Is Emperor Worship Really a Thing in Japan?

Emperor Jinmu

Is the Japanese Emperor a God?

“Do the Japanese worship the emperor as a god?” This is a question I get all the time. Anyone who’s seen a WWII documentary about the Pacific War has probably come away with the impression that the Japanese emperor is god. The native faith of Japan is 神道 Shintō, literally, “the way of the gods.” Traditionally, this has been a decentralized, polytheistic, animistic religion whose oldest myths describe the imperial family as descendants of the sun goddess, 天照 Amaterasu. However, having divine blood was not the same as being a god. It wasn’t until a period from 1868 to 1945, the time of the Japanese Empire, that the State promulgated the idea of “emperor worship”[i] for about 60 years or less. Of course, Japan is an ancient country, and the story is much more complicated than that.

Emperor Jinmu with bow and arrow
Emperor Jinmu – the “first” emperor of Japan

From Ancient Times to 1868

The most distant period of Japanese history is 神代 Kamiyo the Age of the Gods. In this mythological time, legends tell us that the divine grandson of the sun goddess herself established a court on earth which embarked on illustrious conquests of the Japanese archipelago. The divine grandson’s grandson became the first emperor[ii], and to this day the imperial family still has the ancient and noble blood of the sun goddess coursing through their veins, or so it has been said. As time went on, warrior clans, known as 侍 samurai came to hold not just military power but also political power. The imperial family was still important, but were relegated to Shintō rituals in the imperial capital of 京都 Kyōto and served as pawns in elaborate martial chess games played by samurai warlords during the Japanese Middle Ages. Military rulers called 将軍 shōguns never abolished the imperial line, but relied on them for ceremonial legitimacy, thus there was general harmony between the parallel imperial and shōgunal lines[iii] right up until the 1850’s.

Yasukuni Shrine in WWII
Soldiers prepare for battle at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

State Shintō and the Empire of Japan

In 1868, a bizarre revolution took place in Japan. Disaffected antiforeign, pro-isolationist samurai used the restoration of imperial rule as a means to topple the current samurai government[iv] which had overseen 250+ years of strict isolationism. The revolutionaries “restored imperial rule” after roughly 700 years of emperors just performing religious ceremonies, writing poetry, and conferring titles upon the samurai court in 江戸 Edo (present day 東京 Tōkyō). Again, the emperor was just a pawn, but rebels now used his “divine origins” to emphasize their so-called righteous overthrow of the Edo Government. As a descendant of sun goddess – who was herself the embodiment of Japan[v] – the emperor became, in effect, the head of all Shintō religions in addition to the august symbol of the country. The term “State Shintō” didn’t really exist until the final years of WWII, but it was a concept for military propagandists in the short-lived fascist Japanese Empire. Hirohito, the Shōwa Emperor[vi], was also used as a chess piece – this time as a justification for things like kamikaze pilots, fighting-to-death rather than surrender, and for citizens to kill themselves and their families in defense of the divine emperor and his divine realm in which they were fortunate enough to be subjects. The military-controlled fascist government twisted the myths of divine imperial descent into “emperor worship.”

Imperial Palace after WWII
Bowing in front of the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle)

Post-War Japan

There is a famous photo of presumably ordinary Japanese citizens gathered in front of 正門 seimon the main gate of the Imperial Palace[vii] and bowing low to the ground to pay respects to the Shōwa Emperor after he announced Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces at the end of WWII. This photo depicts the last gasp of State Shintō and therefore “emperor worship.” General McArthur assumed control of Japan during the Occupation and initial reconstruction – including the Tōkyō War Crimes Tribunal which purged the Japanese Empire’s top military leadership. Despite eliminating all cadastral branches of the imperial clan, he protected Emperor Hirohito and, in effect, the direct male line since 1868[viii]. However, in the early days of the Occupation, McArthur demanded that the emperor renounce his divinity as a direct repudiation of State Shintō. Furthermore, separation of religion and government was expressly written into the new Japanese Constitution and it took root. These days, if you meet a person who considers the emperor a living god, you’ve probably found a complete loon. In fact, Japan is one of the most secular nations on earth and outside of history geeks and old timers, many modern Japanese are unfamiliar with State Shintō as a concept[ix].

Verdict

Reiwa Tenno
Current emperor and empress of Japan

So, is emperor worship a thing in Japan?
The short answer is “No. The Japanese emperor is not a god.”


