Religious Bigotry Then and Now

On no fewer than seventeen occasions since Sept. 11, President Bush has spoken favorably of Islam, producing enough quotable material to constitute a White House pamphlet, In the President’s Words: Respecting Islam, which you can probably pick up free at any U.S. embassy in a Muslim country. It’s not for me to judge whether the president’s words reflect his scholarly understanding (yes, I’m joking), or merely the influence of Colin Powell and other among his advisors who soberly reflect, “One point two billion. Twenty percent of humanity. Over half the world’s oil. Better not to alienate those people.” In any case, Bush’s pragmatic gestures to the Muslim community, in the U.S. and elsewhere, clash with the positions of key administration figures and Bush supporters, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has stupidly opined that “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him [whereas] Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.” Fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson told the Washington Times last month that Bush’s officially tolerant view “ignores history. Any student of history knows that [Islam]’s not a peaceful religion.”

Now William S. Lind, Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation, has attacked the president for his visit December 5 to the Islamic Center of Washington with a satirical piece on the foundation’s website published the following day. Indicating the depth of the Islamophobes’ disgust with Bush’s stated stance of tolerance, he depicts the president following up the Islamic Center visit by hosting a “sunrise breakfast” for “leading Japanese-Americans, the Japanese diplomatic community and a delegation of Shinto priests from Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead.” (Thus he slickly connects all those of Japanese ethnicity with Shinto religious belief.) Bush addresses the gathering on the morning of December 7, that “day that will live in infamy,” declaring, “Christianity and Shinto are very much alike. Both are religions of peace, just as Islam is a religion of peace.” (But Christianity and Shinto are of course thoroughly dissimilar. Lind’s point is that Islam, too, is a world apart from the Judeo-Christian tradition that he and the Center for Cultural Conservatism so passionately uphold.) “In hosting this morning’s breakfast,” Bush says, “I send a message to all the dead warriors gathered at the Yasukuni shrine. America treasures your friendship. America honors your faith.” He joins the gathering in observing the rising sun (symbol of imperial Japan and of the sun goddess, Amaterasu), having arranged a “special flyover of Japanese naval aircraft” for the occasion.

It is mildly clever satire, penned with entirely vicious intent: to depict Islam in general as an enemy of America on a par with Japanese fascism in the 1940s, and Bush’s understated, matter-of-fact acknowledgement that Islam isn’t really the problem as treacherously na?ve. Exploiting the often drawn (if misconstrued) parallel between the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 and 9-11, it effectively alloys two racisms and two categories of religious bigotry. I’ve examined bigotry about Islam elsewhere (see “Challenging Ignorance on Islam: a Ten-Point Primer for Americans,” Counter Punch, July 24, 2002). Since Lind uses Shinto (and the Japanese who produced this belief system) as an analogue to the Islam he so hates and fears, he apparently supposes that the former are the better exposed and despised, at least among his readership. So I’m inclined to challenge his confusion about Shinto.

First some general facts. Shinto (loosely, “the way of the gods”) has been practiced in Japan for over 1600 years, maybe for much longer. Believers worship the kami, which may be deities with personalities described in texts (the oldest of these dating to the eighth century), roughly analogous to the Greco-Roman or Nordic gods; or rocks, streams, mountains, forests, without personal attributes, that are revered simply because they evoke a sense of awe. The focal Shinto institution is the shrine, a simple, austerely elegant wooden structure that houses the spirit of a kami. You know you’re in the vicinity of a Shinto shrine when you see a torii, a sort of gate shaped like an H with a bar over the top. These can be of wood or stone or concrete, small or huge. You enter a path through the torii and soon find a well where you are supposed to wash your hands and mouth.

The shrine structure itself is not usually entered, but worshippers approach it (often singly, in private), stand before it, sound a gong and clap to gain the deity’s attention, pray, perhaps drop a few coins in the offertory and leave. Every shrine is different. Some feature a lot of phallic/fertility cult material, and emptied kegs of donated rice wine abound. Shinto is all about earthly happiness and pleasure. It places no emphasis on metaphysics and elaborates no moral code. While the Judeo-Christian tradition posits sin as the fundamental problem; Buddhism, desire and the suffering arising from it; and Confucianism, social disorder produced by inattention to natural hierarchies; Shinto posits defilement. One wants to be cleansed of filth, and distanced from blood and death that most represent defilement.

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the sixth century, from India via China and Korea. With its highly sophisticated philosophical doctrines, Buddhism had little in common with Shinto, but as elsewhere in Asia, it made its peace with the indigenous faith. Westerners are often puzzled about how two very different religions can coexist harmoniously, and how many people can say they are both Shinto and Buddhist. This is no doubt because the Judeo-Christian (I should say, Judeo-Christian-Islamic) tradition demands exclusive adherence to one version of Truth, while Buddhism has shown infinite capacity to incorporate non-Buddhist beliefs into itself. Buddhist missionaries simply pronounced the native Shinto deities bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings, adding them to the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon or identifying them with existing members. Tolerance and inclusiveness have been the hallmarks of Japanese religion.

