State Shintō (国家神道 Kokka Shintō ) has been called the state religion of the Empire of Japan, although it did not exist as a single institution and no "Shintō" was ever declared a state religion. Fridell argues that scholars call the period 1868-1945 the "State Shinto period" because, "during these decades, Shinto elements came under a great deal of overt state influence and control as the Japanese government systematically utilized shrine worship as a major force for mobilizing imperial loyalties on behalf of modern nation-building." The term "state Shinto" appears in the Shinto Directive" of 1945, which concerned that part of the Shinto world which it termed "a nonreligious national cult commonly known as State Shinto, National Shinto, or Shrine Shinto."
The idea of "State Shinto" was popularized in 1970 by the postwar religious scholar Shigeyoshi Murakami to classify those ideals, rituals and institutions that were created by the government to promote the divinity of the emperor and the uniqueness of Japan (kokutai). Murakami's book was one of the most popular books about religion in postwar Japan. While the concept has since been considered by scholars to be overreaching the actual scope of government interference in religion, it is certain that the government interfered.
In the late Edo period, numerous scholars of kokugaku believed that Shintō could become a unifying agent to center the country around the Emperor while a process of modernization was undertaken. After the Meiji Restoration, the new imperial government needed to rapidly modernize the politics and economy of Japan, and the Meiji oligarchy felt that those goals could only be accomplished through a strong sense of national unity and cultural identity.
In 1868, the new Meiji government established a government bureau, the Shintō Worship Bureau (神祇事務局 Jingi Jimukyoku ) to oversee religious affairs and to administer the government-ordered separation of Buddhism from Shintō.
In 1871, all Shintō shrines throughout Japan were declared to be property of the central government. These were assigned an official rank within a hierarchy and each received a subsidy for their upkeep. The hierarchy of shrines consisted of twelve levels, with Ise Shrine (dedicated to Amaterasu, and thus symbolic of the legitimacy of the Imperial family) at the top.
Furthermore, all citizens were required to register as a parishioner of their local shrine, and each parishioner was automatically also a parishioner of the Ise Shrine. This was a major reversal from the Edo period, in which families were required to register with Buddhist temples rather than Shintō shrines.
In 1872, an Office of Shintō Worship (神祇官 Jingikan ) was established to develop and promote new government-centred rites of worship, and all Shintō priests officially became government employees. Thus, from a legal perspective, State Shintō was not a religion and its values came under the heading of moral instruction rather than religious teaching.
This system concentrated on the more important shrines; folk Shintō practises were mostly left unmolested, and various Shintō fringe movements dating from the Edo period were allowed to continue under the rubric Sect Shintō.
In 1890 the Imperial Rescript on Education was issued, and students were required to ritually recite its oath to "offer yourselves courageously to the State" as well as protect the Imperial family. The imperial cult was further spread by distribution of imperial portraits for esoteric veneration. All of these practises, used to fortify national solidarity through patriotic centralised observances at shrines, gave pre-war Japanese nationalism a tint of mysticism and cultural introversion.
Article 28 of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan reaffirmed the privileged position of Shintō, but also guaranteed freedom of religion “within limits not prejudicial to peace and order and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects”. In practise, this meant that religious groups required government approval, their doctrines and rituals coming under government scrutiny.
During World War II, the government used State Shintō to encourage patriotism and to support efforts towards militarism. Noted figures in government, including Kuniaki Koiso, Heisuke Yanagawa, Kiichirō Hiranuma and Prince Kan'in Kotohito, participated in public rituals modeled after ancient ceremonies to foster a sense that supporting the war was a sacred duty.
After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers issued the Shinto Directive and ordered the separation of the government from religious affairs during the occupation of Japan, and separation of church and state was incorporated into the 1947 Constitution of Japan.
On 1 January 1946, Emperor Shōwa issued a statement, sometimes referred to as the Ningen-sengen, in which he quoted the Five Charter Oath of Emperor Meiji and announced he was not an akitsumikami (incarnation of a god).
See also 
- Wilbur M. Fridell, “A Fresh Look at State Shintō”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44.3 (1976), 547-561 in JSTOR; quote p. 548
- Wilbur M. Fridell, “A Fresh Look at State Shintō”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion p. 556
- Norman Havens. "Shinto". In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions. Honolulu: U. of Hawaii Press, 2005.
- Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japanese Religion, p. 30.
- Hall, Japan From Prehistory to Modern Times, p. 328.
- Kasza, The State and the Mass Media in Japan, p. 68.
- Neary, The State and Politics in Japan, p. 45.
- Agency for Cultural Affairs (1972). Japanese Religion, A Survey. Kodansha International. ISBN 0-87011-467-0.
- Breen, John (2000). Shinto in History. RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0-7007-1172-4.
- Hall, John Whitney (1971). Japan From Prehistory to Modern Times. Charles Tuttle & Company.
- Hardacre, Helen (1991). Shinto and the State, 1868-1988. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02052-3.
- Holton, Daniel Clarence (1984). The Political Philosophy of Modern Shinto: A Study of the State Religion of Japan. AMS Press. ISBN 0-404-15937-0.
- Kasza, Gregory J (1984). The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918-1945. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08273-7.
- Neary, Ian (2005). The State and Politics in Japan. Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2134-1.