While deeply revered as the descendants of the sun goddess, emperors were never worshiped as living gods except for a short period during the build up to WWII[x]. This attitude, known as State Shintō, began as a way to legitimize the emperors in their new position as constitutional monarchs after 1868. In fact, I’d venture to say that Hirohito[xi] was the only one actually worshipped as a living god – at least until 1945. Now the Japanese imperial family is similar to the royal families of Europe, just much more private and therefore far less scandalous. Also, due to the secular nature of modern Japanese society, the concept of gods – let alone a single living, human god seems like an alien concept.

Further Reading:

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[i] This wasn’t a unique idea. Just look back at the Roman Empire which deified their emperors, initially after death, then eventually while they were still alive.
[ii] His name was 神武 Jinmu and the beginning of his reign, February 11th, 660 BCE, the Japanese government still considers this date the birthday of Japan. It’s a national holiday. By the way, ancient chroniclers completely made up that date, 660 BCE. The first verifiable, historical emperor reigned during the 6th century CE.
[iii] There were a few times when an emperor here and there got uppity, but the samurai governments controlled the military, so that usually didn’t last for very long.
[iv] The samurai government in Edo was tbe Edo Shōgunate (or, the Tokugawa Shōgunate). The Tokugawa clan were the hereditary rulers of this peaceful dynasty. It had recently become begrudgingly anti-isolationist and pro-“modernization,” but still very much a military, samurai government. If you’re confused, so were they! This revolution is still cause for much debate today. Some call it a “restoration,” I call it a “coup.” But no matter what your position is, it’s a fascinating and dramatic stretch of Japanese history.
[v] “Japan” literally means “source of the sun” and usually poetically translated as “the land of the rising sun.”
[vi] In Japan, there is a taboo against saying the names of emperors. Rather, they are known by their posthumous names which – since 1868 – have been used as era names. Hirohito is the Shōwa Emperor.
[vii] Actually, they are bowing in front of the gate. No commoner would ever be allowed access to any of these bridges and gates until recently – and even now, most gates and bridges to the castle are still off limits.
[viii] 1868 was the Meiji Coup – the overthrow of the legitimate samurai government by the clowns who put Japan on a collision course with WWII.
[ix] The national curriculum is a topic for another article lol
[x] I have to note one major exception. When you die in Japan, you become a 神 kami. This term is sometimes translated as “god.” This is a kind of ancestor worship. Upon accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne, emperors take a posthumous name. You could argue that they’ve already become kami at this point. But this is a discussion for religious scholars, not a travel blog.
[xi] The Shōwa Emperor – ie; the WWII emperor.

Religion in Japan

What religion is Japan?
Okuninushi, one of Japan’s earliest civilization-building gods

Is Japan a Religious Country?

People always ask me “what religion is Japan?” Well, pretty much none. This answer may surprise you, given the importance of shrines and temples in the lives of modern Japanese society and the expected inclusion of these spiritual complexes in any visit to the country.

Yes and No

Japan is a secular nation that guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution. In fact, Japan is often cited as one of the most non-religious countries on earth. And unlike my country of origin, the United States, Japan takes its establishment clause very seriously – especially in light of the devastation so-called State Shintō and “emperor worship” brought upon the nation[i]. In fact, while most of my Japanese friends and family are respectful of spiritual practices, most of them see these as merely traditional acts. That is, these are cultural performances, not acts of deep religious devotion. So, no. Japan isn’t particularly religious at all.

That said, there is a joke popular among foreigners living in Japan. “Japanese people are born into Shintō, marry like Christians, and die as Buddhists.”[ii] This isn’t a reference to an individual’s spiritual growth from cradle to grave, but rather a reflection of Japan’s ancient syncretic religious tradition where all beliefs mesh well together.

First, Let’s Define Some Terms

神道
Shintō

Shintō
Literally, “the way of the gods” or “kami-ism”

Shintō is the native polytheistic religion of Japan. There are an infinite number of kami spiritual beings in the world. Some might be a beautiful bend in the river, a striking mountain peak, or local kami who protects the local rice harvest. Every human who has ever lived can theoretically be honored as a kami, so the number of kami is truly infinite and evergrowing.

Shintō has shrines.
仏教
Bukkyō

Buddhism
Imported from the Asian mainland, Buddhism was more of a philosophy than the animism of Shintō, but it too suggests that a theoretically infinite number of humans can reach enlightenment (that is, becoming a Buddha). Therefore, there are an infinite and evergrowing number of enlightened souls.