The above describes Shinto as it has traditionally been practiced. After 1868, when reformers who consciously sought to emulate the west overthrew the feudal regime in Japan, Shinto was established as the state religion—in conscious imitation of the (Christian) state churches in Europe, an imagined source of western strength. For a short time the new rulers promoted an anti-Buddhist movement; they abandoned that effort, but clearly separated Shinto from the Buddhist administrative structure and accorded it a higher status than the imported faith. Shinto priests were placed on the government payroll, and the role of the emperor, as the descendent of the Sun Goddess, was enormously magnified. For centuries, the pious peasant worshipping the kami at the local shrine had given little thought to the emperor, who was far away (“above the clouds”) and usually powerless politically; his or her Shinto was not emperor-centered. But the State Shinto perfected in the Meiji era (1868-1912) encouraged, even demanded, that the citizens of the industrializing, “modernizing” state accord the emperor worshipful respect. Primary school history texts asserted his divine origins. School children bowed every year to the emperor’s portrait and copies of the Imperial Rescript on Education in what the tiny (legally tolerated) Christian minority regarded as a pagan religious ritual. To criticize the kokutai (the “national body,” or mystical union between the Japanese emperor, people, and landscape—in essence a religious concept conflating Japaneseness with support for the monarchy) was a serious criminal offense. The only equally serious ideological transgression was to criticize “the system of private property.” (Note that in Japan, the ruling elite coupled capitalism and the emperor system as the twin pillars of the modern state, beyond reproach. Only the radical left agitated, underground, against both.)

During the Second World War, Americans were encouraged to see (as Lind would have us see now) the conflict with Japan in religious terms. Better-educated people were aware that several religious traditions influenced the thinking of most Japanese, and saw no special reason to vilify Buddhism or Confucianism, which after all, were practiced in wartime ally China. But Shinto, unique to Japan, was plainly evil. It had no moral code. Its scriptures’ long, lewd passages about deities’ copulation and various bodily functions had so offended Victorian translators that they had rendered those disturbing sections into Latin.

Worse, Shinto asserted Japan’s superiority over all other nations. It maintained that the Japanese rulers, and the Japanese in general, were descended from the Sun Goddess. Emperor Hirohito (before his spectacular postwar rehabilitation at the hands of the U.S. Occupation) was reviled in wartime America, especially among Christian evangelicals, for claiming that he was a kami or god. (In fact, the concept of divinity in Japan was and is markedly different from the western concept.) The willingness of the Japanese soldiers-particularly the kamikaze (the “wind of the gods” suicide pilots)—to sacrifice themselves for the emperor disgusted and terrified Americans, and this willingness was understood in religious terms. How could one not regard Shinto as the Devil’s work?

During the U.S. Occupation, beginning in September 1945, U.S. officials sought to demilitarize and democratize Japan. This meant discarding the schoolbooks that reproduced Shinto myth as history and glorified the samurai the heroes of the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, imposing the American-authored constitution that remains in effect, converting the now-cooperative Emperor Hirohito from head of state to “symbol of state” and persuading him (in his ningen sengen or “statement of my humanity” on New Year’s day 1946) to publicly renounce claims to divinity. For some it meant challenging the prevalent religious beliefs with aggressive Christian missionary activity. Supreme Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself, a devout Christian, requested of the U.S. missionary societies “Bibles, Bibles and more Bibles.” “Japan is a spiritual vacuum,” he told U.S. Protestant evangelicals visiting Japan in late 1945. “If you do not fill it with Christianity, it will be filled with Communism. Send me 1,000 missionaries.” Some U.S. officials advocated banning the Shinto faith in toto. (Was it not a “fascist” religion?) In October, John Carter Vincent, a top State Department official in the Division of Far Eastern Affairs, announced in a radio broadcast that Shinto would be eliminated entirely due to its putative fascist connections.

But cooler heads prevailed; scholars pointed out the need to distinguish between the (harmless) “folk Shinto” and the (malign) State Shinto presumed to underlie, among other evils, the kamikaze suicide bombers. State Shinto was indeed dismantled, and freedom of religion decreed; but the shrines were left alone, and people continued to flock to them, offering simple prayers for health, happiness, and success on college admissions exams. As it turned out, Shinto per se was no threat at all. (Yasukuni, where the souls of Japan’s war dead, including some war criminals, are enshrined, is an unusual case. It indeed retains the atmosphere of State Shinto and holds a special place in the hearts of Japan’s rightist politicians, who are, by the way, almost always pro-U.S., and the neofascist groups and yakuza gangsters.)

Which brings me back to Mr. Lind, not a cool head, who cannot distinguish between mainstream Islam and al-Qaeda fanaticism, much less folk Shinto and State Shinto. Nor, apparently, between Japanese, Japanese-Americans, and Shinto believers. For the record, most Japanese, even if officially listed as both Buddhists and Shinto believers, are not religious in the western sense; i.e., they do not believe in gods or an afterlife, but follow tradition in this most tradition-bound of societies, getting married in Shinto rites and cremated following Buddhist funerals. As for Japanese-Americans, more of them are Christians than Buddhists, and few indeed, except in Hawai’i, are interested in Shinto. In Hawai’i, however, an event in some way honoring the Shinto faith, involving the governor, Japanese diplomats, Japanese-Americans, and Shinto priests (a gathering on a smaller scale that that posited in Lind’s satire) is not entirely inconceivable—despite the fact that the Japanese military attacked Hawai’i 61 years ago. It is not uncommon at all in Hawai’i for a new building to be blessed by a Hawai’ian kahuna, a Christian cleric, a Buddhist priest, and a Shinto priest-exorcist waving a sakaki-branch wand. As an irreligious person, I may roll my eyes in wonderment that in the twenty-first century people still seek refuge in all varieties of such myth and ritual, but until humankind outgrows irrational beliefs, I think it best to extend tolerance to all the religions with which parents, generation after generation, burden their children. Tolerance seems to work in the Hawai’ian case. Maybe bigots like Lind could learn from it.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: