The Shinto religion has long been embroiled in Japanese politics |

The alleged shooter of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he was motivated by Abe’s ties to the new messianic religious movement known as the Unification Church.

Yamagami explained that his mother made a “huge donation” to the group, and he blamed the church for bankrupting his mother and ruining his family.

During a press conference on July 11, the president of the Japanese branch of the Unification Church confirmed that Yamagami’s mother was a member, although the alleged killer and Abe were not.

The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by the late Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon. Moon claimed to have been sent by Jesus to save families and achieve world peace. His supporters are colloquially referred to as “Moonies”.

Besides his religious activities, Moon was heavily involved in international trade relations and conservative and anti-communist politics.

The Abe family’s political ties to the Unification Church go back three generations, including his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and his father, Shintaro Abe.

Shinzo Abe has appeared as a paid speaker at Unification Church-related events as recently as 2021.

The possible motive for the shooting surprised many who consider Japan to be one of the least religious countries.

As a scholar of Japanese religion, I know that Abe and his political party, the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have ties to several religious traditions and religious political parties. Yet Abe’s deep ties to the Shinto religion rarely make headlines.

Shinto has long been part of Abe’s politics and continues to be for the LDP.

What is Shintoism?

Shinto is one of the two great religions of Japan, along with Buddhism. Like many religious traditions, Shintoism can have different meanings for people. For some, it is the central faith of the Japanese people. Others don’t see it as a religion at all.

Shinto is generally translated as “the way of the gods”. In simple terms, Shintoism is a set of ritual traditions that focus on the worship of deities called “Kami”.

These powerful deities are believed to be responsible for many things, such as helping crops grow and protecting people’s health.

A certain group of Shinto deities are known for their connection to the Imperial family of Japan.

In particular, the sun goddess Amaterasu is revered as the ancestor of the emperors and empresses of Japan and protector of the nation. She is venerated in the Grand Shrines of Ise, often referred to as the holiest site in Japan.

Shinto rituals are performed by priests at shrines across Japan – and the world – on behalf of the local deities and communities of people under their care.

The Emperor of Japan also performs Shinto rituals every year for a good harvest and at the time of his enthronement – ​​and, sometimes, his abdication – on behalf of the nation.

For some, participating in rituals is a sacred and spiritually uplifting experience. For others, visiting a Shinto shrine is simply a matter of tradition or national pride.

Entanglement with politics

Shinto has a long and complex history of entanglement with politics and the state.

The earliest surviving Japanese texts recalled the mythical acts of the gods from whom the emperor and court officials claimed descent, legitimizing their rule.

In his book Pretending freedomsscholar Jolyon Thomas shows how Shinto was at the center of a centuries-old debate over what constitutes religion in modern Japan.

Until the 19th century, there was no concept in Japan of what in the West is considered a “religion”, and there was no word in Japanese for it.

But when the Meiji Constitution of 1889 included the right to religious freedom, the government had to decide which traditions and groups were or were not religious.

At that time, Shinto was officially divided. Rituals concerning the emperor and his divine ancestors were classified as non-religious civil rituals—sometimes called “State Shintoism”—and other matters of personal belief and practice as private religion.

After World War II, the Allies, led by the United States, formed an occupation government in Japan and separated all Shinto from the post-war state, categorizing it as a religion.

But, like other religions, Shintoism continued to be involved in Japanese politics.

A key group in Japan is the Shinto Association for Spiritual Leadership (SAS), founded in 1969 as the political arm of the Association of Shinto Shrines, an umbrella organization with approximately 80,000 member shrines.

According to scholar Mark Mullins, the aims of the nationalist group include promoting the power of the emperor, revising the constitution, and implementing Shinto moral education in schools.

They also support visits by government officials to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial space that represents Japan’s past militarism.

In this shrine, dead war spirits, including colonial subjects and war criminals, are enshrined as Shinto deities.

Abe and SAS

Abe and his administrations worked closely with the SAS for decades. In 2016, 19 of the 20 members of the Abe cabinet were affiliated with the SAS.

Fourteen were members of the Japan Conference, “Nippon Kaigi” in Japanese, which is another right-wing nationalist group with ties to Shinto groups, such as the Society to Defend Japan, or “Nihon wo Mamoru Kai.”

Abe was a member and special advisor to the Japan Conference.

Abe and his family have also been associated with other right-wing religious projects outside of government.

In 2017, Abe and his wife were embroiled in a corruption scandal involving an ultra-nationalist private Shinto elementary school. The Abes severed ties with her and plans for the school were scrapped, when questions arose around the government’s massive handing over of the land acquisition.

Besides nationalism, Abe has helped politicize other aspects of contemporary Shintoism, such as environmentalism.

In 2016, he invited G-7 leaders to visit Ise Inner Shrine in Mie Prefecture, where Amaterasu is worshipped.

The visit included a tree planting ceremony. Scholar Aike Rots has written about how Abe used the event to gain legitimacy and promote Shintoism as a form of national public spirituality.

During his tenure as Prime Minister and even afterwards, Shinzo Abe was a leader and role model for Shinto politics for a generation of conservatives, nationalists and adherents. This legacy lives on.

Image credits: Kyodo News via AP