ISE, MIE PREF. – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked satisfied, happily smiling as he met top leaders from the Group of Seven countries one by one at the gate to a giant Shinto-style wooden bridge.
It was the opening of the G-7 summit at Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) in Ise, Mie Prefecture.
It also should have been one of the proudest moments for the prime minister, a conservative who has for years called for the revival of traditional values and Japanese traditions.
Abe said he chose the Ise-Shima area as the venue for the summit because he wanted world leaders to feel the “beautiful nature, rich culture and traditions of Japan.”
But are those really all of his reasons?
Some observers are concerned that Abe’s hidden purpose in conducting the high-profile ceremony was to please Shinto supporters and thereby promote a right-leaning form of nationalism.
Shinto was the spiritual source of Japan’s fanatic nationalism before and during World War II.
Abe and many in his Cabinet are prominent members of a group of 308 Diet lawmakers who support the Shinto Seiji Renmei (Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership).
The Shinto association is pushing for the creation of a new constitution based on Japan’s traditional values, and the establishment of national ceremonies for “the spirits of the war dead” enshrined at war-linked Yasukuni Shrine — all mirroring the key policy goals of right-leaning politicians, many of whom are core supporters of Abe.
“We will aim for creating a society that treasures the Imperial family, which can be boasted to the world, as well as Japan’s traditions and culture,” the website of Shinto Seiji Renmei states.
“We will aim for establishing national ceremonies for the war dead of Yasukuni, who dedicated their precious lives to Japan,” it says.
Today, unlike Yasukuni Shrine, which also honors Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead, few Japanese associate Ise Jingu with the dark memories of the wartime militarism that was based on “State Shinto.”
Indeed, particularly for young people, Ise Jingu is just another popular tourist spot with a number of traditional structures blessed with deep, quiet woods and a somewhat mysterious atmosphere.
That is probably the reason Abe’s plan to hold the G-7 opening ceremony there has caused little public controversy in Japan.
But for those who know Japanese history well, Ise Jingu is indeed a special place.
It is the most sacred Shinto shrine and is ranked above thousands of others across the country because it enshrines Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who legend says was the predecessor of the Imperial family.
With the 1868 Meiji Restoration, the shogunate government was toppled and a constitutional monarch system centered on the emperor was established to promote the modernization of the Japanese society.
“With the Meiji Restoration, Ise Jingu was reborn as the central facility of State Shinto,” wrote noted religious scholar Susumu Shimazono, in his 2010 book “Kokka Shinto to Nihonjin” (“State Shinto and the Japanese People”).
“(Ise) Jingu was put under state control and its relations with the Emperor and Imperial family were strengthened. It transformed into an awe-inspiring sacred place for State Shinto,” Shimazono wrote.
In and after the 1930s, thegovernment systematically promoted State Shinto and thereby encouraged the people to worship Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously called Emperor Showa, as a living deity.
That enthusiastic worship is believed to have served as the foundation for Japan’s wartime militarism.
Though few ordinary Japanese remember, Shinto shrines were once a symbol of Japan’s invasions of other Asian countries.
During Japan’s wars in the 1930s and ’40s, Japan built many shrines in countries and areas it invaded and occupied, including Manchuria, Singapore and Korea, forcing their residents to worship Emperor Hirohito as their sole leader.
Even today, many Shinto believers are participating in grass-roots movements to call for the revival of Japan’s prewar sense of values and to promote nationalism centered on the Emperor.
The most notable examples are the priests of Yasukuni Shrine as well as their supporters.
Others include Katsuya Toyama, a former top priest at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. He was one of the key activists who helped found the Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) in 1997, according to the memoirs of Masakuni Murakami, a former senior Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who led right-wing movements.
Nippon Kaigi has since become Japan’s largest lobby for nationalistic policy agendas.
The G-7 opening ceremony at Ise Jingu, therefore, may carry great importance for followers of Shinto and other right-wing activists.
But whether it will have a big impact on the general public today is another question.
On his Twitter account, Shimazono expressed concern with Abe’s plan to hold the G-7 ceremony at Ise Jingu, maintaining that he might be attempting to revive State Shintoism.
But many other Twitter users, apparently young people, mocked Shimazono’s criticism, saying that holding the G-7 ceremony at Ise Jingu alone would not have much impact on today’s Japan.
“Even if (Shimazono’s theory) is true, how many people are fascinated with State Shinto now?” asked Twitter user @Noodle1002.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.