Meiji Civilization and the Politics of Shinto at Kotohira Shrine

Sarah Thal (Rice University)

Society for the Study of Japanese Religions
AAS Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., April 5, 2002


During the last several years, we've spoken frequently at this meeting of the need for studies that take into account many of the practical emphases of popular religious behaviors throughout Japanese history. Allan Grapard and others have repeatedly insisted upon the importance of both studying particular sites of worship and recognizing the economic needs of institutional survival. Ian Reader and George Tanabe likewise focused attention on the importance of practical benefits in worship over the centuries. All of this has occurred in the context of an increased concentration on combinatory practices and kit among scholars in Japan, and a growing awareness of the problems of Buddhist and Shinto identification before the nineteenth century.

My work fits squarely within this set of approaches. I have been studying the site of Konpira in Shikoku, whose reputation for practical benefits and the efficacy of its goma ritual made it a rival of Ise as a popular pilgrimage destination from the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Focusing in particular on the changes at Konpira in the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, the manuscript for my book (Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods) examines how priests, worshipers, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and others created "modern" Japan at sites of worship like Konpira. While the book will examine the political, economic, social, cultural, and especially spatial strategies involved, I would like today to focus on the religious aspects of this transition (insofar as one can make such a distinction). In particular, I would like to outline the development of shrine-centered ideas of civilization (or "modernity") in the Meiji period.

To do so, I will first speak briefly about why these sites of worship became objects of central concern during the Restoration, then turn to nativists' and priests' attempts to establish a new, modern civilization (or version of bunmei kaika) focused on the gods, and finally suggest some of the ways that the institutional need for shrine survival led by the late Meiji period to the complicated image of "Shinto" familiar to us today. Through it all, I want to argue for the need to take seriously not only sites and economies, but especially gods and their reputation for miraculous powers. For, as among some segments of the American populace today, for instance, the active presence of the gods formed the basis of a whole set of ideas for the present and the future in Meiji Japan.


In some ways, the powers of the gods lay at the basis of the legitimacy of the Meiji regime, as they had of earlier regimes as well. There is evidence that Oda Nobunaga sponsored the cult of Gozu Tenn in order to gain support, for instance, and we are all familiar with the posthumous enshrinement of Tokugawa Ieyasu as Tsh Daigongen. Likewise, at Mt. Zzu in Shikoku, the Tosa warlord Chsokabe Motochika associated himself with the Thirty Protective Deities (sanjbanjin) of the Lotus Sutra, and his successors under Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa shoguns promoted the cult of Konpira Daigongen under their sponsorship. During the eighteenth century, as the imperial house began to gain in stature, people identified Konpira Daigongen with the twelfth-century emperor Sutokuin, thereby associating the powers of the god with both the imperial house and with the supernatural powers of tengu, for both Sutokuin and the seventeenth-century priestly reviver of Mt. Zzu were envisioned in the popular imagination as such winged, long-nosed creatures. Nativists such as Hirata Atsutane then built upon such local identifications, to argue for the primacy of the gods and the legitimacy of a kami-centered order. By the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-nineteenth century, the emperor's connections to the powers of the gods formed a significant part of his recognized authority, and Emperor Kmei, in particular, used rites and prayers to enhance imperial influence.

Events surrounding the Meiji coup demonstrated the centrality of the gods and their powers in ideas of legitimacy. In 1867, nativists and loyalists declared the unity of rite and rule (saisei itchi) and, in April 1868, the separation of kami and buddhas (shinbutsu bunri), defining a sacred context for the legitimacy of the new rulers. Buddhist priests and shugenja around the country -- faced with the specter of the military occupation and confiscation of their land, and clinging to their hopes to thrive under a new regime -- declared themselves to be priests of the kami and identified the objects of their worship as kami. At Konpira, by August of 1868, the bett of the main temple received the title of shamushoku (a priest of the kami) and identified Konpira Daigongen as the kami Kotohira: a joint enshrinement of mononushi (from the ancient texts) and the spirit of the emperor Sutokuin. Thus, the miraculous powers of one of the most renowned gods of the mid-nineteenth century were now identified not only with the imperial regime, but also with an institution that accepted the authority of the fledgling Meiji state.

The priest's acknowledgement of state authority led within years to a more direct subservience to bureaucrats in Tokyo. In 1871, the government announced both that Shinto consisted of "rites for the state" (kokka no sshi) and that the domains that had existed until then were now abolished, with new prefectures established under the control of governors appointed from Tokyo (haihan chiken). The combination of these two policies led by 1872 and 1873 to the appointment of new nativist priests by bureaucrats in Tokyo to prominent sites such as Kotohira Shrine throughout the country. At Kotohira, these nativist priests then sought to use the miraculous reputation of the god both to promote their own ideals for the future of the country -- that is, to promote a Shinto civilization in contrast to the bunmei kaika of western thought -- and to ensure the institutional survival of the shrine and thus their own incomes, jobs, and status.

