely for religious studies, I believe it will be very beneficial to begin an initiative like that in a collaborative way, so that specialists in Buddhism would combine their efforts with those working on Shintō, Christianity, the new religious movements, Shugendō, all of the religious traditions, and put their heads together and see what they would come up with, without wanting to pre-judge the form that might take or the outcome. I think if I were lucky enough to be part of such an endeavour, I would focus on enthronement ritual. 

One area of very significant change for religion that was not really reflected in the volume you kindly referred to a few moments ago was the changed character of imperial ritual, and the implications for subsequent religious life in Japan. I’m interested in enthronement ritual because the culminating aspect of coronation ritual in Japan, which is called the daijōsai, was held for Emperor Meiji in Tokyo for the first time. And next year, following the abdication of the reigning emperor Akihito, we will see the enthronement now Crown Prince and emperor-to-be Naruhito beginning on May the 1st in 2019, and culminating with elaborate ceremonial again in Tokyo in November of 2019. 

Enthronement ritual is an occasion for widespread celebrations at all of Japan’s religious institutions, but especially the shrines and the Shintō-derived new religious movements. If past precedent is any guide, they will commission significant new works of art – whether these be paintings, screen, sculpture, other forms of art – that I believe will be of interest for art history. 

Likewise, the coverage of the enthronement rituals will take place in a new media environment, targeting a new generation of Japanese young people who may be taking the occasion for the first time in their lives to think seriously about the character insignificance of a monarchy in Japan, which is a constitutional democracy, and will give them an opportunity to address the question of the symbol emperor. As you may know, the postwar constitution, in Article 1, states that the emperor shall be the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. That is entirely different from what we find in the Meiji Constitution, where the emperor is named head of state, supreme commander of Japan’s military forces and is characterized as sacred and inviolable. 

Emperor Akihito is the first to have been enthroned under the symbol emperor concept, and he has shaped it and made it his own. It will be a great focus for Japanese studies to think about what the next emperor will do. Will he continue in his father’s footsteps? Will he initiate new directives? Return to earlier conceptions of the emperor? And how will Japan change as a result? We also should put a special focus on young people and the media, and ask: which sectors of the Japanese media will be permitted to be present and film, and which aspects of the enthronement ceremonies? What role will social media play? They were not even developed and disseminated at the time of the last enthronement in 1990. So a whole new media sphere, a whole new generation will come into being or come into focus for Japanese studies through the enthronement ceremonies of 2019. 

The implications for Shintō will be particularly pointed, as the enthronement ceremonies will bring in new and younger generations of shrine priests to be a part of these ceremonies; whether directly or indirectly, will prompt them to think again about the connection and the significance of the imperial institution for Shintō. 

Likewise, for all aspects of Japanese religions, I believe that the enthronement rites and perhaps also, the study of how they have changed since the Meiji period could be a very good focus for considering what a new look at Meiji might provide, what new insights and knowledge we might gain in the sphere of religious studies. 

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening. 


*Citation for this episode: 

Helen Hardacre, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, June 1, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-31-dr-helen-hardacre-harvard/

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.