The heartland of Japan is home to an ancient religion older than Christ: Shintoism. Traditionally known as kami-no-michi, it is one of Japan’s indigenous religions. It is polytheistic and has strong correlations with philosophies of naturalism. Historically, Shintoism mixed with the other dominant ideology in Japan, Buddhism. However, in the mid-19th century, Japanese rulers deliberately erased Buddhist influence and developed a new Shinto sect: State Shinto. This new religion viewed the Japanese Emperor as a living god, descended from Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. Japanese citizens rarely saw their emperor gods, and this exclusivity fed into their supernatural aura.
In 1945, many Japanese heard their god’s voice for the first time, as Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in WWII. To some, it was impossible to believe their god could be defeated in battle. Some soldiers, such as Hiroo Onoda, continued fighting for 29 years after the war, staunchly believing he was serving his emperor. Then, in 1946, the United States dealt a humiliating blow to State Shinto when they forced Emperor Hirohito's "Humanity Declaration." The declaration was explicit admittal that he was a mere mortal. Were the Japanese people devastated? Did they revolt against their imposter god? Did it negatively impact the perceived validity of the religion? To understand these questions, I went to Dr. David Howell, Professor of History and Editor of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies at Harvard University:
"The idea that the emperor was ultimately descended from Amaterasu was very old in Japan, but seeing him as a ‘living god’ was actually something of a modern invention from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And even then, I don’t think ordinary Japanese saw him as a ‘god’ in quite the way the word suggests to those of us from a Judeo-Christian cultural background. Very special to the point of being sacred, yes, but not with special godlike powers. So his declaration of humanity, which the US Occupation authorities pressed him to make, was not as big a step back as it sounds to us. The emperor remained a special person (as Queen Elizabeth is), but not a sacred one, so people saw him much more than in the past, heard his voice, and so on. His personal popularity probably increased quite a bit even as the religious trappings of his person were stripped away. Shinto as a popular religion wasn’t particularly damaged by the declaration (there are lots of shrines and people pray for good health, long life, and the like all the time)."
In fact, 80,000 Shinto shrines remain in Japan to this day and around 70% of the population still participates in Shinto practices. This elucidates the issue of analyzing global phenomenon from a western lens. What we viewed as humiliation was met with acceptance and approval. What we called “god” was not, in fact, how the Japanese viewed their emperor. The story of the Shinto belief is one of hope: a classical religion was hijacked by a vicious regime, reformed, and remains ingrained in the Japanese people. The historical and cultural implications of such a process is something we can all learn from as various countries battle with their speckled pasts.