These dual priorities -- civilizing mission and survival -- were evident in the appointments themselves. In 1872, the new prefectural governor appointed four locally renowned nativists to establish proper rituals at and regulate the finances of the shrine, and to direct some of the income of the shrine to the prefectural government itself. Thus, in addition to removing all Buddhist objects and burning many of them, the priests established new bureaucratic and ritual procedures and imported a new "foreign-made" safe to hold the mountains of coins and currency tossed into the donation boxes of the shrine. In 1873, a new head priest arrived from Tokyo, appointed by the Ministry of Doctrine, as Tokoyo Nagatane later recalled, "with the commitment to harness the monetary power of the shrine."[1] The income from the god's miraculous reputation and the push for a civilization based on the gods together formed the basis of the priests' concerns.

So, what constituted the priests' vision of civilization? We're all familiar with its basic teachings: the Three Standards of Instruction of the Great Teaching Campaign. In James Ketelaar's translation, these consisted of:

1)      Comply with the commands to revere the kami and love the nation.

2)      Illuminate the principle of heaven and the way of man.

3)      Serve the emperor and faithfully maintain the will of the court.[2]

At Kotohira Shrine, the emphasis was placed on reverence of the gods -- that is, promoting not prayer or petition (kit), but decorous worship. The new priests thus established the Reverence Association (skei ksha) in 1873, surrounding sermons on the teachings with rituals of reverence. They controlled close access to the sanctuary and special amulets in order to extract fees from worshipers and expose them to the Great Teachings.

In doing so, the priests worked to define worship as reverence and obedience to shrine authority more than as petitioning for miracles. Members were required to pick names for their groups that were acceptable to the shrine -- without references to tengu or goma, for instance -- and follow extensive bureaucratic procedures of registration and initiation. Men (as the heads of households) were considered the ideal worshipers. One priest at Kotohira even rewrote tales of the god's miracles from ema, making them more masculine for use in sermons and didactic tales. When rewriting a woman's tale of having prayed to Konpira and been cured, for instance, the priest erased the female pronoun (warawa), attributing the initiative to the woman's family, not herself. Likewise, in other instances, he turned neutral pronouns such as watakushi into masculine ones (ore).[3]

Similarly, the new criteria for ideal, civilized worshipers were now defined as farther removed from the world of women -- and even of most men. The new civilization of the gods -- like that of western-style enlightenment and civilization -- was for the educated, propertied men of Japan. Posts of authority in the Reverence Association, for instance, were reserved for "people of repute" who "possess more than the average amount of capital," for instance.[4] And, as one of Kotohira's priests wrote in 1892, the education and technology of the age showed that even the miracles of the gods had changed in ways more in keeping with reverence than with faith. As he wrote:

In an uncivilized world, people used incomplete vessels and tools. When crossing the great sea, they tried to achieve safety by single-minded faith. Therefore, when they encountered bad winds, Kotohira displayed a golden purification wand or a spark of light, fortified their spirits, and thus caused them to work to avoid danger without yielding or slackening their efforts. This was the miracle of an uncivilized world. In the age of civilization, the deity inspires people to learn astronomy and navigation, build vessels and tools, even pay attention to harbor lanterns, light signals, [and] weather predictions and water depths . . . . This is the miracle of a civilized age.[5]

In fact, too much faith was deemed harmful to one's spiritual life. As he wrote:

The deeper the faith, the more easily believers are led astray. . . . People mistakenly try to act today according to things of long ago. Hearing that other people have received divine help -- and overlooking those people's virtues and diligence -- they want to receive the same divine protection. They exhaust their energy in shallow learning and devote their minds to prayers and charms. . . . Although prayer and charms are fundamentally means to seek divine protection, it is a mistake to not exhaust one's own efforts and heedlessly rely solely upon divine protection.[6]

"Civilization," then, consisted of virtues and diligence, not charms; of reverence, not miracles. "Civilization" also depended on the actions of educated and prosperous men, not gullible women; and on the authority of the shrine, not individual believers.

Such a shrine-centered view of "civilization" was not monolithic. Just as the proponents of bunmei kaika disagreed about details such as the role of the state or the importance of the military, so too did proponents of this kami-centered nation disagree about political details as well. This is how I interpret, for instance, the Pantheon Dispute (saijin rons) of the early 1870s, for instance. It was, I would argue, one of the earliest debates on the priorities of the state. Those who argued for the primacy of Ise, with their focus on the purported ancestor of the imperial house, suggested that the ultimate values of the state should be those tied to the emperor. Proponents of Izumo, on the other hand, implied that ties to the land and moral behavior were more important -- since they advocated the worship of kuninushi, creator of the land and ruler of the unseen world, as the chief deity. And the priests of Kotohira, who also got involved, argued for the dominance of service to the state and popularity: as they argued, since Kotohira Shrine contributed as much money to the Great Teaching Campaign as did Ise, this service to the state, made possible by the popularity of the shrine and thus its wealth from donations, should place it at the pinnacle of official worship as well. Building on the miraculous reputation of their god and the wealth from pilgrimage that resulted, the priests of Kotohira fought to define the priorities of a nation centered on the most popular kami -- a fight that they lost, ceding the stage to the more familiar teachings of loyalty and obedience espoused by Ise and Izumo.


