Abe's planned Ise Shrine tour welcomed by some, others warn of mixing religion and state


Although local excitement appears to be building about a plan for the Group of Seven leaders to visit Japan’s most prestigious shrine later next week, some religious scholars are taking issue with the move as a possible conflict with the principle of the separation of religion and state.

Government sources have confirmed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to show the leaders from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United States and the European Union around Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture when they gather for the Ise-Shima summit talks on May 26-27.

Viewed by many to be the spiritual home of Japan, it was the main reason the area was selected for the summit, with Abe calling the Shinto shrine “the most suited to get in touch with the Japanese spirit.”

When Abe announced the venue last June, he expressed hope that G-7 leaders would visit the shrine to “share the solemn and imposing atmosphere.” The government has said it plans to organize the event in a way that does not blend politics and religion.

Motoki Nakamura, who operates the souvenir shop and dining hall Se-No-Kuniya located in the town in front of the Inner Shrine, which is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami (the mythical ancestral deity of the Imperial family), welcomes the plan with open arms.

“Out of the 8.3 million people per year who visit (Ise Shrine), only about 1 percent are foreigners. If this is used as an opportunity to gain name recognition, we will probably get more tourists coming from overseas,” said Nakamura.

Yorio Fujimoto, a professor of Kokugakuin University who specializes in the history of religion and government, said there was no problem with paying respect at the shrine regardless of a person’s faith.

“As an international ceremony, being able to experience Japan’s traditional culture is a thing to welcome,” said Fujimoto. “There have been a multitude of important foreign guests who have visited in the past. Whether a person wants to pray or not is a matter of the individual’s belief. There is nothing wrong with showing respect.”

Others, however, think the tour, which has been slated for the morning of May 26 and may also include an area usually not open to the public, must be strictly to experience Japanese culture without crossing over into religion.

“If it is presented as one aspect of Japanese culture, as a study tour if you will, then it will be hard to make it into an issue,” said Susumu Shimazono, a professor in the graduate school of religious studies at Sophia University.

“But when you introduce a specific religion as Japanese culture you run the risk of making an issue of Article 20 of the Constitution, which states, ‘The state is prohibited from granting privileges or political authority to a religion . . .,’ ” he said.

“I think one should be mindful to ensure that this doesn’t become an issue over freedom of religion.”