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The BBC's Charles Scanlon:
"55 years ago, Shinto was a rigidly enforced state religion"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Shinto factor in Japanese elections
Altars are carried during a traditional Shinto celebration in Tokyo
Altars are carried during a Shinto celebration in Tokyo
Charles Scanlon in Tokyo

In the countdown to polling day Japan's coalition government has been fighting hard to win back support after a severe slump in its standing in the opinion polls.

It is the festival season in Tokyo. Altars to Japan's native Shinto deities are carried through the streets in an annual celebration.

Shinto rites - with their reverence for nature - are part of the fabric of daily life in Japan and few question their true meaning.

Emperor as divine


Prime Minister Mori described Japan as a divine country
Prime Minister Mori said Japan was a divine country
Just 55 years ago, Shinto was a rigidly enforced state religion that worshipped the Emperor as a God.

The Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, has become an electoral liability following comments he made at a recent meeting with Pro-Shinto politicians.

Mr Mori, brought back memories of the way things used to be. He described Japan as a divine country with the emperor at its centre.


Professor  Inoguchi: Surprised and dismayed at Mr Mori's comments
Professor Inoguchi: Surprised and dismayed at Mr Mori's comments
This belief system was once used to justify Japanese aggression against its Asian neighbours.

The reaction to his comments was overwhelmingly negative.

"The whole political set-up after 1945 was meant to deny the whole pre-war system so it was a great surprise and dismay to hear Prime Minister Mori say what he said," Professor Takashi Inoguchi of Tokyo University said.

Once a year though, Shinto's association with Japan's Imperial past is on display for all to see.



I think the Japanese people were shocked by his comments

Shoichi Nakagawa, former cabinet minister
The Yasakuni shrine was built to honour Japan's war dead and is seen by some as a symbol of Japanese militarism.

It was to this traditional constituency that Mr Mori was trying to appeal to.

Senior politicians are among those that flock to the Yasakuni shrine for the war memorial each year.

Shoichi Nakagawa is a former cabinet minister who visited the shrine last year. He believes the prime minister went too far.

"I think the Japanese people were shocked by his comments," Mr Nakagawa said.


Yasakni shrine: Politicians flock to the war memoiral every year
Yasakani shrine: Politicians flock to the war memoiral every year
"The Shinto religion is a very normal and natural thing for us and so is the Emperor."

"The constitution says clearly that religion and politics should be separated."

Folk ritual

Japanese attitudes towards religion have changed radically in the last half century.

At the Buddhist temple in Tokyo's affluent Akasaka district a traditional tea ceremony is put on for visitors.

In the temple grounds something very unorthodox is happening. Shrines to the Shinto Gods have been set up and they are attracting more visitors than the Buddhist temple itself.

One monk says that Shinto is less political and more spiritual.

"Shinto today is a far cry from the state creed that inspired the imperial army in the 1930s and 40s," he says.


Japanese are fond of tradition but most are very secular
The Japanese are fond of tradition but most are very secular
"It's reverted to its more tradtional role as a folk ritual indistingushable to many younger Japanese from the Buddhist and Confucian practices that also play a role in their daily lives."

The Buddhist authorities seem happy enough to tolerate such syncretic practices.

The abbot says he sees no contradiction between being a Buddhist and carrying out certain Shinto rituals even though some Buddhist sects were persecuted during the war.

Today's Japanese are fond of tradition but most are overwhelmingly secular.

If Mr Mori intended his comments about a divine country as a political call to arms, he made a serious miscalculation.

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See also:

04 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mori makes new gaffe
02 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan heads for snap election
17 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japanese PM says sorry
16 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan: A divine country?
05 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Yoshiro Mori
07 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mori pledges Japan 'rebirth'
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