The Rise of Imperial Shintoism in Japan: A Tale of Corruption, Financial Struggles, and Religious Feuds

Have you ever wondered why the Japanese Empire (1868-1947) favored Shinto over Buddhism? Well, let me tell you, it’s a wild ride filled with corruption, financial struggles, and religious feuds.
First off, let’s talk about the good old days of Buddhism. Before 1868, Buddhism was so integrated into the government that temples were basically like the DMV of your ancestors. They kept records of where you were born and would vouch for your identity. But, let’s be real, this system was basically a giant bribe machine. Monks were shaking down folks left and right for some extra cash.
But, by 1800, Japan was experiencing some major changes. The merchants were becoming powerful and the samurai were becoming broke AF. So, the government decided to sell off samurai status to make some money. This, my friends, is the backdrop for the Meiji restoration. By 1850, Japan was basically a ticking time bomb.
Enter the “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigner” movement (also known as the Sonno Joi movement). This movement was all about getting rid of foreign ideas, like Buddhism, and any corrupt systems that were part of the current government. But, the members of this movement didn’t really know what they wanted to replace it with, they just knew they didn’t like what they had.
Fast forward to 1868, the Meiji restoration happens and the “corrupt” system is defeated. This leads to a lot of anger towards the Buddhist power structure. In one prefecture alone, 100% of the Buddhist temples were either destroyed or converted into government compounds. This reaction was not limited to just that one prefecture, it happened all over Japan.
But, the government had a problem. Inside the Buddhist temples were around 150,000 young apprentice monks, and it was a huge financial burden on the system. So, they decided to release many of them back into the population. This also led to many Buddhist temples being abandoned.
On top of all of this, Buddhist monks and local religious priests had been arguing for centuries over who should do what rituals. Buddhism is a missionary religion and would often convert local traditions into Buddhist ones. This caused a lot of tension between the two groups.
As Buddhism was weakened by the fall of the Shogunate, many groups saw an opportunity for power. Nativists, Buddhists, and even Christians all wanted a piece of the pie. But, in the end, no one really won. The government set down an order for all religious sites to define themselves and stop trying to convert kami into Buddhas. This defined the modern religious structure in Japan.
It’s important to note that Imperial Shintoism didn’t become a thing until later on, and it was more about showing subservience to the Empire rather than a religion.
So, there you have it folks, a wild ride of corruption, financial struggles, and religious feuds. Who knew the history of religion in Japan could be so juicy?



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