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The Meiji Constitutional Regime as a Secularist System

The Meiji Constitutional Regime as a Secularist System

Chapter:
(p.17) 1 The Meiji Constitutional Regime as a Secularist System
Source:
Faking Liberties
Author(s):
Jolyon Baraka Thomas
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226618968.003.0002

Although many professional observers have treated Japanese governance in the early twentieth century as unusually oppressive, in actuality Japanese practices of religious freedom under the Meiji Constitution (in effect 1890–1945) were quite normal insofar as they exhibited the typical functioning of secularist governance. The religion/not-religion distinction established in Japanese constitutional law prompted ongoing anxiety about how to properly separate religion from other aspects of social and political life. This uncertainty prompted a range of stakeholders to weigh in on the vexing question of whether compulsory participation in shrine rites constituted infringement on the constitutional right to religious liberty. Although there are documented cases of the Japanese state cracking down on religious minorities throughout the Meiji constitutional period, the debates over shrine rites reveal that the claim that the Meiji constitutional regime lacked religious freedom has little defensible historical basis. The upshot is not that the Meiji constitutional regime was benign, but rather that its method of distinguishing between religion and not-religion is similar to the secularist governance of religion in other times and places. The disturbing takeaway is that the Meiji constitutional regime looks familiar rather than peculiar: Secularist politics, not theocracy, created Japan's draconian police work and coercive ceremonialism.

Keywords:   secularism, secularity, constitutionalism, shrine rites, civil religion, state religion, State Shintō, religious freedom

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