In the ensuing decades, priests at Kotohira and other shrines around the country indeed preached on reverence, obedience, and kami-centered history as their vision of a civilized future. The parameters of this "Shinto" civilization, however, were forced to expand in the 1890s and early twentieth century not so much because of a direct attack from the advocates of western thought, but because of the economic needs of the priests and their shrines. In the 1880s, Kotohira suffered amidst a widespread recession. However, the priests did not really confront the growing problems until the 1890s, when they were faced with both war and competition.

During the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, popular demand rose for amulets, prayer ceremonies, and stories of battlefront miracles and the protection of the gods. In response, priests at Kotohira re-incorporated the miracles of the gods in their teachings, emphasizing their service of the public good, not private advantage. The priests also faced growing competition in serving this popular demand for miracles. One such competitor was the priest of a Buddhist subtemple that had been moved off the mountain in the wake of the shinbutsu bunri reforms. This priest, in an effort to promote the image of his temple and attract more worshipers and income, sued Kotohira Shrine for all of its possessions. Other men displaced from the mountain -- the shugenja -- also traveled around the Inland Sea, displaying what they claimed were the "original" images of Konpira Daigongen to paying audiences in Okayama, Osaka, and elsewhere. To counteract these competitive pressures and efface the severe debts of the shrine, a new head priest of Kotohira quickly set about reincorporating pre-Meiji popular objects of worship, building a new, "inner" shrine that would at least obliquely serve a revived cult of the tengu under the shrine's control, thereby directing the donations of petitioners for the tengu's miracles to the shrine instead of to its competitors. The result was a dilution of the text-based, reverence-oriented ideal of worship. Although the priests and the shrine literature still espoused such worship, they also tacitly encouraged the very profitable, popular interest in amulets and miracles.

This dual role of the shrines -- as promoters of both civilized reverence and popular belief in miracles -- was then magnified in the press. When journalists came to cover the purported three hundredth anniversary of the tengu in 1912, local, conservative newspapers lauded the reverent, cultured rituals of worshipers, while journalists from Tokyo or Osaka ridiculed the gullibility of pilgrims. The requirements of institutional survival had led priests to incorporate the miraculous powers of the gods within the nativist scheme of civilized reverence, answering the demands of their worshipers, but also widening the gap between their "Shinto" civilization and the civilization of enlightenment and technology.

For the next decade at least, and for much of the twentieth century, this uneasy coexistence of cultured reverence and popular faith persisted, complicating the relationship between shrines and the state, priests and pilgrims, not to mention religiosity and science. This coexistence calls into question from yet another angle the use of the term "Shinto" to refer to any single set of ideas, practices, or even institutions.

I would like to close by admitting that I still don't know what to do about the category of "Shinto" -- whether to talk of many "Shintos," a multifaceted Shinto, or to avoid the term altogether. What I do know is that -- like our recognition now (thanks to Grapard) that shinbutsu bunri was the separation of kami and buddhas, not of Shinto and Buddhism -- the actions of people focused on very concrete approaches to the gods and their miracles, not just or even primarily abstract ideas of "Shinto."

Tonight I've focused on the priests, trying to emphasize the continuing relevance of religious beliefs and practices in politics into the twentieth century, not just before, by delineating a shrine- and kami-centered version of "civilization" that paralleled the renowned bunmei kaika of Meiji. Likewise, worshipers as well enunciated even more visions in which gods, not just humans, shaped the world. As is clear in our own lives -- both in American politics and international affairs -- religious practices are very politically charged even, or especially, in the modern era.

I would like to end with a plea for more historical studies of religious practice in the twentieth century -- amidst industrialization, war, and postwar reconstruction. If we can move beyond the doctrines of "State Shinto," for instance, beyond Buddhist or Christian collaboration, we may begin to piece together more of the dynamics of Japanese democracy, pluralism, and localism amidst what is so often portrayed as a secular society and state. Whether in terms of gods or miracles, mountains or money, religiosity is central to modern history -- and it's up to us to show it.

[1] Tokoyo Nagatane, "Shinky soshiki monogatari," in Yasumaru Yoshio and Miyachi Masato, eds., Shky to kokka, 386-87, 421. I would like to thank Umezawa Fumiko for calling my attention to this reference.

[2] James E. Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 106.

[3] Sarah Thal, Rearranging the Landscape of the Gods, Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1999.

[4] "Kotohira hong skei ksha jrei" (1886), in Kotohirag shiry, vol. 14.

[5] "Yo no keishinsha ni hitogotosu," in Kotohira miyage, 11.

[6] "Yo no keishinsha ni hitogotosu," 10.