JHTI menu banner

Meiji Hôrei

To search the Meiji Hôrei, click here

Commentary by Dr. Delmer Brown, Professor Emeritus of History, University of California Berkeley

This site contains documents on religion issued between 1868 and 1945. They were edited by Sakamoto Kenichi and published by 神社本庁明治維新百年記念事業委員会, Jinja Honchō's Committee on the Centennial Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, in 1968, one hundred years after the first year of Meiji. Published in a book entitled 明治以降神社関係法令史料 (Governmental Orders Concerning Shinto Shrines After the First Year of Meiji), they show how and why native Kami beliefs were used by the government to strengthen and justify Japan's spectacular modern reform movement, the Meiji Restoration. As the word “Restoration” suggests, the Meiji reforms were thought of as restorations not only of Japan's ancient Imperial Shinto system. During both ancient and modern reform periods, separated from each other by approximately a thousand years, Japan’s leaders felt threatened by foreign states - in ancient times by China, and in modern times by powerful Western states. Consequently, the rulers adopted a wide range of foreign techniques for strengthening the state and for building and re-building Imperial Shinto, a Japanese religious system intended tosanctify and strengthen Japan and its divine emperors and empresses.

The existence and influence of this religious system, in both ancient and modern times, have not been generally recognized or understood. But ancient texts (especially the Nihongi and the Shoku Nihongi) together with these modern state documents reveal a deep and persisten appreciation of the power of Imperial-Shinto to sanctify and strengthen Japan and her emperors during these two long and significant periods of history.

A holistic look at the ideological power of Imperial Shinto during these two reform periods tempts this historian to draw these four broad conclusions:

1. Japan's rulers during these two periods really did think and believe in the devine power of the Grear Goddess Amaterasu -- who was believed to have given birth (in Heaven) to the islands of Japan and to descendants who were destined to rule Japan forever-- to think and believe that state support for Imperial Shinto would add sanctity and sterngth to Japan, its emeperors, and the reforms.

2. Imperial Shinto not only added sanctify and strength to the state during those two long reform periods but had a deep and broad cultural impact, especially on imported religions and on art and thought.

3. Imperial Shinto rally was, during both periods of great reform, a powerful ideological force (not mere verbiage), especially before and during World War II when basic Imperial Shinto beliefs about the divinity of the Emperor--which lay at the very core of Japanese ultra-nationalism--were converted into a form of religious fundamentalism that made many Japanese individuals willing to give their very lives in killing feared and hated non-believers.

4. When the development of the ideological power of Imperial Shinto is considered in connection three other interrelated historical forces (continuous fear of invasion by foreign superpowers, continuous accumulation of technological knowledge, and continuous accumulation of economic wealth), one begins to see that an acceptable holistic pattern of Japanese history might look like this: (1) the Great Reform Period (roughly 593 to 709), (2) the later Great Reform Period  without fear of invasion (roughly 709 to 1185); (3) the Disunited Medieval Period (roughly 1185 to 1560); (4) the Unified Medieval Period (roughly 1560 to 1868; (5) the Meiji Reformation Period (roughly 1868 to 1945); and (6) the later Meiji Reformation Period without fear of invasion (roughly 1945 to the present). Such a pattern draws attention to interesting parallels between Japan’s two post-reform periods of history; the first began after the capital was moved to Heian and relations with China had become peaceful, and the second after 1945 when relations with the Western powers became peaceful. The first was, and the second is, a period of remarkable cultural development.  

The Meiji documents can be searched in three different modes: 条文(Principal Documents), 項目(Document Sections), and 本文(All Documents).

January 19, 2007