Kate Wildman Nakai - Professor Emerita, Sophia University
Contention over the character of shrines cropped up repeatedly in prewar Japan, from the early Meiji period until the 1940s. Were shrines religious or not? The government’s position as it evolved by the early twentieth century was that jurisdictional arrangements made clear that shrines differed from religious institutions; consequently, to require schoolchildren to offer reverence at shrines did not conflict with the Meiji Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. For various reasons, however, the responsible ministries refrained from pronouncing officially on the content of what took place at shrines. Christian, Buddhist, and some Shinto groups argued, on the other hand, that shrines and the activities conducted at them were religious. It was on those grounds that in 1932 several Catholic students from Sophia University, established by the Jesuits, failed to offer reverence at Yasukuni Shrine, the national shrine to the war dead. In an effort to resolve the complications arising from this incident, the Ministry of Education stepped outside the parameters of the jurisdictional argument and issued a statement defining the purpose of having students show reverence at shrines: it was for educational reasons as it served to inculcate a patriotic spirit and an attitude of loyalty and fidelity. In the immediate context the attempt to shift the register of the debate from “religion” to “education” made room for an alternative explanation of the meaning of showing reverence at shrines. But it also evoked another unresolved issue, for embedded in the concept of “education” (kyōiku) was that of “teaching” (kyō), and controversy over the relationship between shrines and “teaching” antedated and had become entangled with the debate over the relationship between shrines and “religion” (shūkyō). The nature of this earlier controversy sheds light on the implications of what happened in 1932 and, beyond that, on the much-contested issue of what was “State Shinto.”
Kate Wildman Nakai is professor emerita at Sophia University. She received her higher education at Stanford University and Harvard University and held teaching posts at Harvard and the University of Oregon before moving to the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Sophia, where she taught premodern Japanese history. From 1997 to 2010 she served concurrently as editor of Monumenta Nipponica. Her research has focused on Tokugawa intellectual history, particularly the thought and political program of Arai Hakuseki and the late Mito school. She is currently engaged in a study of the 1932 Sophia University-Yasukuni Shrine incident and the late Edo and Meiji history of Shinto.