Buddhism has temples.
syncretism
syncretism
Syncretism is when two or more religious traditions blend and create a new culture. Shintō and Buddhism played very well together and basically merged into a unique Japanese spiritual outlook. That is to say, for the average person, kami and Buddha are the same[iii].

Shintō, Buddhism, and Other Religions in Japan

In Japan today, the trappings of Shintō and Buddhism are all around you. Shintō buildings are called 神社 jinja shrines. You can identify them by their distinctive 鳥居 torii gates, mirrors, lightning-shaped white paper decorations, and sacred ropes wrapped around sacred trees, gates, and often the shrine itself. Entering a Shintō religious complex requires ritual purification with water provided in special basins. Shrines also tend to have a lot of greenery and sacred pools or moats.

Buddhist お寺 o-tera temples, on the other hand, have no torii gates, usually don’t require ritual purification[iv], and 95% of the time have a huge statue of a Buddha inside the main hall of worship.

Hakone Shrine floating torii gate #JapanThis

In contemporary society, the most well-known functions of Shintō shrines are ceremonies like 七五三 shichi-go-san which literally means 7-5-3 and refers to the age at which children are brought to shrines for blessings. In pre-modern Japan, the infant mortality rate was so high that if a child lived beyond their third year, fifth year, and seventh year…well, that was something of a miracle and deserved to be celebrated. While Shintō considers death a spiritual defilement, Buddhism was OK with death and arrived with ideas regarding what happens after humans die[v]. This is why most cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist.

Nikkо̄ Rinnо̄-ji, a Buddhist temple with distinct Shintо̄ attributes.

So that explains a big part of the “Japanese are born Shintō and die Buddhist.” So, what about the other part? Well, neither Shintō nor Buddhism have ancient traditions of marrying people, but guess what? Abrahamic religions are all about getting up in people’s sex lives, so of course they have ancient traditions of marrying people. Western movies provided Japan with romantic scenes of marriages on the Silver Screen and voilà, the blushing bride in a white wedding dress[vi] became the dream of many a young Japanese girl. Today, the most popular type of wedding is the so-called Christian Wedding, which is essentially a secular version of a traditional western wedding.

japanese western wedding

Still Confused?

So, now you understand why “Japanese people are born Shintō, are married Christian, and die Buddhists.” And, hopefully you can see how these are just cultural traditions and not firmly held religious convictions. Which brings me to another anecdote I like to share. If you question a random person on the street in Tōkyō and ask them “what is your religion?” I’m fairly certain they will automatically reply “Buddhist.” However, if you press them about supernatural claims, they’ll probably admit to being non-religious or atheists. That said, they probably regularly pop into Shintō shrines if they pass one on the street, and they most likely do the same when passing by Buddhist temples.

As for other religions, Japan is basically 1% Christian (mostly foreigners) and 0.0016% Jewish (mostly foreigners). Although Muslim immigrants are increasing, the numbers are unclear (but the majority are also foreigners). All of this said, nearly 40% of Japanese people claim no belief in gods.


What is the Religion of Japan?

Like I said, Japan has long Shintō and Buddhist roots, it’s pretty much a secular nation that is tolerant of foreign religious practices. Given its syncretic, polytheistic tradition, people here tend to be very skeptical or even suspicious of monotheistic religions[vii], but if you’re respectful, you’ll get respect in return. In short, religion isn’t very important in modern Japan, yet you can see and experience its religious history and traditions everywhere.

If you want to know about the Shintō worldview in very ancient Japan, you might like my article Japanese Cosmogony. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Cosmogony[viii] is weird word. Anyhoo, if you’re interested in Japanese mythology (which I haven’t talked about at all here), give it a read. I think you’ll find it interesting!

Further Reading:


[i] Yes, we’re looking at you, Imperial Japan.
[ii] By the way, I’m not a fan of this trite saying. I’m just repeating it because other people repeat it ad nauseam.
[iii] In fact, there are special names for Shintō avatars of Buddhist saints and special names for Buddhist incarnations of Shintō kami.
[iv] If they do require purification, this is probably because of the blending of Shintō and Buddhism.
[v] Most sects used to teach reincarnation, but these days I think most Japanese Buddhists see death as pretty final.
[vi] The acceptance of the immaculate white wedding dress is kinda hilarious if you think about it. In traditional Japanese culture, a white kimono is what was used to dress a corpse for wakes. In fact, when samurai committed 切腹 seppuku ritual disembowelment, they wore white kimono.
[vii] By definition, monotheistic religions are less tolerant than polytheistic, syncretic religions.
[viii] And its brother, cosmography.